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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to

This poem is taken from PN Review 242, Volume 44 Number 6, July - August 2018.

Like, Elizabeth Bishop
Delivered by the Oxford Professor of Poetry on 1 March 2018, Examination Schools, Oxford
Simon Armitage
I’LL BEGIN WITH A FEW QUOTES, all taken from Geography III. Here’s the first:

Iberia in shape resembles
a stretched-out hide, its breadth
running north to south,
the neck pointing east.

And the second quote:

The same is true of whales
of differing shape and size;
from their snouts columns of water are blown out
which to those looking on
appear like tall thin clouds.

And finally:        

In countries by the ocean
the sun appears larger as it sets
and makes a sound like hot metal in a cold trough,
as though the sea hisses
when the sun is plunged into its depths.

Apologies to Elizabeth Bishop aficionados ransacking their mental files and folders of poems; the quotes are actually taken from the third book of the Geographica by Greek traveller and author Strabo rather from the American poet’s 1976 collection of the same name. Apologies also for the crude translations and for inserting line breaks into the work of an ancient and venerable prose writer, but there is a method in my misdirection which I believe goes beyond the coincidence of a shared volume title. Like Strabo, Bishop was a geographer – she even wrote a travel book about Brazil (though ‘chose not to’ remember much about it), and typically a geographer of the page rather than the planet, a describer rather than an explorer, someone who had undoubtedly journeyed but whose expeditions were principally those of curiosity and inventiveness, extensions of fancy and association that propelled her beyond the circumscribed boundaries and borders of lived experience into more metaphysical and imagined territories. ‘I was always a sort of guest’, Bishop said, talking about her relationships with her relatives and carers but commenting by extension on the places where she was required to live and the locations in which she found herself. Bishop’s poem ‘The Map’ occupies page one of her 1946 debut collection North and South and represents, therefore, something of a poetic embarkation, the last line ‘More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colours’ disclosing from the outset the poet’s fragile investment in a personalised and customised world. And in many of her best pieces, poetry wells up out of a form of journal-making or note-taking, a through-the-porthole view of the planet, where the glass of the window will eventually serve as a lens, focusing on some peculiar or particular detail that catches her eye. Dozens of her poems follow this arrangement but the title poem from 1965’s Questions of Travel is a useful example for all kinds of reasons. It begins:

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.

This kind of subjective travelogue could be straight out of Strabo or one of his kind, the guided tour leading to a reflective conclusion, in this case a ‘golden silence’ that follows rain, a silence gilded by sunlight, we suppose, a period of illumination in which the poet picks up her pen and writes the poem we have been reading. It also explains Bishop’s fascination with Darwin given the scientist’s propensity to slide away from facts and sink ‘giddily into the unknown’, as well as his obvious relish for the exhilaration and the excitement of the journey. A Galapagos of foreign lands and unusual creatures are often waiting to be encountered at the end of Bishop’s poems, at which point Darwin is usually relieved of the tiller and Freud or Jung are called to the helm. ‘We are driving to the interior,’ Bishop concludes in ‘Arrival at Santos’. Returning to Strabo, the loquacious old geographer had an endearing partiality for metaphors, often expressed as ‘resemblances’, explaining the alien and exotic through comparisons with the recognised and the understood, as in the quoted example, in which the sun sets off the Spanish or Portuguese coast like hot metal in a blacksmith’s bucket. (Strabo is actually quoting Posidonius at this point, and doubting the veracity of the senior man’s observations, though in repeating the metaphor in full he seems to understand how satisfying the image will be to a reader and is happy to bask in its reflected glory.) Bishop is equally if not more partial to such resemblances. In the aforementioned ‘Questions of Travel’, the aforementioned mountaintops ‘look like the hulls of capsized ships, / slime-hung and barnacled’. And the aforementioned golden silence follows a rain that is ‘like politicians’ speeches: / two hours of unrelenting oratory’. These are not isolated or random examples – most of Bishop’s poems include at least one direct comparison, sometimes several, and her use of the word ‘like’ as the conductive interface in such mimetic equations, between what I.A. Richards termed the ‘tenor’ and the ‘vehicle’, is worthy of closer scrutiny. So as well as thinking about Bishop’s poetry through her use of simile, it’s also my intention to use her work as a way of thinking about the use and value of poetic analogy.

