On Whimsy: Bishop in the Spotlight
Coiled loosely, soft white lights nestle inside a mason jar. Those, or vintage photographs—sepia, yes, edges thumb-worn—of the bride and groom’s ancestors flexed into the glass mouth. The jars may be wrapped in simple twine and hung above the reception tables. Or, perhaps, atop just-askew slices of rustic tree stumps, donning tea lights, they suggest the way through the woods to the intimate gathering of hay bales, waiting for their gauzy guests. Paper lanterns. Lush, ivy-draped arches. A crude swing hanging from the trees. Hand-burned signs behind the small jars of honey saying, Love is sweet: take one, or Meant to bee. The cake, also atop wooden slabs, might host strands of lichen, or local moss carefully plucked from close by. Guests might be prompted to make their own s’mores, with the ingredients waiting for them inside glass cloches creating their own sugared terrariums. Boho-braided, the bride dangles the asymmetrical bouquet of succulents at her side. The bridal party sports flower crowns. While they might not be visible, one knows that, just outside the camera’s lens, fireflies adorn the evening with their own pulsing punctuation.
This, every “Pin it”-pushing bride-to-be knows, is what the wedding industrial complex markets as the Whimsical Wedding. It gestures toward the nonchalant, the thrown together, the DIY. A “Rustic Wedding Cake Stand” (a 12” tree stump) itself, however, costs $95. One flower crown, from a local florist, is $75. It is expensive, this whimsy. It is, at this point, horribly cliché. And I, newly engaged, can’t help but become entranced each time a new A Midsummer Night’s Dream-themed wedding shows up on my Pinterest homepage.
In 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theatre, playwright Sarah Ruhl expresses her hatred of the words quirky and whimsy. She balks at their gendered uses. “We do not tend to call Shakespeare whimsical,” Ruhl writes, “although his fairies flew and his witches chanted. A male artist following his whims is daring, manly, and original. A woman artist following her whims is womanly, capricious, and trivial; her eyelids flutter, her heart palpitates, her eyes wander, and her hands rise and fall in her lap.” The woman artist, it seems, is subject to whimsy—the body, as Ruhl describes above, overcome—whereas the male artist creates it.
Whimsical, if one is to peruse recent book reviews, is the reviewer’s prized critique. When whimsy is mentioned it often signals a lack of substance, of purpose. It’s what many either love or loathe in the work of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. And it’s one of notoriously, elaborately candid critic William Logan’s largest complaints when it comes to contemporary poetry (not, of course, that Logan should stand in for all reviewers). “Carson’s poems rarely seem calculated or designed—they’re slapped together by whim, or what passes for whim,” writes William Logan in his review of Anne Carson’s Red Doc>. Of Glück’s newest: “This giddy mishmash of science fiction, Hans Christian Andersen, freak-show silhouettes, and pop obsessions (yes, there’s an Elvis poem) is hard to categorize and often hard to bear, unless you like your whimsy in lethal doses.” The criticism isn’t reserved for women, though, as one might have expected. Indeed, he bashes Mark Strand’s Almost Invisible for its triviality, straying far from what Logan deemed a “pitch-perfect sense of the difference between irritating drollery and dry humor” in Strand’s earlier work. But Logan is irked by the newer poems: “Mark Strand’s easy-going charm and labored whimsy have a Seventies feel, as if the Bee Gees had never retired.” Almost Invisible “succumbs so eagerly and so often to sugar-plum guff.” This throwaway sentimentality will not, for William Logan, do. On Billy Collins:
No one ever went to Collins for good poems. You went for the whimsical premise, the pang of ubi sunt regret, the genteel absent-mindedness. Now you get a poem that looks like a bird house slapped together in the back of someone’s garage. When there’s sorrow, it’s buffered sorrow; when there’s happiness, it’s discount happiness. You’re grateful for the whiff of despair, the faint breath of joy, but you miss all the highs and lows.
Repeatedly pairing whimsy with slapdashery is telling: a whimsical work of art lacks craft, according to Logan’s reviews. Spontaneity—often a marker of praise—breezes by almost unnoticed, whereas whimsy is unorganized, ungainly, improvisational, vacuous, and calls attention to its own opacity.
