Tag Archives: Elizabeth Bishop

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something that was true; the “coziness tinged with melancholy” [how Gunn described her early work] has gone and it has been replaced by another sort of melancholy, a slow, stoical melancholy, when she says: “Nature repeats herself, or almost does.”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

Yet more ramblings on language: Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’

A couple of posts ago, while discussing e.e. cummings, I wrote about how, by imposing an artificial order upon things, language provides a means of definition – and thereby, possibly, control. In light of this thought, consider the following semi-vilanelle by Elizabeth Bishop, called “One Art”.

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master; 
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like a disaster.

I think that the key to this poem – and indeed, what makes this an excellent poem – is found in those two parenthesised words and the exclamation mark in the last line: (Write it!). Let me explain.

The poem itself is a slow progress towards a crescendo, a gradual, modulated increase in the intensity and pain of loss: starting with the near-irrelevant loss of keys or a wasted hour, to greater, deeper and more aching losses, and ending with perhaps the most heart-rending of all, the loss of a lover. And it tells us, through its twin refrains, “the art of losing isn’t hard to master“, and various combinations of words and phrases strung together between some form of “not” and “disaster” – that loss is so fundamental and pervasive a feature of the human condition, that reconciling oneself to it, and accepting it with equanimity, is not only important, but as inevitable as loss itself.

But as all of us who have experienced loss – and all of us have – know well, it simply isn’t that easy. You cannot (indeed, perhaps you should not) reason yourself out of your response to loss, a response that is primarily instinctive, and oftentimes deeply emotional (as it should be). And even Bishop seems less than convinced about what she’s writing. It comes across powerfully in “I miss them and it wasn’t a disaster”, in the aftermath of losing a continent, with its attendant rivers, realms, cities. In the first two lines of the stanza, the attention to detail, with its accompanying sense of gravity, followed by the plaintive “I miss them” in the first half of the last line, makes the concluding “but it wasn’t a disaster” almost an afterthought, and quite unpersuasive.

This sense is sharpened as we move into the last stanza, beginning with the stress upon “even“, and then its recounting of a very direct personal experience. This is something we all know – how, in the loss of a lover, it is the loss of seemingly tiny and insignificant things, like a tone of voice, or a gesture – that, paradoxically, is the hardest to bear. Surely – surely – that is not something easy to master, something that happens often or every day. The refrain, following immediately upon that, now bears a distinct sense of the poet protesting too much. And it is in this context that the last line acquires its significance. For while at first glance, it may seem that the “Write it!“, parenthesised as it is, might be nothing more than an aside, there is nonetheless a sense of stridency and urgency to it – accentuated by the exclamation mark – that marks it out to be far more important than that. What the poet seems to be saying is that it is through writing – through the use of language – that the pain of loss can actually be mastered.

Where words leave off, music begins – so goes Heine’s famous aphorism. Many, indeed have written about how language is the imperfect tool that we use to try (and fail) to capture the essence of lived experience, a perpetual falling-short of an ungraspable reality. Words, Nietzsche’s rainbow-bridges. And this line is, in a sense, a reversal:  the pain of loss is ungraspable, and hence overwhelming, until it is written, until it is reduced to language, to a set of conventional signs. Language becomes, then, a way of setting bounds upon the boundless, of ordering the irredeemably chaotic,  of knowing the unfathomable – and thus, a way of control. And this explains the sheer urgency of the Write it! Write, because otherwise the pain of loss, with all its thousand unnameable pincers of grief, will be too much to bear. Write to define, to conceptualise, to visualise, to know, to understand, to define, to accept and to reconcile. Write to reduce to an order and a system, to a set of known words, familiar symbols, explored territory. And yet, because writing it will force you to come face-to-face with loss in its ungovernable, linguistically-unbounded state even as you yoke it with language, it is not an easy to step to take; hence, again, the urgency of Write it!

And this idea can then, I think, be projected back onto the rest of the work. The poem, as a whole, is an attempt, through writing, to come to terms with the sheer ubiquity and depth of loss in human life. The losses that lie like scattered specks of sand upon the long shores of our lives belong themselves only to the realm of experience and emotion – until subjected to the word.  So Bishop does not – as might seem at first glance, on a reading of the poem – make light of loss, or attempt to render it quotidian and irrelevant; on the contrary, she understands even something as seemingly irrelevant as losing a set of car keys (who knows what significance they might hold?) or a single hour, can nonetheless be an unspeakably profound loss. And the only way to deal with that is to write it.

It is a vision that I find compelling.

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Filed under Elizabeth Bishop, Poetry: Miscellaneous