Grandmother’s Glass Eye: Elizabeth Bishop on How Poetry Pretends Life into Reality
On the glorious “difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real.”
By Maria Popova
Long before poet Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911–October 6, 1979) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, long before she served as Poet Laureate of the United States, she peered forward into the path that would become her calling and contemplated why poetry — that manifestation of the “wild, silky part of ourselves,” the product of a mind “miraculously attuned and illuminated” — exists in the first place.
In a short, penetrating essay on the poetry of W.H. Auden titled “Mechanics of Pretense,” penned when Bishop was barely twenty-three and found in the altogether fantastic Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments (public library), she writes:
Much can be done by means of pretense. Children pretend to speak a foreign language or inscribe its imitation alphabet in their school books, and inspired by the same motives, grow up to become linguists, grammarians, and travelers. Lord Byron, looking in the mirror, pretended to be the Byronic man, and the Byronic man, with his curls and collars, came into existence by the hundred. The growth of the small nation into the empire contains infinities of such pretense, gradually turning to the infinite realities of empire.
This necessary transmutation of pretense into reality, Bishop argues, is a chief purpose of poetry:
One of the causes of poetry must be … the feeling that the contemporary language is not equivalent to the contemporary fact; there is something out of proportion between them, and what is being said in words is not at all what is being said in “things.” To connect this disproportion a pretense is at first necessary. By “pretending” the existence of a language appropriate and comparable to the “things” it must deal with, the language is forced into being. It is learned by one person, by a few, by all who can become interested in that poet’s poetry.
But as this imaginary language is elaborated and is understood by more people, it begins to work two ways at once. “Things” gave rise to the language; now the language arouses an independent life in the “things,” first dimly perceived in them only by the poet.
This interplay between poetry and “things” is something 25-year-old Bishop touches on a year later, in a 1936 letter to Marianne Moore, in which she reflects on Wallace Stevens’s newly released book of poetry, Owl’s Clover:
What strikes me as so wonderful about the whole book … is that it is such a display of ideas at work — making poetry, the poetry making them, etc. That, it seems to me, is the way a poet should think.
And yet this way of thinking is not one that comes naturally to the human mind. Many years later, in a lecture on poetry prepared in Rio in the 1960s but never presented, the draft of which is also included in this volume, Bishop writes:
Writing poetry is an unnatural act. It takes great skill to make it seem natural. Most of the poet’s energies are really directed towards this goal: to convince himself (perhaps, with luck, eventually some readers) that what he’s up to and what he’s saying is really an inevitable, only natural way of behaving under the circumstances.
She then offers the most exquisite metaphor for poetry’s lifeline of a tightrope between pretense and reality, between natural and unnatural:
My maternal grandmother had a glass eye. It fascinated me as a child, and the idea of it has fascinated me all my life. She was religious, in the Puritanical Protestant sense and didn’t believe in looking into mirrors very much. Quite often the glass eye looked heaven-ward, or off at an angle, while the real eye looked at you.
Off and on I have written out a poem called “Grandmother’s Glass Eye” which should be about the problem of writing poetry. The situation of my grandmother strikes me as rather like the situation of the poet: the difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real; the natural with the unnatural; the curious effect a poem produces of being as normal as sight and yet as synthetic, as artificial, as a glass eye.
Complement the wholly wonderful Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box with Mary Oliver on the secret of great poetry and Muriel Rukeyser on why we fear it, then treat yourself to Amanda Palmer’s bewitching reading of Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Possibilities.”
Published April 1, 2015