If there can be such a person as the darling of poetry, that person is currently Elizabeth Bishop. ‘Darling’, I accept, is a somewhat patronising term, but I use it as a means of characterising the degree of fondness that has developed around her work. As a poet she is often ‘cherished’, and has achieved the billing that publicists, marketing departments and blurb writers prize above all others: she is ‘beloved’. It’s the kind of near-universal approval that led a mischievous Michael Hofmann, reviewing the Chatto edition of her Poems in 2011, to ‘feel stirrings of a wholly impersonal desire maybe to pan her’, an urge he ultimately resisted. Yet Bishop’s semi-untouchable status can be seen as something of a conundrum, because while her poetry subtly captured or even anticipated urgent literary themes of gender politics and sexual orientation, hers is, on occasions, a traditional and an orthodox art. By which I mean she is at times an old-school rhymer and versifier, a romantic, a poet who dabbles in homespun wisdom, and someone who, now and again, will offer some fairly queasy perspectives on ‘others’ and ‘otherness’. She is also, here and there, a poet of simple diction, conservative syntax, conventional line breaks and sequential logic, an approachable and relatable writer whose work can be read straight off the page and ‘understood’ by almost anyone with a reasonable grasp of the English language. She is not Wallace Stevens, and nearly forty years after her death her occasionally engaging and endearing tones seem conspicuously at odds with the stringencies and detachments that often typify contemporary poetry. That her readability and her profundity could be considered a contradiction might seem odd to the uninitiated, but these days obscurity rather than subtlety is more readily associated with deep thinking and serious poetic intent, especially within a scholarly environment, so it’s by no means a given that Bishop’s star should be so high in the sky, especially over the American campus. For such a highly regarded poet within an essentially academic territory, her work is unusually cooperative. Not that her approach has always found a favourable reception. A. Alvarez, in his 1957 Kenyon Review piece on her second book, accused ‘Miss Bishop’ (as she is referred to throughout) of ‘mere mannered fussy prattling’, of ‘hesitant involution’, of possessing a ‘finicky air’ and of having no style at all, only a tone. Of her imagery, he opined: ‘Her similes are often charming, sometimes extraordinary, but very rarely are they absolutely necessary.’ Her interest in Darwin is also an affiliation that might be levelled against her, the association making her the Victorian amateur specimen collector or natural historian rather than the abstract theoretician or radical experimenter in language that the mid-twentieth century might have expected and produced.

So what kind of poetry are we talking about? What is the nature of this work that commands so much attention from so many admirers, myself included. In reading through a poet’s entire output, it’s a habit of mine – a bad habit, probably – to try and pick out a manifesto piece, a poem whose every aspect seems to fly the colours for the whole of their writing, or which offers little resistance to the imposition of such a reading. For Bishop I might elect the short poem ‘Late Air’, and not simply because it fits neatly into the frame of a PowerPoint slide:

From a magician’s midnight sleeve
    The radio-singers
Distribute all their love-songs
Over the dew-wet lawns.
    And like a fortune-teller’s
Their marrow-piercing guesses are whatever you believe.

But on the Navy Yard aerial I find
    Better witnesses
For love on summer nights.
Five remote red lights
    Keep their nests there; Phoenixes
Burning quietly, where the dew cannot climb.

It’s a slight poem, as it occasionally admits. Slight in its extent; in the clumsy contraction ‘radio-singers’, as if they were an actual thing; in its awkward reliance on the rather mechanical ‘distribute’, even if that verb does manage to convey a sense of commercial promulgation; and slight for the phrase ‘For love on summer nights’, a line more worthy of the popular music she defines in stanza one than the alternative to that music proposed in stanza two, within which the line incongruously appears. But as a poem it’s aware of its shortcomings, makes something of a virtue of them in fact, on one level going through the motions of organised verse, but using that as a cover for more nuanced and deceptive point­making, distracting with one hand while stealing, conjuring and practising little acts of legerdemain with the other. We find this in the camouflaged rhyme scheme and even in the poem’s title, two small everyday single syllables that mask more covert meanings. ‘Air’ as the breathable atmosphere, but also the medium through which the radio waves are broadcast and the old-fashioned word for a song, both the literal song of the transmission and the song of the poem itself, set down in lyric form. ‘Late’ ostensibly gives the poem an evening setting, but also includes a sense of belatedness; the mid-twentieth century is late in poetry’s evolutionary history to be using a style and shape we might more readily associate with a poet like Thomas Hardy – but that’s what she’s going to do, and she admits to the nostalgia. The indents are especially Hardyesque.

The poem is structured as a kind of call and response with the self, or perhaps the soul, Bishop setting out a premise in one stanza which she will go on to dispute in the next. Some people, she implies, will fall for the sentimentality of recorded music and pin their romantic hopes on its schmaltzy messages; the ‘dew-wet lawns’ are pretty much dewy-eyed with moisture. Bishop, though, will lift her sight above those lawns and stare more clear-sightedly towards the masts standing in the Navy Yard, those mundane and mechanical protuberances by which the broadcast is delivered. At the same time, Bishop isn’t promoting science over sentiment or steeling herself against the irrationalities of love. Rather, she locates love’s symbols in less obvious locations; if there is an expression of romance to be identified this evening it will be determined by the imagination of the poet and will be offered in poetic terms. So, while the five-syllable line ‘five remote red lights’ is delivered with technical precision and uncluttered intelligence, the poet’s mind is about to transform those lights into nests, and nests of that mythical bird the Phoenix. Phoenixes which tonight are not mere observers but ‘witnesses’ – complicit through their presence, expert in their validation of the scene, yet silent in their agreement. ‘Only I have noticed this,’ the poet seems to be saying, hinting at forbidden passions beyond the remit of the traditional girl-meets-boy love song, and at erotic desires that lie outside the ordinary. Furthermore, the poet seems alone. One mention of ‘you’ in the first verse, one mention of ‘I’ in the second, separated by a stanza break which divides two self-contained and somewhat opposed units of thought and speech. That place where ‘the dew cannot climb’ is an envied and elevated position but also one of isolation or even impossibility, it seems. Below the tune, a melancholy undertone is playing.

