Modernism, and the Left
Even if one were tempted
to literary interpretations
such as: lifeldeath, rightlwrong, malelfemale
—such notions would have resolved, dissolved, straight off
in that watery, dazzling dialectic.
Elizabeth Bishop, "Santarém"
Every new tendency in art has begun with a rebellion.
Leon Trotsky, "Art and Politics"
Given the critical construction of Elizabeth Bishop as a sub
sidiary in the school of Marianne Moore, "a modest expert"
(Moore 354), an "unassuming," "pleasant," "charming" poet of
"restraint, calm, and proportion" (Jarrell 498-99), a soft and
dreamy poet who is "not likely" to be hailed as "a giant among
the moderns" (Lowell 497), an "utterly feminine" poet of "mild
and affectionate brooding over what she has seen" (Alvarez 325),
"a poet's poet's poet" (John Ashbery), and an essentially "pri
vate" poet (Millier 67), to talk about Bishop in a political context
at all is to challenge traditional—and gendered—readings not
only of Bishop but of literary modernism itself. Adrienne Rich's
important 1983 essay "The Eye of the Outsider:Elizabeth Bish
op's Complete Poems, 1927-1979, which argues that Bishop's
"experience of outsiderhood . . . linked with the essential outsid
erhood of a lesbian identity" enabled her "to perceive other kinds
of outsiders and to identify, or try to identify, with them" (127),
has triggered a new interest in the sexual "politics" of Bishop's
writing. As in Brett C. Millier's 1993 biography of Bishop, how
ever, recent critics have continued to emphasize the essentially
formal, aesthetic, private, and psychological dimensions of her
work. 1 Perhaps attempting to wrest Bishop from earlier "objec