Elizabeth Bishop’s “Poem”

Memory in Art and Poetry

Elizabeth Bishop

“Poem,” from Bishop’s final book, Geography III, takes turns and shifts in tone and subject as we discover the main theme is about an unprepossessing painting. At first, I detected “Poem” to have little importance or worth by her usage of words and rhythm within the first stanza. Once I reviewed her poem over and over again I began to realize that she was highlighting a sense of emotional connection to her poem as if her main point was to express a memory. Bishop configured her poem to take dramatic steps from the particulars of the painting and its place in the family tree, even from its emotional value to her, to a meditation on art.

Elizabeth Bishop Poem Painting

Bishop leads her reader into a slowly directed drawing of a reflection in her own mind. After receiving the handed-down painting from her uncle and great-uncle, she depicted the shades and strokes incorporated within the painting as if it were the steps and stones of a time in her own life. She specifies the images of the painting to imitate Nova Scotia as she declares that she “knows the place.” The details of the Presbyterian Church, the meadow, cows and geese, the iris, and the spring water to have all been pieces of this small but faint memory.

I believe the main reason Bishop wrote “Poem” was to share the importance and role that memory can have in a little, free-handed painting. She wanted to paint her reflection on a piece of a paper exercising her strong words rather than a white canvas. Art itself is a memory, or the fact that a single memory can give a painting the power of life is the ultimate craft in how they flow together. In some honest appreciation “life and the memory of it” may seem “cramped and dim painted on a piece of shoddy Bristol board,” but still, there is a part that is “live” and “touching in detail.” This idea, perchance, is the possibility of the two “visions,” or “looks,” overlapped between Bishop and her great uncle. It is fairy clear that Bishop seems to believe memories and specific details or images can give structure and life to poetry, just like a painter with a brush on canvas.

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