Archive for February 8th, 2018

Happy 107th birthday, Elizabeth Bishop! “The contemporary language is not equivalent to the contemporary fact.”

Thursday, February 8th, 2018

It is the poet Elizabeth Bishop‘s 107th birthday. I celebrated her centennial here, remembering my long-ago trip to her home in Brazil, outside Petropolis, which is outside Rio. The trip from the Rio de Janeiro airport was an all-day saga. From my article in the Times Literary Supplement:

Brazilians use the expression “toda vida” — for all life — where we would say, “continue to the end of the road”. On the narrow, bumpy brick roads around Petropolis, about sixty miles outside Rio de Janeiro, you may indeed feel you will reach life’s end before you reach your destination: Sitio Alcobacinha, the long-time home of the poet Elizabeth Bishop, in the outlying village of Samambaia. You have to stop every few minutes to question a resident, typically one of the ubiquitous men, shirtless and enervated by the Brazilian summer, drinking beer in the street-side cafes of this trendy, if slightly threadbare, former imperial capital. Continue down the left fork, they will tell you, “toda vida”.

Outside Petropolis … her home for years

Bishop didn’t quite end her days here. But certainly a crucial era of her life concluded in Samambaia in 1967, when she left Brazil after a sixteen-year stay that began as a lark, endured as a deep and difficult love affair, and ended with a death. She was to return to Brazil, more particularly to the home she bought and refurbished in Ouro Preto, another 150 miles or so due north, but she never stayed long, and visited more and more sporadically, until she finally left Brazil for good in 1974.

More here. For this year, a few seminal thoughts she wrote at the prescient age of 23, taken from Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, (via Brainpickings)

Much can be done by means of pretense. Children pretend to speak a foreign language or inscribe its imitation alphabet in their school books, and inspired by the same motives, grow up to become linguists, grammarians, and travelers. Lord Byron, looking in the mirror, pretended to be the Byronic man, and the Byronic man, with his curls and collars, came into existence by the hundred. The growth of the small nation into the empire contains infinities of such pretense, gradually turning to the infinite realities of empire.


One of the causes of poetry must be … the feeling that the contemporary language is not equivalent to the contemporary fact; there is something out of proportion between them, and what is being said in words is not at all what is being said in “things.” To connect this disproportion a pretense is at first necessary. By “pretending” the existence of a language appropriate and comparable to the “things” it must deal with, the language is forced into being. It is learned by one person, by a few, by all who can become interested in that poet’s poetry.

But as this imaginary language is elaborated and is understood by more people, it begins to work two ways at once. “Things” gave rise to the language; now the language arouses an independent life in the “things,” first dimly perceived in them only by the poet.