What Tribute She Could Bear

On Elizabeth Bishop as seen by James Merrill – mentor, friend, influence, and ideal.

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When James Merrill served as Guest Editor of the December 1979 issue of Poetry Pilot, the newsletter of the American Academy of Poets, his task was a pleasant one: to present a selection of several of his favorite poems, introduced by a brief commentary. Such selections by prominent poets had been a regular feature of Poetry Pilot for more than twenty years. Still, Merrill’s selection was in one sense unusual: all eight poems were by a single poet, his recently deceased mentor and friend Elizabeth Bishop. As Merrill noted in his commentary, Bishop had “died suddenly on October 6th, of a cerebral aneurism at her apartment facing north across Boston Harbor.” Merrill’s feeling for Bishop’s poetry was sufficiently profound that he might have made a similar selection had she been living — except for fear of embarrassing her with such a public display of his admiration.

For as he gently asked in his belated and indirect but tender verse elegy for Bishop, “What tribute could you bear / Without dismay?” Merrill learned about Bishop’s sensitivity to acclamation quite early in their relationship, when in 1948, as a 22-year-old Amherst graduate and aspiring poet, “I was just bowled over by ‘Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,’” a poem that had recently appeared in Partisan Review. Merrill had met Bishop briefly at the “famous Bard poetry conference in the fall of 1948.” “So I asked Elizabeth to lunch in New York…. I naively thought I could spend most of lunch telling her how wonderful I thought the poem was. It only took a couple of minutes” — which was all the time for commendation, apparently, that Bishop would allow. Merrill concluded that, “Elizabeth wasn’t affected at all. I think she knew how much she had put into her poems. She must have known they were wonderful. Maybe out of a kind of superstition she didn’t want to make too much of them in talking about them.”

After Bishop’s death, Merrill no long felt this implied pressure to moderate his praise. Hence, his prose commentary on her all-too-recent passing could continue: “With her death a darkness all but literal falls over our poetic scene; for her intelligence — so all-seeing, original, and undidactic — like the very light of day revealed her subjects there in the world where she found them, casting them, for the length of a poem’s charm, into effortless and humane relief. This ease, this natural perfection, along with the technical mastery it implied, was not always prized in the workshops…. She, quite casually, went on doing what no one else could; writing poems at once innocent and wise, colloquial and sublime.” Merrill’s attention here to Bishop’s naturalness, her intelligence, the “effortless and humane relief” into which she cast her subjects, parallels Robert Lowell’s famous celebration of Bishop — while she lived — as his own “unerring Muse, who makes the casual perfect.” But this by now nearly iconic image of Bishop as the poet “innocent and wise, colloquial and sublime,” should be read as just one facet, among many, of James Merrill’s Elizabeth Bishop. He also knew her, for example, as a poet and a person who was frequently struggling with moral and with mortal anguish — though even then she never lost her keen sense of humor and perspective. Here I propose to circumnavigate the many sides of Merrill’s Bishop, in the process assembling the materials needed to construct a more integral account of what Bishop’s example meant to Merrill. By extension, much of this might apply to what her example meant to other poets of Merrill’s generation and to the generations that followed, and the Bishop / Merrill relationship as we see it through Merrill’s eyes might suggest new ways of thinking of literary influence and poetic interchange across the generations.

In his engagingly candid 1993 memoir A Different Person, Merrill, whose parents divorced when he was 13 years old, observes that, “People keep talking about a man’s ‘search for a father,’ the importance of a male paradigm for the growing boy. Hence the young Irishman my mother hired to teach me manhood, little dreaming he would turn out to be an object of desire instead.” And Merrill immediately adds, “But how about that child’s need for a female role model, lacking whom, conceivably, the grown man’s psyche or anima (always envisioned as feminine) might well remain pinched and mean? To this end I’ve always had an eye out for ‘the right woman,’ someone my spirit could aspire to resemble or, put less ponderously, to whose turn of mind and way with emotion I felt attuned.” Elsewhere in his memoir, Merrill spoke of his adolescent attempts to learn the art of feeling — and learn it vicariously, through opera: “I found myself trying on emotions till then inconceivable, against the day when I should be old enough to wear them in public.” But, Merrill concluded, “Neither Brünnhilde nor the Marschallin had turned out to be much of a help in day-to-day living. Over the years Elizabeth kept filling the bill.”