Imagery, in poetry, is an annoyingly or usefully vague term, covering everything from the overarching allegorical significance of an entire epic poem, to figures of speech, to the specific correlation between one value and another, which might even be expressed in a single word, as when Milton describes Adam and Eve as being ‘Imparadised’ in one another’s arms, as the devil looks on jealously. For the sake of simplicity, my own practice has been to divide the larger category of imagery into three subsets, in a descending scale. At the top end, the image of the third magnitude, we have the conceit, both Petrarchan and metaphysical, in which a surface comparison parallels a poem’s inferred subtext from beginning to end. Donne’s ‘The Flea’ is an obvious example, but the idea could be applied to far longer and wide-ranging texts – Homer’s Odyssey as a conceit for the human life-span, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a conceit for youthful conceitedness, and so on. Second magnitude imagery in my classification system covers the use of metaphor where component parts are not so much compared as confidently offered as the same thing. ‘You are our Father: we are the clay, and you our potter,’ Isaiah, 64.8. And first magnitude imagery, your entry-level mimetic, if you will, is represented by the simile – again, a vexed and contested term – but via my simplification a linguistic configuration in which the word ‘as’ or more usually ‘like’ is utilised, acknowledging that a comparison or equivalence is being proposed. Though for all its apparent forthrightness, a simile doesn’t usually stand up to too much logical prodding and probing. Take as example Eliot’s famous ‘When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table’. In literal terms the evening is not a place but a time, yet somehow it must assume spatial dimensions to enable it to stand as foreground to the physical entity of the sky. And all this before the real business of the simile, which requires the evening to be a patient and the sky to be an operating table, with the former ‘upon’ the latter, as opposed to being spread out ‘against’ it, as the two referents were in their original relationship. Yet for all its contrivance and unreasonableness, Eliot’s opening gambit to ‘Prufrock’ remains one of the most memorable similes of twentieth-century poetry, being satisfying at an instinctive level as well as announcing the themes of the poem and its attendant linguistic registers. As if we have experienced it as much as comprehended it. And despite their nut-and-bolt constructions, what makes similes more profound than metaphors on occasions is the idea that a likeness is an expression of approximation, allowing for or even insisting upon the possibility of unlikeness.

Justifications for using imagery in poetry range from the exalted to the parochial. Towards the higher end of the argument we encounter Milton again, and Paradise Lost again, not only the greatest stand-alone poetic achievement in the English language but something of a textbook of critical theory, should we read it by that candle. In Book V, charged by God with cautioning Adam about his impending fall, and aware of the limitations of the human mind, the archangel Raphael begins:

[…] what surmounts the reach
Of human sense, I shall delineate so,
By likening spiritual to corporal forms,
As may express them best, though what if earth
Be but a shadow of heaven, and things therein
Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?

So right from the outset, the simile is a method of justifying the ways of God to man, and since mankind is made in God’s image anyway, we are but a living metaphor, and metaphor-making a function of our very existence, of which the sacrament is the ultimate embodiment. At the more earthbound end of the practice, images can be thought of as a form of inclusiveness and sharing, or as a shorthand to reason, or as a way of showing off, and even as a bit of fun – the simile and the smile have much in common. Hey, poets, remember when poetry was fun? I thought not. At this point in the movie version of this lecture tumbleweed rolls through an empty street and a crow lands on the cemetery gates.

Arguments against the use of imagery and particularly simile in poetry include the following: that it closes down rather than opens up possibility, reducing interpretation to a fixed and in any case fabricated analogy; that it is a canonical device and therefore a chauvinistic strategy promoting disproved and disapproved-of hierarchies of language, philosophy and literature; that it has no special meaning beyond the literal, as Donald Davidson was at pains to point out as long ago as 1978; that in its extreme or isolated form it is mere ornament and decoration, a criticism levelled at so called Martian poetry, in which comparison (it was argued) became a pennant and mascot of smug poetic satisfaction; and that there’s something cheesy or amateurish about it, poetry by numbers, lesson one in poetry kindergarten, elementary rather than elemental. ‘I am crossing the word like out of the dictionary’, said Mallarmé, a statement that appeared to condemn metaphor-making as old fashioned and unhelpful, though for Yorkshire and England fast bowler Fred Trueman it was a new-fangled contrivance of the modern era. ‘We didn’t have metaphors in my day,’ said Fred, allegedly. ‘We didn’t beat about the bush.’

