About the poems of Elizabeth Bishop

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She came, she saw, she changed the view.  If… Randall Jarrell, the American poet, said everything, every line she writes has an under-note, I have seen it.  There’s a theory that Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’, and indeed many great poems, are an art of the nerves and in the case of Elizabeth Bishop the nerve is optic.  She is disciplined, cold in a sense, but in fact this is something she acknowledges.  She describes an isolation of the soul as well as the body and on that she knew of what she was speaking because she lost both her parents, she was orphaned extremely young.  Well in fact I will change that, her mother had a mental illness and she believed in a sense that her mother was dead, but in fact she was in a mental hospital.  And she said I have a prize unhappy childhood, and the concept that an unhappy childhood is essential to literary art.  But she said something like, please don’t think that I wanted that, I don’t prize it. 

One of the most frightening poems in existential terror is ‘In the Waiting Room’.  It’s in the voice of a seven year old, and she went back to this in her sixties, so you’re again going back to that trauma.  And it’s narrated by a girl sitting beside her aunt, Consuela, and suddenly she speaks certain lines and the child – it’s so brilliant, this poem, because you’re not certain for a moment who is speaking and then the child understands that it’s not Aunt Consuela, it is she herself who is speaking.  It’s really a beautifully realised, very disturbing poem about the true fears and questions of childhood.  Childhood isn’t always the idyllic innocent state we believe it to be.  One of her loveliest, unforgettable poems is ‘One Art’ where she says ‘the art of losing isn’t hard to master’ and goes through all the things one can lose in life, from very normal things, from keys or something like that down to, I think the last lines are ‘losing you’.  And then ‘the art of losing isn’t hard to master, but then it’s righted, like disaster’.  

So she, with great discipline and a kind of dignity writes of human pain, a distanced dignity, and once you get that note and once you understand that this I is pared down to the truth, it’s almost impossible not to keep reading her.

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Josephine Hart's books, Catching Life by the Throat and Words That Burn are available to buy in the British Library shop.