Elizabeth Bishop: Art and Identity in Her Poetry

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

The study of past artists, from poets and authors to painters and musicians, makes it possible to consider the entire course of their lives and place their work in some sort of context. The case of the poet Elizabeth Bishop is a good case to illustrate this phenomenon. Through books that include her letters, readers can learn much more about her now than most of them could have known about her when she was alive and actively publishing or teaching, as she was “excruciatingly shy” (Bishop and Giroux). The best specific example of this new perspective is the fact that Bishop was involved in several same-sex relationships over the course of her life (Doreski, C. K).

For modern-day artists, being gay is typically not an impediment to their success, and many artists are quite open about their personal lives. Things were not like this for women a century ago at the start of Bishop’s career, and she was not particularly open about her personal life or her sexuality (Bishop and Lowell). Some of her contemporary poets were practically confessional, but most of those poets were men, while women were expected to be demure. Bishop’s poems typically did not explore the same confessional approach that some other poets explored. It can be seen from her poetry and letters that Bishop was not interested in being known as a woman poet (let alone a lesbian woman poet); she simply wished to be a poet. By avoiding labels and writing from a more human and even universal perspective, Bishop explored the nature of identity on a deeper level than any mere label could reach.

There is, perhaps, no better example of Bishop’s exploration (and even declaration) of identity than in her poem “One Art.’ As Bishop writes in the poem’s first two stanzas: 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. (Bishop) Virtually anyone reading these lines can relate to and even empathize with Bishop’s sentiment. Most people have experienced those kinds of minor annoyances at misplacing some small item or wasting some small part of the day. And, as Bishop notes, it is no disaster, as life continues on and those minor annoyances are quickly forgotten. Bishop suggests that such things should be accepted and seen for what they are. In the next few lines, Bishop moves on to address more significant losses:

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. (Bishop)

In these lines, Bishop considers more significant losses, from family heirlooms to the people and places she had to leave behind for one reason or another. While she may claim that such losses are not disasters, most readers will feel the subtext that these are more emotionally painful losses. Everyone experiences loss, and everyone does their best to move forward afterward. None of these losses were enough to bring disaster to Bishop, but in the final stanza she notes the one thing that would be (or at least look like) 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 disaster. (Bishop)

Bishop seems to be addressing the loss of a loved one, and notes that it may look like a disaster in a way that other losses did not. However, Bishop also seems to be saying that by writing about it, or at least being inspired by it as a writer, she can still manage to move forward and not let it be a disaster. There is nothing gender-specific about this poem, and Bishop reveals her identity as a person, as a human being, in those final lines. It is her core identity, yet it is something most readers can relate to and understand.

If “One Art” positions Bishop as a person experiencing the universal loss of a loved one, then “At the Fishhouses” positions her in the grand sweep of human history. “Fishhouses” is a much longer poem, almost reading like a short story. Despite the differences in length and structure, Bishop uses a similar thematic technique to the one she used in “One Art”: she starts with a smaller scope and gradually widens the lens to incorporate a broader vision. Bishop also writes from two different perspectives, starting off with a real-time first-person account of events in her youth and ending with a seemingly-adult, reflective point of view. The poem begins by setting the scene:

Although it is a cold evening, down by one of the fishhouses an old man sits netting, his net, in the gloaming almost invisible, a dark purple-brown, and his shuttle worn and polished Bishop goes on to describe, in specific detail, times she spent with her grandfather in childhood. From her childhood perspective, Bishop takes in the images of lobster pots, flies eating fish carcasses, crumbling wooden shacks, and men sitting, smoking, and talking:

The old man accepts a Lucky Strike. He was a friend of my grandfather. We talk of the decline in the population and of codfish and herring while he waits for a herring boat to come in.

Bishop then displays a flash of humor when describing her interactions with a seal who pops up out of the water to observe her:

One seal particularly I have seen here evening after evening. He was curious about me. He was interested in music; like me a believer in total immersion, so I used to sing him Baptist hymns. Bishop is again revealing something about herself, or at least her perceptions of herself as a child, believing that the seal was as interested in her as she was in it. As the poem progresses, however, Bishop appears to shift in time to a more adult perspective as she describes the unchanging timelessness of the sea:

I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same, slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones

Suddenly, Bishop is no longer talking about the minute details of the Fishhouses, but instead is considering the properties of the sea in broader, more universal terms:

If you should dip your hand in, your wrist would ache immediately, your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn as if the water were a transmutation of fire that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.

As she reaches the final lines of the poem, Bishop again turns her lens on herself by describing sensations and feelings most readers could understand. She shifts from using the word “I” and replaces it with “we” and “you,” and analogizes the properties of the ocean the properties of aging, growing, and learning:

If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter, then briny, then surely burn your tongue. It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world, derived from the rocky breasts forever, flowing and drawn, and since our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

“At the Fishhouses” begins with specific, real-time details about Bishop’s childhood experiences and concludes with a focus on human existence that could only come from an adult’s perspective. Just as she did in “One Art,” Bishop uses “At the Fishhouses” to explore her own identity in ways that dig deep below the surface. What makes her work so compelling is that, by revealing something about herself that goes far beyond the frameworks of gender or sexuality, Bishop reveals her identity as a human being.

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