In David Kirby’s review of David Berman’s Actual Air, he complains that the titles “hint at the sort of whimsy that pervades the work of more established poets like Mark Halliday and Campbell McGrath. In their poems, though, whimsy always leads to serious ideas and emotions that don’t consistently materialize here.” In actuality, it seems whimsy is spontaneous—what we want in art, however, is impulse tempered by the illusion of control. What is desirable is a curated whimsy—in weddings, in plays, in poems—as opposed to the motiveless caprice of being thrown together “on a whim.” When an audience, or a reader, falls into the illusion of encountering the world for the first time, when the whimsical gestures toward a wider logic or system of ideas, a work succeeds. Whimsy, many of these reviews suggest, must walk alongside wit. We want our play to be mannered, our fancies couched in something serious.
In Sarah Ruhl’s play Dear Elizabeth (dir. Kate Woriskey, Women’s Project Theatre, Manhattan), vintage suitcases line the back of the stage. A birdcage perches on one side, as well as a record player and various empty bottles of alcohol. Two desks face the audience, which has just walked in to find individual poems placed on its seats. “A poem for your pocket”—a nice touch.
When Elizabeth Bishop, played by Cherry Jones, and Robert Lowell, played by David Aaron Baker, enter, they take their seats at the desks. Bishop begins with her letter in admiration of Lowell’s work, which instigates the entire premise for the play: the only language is the language of these poets, their letters back and forth to each other for decades, across continents and marriages, breakdowns and book deals. The script becomes a kind of collagist gesture toward the long, complex friendship between the two. Ruhl’s ability to splice rambling letters, so that the replies are always relevant, yet still fresh, exposes the incredible wit, the vast registers of tone and subject that inhabit the correspondence.
Anyone who has read Words in Air, the collection of letters between Bishop and Lowell, will, of course, have their personal favorites, the moments that shine. Mine are when Bishop calls out recent work in Poetry and The New Yorker (“so much adequate poetry all sounding just alike and so boring); her harsh parsing of Lowell’s French translations; their fabulous, varied sign-offs (“Dearest, how I miss you. Someday, we will be in the same spot and long, long, long”); the punctuations of real life interrupting the letters, reminding us of the passing of time, the materiality of ink on paper (“Horrors—a hummingbird came in. Panic & confusion. Now it’s out again” or “I’m sorry—I seem to have got some of a very old & liquefied jelly-bean on this”); the beautiful self-consciousness of the poet (“One mustn’t die without seeing the Pacific. All my poems will look bluer to me than the Pacific by the time you get here”). Ruhl corrals a variety, capturing gossip about their friends’ publications and breakups, the rigor of both critique and praise of shared poems, and the spirit and strains of a friendship that grows from—and endures—a great distance. And from this distance does come longing—Lowell’s pleas for Bishop to join him in Massachusetts, Maine, New York, Rome. Bishop’s invitation for Lowell to visit her in Brazil. In interviews, Ruhl lists this strange love that forms between the two as one of her main motives for writing the play. This is not, she says, normal romantic love. This is something else entirely. Perhaps not platonic—that seems too blasé for what passes between them, in person and on the page. But the premise of Dear Elizabeth, if begun from non-romantic love, swerves in an unfortunate direction: the focus—rendered in interludes replaying a specific moment by the ocean in Maine, referred to in Lowell’s famous letter to Bishop confessing his almost-proposal—becomes the love that “might have been.”
In this moment, whimsy rears its head. Bishop and Lowell approach each other from their desks. We can hear the ocean, the sea birds, from a recording played in the background. The two seem suspended, as if they’re about to kiss, before she looks away, and they return, awkwardly, to their respective desks. It could be a scene from any box office romance. This first interlude appears before Ruhl reveals Lowell’s letter of confession, which comes—too deliberately—right before the intermission. If whimsy is an indulgence in trivial fancies without the rigor of thought to support it, this spotlight on, and push toward, a possibility of romantic love must be it. For it dulls the nuance of what passes between these poets, forcing their love into a palatable, comfortable arena for an audience that, it seems Ruhl assumes, can’t be won over by the poets’ language and personalities alone. During emotionally charged moments in the letters, Bishop and Lowell exchange dramatic gazes of longing. Even “One Art”—partly elegy, a poem that is difficult to read as being for anyone other than Lota, Bishop’s Brazilian lover—appears to be addressing Lowell, as Bishop glances in his direction when she reads the poem’s “you.” In yoking a messy, fascinating, and difficult relationship and friendship to a simpler narrative, Ruhl makes the poetry behind the entire play a kind of poetry-lite. “I guess you have to care about the poets,” a woman in front of me whispers to her neighbor during the intermission. And Ruhl doesn’t trust the audience to do so, in her manipulation of what passes between them.
