Categorized by the Great Depression, two World Wars, as well as a rapidly changing society, America in the twentieth century was a time of many gains as well as many losses.
No poet displays this sense of loss quite so empathetically or eloquently as Emily Bishop. Born in 1911, Emily Bishop lived until the age of 68 and lived a life that was eerily similar to the poetry she wrote. According to the Norton Anthology, Bishop was born into a life of loss, and little changed as she grew into adulthood. However, Bishop was never one to wallow in self-pity or to excuse her behavior based on her past. Instead, embodying true American values, she showed brilliant resiliency and strength as she recounted painful moments in her own life and in the lives of her fellow human beings. Emily Bishop truly epitomizes her society through her ability to lose everything and still be grateful for the strength that enables her to recoup from these losses.
The first and perhaps most poignant poem, in terms of loss, is entitled “One Art”. This poem is truly all about losing, and to Bishop, it seems that loss is an art that must be perfected. From losing keys to long lost memories, to family heirlooms and old homes, the laundry list of things the narrator has lost in her life get progressively more serious. Finally, in the concluding stanza, she states that even losing the person that the audience presumes to be her lover was easy, but it’s clear that the narrator does not even believe that line; “It’s evident the art of losing’s not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster” (17-19). The parenthetical “write it” gives away the true feelings of the narrator, that although it is simple to lose things, sometimes it truly is disastrous.
The important thing about “One Art” is Elizabeth Bishop’s incredible ability to accept the losses in her life and move on from them. Throughout Bishop’s lifetime, society was lamenting the blows that life had dealt them. From committing suicide after the stock market crash to being forced to join WWI and WWII through drafting laws, societal life around Bishop was always difficult. However, just like most Americans, Bishop embodied the ability to pull herself up by her bootstraps and face the challenges that life presented to her, face forward, even when things became difficult and complicated.
Another poem by Bishop that shows her embodiment of twentieth century society can be found in Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems. “A Miracle for Breakfast” details the encounter that a poor woman has, along with many other starving lower-class citizens. A rich man comes outside to eat his breakfast while there is a crowd of hungry people gathered under his balcony, hoping for some scrap of food to get them through the day. The narrator details how the people waiting under the balcony gave birth to impossible dreams, such as the man throwing down loaves of bread instead of crumbs. However, when crumbs were all that the people received, and they began to disperse, the narrator held her crumb up to her eye and began to dream. She envisioned her crumb becoming her own personal mansion, full of coffee and freshly baked bread and butter. Reality sets back in with the shifting of the sun on another windowpane, and the narrator is brought back to reality. While the story inside of the poem was very common, especially during the time of the world wars, when no one had enough food to eat and everything was rationed, the important portion of this poem lay in the vision that Bishop’s narrator has as she’s standing outside. In that moment, as she is looking the crumb but seeing a mansion created just for her, she is living the epitome of the American dream. While it may seem irresponsible to dream of impossible things, such dreamers built the very foundation of America. Dreamers like the narrator are the ones who perpetrate the legend of America as the land of milk and honey, with streets carved in gold. In that moment, the narrator is envisioning a better life for herself, and that very vision causes Bishop to be the exact embodiment of twentieth century life.
In conclusion, Elizabeth Bishop was a perfect embodiment of her society. She had experienced life, and lost, but she was not willing to lie down and give up. Instead, she fought for a better life, both for herself and for other people. Even Adrian Rich saw the dedication that Elizabeth Bishop had towards honing the ability to lose, and yet, continue on. In “Contradictions: Tracking Poems” Rich states that “acts of parting trying to let go without giving up yes Elizabeth a city here a village there a sister, comrade, cat and more no art to this but anger”. However, Rich saw that there was a buried bitterness in Bishop’s art of letting go, and perhaps that bitterness perfects Bishop as the embodiment of the 20th century. She had lost much, as had the rest of her contemporaries, and they had the right to be bitter. However, so much like everyone else, Bishop attempted to turn that bitterness into something good, into a success for herself, and that very American ideal is what puts her at the top, the poetess who perfectly embodies her society.
Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter 6th. ed. New York, NY: Norton & Co. 2003.
Bishop, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1979.
Longenbach, James. “Elizabeth Bishop’s Social Conscience”. ELH, Vol. 62, No. 2.
(Summer, 1995), pp. 467-486. Accessed from the JSTOR database 9 December 2007.