‘I envy the mind hiding in her words,” Mary McCarthy opined of Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), a poet admired for her air of secrecy during the heyday of confessionalism, when poets regularly hauled their Freudian couches into the amphitheater. Bishop’s poems, in contrast, invoke textured scenes and piquant characters—a marketplace in Marrakesh, Robinson Crusoe glumly restored to England, a child in a dentist’s waiting room—charging them with psychological tension, intrigue, and widening gyres of feeling.
The pleasure principle in Bishop’s poetry is her associative imagination. Like the child narrator in “In the Waiting Room” encountering human nakedness in a National Geographic for the first time, Bishop invites her reader to inhabit the paradox of being “too shy to stop.” Shyness, like shame, binds both ways: We shy away from shameful things while often being drawn to study them. Ashamed of ourselves, or on account of others, we also become shy. Bishop’s poetry rides such hinges; and a shyness, of sorts, governed her career in letters.