115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“Sliding Giddily off into the Unknown”: Negative Capability in Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetry

Arsevi Seyran, Stony Brook University

This talk will address how Negative Capability can be interpreted and applied to Elizabeth Bishop’s work, examining how she distilled her observations into a type of restrained art where the poet herself is absent or peripheral at most, but “gusto” and unresolved glimpses of truth preside.

Proposal: 

In a 1964 letter to her friend Anne Stevenson, Elizabeth Bishop writes,

Dreams, works of art (some), glimpses of the always-more-successful surrealism of everyday life…catch a peripheral vision of whatever it is one can never really see full-face…I do admire Darwin! But reading Darwin, one admires the beautiful solid case being built up out of his endless heroic observations, almost unconscious or automatic—and then comes a sudden relaxation, a forgetful phrase, and one…sees the lonely young man, his eyes fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown. What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.

My paper will ponder that concentration from the stance of a Negatively Capable poetics, contending that Bishop’s description above parallels John Keats’s praise for the poet who is resigned but awake in the “Penetralium of mystery,” “capable of being in uncertainties...doubts without any irritable reaching,” and so “remaining content with half knowledge.” In that Negative Capability letter to his brothers, “The excellence of every Art is its intensity,” Keats also wrote, “capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth.”

Much of Bishop's art builds toward that intensity, too. A balance of Beauty with “disagreeables” is recorded in close adherence to reality, which results in gradual moments of “gusto” (described by William Hazlitt as “the power or passion defining any object”). These moments of intensity lend themselves to glimpses of Truth and are possible as a result of Bishop’s “self-forgetful…concentration.” Thus, her poems capture with calm much of the unresolved complexity of where she was and what she saw, or in her own words, “what really happened.” That said, Bishop hardly has any "irritable reaching after fact or reason” in her poetry; rather she records what fact or reason she sees, the act of which fends off any irritable reaching. As fitting with the theme of sight, then, in her process of seeing Elizabeth Bishop becomes a conduit (or eye) who is inclined to trace in her poetics reality’s revelations of a fluid, multifarious kind of Beauty—without striving for resolutions. Perhaps this is why Stevenson wrote that in Bishop’s poetry, “things simply continue in their cloud of unknowing.”

With that cloud in mind, I propose to do a close-reading of three Bishop poems—“The Moose,” “The Fish,”  and “Filling Station”—in a discussion of how Negative Capability can be interpreted and applied to her work, and how this can be conducive to our understanding of her overall poetics. My paper will also examine how the observational traits that Bishop associates with the naturalist’s approach manifest themselves in the way she saw her surroundings, and how she distilled those observations into a type of restrained art where the poet herself is absent or peripheral at most, but "gusto" and unresolved glimpses of truth preside.