Ambiguity and Certainty: Elizabeth Bishop and Philip Larkin

In a beautiful essay in The Guardian, Colm Toibin compares the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Thom Gunn, observing that both poets “wrote endings to poems which sometimes seemed to hover between conclusion and uncertainty, between what became known as closure and a sense that there was too much regret between the words for closure ever to be possible.”  By way of example, Toibin discusses North Haven, Bishop’s elegy to Robert Lowell. In the third stanza, Bishop writes:

“The goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the white-throated sparrow’s five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.”

Of this, Toibin says:

“Its gravity emerges softly. When you read the line, “The goldfinches are back, or others like them”, it is easy not to spot the grim suggestion that the precise goldfinches are in fact not back at all – they are dead.”

And, of the next line:

Nature repeats herself, or almost does:”,

He notes:

In the next line, Bishop came as close as she could to stating something that was true; the “coziness tinged with melancholy” [how Gunn described her early work] has gone and it has been replaced by another sort of melancholy, a slow, stoical melancholy, when she says: “Nature repeats herself, or almost does.”

Before the stanza ends with:

repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.”

And of this, Toibin explains:

“What the following line does now is oddly miraculous, a slow, incantatory dramatisation of the tentative and withholding nature of Bishop’s process as a poet. The last line of this stanza has six words, each in an iambic beat; there is a caesura after three, marked by a semi-colon. The words are in italics, which suggest not emphasis as much as a voice whispering. The last three words, each ending with a sibilant and half-containing the word “sigh”. And what the voice says now is as much as she can say. It is filled with ambiguity and restraint…”

When I read this characterisation, as that of a voice filled with ambiguity and restraint, and moreover, as coming *after* something that is emphatically true, it made me think of an interesting contrast with another poem that uses spring as metaphor and image of something returning: Philip Larkin’s “Trees“. That one ends with the following lines:

“Last year is dead, they seem to say
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.”

Both in tone (of syllables) and in content, “afresh” is certain and definite – signifying what Toibin calls “closure” – as opposed to the uncertain and ambiguous “revise”. Moreover, when one reads the entire poem, I think it moves in exactly the *opposite* direction to Bishop’s – from uncertainty to certainty.

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
Their recent buds relax and spread
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May
Last year is dead, they seem to say
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Consider the first stanza – “like something almost being said”. The quintessence of ambiguity, the reaching-out-but-not-quite-finding-what-you’re-looking-for, Virgil’s ever-receding Ausonian fields. Accentuated by “their greenness is a *kind of* grief”. Not grief, but a kind of grief. The best we can do is an unsatisfactory approximation.

And then, in the second stanza, the uncertainty continues with a question “Is it…?” But at this point, the tone shifts, because it is met with a definitive answer. “No, they die too.” And it culminates, of course, in the emphatic closure – “afresh, afresh, afresh”. The sad, searching uncertainty of a “kind of grief” has dissolved into a celebratory affirmation.

To repeat or to revise; and to begin afresh. How fascinating it is that two poems can invoke the same set of images, and then sublimate them into two contrasting, but equally complex and beautiful, interior landscapes.

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Filed under Elizabeth Bishop, Poetry: Miscellaneous, Thom Gunn

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