What Merrill found in Bishop, and what he made of what he found in her, would appear to offer an important alternative to Harold Bloom’s influential theory of poetic development as expressed in his 1973 The Anxiety of Influence. For Bloom, the relationship between the elder and the younger poet is read in Freudian terms as a “Battle between strong equals, father and son as mighty opposites, Laius and Oedipus at the crossroads.” Yet Merrill — with his reference to psyche or anima showing that he speaks in Jungian rather than Freudian terms — admits to seeking a female role model. Moreover, their relationship seems to be not a combat to the death between father and son but a decades-long friendship over the course of which the aspiring ephebe gradually becomes the friend, and as time passes, sometimes the practical guide and emotional supporter of the elder poet. A more contemporary theory of poetic influence than the one offered by Bloom would have to observe and take into account the intriguing and complex interactions of the wave upon wave of poets who have come into prominence since the dawn of the twentieth century, beginning with Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Moore, Stevens, Williams, Tate, Ransom and others. This succession of poets reaches forward through the generations, passing not only through Bishop’s generation and then Merrill’s, but through several further cycles on up to the present day. A contemporary theory of poetic influence could not be exclusively patriarchal or focused on a single nation or language tradition. Instead, it would have to account for the way influence and affinity have reached across boundaries of gender, language, sexual orientation, and nationality. To my way of thinking, a contemporary theory of poetic influence would also have to acknowledge that poets of different generations — or even poets of the same generation such as Bishop and Robert Lowell — might sometimes work in support or cooperation rather than in unrelenting conflict or competition.

“She, quite casually, went on doing what no one else could; writing poems at once innocent and wise, colloquial and sublime.”
—James Merrill on Elizabeth Bishop

One way Bishop served as a model to Merrill and other poets of his and later generations was in the way she approached the problem of “day-to-day living,” of how to live the life of a poet: “Like her I had no graduate degree, didn’t feel called upon to teach, preferred to New York’s literary circus the camouflage of another culture.” Comparing Bishop to W. H. Auden — another, though more distant, role model — Merrill observed, “It was du coté de chez Elizabeth, though, that I saw the daily life that took my fancy even more, with its kind of random, Chekhovian surface, open to trivia and funny surprises, or even painful ones, today a fit of weeping, tomorrow a picnic. I don’t mean I’ve ‘achieved’ anything of the sort in my life or poems, only that Elizabeth had more talent for life — and for poetry — than anyone else I’ve known, and this has served me as an ideal.”

Another and more famous remark of Merrill’s — the one about Bishop’s “impersonations of an ordinary woman” — is relevant here, but I’d like to give that remark in its full context, which is generally omitted. Merrill has been describing, in a memorial tribute to Bishop published in the December 6, 1979 New York Review of Books, a 1941 snapshot of Bishop “at Key West, with bicycle, in black French beach togs, beaming straight at the camera: a living doll.” Perhaps Merrill is so fascinated with the bicycle because he had recently begun wintering in Key West, and for him, too, a bicycle had become his principal means of transportation. In any case, Merrill speculates that:

The bicycle may have been the same one she pedaled to the local electric company with her monthly bill and Charles Olson’s, who one season rented her house but felt that ‘a Poet mustn’t be asked to do prosaic things like pay bills.’ The story was told not at the Poet’s expense but rather as fingers are crossed for luck — another of her own instinctive, modest, life-long impersonations of an ordinary woman, someone who during the day did errands, went to the beach, would perhaps that evening jot a phrase or two inside the nightclub matchbook before returning to the dance floor.”

Let’s tote up some of the elements needing to be reconciled here. For Merrill, Bishop stands for naturalness, casualness, and openness to “trivia and funny surprises, or even painful ones,” but also to a need for camouflage, a skill at impersonation, and in particular, to a skilled impersonation of the ordinary.