The woman in front of me has come to see Cherry Jones, whom she thinks might be too stoic, too rigid to play Bishop. It’s true—Jones does, at times, show as a bit dowdy, almost schoolmarmish. Her apparent rigidity hits the mark, however, when she chastises Lowell’s morally dubious use of Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters in The Dolphin. He winces at her harsh rebuke. “Art just isn’t worth that much,” she tells him, in the more interesting emotional core of the play. Baker’s boyish charm—running his hands through his unkempt hair, slouching in his chair, his sly grins—fits a certain Cal, but he never seems quite menacing enough to suit the extreme lows, the breakdowns, making Lowell too light, too much of a caricature. And both actors are best, strangely, when they don’t look at each other, don’t exchange the emotionally charged side-glances into the pseudo-space while composing their letters. A focus on their typewriters, a small, isolated pacing of the stage, a gaze into the audience, instead, allows for a more palpable and fitting sense of distance.
There are moments of humor—Bishop’s toucan (a wonderfully bright, though minor, part of her letters from Brazil), Cal’s obvious agony at hearing about Bishop’s Brazilian exploits, the stage directions read out loud, which become darkly amusing at points (“Elizabeth Bishop throws up”)—that alleviate what could seem to be heavy-handed bouts of alcoholism, depression, and mania. But they aren’t what make the play whimsical. Nor is it when Bishop steps, the stage directions tell us, onto a separate planet—a very Ruhl-like, surreal move. Nor is it when hundreds of letters shower the stage (reminiscent of the scene in Dead Man’s Cell Phone when, during Jean and Dwight’s kiss, embossed invitations move through the air “like a snow parade”), nor Bishops’s cutesy blowing of bubbles when she remains for a prolonged period unresponsive to Lowell’s letters. No, much of these moments, while playful, while fanciful, remain grounded in purpose and theme. What falls outside of thought is the insistence on a romantic love, a distrust of the audience to maintain attention without it. What is whimsical is the poets’ ending kiss.
After Marianne Moore’s poetry was criticized for having “controlled panic by presenting it as whimsy,” Bishop came to her defense. “Whimsy is sometimes there, of course,” Bishop wrote in “Efforts of Affection: A Memoir of Marianne Moore,” “and so is humor (a gift these critics sadly seem to lack). Surely there is an element of mortal panic and fear underlying all works of art?” Her point being that the feminist critics who had come down on Moore had missed another, deeper layer: one of pain and truth. And this may have hit close to home for Bishop, who toggled between her own dark humor and seemingly trivial observations.
Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop—which records the author’s personal encounter with Bishop’s art and life (noting shared themes like exile, sexuality, the loss of parents)—is largely an appreciation, yet it does feature a brief, rather incisive examination of Bishop’s earlier work. In her Key West poems, for example, Tóibín writes, “the landscape seems too easy with itself.” More insidious, perhaps, Tóibín notes of her poems written in Brazil that, “much of her writing made Brazilians seem less than real and Brazil itself a tapestry or a fairy tale, or a play, even a pantomime, created for her pleasure. Even the colonial drama seems less than real.” A master of landscape himself, Tóibín takes great care to parse the impetus of place in Bishop’s work. “In Key West,” he writes, “underlying the poems about landscape and seascape was the notion of death and the idea of violence. Once Bishop moved to Brazil, these images tend to disappear. She was a poet whose physical surroundings entered her spirit.”
Bishop fretted over this material. “I worry a great deal,” she wrote to Lowell, “about what to do with all this accumulation of exotic or picturesque or charming detail, and I don’t want to become a poet who can only write about South America, etc.” With the exception of two poems—“The Armadillo" and “Santarém”—Tóibín finds the Brazilian poems “exploratory or whimsical.” Within much of that work is “whimsy, the urge merely to describe.” Merely to describe—again, whimsy registering on a single level. No undertone, no real subject beneath the landscape, the casual entrance into many of her poems. For Tóibín, Bishop’s early renderings of Brazil are stunted by an almost facile layer of awe.
Helen Vendler, in “‘Long Pig’: The Interconnection of the Exotic, the Dead, and the Fantastic in the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop” emphasizes a more inclusive sensibility:
I believe Bishop is compelled, over and over, to invent or adopt such images: that the exotic alone, or the fantastic alone, or even the exotic and the fantastic combined, did not suffice to convey one complex of her sensibility. Somehow death—or its equivalent in the mutilated or the spectral—had to join the exotic and the fantastic to make the complex complete.