Bishop frequently exploits all three magnitudes of imagery as I have defined them, but it’s her unstinting use of the rudimentary simile and her predilection for the word ‘like’ that calls most attention to her taste for analogy. In work published during her lifetime – a modest output, comparable to that of Larkin – I have counted, or more probably miscounted, and very probably undercounted, one hundred and forty-four uses of the word ‘like’ in a metaphorical context. A nerdy book-by-book breakdown suggests that her strike rate of around 1.8 ‘like’ similes per poem remained true from her first volume to her last, and although some poems are of course simile­free, others are simile-rich, containing as many as five. More subjectively I would contend that simile is a distinguishing feature of all of her most important or famous or at least regularly anthologised poems. And these statistics don’t even take into account similes constructed around the comparator ‘as’, which would increase that strike rate by at least a third. As well as spending the short days of December with the Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop in one hand and an adding machine in the other, I also attempted to categorise her use of simile by type. You won’t be surprised to hear that these results are not the findings of a rigorous or scientific investigation; I am a poet, it was Christmas, the door to the drinks cabinet was not always closed. But at some very basic level I feel that I now have some crude numerical evidence to support what I have always suspected, namely that the vast majority of Bishop’s similes compare objects with objects by virtue of their visual similarities, and tend to do so via a reduction in physical scale, i.e. ‘The yellow sun was ugly / Like a raw egg on a plate’ – and by my calculations there are fifty-nine more where that came from. Add to this her penchant for the words ‘little’ (71 uses in 85 poems), ‘small’ (35 uses) and ‘tiny’ (7 uses), not to mention other terms of diminishment, and reading Bishop can at times feel like being in a chapter of The Borrowers.

‘Like’ is an especially versatile word in the English language, being verb, adverb, adjective, noun, preposition and serving several other grammatical functions besides. It has also proved highly adaptable, not to mention controversial in its current role as a discourse-marker or conversational ‘filler’ within, like, teen-speak. Sometimes it’s deployed as a stand-in for speech marks, as in, ‘He was like, let’s order sushi, and I’m like, dude, we’re in Huddersfield’; or as a colon before a physical or facial gesture, or purely as a way of treading water while conversing, where previous generations might have ummed and ahhed. The fact that ‘like’ when used in such a context has become synonymous with stupidity is partly to do with the airheads and dimwits of big screen and small to whom such verbal mannerisms are assigned, and partly because it suggests a person’s inability to confidently and accurately describe the world around them. Take this example, recently overheard in an Oxford restaurant: ‘Then I got to this, like, door, and then, like, opened it.’ I’m sure it came from the mouth of a highly intelligent being, but nevertheless it gave the irresistible impression of someone who thought that a door might be called a door but wasn’t sure, so just to be on the safe side likened it to a door, and whose uncertainty about the verb associated with the fundamental operation of such a device led them to compare said operation with itself, just in case. I’m not implying that Bishop is similarly unconfident, though many commentators have noticed the equivocation and prevarication in her work, a tendency to correct herself or cover her tracks within a poem, either by refining a statement or offering supplementary or alternative propositions, as in the poem ‘Under the Window: Ouro Preto’, where typical Bishop vacillation and typical Bishop similitude combine:
        Oil has seeped into
the margins of the ditch of standing water

and flashes or looks upward brokenly,
like bits of mirror – no, more blue than that:
like tatters of the Morpho butterfly.

Of course in Bishop’s case the indecision is deliberate – a technique – yet the effect is one of tentativeness or even naivety, not out of keeping with the childlike frankness of her similes and their heart-on-the sleeve willingness to compare one thing with another, or to perform a kind of Hey Presto! transformation. This feels especially true when we remember how many of Bishop’s similes represent reductions in dimension – big, heavy or unwieldy things being scaled down to domestic or everyday proportions, as if an attempt were being made to render the bulkier items of this world more manageable and convenient, or even reduce them to models and toys. Added to which, the word ‘like’, even in a metaphorical formulation, always carries an echo of its verb form, giving the subconscious impression that the comparison is being enjoyed.

Conversely, if we agree with the notion that a simile is only a suggested comparison, and that integral to its conception is that idea that subject and object are as unalike as alike, then the excessive use of simile by Bishop could be construed as evidence of distrust and uncertainty, or of deliberate distortion and oscillation between what is seen and what is imagined, a duality Anne Stevenson, in her early study of Bishop, characterised as the mind and the mirror.