Indeed, impersonation, camouflage, and something more than Empson’s seven types of ambiguity, are recurrent leitmotifs in the mosaic of Merrill’s interest in Bishop. In A Different Life, Merrill spoke of his discovery of “Exchanging Hats,” a poem of 1956 that appeared “in a little magazine and pointed to new strategies” about rendering some of Merrill’s own ambiguities. He admits, “I never doubted that almost any poem I wrote owed some of its difficulty to the need to conceal my feelings, and their objects. Genderless as a fig leaf, the pronoun ‘you’ served to protect the latter, but one couldn’t be too careful.” Bishop’s “Exchanging Hats” was “a mere eight tetrameter quatrains long, neatly rhymed, lighthearted. But like the White Rock nymph, it smiled down at its reflection in depths so refreshing that I read it a second, a third, a tenth time. Here… was a poet addressing herself with open good humor to the forbidden topic of transsexual impulses, simply by having invented a familiar, ‘harmless’ situation to dramatize them. I was enthralled.” Merrill’s way of delivering “Exchanging Hats,” a favorite at his at public readings, was a droll masterpiece of understatement and delightful innuendo.

When Merrill spoke at the 1992 Key West Literary Seminar devoted to Bishop, he emphasized her skill at “getting one’s scale right.” Merrill’s attraction here is partly technical, for Bishop’s skillful and indirect treatment of transsexual impulses, showed him how he could, with gentle yet insistent humor, explore feelings of his own whose expression might otherwise seem forbidden. But beyond the question of literary technique, Bishop showed a way to deal with ambiguities of feeling, ambiguities of commitment, ambiguities of identity and self-definition that run through the work of each of these poets.

Further reflecting on scale, now with reference to the poem “Twelve O’Clock News,” Merrill noted that, “As part of a generation that included Lowell, Berryman, and Roethke, she glimpsed the megalomania lying in wait for the solitary maker — or indeed for anyone ‘in power’ — and her account of it here is all the more unnerving for her superficially playful sleights of scale.” Hence, for Merrill, “The unpretentiousness of her form is very appealing. But I don’t know if it’s simply a matter of form. Rather, I like the way her whole oeuvre is on the scale of a human life; there is no oracular amplification, she doesn’t go about on stilts to make her vision wider. She doesn’t need that. She’s wise and humane enough as it is.” Speaking of male poets like “Pound or Lowell or Dr. Williams” in whose work there is a drift toward “the more or less monumental…. a huge, unruly text that grapples ravenously with everything under the sun,” Merrill notes that these poets began by “writing small, controllable…poems,” but that “As time went on…, through their ambitious reading, their thinking, their critical pronouncements, a kind of vacuum charged with expectation, if not with dread, took shape around them, asking to be filled with grander stuff. As when the bronze is poured in the lost-wax process of casting, what had been human and impressionable in them was becoming its own monument. I speak, alas, from experience, having felt a similar pressure at work in my own case, and seen also, though fighting it every step of the way, how little choice I had in the matter.” Bishop’s anima represented an alternative, and as Merrill saw it, an appealingly feminine line of development, a way of writing and living that retained human impressionability while renouncing from the outset and thereafter successfully resisting the temptation toward monumentality.

Merrill was drawn, as well, to what one might call Bishop’s human, impressionable, and marvelously non-monumental use of traditional poetic forms. Speaking on the subject in an interview with J. D. McClatchy, Merrill noted that, “Now and then one enjoys a little moonwalk, some little departure from tradition. And the forms themselves seem to invite this, in our age of ‘breakthroughs.’ Take the villanelle, which didn’t really change from ‘Your eyen two wol slay me sodenly’ until, say, 1950” after which “there were tiny signs. People began repunctuating the key lines so that each time they recurred, the meanings would be slightly different. Was that just an extension of certain cute effects in Austin Dobson? In any case, ‘sodenly’ Elizabeth’s ravishing poem ‘One Art’ came along, where the key lines seem merely to approximate themselves, and the form, awakened by a kiss, simply toddles off to a new stage in its life, under the proud eye of Mother, or the Muse. One doesn’t, I mean, have to be just a stolid ‘formalist.’ The forms, the meters and rhyme-sounds, are far too liberating for that.” When McClatchy queries, “Liberating?” Merrill responds, “From one’s own smudged images and anxiety about ‘having something to say.’ Into the dynamics of — well, the craft itself.” Here Merrill suggests that the senior poet — far from imposing a sense of anxiety on the younger one — can actually offer a release from anxiety by holding out tantalizing formal opportunities that hover at the edge of the horizon and admit of a variety of engaging solutions. Indeed, what one finds over and over in Merrill’s characterizations of Bishop is the ways in which her presence faced him, not with anxiety, but with a sense of freedom, empowerment, and validation.