This pairing—death and the exotic—elucidates the sense of depth Tóibín seems to have found missing. Restraint—an element he returns to again and again throughout the book—takes over in Bishop’s poems, so that her penchant for description may have the effect of exoticizing and de-politicizing much of what she witnesses in Brazil. Often, reading Bishop is like taking a master class in the unsaid. As Tóibín explores, in both her personal life and in her poems, there is a sense of concealment—she believed, famously, in “closets, closets & more closets.” In fact, Tóibín is nearly obsessive when it comes to Bishop’s restraint, a kind of unnerving psychoanalyzing that can seep in between more lucid passages of insight. After a close reading of “The Prodigal,” for instance, he suggests that “the extraordinary amount of emotion in so many of her lines seemed to derive not so much from her skill as a poet (although from that too) but from a repressed desperation and anxiety that filled the air in her poems, a sense of a hurt and wounded personality which sought to remain clear-eyed and calm.” Bishop, surely, would cringe upon reading this gloss of her personality.
Thomas Gunn may have inferred something similar, though, as his first impression of Bishop’s poetry, recorded here in On Elizabeth Bishop, was that it contained a “coziness tinged with melancholy.” While Gunn’s opinion of Bishop’s work changed after reading Geography III, he found some of her earlier poems inane. Tóibín examines an affinity he holds with the two poets: Gunn and Bishop, too, were gay; they lost parents early on. Yet their grief was tempered, Tóibín finds, by a sense of reason. Their tone is one marked by impersonality, an “immense and powerful withholding,” a withholding that resonated with his own writing, his own way of rendering the world. Yet in a brief book—not even two hundred pages of writing— Tóibín spends 28 or so of those pages belaboring the relationship between Bishop and Gunn, between Gunn and himself. A close reading of Gunn’s “In Santa Maria del Popolo,” while gesturing toward loose associations with Bishop’s poems of Nova Scotia, feels almost entirely beside the point. Tóibín is too interested in cataloguing similarities between the poets, yoking them together with obvious, throwaway phrases. After quoting Gunn’s “Round and Round,” he notes that “Bishop, as we have seen, also wrote about lighthouses.”
This casual sense of association, while it can be refreshingly unpretentious, and while it can be charmingly personal at times, risks a certain breeziness. Examining such an esteemed writer's own encounter with the work of another could be stifled by hermeticism, yet this book is never so sealed off from the reader. It reads, though, at times, as the stream-of-consciousness musings of a dilettante, which Tóibín certainly is not. (I remember, in my first quarter at Stanford, a lecture he delivered, mostly on the Spanish painter Marcel Barceló. Though I had never heard of the painter, Tóibín discussed the work so vividly, with such care and rigor, with such shrewd attention that each visiting writer’s lecture that followed—from a list of laureates and prestigious prize winners—was, in contrast, disappointing.)
There are some insightful close readings of individual poems here, but where Tóibín excels is, unsurprisingly, where Bishop does too: in depictions of landscape. Yes, there are moments of dullness (“Bishop also wrote about the sea” recalls the unfortunate ease of listing similarities with Gunn, and the following passage in which Tóibín mentions each place where he has lived on the sea—Ballyconnigar Upper, Dublin, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, the room on the Hudson River where, he says, he writes this book—is tedious), but when he allows himself room to actually portray a scene, a landscape, a feeling tied to place, the writing soars. Of Barcelona:
I had found a replacement for home; I would, I thought, not have to think again much about what had happened at home. The marl of the cliffs at Ballyconnigar and the muted gray colors of clouds over the sea there seemed dull indeed compared to the glamour of the Mediterranean. The life I found in the new city, so filled with bright distraction, was far away from the house where I was brought up, and distant indeed from the loss, the silence.
Despite the thrill of a new landscape, he found himself “back in an Irish landscape” while writing:
… with Irish weather, and not only that, but in a very precise place—the strand at Ballyconnigar on the Wexford coast. I moved my characters there…. I could see the shore stretching south to Curracloe in many types of Irish summer weather, including days when the haze so easily becomes mist and when soft clouds so easily darken and become rain. Somehow, writing about it was easier than writing about Spain, and the sentences came with less strain.
Naturally, Tóibín connects up this experience to Bishop’s last book, Geography III, with “poems that dealt with such care and precision with Nova Scotia, her place of loss, poems that dealt with the pull toward a place despite the lure of elsewhere” so much so that he remained haunted. Notions of loss (loss of parents, of landscapes, loss of lovers) permeate On Elizabeth Bishop, as does a longing to, for once, pin down Bishop’s elusive tone.