I want to look more closely at three Bishop poems, poems that employ similes at some stage in their operation. And using a method that seems appropriate to the subject, I want to explore these poems through comparison with poems by other authors. In class I’ve found this a useful approach: students who sometimes struggle to describe a poem in its own terms become more articulate and insightful when a contrast is offered, i.e. when they begin to comprehend what a poem is by noticing what it isn’t. I mentioned Thomas Hardy earlier in the lecture, and in an earlier lecture I mentioned the British and Irish propensity for sketch- or scene-writing in poems, something I approve of, something Hardy excelled at, and something Bishop practised over and over. In 1934 Bishop objected to being compared with Hardy, claiming to have read ‘practically none’ of his poems, though enough of them to dismiss them as ‘descriptions of funerals or the complaints of seduced milkmaids in Devonshire dialect’. By 1965 she’s changed her mind enough to describe Hardy’s ‘The Self-Unseeing’ as ‘my very favourite’, ‘one of his most beautiful little poems’, and reports that she is attempting to write her own poem ‘about it’. The same year she is ‘re-reading Hardy’ and admiring his titles, and in 1972, in two of her famous letters admonishing Robert Lowell for his use of private correspondence in his poems, she conscripts ‘dear little Hardy’ into her disapproval, quoting the Wessex man’s feelings on a similar ‘abuse’. I bring all this to the table as a way of suggesting there is more affiliation between Bishop and Hardy than just the titles of the two poems I’m now going compare, Bishop’s ‘In the Waiting Room’ from Geography III, and Hardy’s ‘In a Waiting-Room’ from his 1917 collection Moments of Vision. The stage-setting of Hardy’s poem gives us the dowdy interior of a railway waiting room on a miserable English spring morning, the lugubrious poet noticing a bible whose pages have been used, somewhat sacrilegiously, by a ‘bagman’ to tally his accounts, and a soldier and wife about to be separated ‘as they believed forever’. But the gloom is lifted by the words of an innocent and enthusiastic child, who interprets the posters of ‘fly-blown liners’ as images of hope and excitement. There’s a corniness to the poem; a contemporary cynic might find in its saccharine finale and manipulated sentiment the artistic equivalent of the latest Bruno Mars video or the leaked outline for next year’s John Lewis’s Christmas advert. But it’s crafty as well, and certainly crafted, Hardy’s waiting room being a limbo space between an old testament England and a world to come, his one simile making the laughing children both a new dawn and the sacred flame of a more enlightened spirituality, his own presence in the poem a marginal one and a generous one too, the speaker disappearing into the shadows as the younger generation emerge and shine. And I can’t resist the superstitious notion that the child in Hardy’s waiting room is reincarnated in Bishop’s waiting room, but with the action relocated to a dental practice in Massachusetts, the bible replaced by a copy of the National Geographic, and the limbo a place of emerging consciousness between a childlike incorruptibility and the dawn of adulthood. ‘The mystery here addressed is that of the existence of the conscience in an insensate universe,’ says Martin Seymour-Smith of Hardy’s poem ‘Moments of Vision’ and the theme that extends through the collection of the same title, but it can just as convincingly be applied to Bishop’s waiting room poem. On this occasion though the child speaks for herself, Bishop reminding Hardy, as it were, that adults and the elderly don’t own the franchise on anxiety and apprehension. In Bishop’s poem, the unstable universe is a personal one, all her coordinates and reference points called into question by the off-stage auntie screaming (or not) in the dentist’s chair, and the depictions of imminent cannibalism and erupting volcanoes in a magazine she has turned to for the purpose of distraction.

It’s from one of those National Geographic photographs that Bishop constructs the poem’s only direct simile, which reads: ‘black, naked women with necks / wound round and round with wire / like the necks of light bulbs.’ It’s a disturbing image for a number of reasons, not least for its unacknowledged allusion to the noose, and I mentioned Bishop’s occasionally uncomfortable portrayals of the foreign and the strange earlier in the piece. So in the poem ‘Manuelzinho’, for example, and despite occasional mitigating moments of guilt and self-reflection, Bishop’s portrait of the servant or handyman of the title consists of a list of complaints and frustrations made by the lady of the house against the untameable native whose children scuttle around her ‘like moles’. And it’s a similar Elizabeth Bishop whose poem ‘Filling Station’ begins with the rather prim, ‘Oh, but it is dirty’, before running the white glove of judgement over the owner’s dirty boiler suit, his ‘greasy sons’, the ‘grease-impregnated wickerwork’ and the ‘dirty dog’, ‘all quite thoroughly dirty’, she confirms to us, before concluding with the rather patronising platitude ‘somebody loves us all’. Or have I missed the irony? Returning to the National Geographic and Bishop’s light-bulb moment, I suppose it could be argued that in relating the incident in this way, the poet is being candid about the way the photograph struck her just a few days shy of her seventh birthday; alternatively, we might feel that in choosing to include such detail while writing as an adult, the simile does Bishop no favours, particularly from where we view it in the early years of the twenty-first century. True to form, Bishop here is comparing nouns with nouns and comparing bigger nouns with smaller nouns, smaller nouns that are domestic and utilitarian, which as comparators only exacerbate the uncomfortable exoticism of the analogy. And for me, the fact that the image is so contrived only adds to the discomfort; the neck of a screw-in light bulb isn’t wound with wire at all but consists of a moulded or pressed metallic casing, and her oxymoronic black light bulbs stand in stark contrast to the single simile in Hardy’s waiting room poem, in which the children are likened to ‘the eastern flame / Of some high altar’.

