Expect the Unexpected

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Poetry Friday: Elizabeth Bishop’s vision

Elizabeth Bishop and friend. —Vassar College Library photo

Elizabeth Bishop and friend. —Vassar College Library photo

Elizabeth Bishop was a poet with vision. She didn’t write as an expert with an insider’s view of the outside world. Rather, she wrote as an outsider looking in — hoping to make sense of life’s struggles, longings, and grief. Her poems are easy to identify with as she admits she doesn’t know all the answers. But they aren’t simplistic. She put her own spin on various poetic styles and conventions to give her works literary depth and additional significance.

Born in Worcester, Mass, in 1911, Elizabeth Bishop’s father died when she was a year old, and her mother was institutionalized. She never saw her mother again. She lived for a time with her grandparents in Nova Scotia, before she was sent back to Massachusetts. She graduated from Vassar College, where she developed a close friendship with poet Marianne Moore.

Although she only published around 100 poems in her lifetime, her work was appreciated, and she was named the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1949 to 1950. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1956, and also the National Book Award. Larry Rohter of the New York Times called her “one of the most important American poets” of the twentieth century.

Elizabeth Bishop lived for a time in Brazil, returned to the United States in 1970, and taught at Harvard University. She spent many summers in New Haven, Maine, and died in 1979 at age 68.

Let’s start off with Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle, One Art. A villanelle is a poem of 19 lines, using only two rhymes, with five three-lined tercets, followed by a closing quatrain. In One Art, losing things becomes an art form which is “mastered.”  Initially the losses aren’t a “disaster” but they increase in importance. We learn that mastering the art of losing car keys does not prepare you for losing a person.

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 disaster.

Is our existence the person inside us or the person reflected in the mirror? Interesting thought in To Be Written on the Mirror in Whitewash. In this tiny poem-phrase, Elizabeth Bishop manages to utilize alliteration, assonance (repetition of vowel sounds without repeating consonants), and rhyme.

To Be Written on the Mirror in Whitewash

I live only here, between your eyes and you,
But I live in your world. What do I do?
–Collect no interest–otherwise what I can;
Above all I am not that staring man.

Conversation explores the internal struggles about the heart’s desires. The heart wants what it wants, but it makes no sense — until there is a name. In this sly little poem, Elizabeth Bishop has something she desperately wants to say, but feels the need to guard her privacy and “code” how she says it.


The tumult in the heart
keeps asking questions.
And then it stops and undertakes to answer
in the same tone of voice.
No one could tell the difference.

Uninnocent, these conversations start,
and then engage the senses,
only half-meaning to.
And then there is no choice,
and then there is no sense;

until a name
and all its connotation are the same.

It’s a dirty, oily filling station, run by a dirty oil-soaked father and greasy sons. Yet, amidst it all, there is a hand-stitched doily and large “hirsute” begonia. There’s love there.

Filling Station

Oh, but it is dirty!
–this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it’s a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color–
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:

to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

In Insomnia, the moon, perhaps a mistress, feels deserted in an inverted world, where she sleeps by day and comes alive by night. But she is saved because she has love.


The moon in the bureau mirror
looks out a million miles
(and perhaps with pride, at herself,
but she never, never smiles)
far and away beyond sleep, or
perhaps she’s a daytime sleeper.

By the Universe deserted,
she’d tell it to go to hell,
and she’d find a body of water,
or a mirror, on which to dwell.
So wrap up care in a cobweb
and drop it down the well

into that world inverted
where left is always right,
where the shadows are really the body,
where we stay awake all night,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.

Who ends a poem with a line in parentheses? Elizabeth Bishop does in Five Flights Up. Unafraid to alter poetic conventions to suit her emotions, this visual poem, like Insomnia above, deals with perceptions of night and day. Her description of morning as enormous, ponderous and meticulous, are words of despair. Wouldn’t it be nice to be like that little black dog, where you can just run around and frolic in the leaves, unaware that “you ought to be ashamed?” Instead she is faced with (A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift).

Five Flights Up

Still dark.
The unknown bird sits on his usual branch.
The little dog next door barks in his sleep
inquiringly, just once.
Perhaps in his sleep, too, the bird inquires
once or twice, quavering.
Questions—if that is what they are—
answered directly, simply,
by day itself.

Enormous morning, ponderous, meticulous;
gray light streaking each bare branch,
each single twig, along one side,
making another tree, of glassy veins…
The bird still sits there. Now he seems to yawn.

The little black dog runs in his yard.
His owner’s voice arises, stern,
“You ought to be ashamed!”
What has he done?
He bounces cheerfully up and down;
he rushes in circles in the fallen leaves.

Obviously, he has no sense of shame.
He and the bird know everything is answered,
all taken care of,
no need to ask again.
—Yesterday brought to today so lightly!
(A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.)

In good times and bad we need music. In the sonnet, I Am in Need of Music, Elizabeth Bishop describes music’s healing power and magic.

I Am  in Need of Music

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling fingertips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

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