“I like the way her whole oeuvre is on the scale of a human life…”
—James Merrill on Elizabeth Bishop

Merrill’s “Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia,” which appeared in The New Yorker in 1989, ten years after Bishop’s death, shows Merrill in a new role, as the poetic survivor exploring Bishop’s origins, and in particular her painful and radiant experiences as a young child in Great Village, Nova Scotia. A preoccupation with childhood experience is something Bishop’s and Merrill’s poetry always shared, and Merrill’s poem — which owes something of its tone to Bishop’s “North Haven,” her eloquent yet playful and intimately teasing elegy for Lowell, is full of echoes of Bishop’s writing and speech. Merrill plays deftly with formal conventions in an understated way — this highly conversational and seemingly casual and digressive poem is actually a sequence of five irregularly rhymed pentameter sonnets, a fact that even an extremely attentive reader might miss after repeated encounters with the poem.

Moreover, Merrill’s belated elegy consistently equates the scenes and objects of Great Village and its environs with what Merrill knew and felt about Bishop as person and as writer, in a poem that converses with his departed friend while paying tribute to her ongoing and always lively handling of poetic altitude, volume, weight, and perspective.

In living as in poetry, your art
Refused to tip the scale of being human
By adding unearned weight. “New, tender, quick”—
Nice watchwords; yet how often they invited
The anguish coming only now to light
In letters like photographs from space, revealing
Your planet tremulously bright through veils
As swept, in fact, by inconceivable
Heat and turbulence—but there, I’ve done it,
Added the weight. What tribute could you bear
Without dismay?

In fact, despite Merrill’s allusion to the anguish in Bishop’s life that was “coming only now to light” in the years following her death, he did in fact have some direct knowledge of the suffering she had to live through, which had its roots in the death of her father when she was eight months old and — here in Great Village, the object of Merrill’s pilgrimage and the scene of his poem — the permanent mental breakdown of Bishop’s mother Gertrude when she was five.

In his recently published James Merrill: Life and Art, Langdon Hammer notes a visit Merrill paid to Bishop late in her Brazilian period, at the 17th century house in Ouro Preto, Brazil that Bishop was then restoring. Bishop was passing through one of the most difficult periods in her life, and Merrill found that she was indulging throughout his stay in unhealthy doses of alcohol and not infrequent bouts of weeping — though as she told one alarmed Brazilian visitor, “’Don’t be upset, José Alberto…I’m only crying in English.’” Hammer observes:

Despite her struggles, however, or exactly because of them, the two poets were drawing closer. “I think you love me,” she said to Merrill that evening by the stove, “so I can talk to you like this, can’t I?” Merrill did love Bishop, both the poet and the person. His identification with her was as deep as his identification with Proust, and, as with Proust, Bishop’s homosexuality — or better, her sense of the contingency of sex and gender — was part of his feeling.

Bishop’s sense of the contingency of sex and gender, as well as the contingency of joy and sorrow, emerges in a further story recounted in Hammer’s biography:

One morning when the rain let up, she and Merrill set out for a neighboring town. The taxi carried them “through sparkling red- and- green country, downhill, uphill, then all at once under a rainbow— like a halo on the hill’s brow, almost touchable.” Bishop made a remark to the driver, who “began to shake with laughter. ‘In the north of Brazil,’ Elizabeth explained, ‘they have this superstition — if you pass through a rainbow you change sex.’ ” Merrill added, “We were to pass under this one more than once.”

Merrill realized with grateful amusement that here was a poet and friend who would always be — as George Herbert phrased it — “new, tender, quick.” Like their mirthful Brazilian taxi driver, and like Merrill himself, Bishop knew that the world would always resist category, and thus would always stay full of surprises, some of them, in one of Bishop’ own phrases, “quite delightful, rather than frightening.”

Echoing Bishop’s “Poem,” one of the selections Merrill included in Poetry Pilot, Merrill soon exclaims in “Overdue Pilgrimage”:

Wait, those were elms! Long vanished from our world.
Elms, by whose goblet stems distance itself
Once taken between two fingers could be twirled,
Its bouquet breathed. The trees looked cumbersome,
Sickly through mist, like old things on a shelf—
Astrolabes, pterodactyls. They must know.
The forest knows. Out from such melting backdrops
It’s the rare conifer stands whole, one sharp
Uniquely tufted spoke of a dark snow crystal.
Not breathed upon, as yet, by our exhaust.