Of Hardy’s poems, Larkin once observed, ‘there is a little spinal cord of thought, and each has a little tune of its own’. By later life the tunefulness of Bishop’s rhyming and lyricism had largely given way to freer – if not free – verse, but the long thin anatomy of ‘In the Waiting Room’ and the irregular vertebrae of its stanzas could be thought of as a form of Darwinian adaptation. On that front, it’s also interesting to consider that the events being described in both waiting rooms on either side of the Atlantic could be occurring almost simultaneously; Hardy’s poem appeared in book form the year before the end of the First World War, and Bishop’s poem ends:

Then I was back in it.
The war was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

I don’t think Bishop could ever be convincingly desc­ribed as a ‘war poet’ but at some level twentieth-century conflicts are surely present in the symbolism of her poem ‘The Armadillo’, a poem eventually collected in Questions of Travel with a back-dated dedication to Robert Lowell, but which had first been published eight years earlier, in the New Yorker. Lowell cited ‘The Armadillo’ not only as the style model for his signature poem ‘Skunk Hour’, dedicated to Bishop, but also as the irrigating element which ended a barren period of creativity and the pivot (spigot?) by which he turned from the rhyme-heavy, densely woven verse of his first three collections to the more languid forms and confessional attitudes of Life Studies and the poems for which he is now remembered. Bishop and Lowell’s bond was a marriage consummated by correspondence, an epistolary relationship to rival that between two poets of any era. It was a conversation which flowed through the work as well, though despite Lowell’s acknowledgement of debt, on the face of it there’s a striking lack of similarity between ‘The Armadillo’ and ‘Skunk Hour’, the former composed of rhyming quatrains, several lines conforming to or falling into regular iambic tetrameter, the latter being an apparently looser composition of six-line stanzas, the lines varying in their length, their syllable count and their stress count, and the stanzas utilising occasional but irregular rhyme, mostly slant rhyme or pararhyme or close rhyme or near rhyme or off rhyme or half rhyme or whatever it’s called this week. Both poems, I suppose it could be claimed, exhibit organising principles from which they are not afraid to depart. And both, of course, are ‘animal poems’, poems which delay the introduction of those animals until their closing passages. Bishop’s titular species makes a brief three-line appearance between an owl and a rabbit, both of which command more column-inches; Lowell’s skunk, when it arrives, is a far more conspicuous and flagrant presence in a poem whose direction of travel is towards the ‘interior’, from the sparsely populated coastline to an inland town and eventually into the head of the author, who at one point presents himself as a kind of peeping tom or early dogger, ogling lovers in their cars through the windscreen of his Tudor Ford.

The devil has all the best lines, they say, and mature poets steal, says Eliot; thus, at the moment ‘Skunk Hour’ turns in on itself, Lowell appropriates Satan’s famous self-assessment ‘myself am hell’, as rendered by Milton. In some respects it’s a moment of audacious, even absurd mimicry and the absolute zenith of confessional narcissism, Lowell having the brassneck to compare his own mental turmoil with all the turmoil in the universe from the beginning of time until the end of eternity. That said, we might remember Milton wasn’t beyond a little griping himself, and that even within the selfless masterpiece that is Paradise Lost he finds time in Book III to bemoan his loss of sight, devastating for the author, of course but, in comparison to the fall of mankind, somewhat trivial? ‘I am the skunk’, said Lowell, in a letter to Bishop, identifying himself with the mother creature rummaging in the trash can in the final stanza, not unlike the manner the poet himself snooped around in his car at the top of the hill, grubby and shameless, feeding off the pleasures of others. My own response to the poem has always been to see the skunk, and especially the skunks of the previous stanza who march up Main Street with their eyes of red fire, as not so much Lowell but his demons, an uncontrollable, unpredictable and unwelcome gaggle of troublesome creatures who emerge from the moonlight and do as they please, ransacking his thoughts and destroying his composure. By the end of the poem something of an accommodation appears to have been arrived at, the poet on the back steps taking the air as the mother skunk plunders a discarded cup of sour cream, but the truce is an uneasy one, and it’s the animal rather than the poet who ‘will not scare’.

