Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop

Do you know how long it takes me to get a to a book on my to-read shelves? I can give you one hint: this book was superseded a decade ago, a newer, possibly larger Poems having hit in 2011. I just discovered that when searching for a link and finding the book I own is deeply out of print. (I was hoping there was something newer, and I was happy to find that true.)

My copy of Elizabeth Bishop's The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 is from the fifteenth printing in 1995, with a 10% off penciled price on the first page, so I might have gotten it it new. I'm pretty sure it was the late '90s, but can't tell any more specifically than that. It's been on my shelves for a couple of decades, moving bookcases and somehow surviving my 2011 basement flood.

And I finally read it this year: I'm trying to read the work of at least one poet a year, someone I know a little about but haven't read in depth before. For Bishop, what I knew was that she went to Vassar, decades before me, so there's an old home connection. And of course "Visits to St. Elizabeth." I'd probably also read "The Moose" at some point.

But that was it: I knew she wrote poetry, went to the same college as me, lived and died before I even knew her name. Had a vague sense of her life, and did a little Wiki-reading when starting this book, but that's not particularly relevant. Bishop was a very private woman, and wanted her poetry to stand on its own. I can understand that, and do my little bit to reinforce it.

Complete Poems is short: less than three hundred pages, even collecting what I think were four separate books (North & South, A Cold Spring, Questions of Travel, and Geography III) and several previous "collected" editions. The last fifty pages are translations, mostly from the Portuguese - she lived in Brazil for a long time - with a few from French and Spanish.

It's organized in what I think is the usual standard: chronological for the major work, then the "Poems Written in Youth" (youth being up to a year before the first "mature" poem, in her mid-20s), and finally those translations. That means the reader begins with the most tightly constructed, hermetic Bishop poems: she loosened up, I think, as her life and career went on.

I am no good critic of poetry. So I try to point at what I see, what seems interesting. In Bishop I see a lot of work about places, either where she was living on traveling at the time or places from her youth - lots of Brazil, lots of Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. The poet is usually absent, or, rather, the poet is the viewpoint rather than a speaker or the line of argument. Bishop's poems, to me, seem to be mostly about seeing, or maybe inhabiting, about the world around in all its complexity, and how things and people fit into that world.

There's a lot of good poetry here. I'll have an excerpt I particularly like for the weekly quote this Friday. And I end posts about poetry the same way every time: read poetry. It's condensed language, deeper and richer and more concentrated than prose. We all need to take time to read the hard stuff. Maybe for you it could be Bishop, or Shelley, or Spenser, or someone brand new. But poetry, I think, is even more important than prose, more central. So we all should take the time for it, when we can.

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