Permeating this passage from Merrill’s elegy — with its many evocations, too, of the fog scene in Bishop’s masterpiece “The Moose” — are references to the threat of extinction, a threat which remains a recurrent feature of humanity’s myths of itself and a threat that would emerge as a dominant concern of Merrill’s great final volume, A Scattering of Salts. The disappearance of elm trees at least in “our” world — Merrill and Bishop’s United States — due to Dutch Elm disease, was one such example of a near extinction, though as Merrill notes such trees still survived in waning health in northeastern Canada. This glimpse of faltering elms through fog leads to thoughts of other species and objects either extinct (pterodactyls) or surviving on a few museum shelves (astrolabes). As Merrill’s poem returns to the cycles of nature, extinction remains a possibility, though not — as in decades or ages past — through the Last Judgment or nuclear holocaust but rather through environmental overload and the exhaustion of resources. Here Merrill is both exploring and exploiting poetic tradition as he moves the elegy in new directions, yet if the race or the planet are threatened by one’s own car exhaust, among other things, then here is a threat hovering over the musing poet and over ordinary folks as well.

We have walked around the subject of James Merrill’s Elizabeth Bishop, and we have discovered that for Merrill, Bishop stands as a comforting and somehow comfortable example both as a poet and as a person, and that for him each of these identities — distinct yet inseparable — was equally important. As a poet, and as a person, Merrill sees Bishop as facing a set of problems, similar to, though not quite identical with, the younger poet’s own. And she addresses these problems in ways that he finds both reassuring and instructive — ways that are modest, adroit, funny, devious, and enthralling. For him, Bishop does not stand as “The Monument,” even if — as Bishop advises in her poem of that name — Merrill did choose to “Watch [her] closely.”

“I’ve always had an eye out for ‘the right woman,’ someone my spirit could aspire to resemble…”
—James Merrill on Elizabeth Bishop

As I’ve suggested, Merrill relationship with Bishop may be taken as representing an important model for the relationships between other younger and elder poets of their respective generations. We may read this style of mid-20th-century interchange as a postmodern (and post-Harold-Bloomian) model of literary influence. Milton never met Shakespeare — and Wordsworth and Blake could not know Milton. Perhaps some kind of Oedipal struggle might be inevitable if the poetic “father” remains remote and only indirectly known or knowable. Yet Merrill saw Bishop differently, as his feminine “psyche or anima,” as “a White Rock nymph,” as “a living doll,” as the deft if never wholly convincing impersonator of “an ordinary woman.” It is hard to construct a life-and-death-struggle at the mythic crossroads out of such materials.

For an anxiety of literary influence appears to recede when one can choose one’s literary antecedents, based on their congeniality both as poets and as people. And the friendship between Bishop and Merrill was far from unique. Merrill was born in 1926, in the same year as A. R. Ammons, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and W. D. Snodgrass — and shortly to be followed by, among others, John Ashbery, Anne Sexton, Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, and Gary Snyder. It was not only possible but almost inevitable for the leading poets of Merrill’s generation to know personality—and in many cases to know quite intimately—their elected literary mentors, just as Bishop had known Marianne Moore, Lowell had known Tate, Ransom and Williams, and Olson had known Williams and Pound. These relationships developed over a period of decades, evolving and passing through phases that often left the elder poet, in his or her last years, growing increasingly dependent on the energy, support, and advocacy of the younger.

While in their search for mentors the choice of the poets of Merrill’s generation might be “never wide and never free,” the fact of choice — and the ongoing nature of the intimate adult relationships that developed between these junior and elder poets — appears to me to call for a new model for the reading of influence: as a form of cross-generational literary exchange. According to this fresh model, an Oedipal conflict between protégé and mentor is never quite inevitable, and the protégé may still be jolted by fresh and inspiriting surprises about the senior poet many decades after the relationship began and sometimes even long after the departure of the mentor from this earth. •

Source photos by Judith Moffett via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons) and Everett Collection Historical/Alamy.

Thomas Travisano is the author of Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development and Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman, as well as the principal editor of Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. He is currently writing a biography of Bishop for Viking and can be reached at travisanot@hartwick.edu.
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