I agree with this assessment of Bishop’s poetry. Her poems on the syllabus certainly pose interesting questions about identity, awareness and one’s place in the world, indeed the universe, and they do so by means of a unique style. This style is influenced by Bishop’s acute awareness of the poet’s craft and her ability to work with both traditional forms (sestina and sonnet, for instance) and free verse. The questions that interested me most are those posed in ‘Questions of Travel’.
These fascinated me because Bishop dedicated so much of her life to travel, yet in this poem she questions the motives behind travel and exploration. One stylistic feature that is characteristic of Bishop is the conversational tone and it is evident in the opening lines, as she states ‘There are too many waterfalls here’. The question raised in my mind is ‘How can there be “too many” waterfalls? ’ Surely the waterfalls are a sight of natural splendour?
Yet, reading on, we see that everything in this place of natural beauty over-powers the poet – the streams are crowded, they hurry ‘too rapidly’, there are ‘so many’ clouds. Why is this? She says that the streams and clouds ‘keep travelling, travelling’ and this poses the question of her own travels; has travel become as monotonous as the relentless waterfalls or is it a type of addiction or compulsion for the poet? This question poses more questions when we consider the poet’s alcoholism and the part played by addiction in her life.
The questions raised in the next stanza address themes, which are central to her poetry – home, exclusion, and the quest for new horizons. Bishop wonders if the idea of a place is more satisfying than the place itself – ‘Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? ’ This apparently simple question is loaded with difficulties for Bishop as ‘home’ was never a simple concept for her. She is acutely aware of herself as an outsider in this culture and feels she is ‘watching strangers in a play in this strangest of theatres’.
Bishop describes the urge for travel as a ‘childishness’ and the image of travellers rushing to ‘see the sun the other way around’ is an image of thrill-seekers consuming views and experiences without understanding or insight (‘inexplicable and impenetrable’). I find this very relevant, as we live in a society, which is obsessed with consuming things and experiences, often at the expense of understanding.
This image also prepares us for the question at the heart of this poem: ‘Oh, must we dream our dreams and have them too? I found this question very interesting because dreams are not reality and there are other references to illusion in this poem – ‘strangest of theatres’ and ‘pantomimists’. The question of why we travel and explore is not explicitly answered in the poem but one wonders if it has something to do with flight or escape from reality. The disparity between the real and the imagined is alluded to again in another thought-provoking question: ‘Is it lack of imagination that makes us come To imagined places, not just stay at home? ’
All of our preconceived, modern ideas about travel – choice, freedom, excitement, broadening of horizons, understanding of other cultures – are turned on their head and challenged in the questions raised here about travel. In both ‘Questions of Travel’, and ‘The Prodigal’, Bishop deals with being away from ‘home’ and returning. In both poems, the idea of returning is difficult and complex; Bishop is not even sure where home is: ‘Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be? ’ Her sense of displacement is much stronger than her sense of belonging.
Similarly, in ‘The Prodigal’, the alcoholic in exile must struggle with ‘uncertain staggering flight/his shuddering insights, beyond his control’ before he can face the journey home. A stylistic feature of Bishop’s work, which I really enjoyed, was her tendency, in some poems, to move from sensory description of the apparently mundane to profound awareness and insight, even epiphany. This can be seen in ‘In the Waiting Room’ where Bishop begins with a description of a dull dentist’s waiting-room, ‘full of grown-up people, arctics and overcoats, lamps and magazines. This is a scene from everyday life in Worcester, Massachusetts.
The setting is ordinary, yet the title denotes a place of anticipation and expectation, and raises questions. What can the young Bishop be anticipating or expecting? What is to come? The National Geographic – a magazine we could easily expect to see in any waiting-room – transports the child, in her imagination, to ‘the inside of a volcano’, a far cry from the blandness of the dentist’s waiting-room. The images of other races and civilizations are both horrifying and compelling but the child cannot stop reading them.
Courtney from Study Moose
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