Lowell is not the armadillo of Bishop’s poem, despite what some have thought. Despite, even, what Lowell might have alluded to in an introspective, retrospective essay about ‘Skunk Hour’, in which he talks about his earlier poems as ‘prehistoric monsters’ wearing ‘ponderous armour’, and how reading Bishop had suggested a way of ‘breaking through the shell of my own manner’. ‘The Armadillo’ describes St John’s Day Festival in Brazil, and the outlawed practice of releasing ‘fire balloons’ into the night, forerunners of today’s equally destructive paper lanterns, I imagine. I also imagine that in Bishop’s Brazil the illegality related to the combustibility of many dwellings and buildings at the time, though the poet’s concern is primarily for the animals endangered by the falling balloons, one of which, she says, ‘splattered like an egg of fire’. It’s a thought-provoking simile, given the Phoenixes of Late Air, and one I think which combines the revelry and romance of the carnival (at least when the balloons go up ‘like hearts’, she says) with notions of aerial bombardment as the they come down. The fire bombings of the Second World War, the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the conflagrations of the Korean War all feel present in that image. Admittedly the references are indirect to the point of sublimity, but that was Bishop’s way, in the same way her own ambiguous presence in the poem is incorporated into the words ‘we’ and ‘our’ – she’s not alone. The use of ‘us’ in line 18 is more inclusive, more globally intentioned, but in a stanza in which a forsaking is taking place, and in which those heart-like balloons are not only receding and dwindling but ‘suddenly turning dangerous,’ their role as romantic signifiers can’t properly be ignored.

So if the skunk is Lowell, is Bishop the armadillo? Certainly she empathises with the animal, and its habits as a creature feel commensurate with the poet’s somewhat withdrawn and reclusive personality, both in relation to the world and the page:

Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down

That’s all we get of the creature whose inconspicuousness in the world seems in direct proportion to its walk-on (i.e. walk-off) role in the poem. Except, of course, where it remerges in that enigmatic, rhetorical and italicised final quatrain, in which a ‘weak mailed fist / clenched ignorant against the sky!’ is presumably the scaly, gauntlet­like outline of the animal and the impassioned protest of the poet and the ardent but ineffective remonstration of poetry itself. On this occasion it feels as if the art of comparison is being called into question, the ‘dreamlike mimicry’ being ‘too pretty’, though whether Bishop is complaining about the fire balloons and their hazardous attempts at representation, or poesy’s misguided efforts in the field of imitation, or some failing on her own part in being beguiled by metaphor, I’m not certain. Like many of Bishop’s poems, ‘The Armadillo’ turns away from resolution or conclusion in its closing statement, preferring instead some more inscrutable expression or gnomic utterance, as if the signalling and semaphoring throughout had already done the work, after which a grand closing gesture would seem gratuitous or vulgar. Let’s not forget that this was the poet who told us she celebrated winning the Pulitzer Prize with a couple of Oreo cookies in the empty house of a neighbour, and whose best memory of Yaddo, the legendary writers’ retreat in Saratogo Springs, was a visit to the local racetrack where she watched grooms sweeping horse manure into brass dustpans. Bishop was adept at distraction and deflection, not only in interviews but also in poems, especially towards the end of poems, where a reader’s attention is often ushered away from any manufactured significance towards the incidental, the mundane and the seemingly irrelevant.

The majority of Elizabeth Bishop’s work doesn’t look or sound like the majority of Stevie Smith’s work, but there are more than a handful of individual poems that have Smith-like qualities, especially some of the lighter and more playful ‘uncollected’ verses published posthumously in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, poems like Close close all night… and Keaton and Mr and Mrs Carlyle and The Soldier and the Slot-Machine, which begins:

I will not play the slot-machine.
    Don’t force the nickel in my hand.
I will not play the slot-machine.
    For all the nickels in the land.

It’s a comparison or at least an equivalence that extends to the lives of the two poets as well, lives out of which the poems extend. Of the same generation more or less (Smith being nine years older), both women were practicing poets during a century in which dramatic changes to the traditional structures of society were taking place. As writers, neither Bishop nor Smith were seen as operating in the vanguard of those changes, and both were reluctant in different ways to be categorised as women poets, though later appraisals identify strong feminist themes in their work. Both poets positioned themselves on the margins of poetic society and as outsiders to or independent of the metropolitan literati, and both have been claimed and acclaimed as gay poets, though again this tends to be through retrospective consideration and interpretation rather than by declarations made by the poets themselves. Both Bishop and Smith suffered from respiratory problems, from psychological issues ranging from painful shyness to depression to nervous breakdown, and both were practitioners of the visual arts, Bishop having said on a number of occasions that she would have preferred to have been a painter, and Smith of course publishing her cartoon-like line drawings as illustrations to her poems, or vice versa. More significantly, presumably, and in a more striking parallel, both poets suffered parental abandonment. Bishop’s father died when she was just eight months old; Smith’s father affectively deserted the family when she was two or three. When Bishop was five her mother was hospitalised with mental heath problems and soon afterwards committed to a sanatorium for the rest of her life, dying when Bishop was twenty-three. Smith’s mother died when Stevie was sixteen, and both poets were raised by their extended families. It’s easy of course, with hindsight, to play the part of the amateur psychologist, but naïve not to acknowledge the importance of such emotional circumstance when it appears reflected in the work.

