by Elizabeth BishopThe 1955 volume POEMS reissued Elizabeth Bishop's debut collection North and South, but it also contained an entirely new collection titled A Cold Spring. One of the best places to get this material is the Library of America volume (ISBN 1598530178) that contains Bishop's complete poems and prose with a choice of letters, but I have found it interesting to slowly examine Bishop's collections on their own.
North and South was published in 1946, but of the poems predate the war (or at least American involvement in it) and reflect Bishop's development as a poet through the 1930s and very early 1940s. From the very first poem, "The Map", we find Bishop's distinctive concern with describing specific scenes in detail, that then give way to some kind of universal, transcendental experience. After various musings on the printers' layout of the eponymous map, the poem ends: "Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is, / lending the land their waves' own conformation: / and Norway's hare runs south in agitation, / profiles investigate the sea, where land is. / Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors? / — What suits the characters or the native waters best. / Topography displays no favorites; North's as near as West. / More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors."
And the best poems in North and South continue this style. "Roosters", acclaimed by Robert Lowell as the best work by an American female poet, goes from describing the dawn chorus around Bishop's home to meditations on tribal violence and religious salvation. "The Fish" recounts a victory during an angling trip, only to ultimately make a point about how insignificant such victories are. And there's humour here to, such as in "Large Bad Picture" where Bishop meditates on her great-uncle's painting, only eliptically revealing how bad it is.
Only Bishop's dabbling in surrealism in "The Weed" and "The Man-Moth" marks this collection with a certain immaturity. But still, this is an impressive debut, and Bishop's poetry has a music to it that should appeal to a wide public. The only difficulty comes in reviewing it: Bishop's poetry is so concerned with a twist somewhere towards the end of a poem that her poems can only be quoted in full.
The second collection, A Cold Spring, consists of poems written in the 1940s and early 1950s. Here too we Bishop's careful eye for detail, basing a whole poem on a pensive contemplation of one small object or scene, but it also includes a number of striking poems based on turbulent personal relationships. "O Breath" and "Insomnia" are nighttime meditations on problems with a lover. "View of the Capitol of the Library of Congress" is an amusing jab at politics from a literary intellectual. Some of the poems in A Cold Spring are among my favourite English-language poems, but it's a pity that in a review one cannot quote at length those many lines that have so touched your heart.
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