One Art is probably Bishop’s most recognised and anthologised poem though personally I don’t feel it’s an unqualified success. My problem is in the logic: Bishop’s assertion that ‘the art of losing isn’t hard to master’ and her conclusion that such losses are ‘no disaster’ being, in my view, two separate and non-contiguous positions. By which I mean it would be perfectly possible to master the art of losing but still find the consequences disastrous. I say this because I feel we are encouraged to understand, through the examples she gives, that Bishop’s art of losing is an active one, like the art of stealing or the art of sleeping, whereas each section of the poem reflects not on the action but of its consequences. What I think Bishop means, and what commentators allow for her, is that coming to terms with the effects of such loss is the thing that can be mastered.

My point is nit-picky, hair-splitty, not absolutely watertight, and I’m sure a half-competent grammarian could mount a decent case for the defence. But it’s important in the sense that we need to be confident about what is at stake here, otherwise how can we fully enjoy the deception and evasion that Bishop performs for us. ‘One Art’ is a late poem, albeit one that underwent endless refinement, and carries a tone of summation, even finality, the poet apparently looking back at her life and dismissing the impact of loss with a somewhat jocular tone. But that breezy waving away of disaster is a conscious duplicity designed to alert us to the true heartbreak occasioned by accumulated losses. Or losing, as Bishop has it. For one thing, it isn’t humanly possible to suffer so repeatedly and on that scale without being significantly affected, is it? And for another, Bishop isn’t capable of writing a mundane and vacuous poem whose response to a series of escalating bereavements amounts to little more than a cheery and banal ‘oh well, never mind’. The language of the poem wears a brave face but one we’re expected to see through, and its declarations are deliberately half-hearted. So Bishop’s career-preference for ambiguity serves her well here, the easy-going, almost child-like tone of the language being immediately undermined by the rigid strictures of the villanelle, a form whose repetitious nature implies fixation bordering on obsession. Other things to notice and admire include the pun of her mother’s ‘watch’, especially in combination with her play on the word ‘farther’ in the previous stanza, and the word ‘shan’t’ which introduces a calculated uncertainty to the poet’s argument, theatrically distancing herself from the most recent or impending loss with a somewhat decorous verbal gesture and a confusion of tenses. Finally, of course, we encounter the chequered flag of that parenthetical, part-italicised, part-capitalised and exclamation­marked exhortation (Write it!). Wow! Meaning what? Advice to others? Another pun, as in make it right rather than stop getting it wrong? An encouraging instruction to the self? All three, probably, and others besides I dare say, but most pertinently the latter, and relevant in this context for the way it falls between two instances of the word ‘like’. Because what it tells us about Bishop’s attitude to analogy, if nothing else, is that the act or art of comparison is crucial enough to let a complex and contorted simile occupy the critical position in this crucial poem. And that things might best be observed, captured or even understood in terms of what they ‘may look like’, i.e. with a sideways glance or in poetry’s ‘peripheral vision’, as she once described it, glimpses of what ‘one can never see full-face but that seems enormously important’. So that stuttering, hesitant and interrupted double use of ‘like’ is actually a reinforcement, a confirmation of her true feelings about the power of loss and the power of metaphor in the form of a philosophical double negative: across nineteen lines she claims a kind of emotional resilience while simultaneously conveying to us the insincerity of that claim; and likewise, in that final line, she apparently doubts the comparison between loss and disaster, even though disaster is exactly what it is.

And for comparison’s sake, I’ll finish with Stevie Smith’s poem ‘Infelice’, also a poem of deliberate self­deception in the territory of love, also a poem which ends with the intention to commit thoughts to paper, and also a poem whose emotional locus might be found in its central simile, a man with a face ‘like the sand’ – shifting, unreliable, never the same in the morning as it was at night:

Walking swiftly with a dreadful duchess,
He smiled too briefly, his face was pale as sand,
He jumped into a taxi when he saw me coming,
Leaving me alone with a private meaning,
He loves me so much, my heart is singing.
Later at the Club when I rang him in the evening
They said: Sir Rat is dining, is dining, is dining,
No madam, he left no message, ah how his silence speaks,
He loves me too much for words, my heart is singing.
The Pullman seats are here, the tickets for Paris, I am waiting,
Presently the telephone rings, it is his valet speaking,
Sir Rat is called away, to Scotland, his constituents,
(Ah the dreadful duchess, but he loves me best)
Best pleasure to the last, my heart is singing,
One night he came, it was four in the morning,
Walking slowly upstairs, he stands beside my bed,
Dear darling, lie beside me, it is too cold to stand speaking,
He lies down beside me, his face is like the sand,
He is in a sleep of love, my heart is singing.
Sleeping softly softly, in the morning I must wake him,
And waking he murmurs, I only came to sleep.
The words are so sweetly cruel, how deeply he loves me,
I say them to myself alone, my heart is singing.
Now the sunshine strengthens, it is ten in the morning,
He is so timid in love, he only needs to know,
He is my little child, how can he come if I do not call him,
I will write and tell him everything, I take the pen and write:
I love you so much, my heart is singing.

This poem is taken from PN Review 242, Volume 44 Number 6, July - August 2018.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to
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