In a chapter expanding the book’s ken to James Joyce, Tóibín emphasizes a poetics of the north: northern light, northern weather. “Ireland and Nova Scotia have,” he writes, “their inhospitable seasons and their barren hinterlands; they are places where the light is often scarce and the memory of poverty is close; they are places in which the spirit is wary and the past comes haunting and much is unresolved.” Of the mercurial weather, the “mist, wind, clouds, short days, the proximity of the sea,” he finds that “all suggest a world in which little can be taken for granted.” Both Joyce and Bishop, harboring such landscapes, such light, such weather, created “a tone for that scarcity.” This is the kind of writing one turns to Tóibín for: an ability to transplant the reader into the throes of place while still allowing room for statement, for distillation and clarity.
Near the end of On Elizabeth Bishop, Tóibín touches down, again, on the notion of home. Bishop, three years before her death, wrote of her similarity to the sandpiper: “Yes, all my life I have lived and behaved very much like that sandpiper—just running along the edges of different countries and continents, ‘looking for something.’” Like the bird, she “couldn’t possibly live very far inland.” And neither, we learn, could Tóibín. His great draw to the sea is crystalline in what follows Bishop’s quote:
In the morning in Ballyconnigar, the sea is always different. It can seem closer sometimes, ready to spill over, when the light is clear, and then distant and forbidding, alien, almost steely sharp, stately, withdrawn, when there are clouds and no wind. In the mornings when there is sun, the light on the sea can be all glare, or buttery on softer days, or austere when there are clouds in the western sky.
Describing a painting of the same location, he elaborates even more on the sea: “No rocks; no people; no obvious drama, just the world doing its work.”
If, in art—as in nature—we seek this, the “no obvious drama,” but instead the illusion of just-seeing, of just-encountering the world for the first time, if we desire an imitated spontaneity, what distinguishes this from the whimsical? What, then, is the line whimsy crosses? Does, as Tóibín writes of Gerald Manley Hopkins, the illusion need to be enacted in the poem, “that nothing else was true at the time the poem was written”—or the play? Does drama preclude whimsy? Do the more serious ideas, the multiplicity of layers, form an antidote to the whimsical? In the above—lovely—passages of description, the landscape is not arrived at unmediated. “Forbidding,” “alien,” “withdrawn”—this is the author’s hand. The whimsical wedding, too, shows its hand, but that isn’t its problem. It’s the traceable desire to appear what it is not. No $20,000 affair could capture the illustrious forest outside Athens. No amount of tulle can conjure such eros. No, perhaps no one called Shakespeare whimsical (though of this I remain doubtful), but the illusion he created was sustained. Bishop may not have always arrived at easy signals, marked sign posts, in her earlier poems, yet her light touch—it seems odd to call hers light—her suggestiveness, her implication, are what drive readers again and again to her, to read both poems and letters, to write plays made solely from her words. “Her whimsical eye and wry, worried poems condemned her to be treated like a minor disciple of Marianne Moore,” William Logan wrote in his review of Words in Air. “Bishop for much of her life was a poet’s poet, which means a poet without an audience.”
The packed Manhattan theatre, following over a month of performances, suggests that this is now, thankfully, not the case. So does the release of a book—Tóibín’s—unsettled in its genre. Part introduction, part biography, part autobiography, this is a book that requires a deep care for Bishop to trace so many reached-for connections. Dear Elizabeth and On Elizabeth Bishop may lapse into whimsy, but if whimsy accompanies such an obvious admiration of and pleasure in Bishop’s work, there are many worse venues, worse causes, for its appearance.
It was the first time that I had encountered “Manners,” the poem placed on my seat at the performance. Written in 1965, Bishop pokes fun at the “good manners required” the poem explores. The poem, in its neat, abcb quatrains, details an excursion with the speaker’s grandfather. Each new encounter provides a new occasion for a lesson in propriety: one must speak to strangers, offer those walking a ride. After picking up a boy walking along the road “with his big pet crow on his shoulder,” and after the crow flies off, the grandfather remarks on the bird’s own fine manners. It seems, on one level, fit for a child’s poem, a nice addition to Aesop. Whimsical, in brief. Yet while the poem jauntily recounts the grandfather’s purported wisdom, it also stands in as elegy. For the grandfather, surely (below the title is the tag “For a Child of 1918”), but also for those good manners the past held in high office. An elegy for an era.
This might be our lesson in whimsy, how its traces can delight, how, from the edges, our serious world—the “element of mortal panic and fear underlying all works of art”—might make us long for, might make necessary, such fancies.
For a Child of 1918
My grandfather said to me
as we sat on the wagon seat,
“Be sure to remember to always
speak to everyone you meet.”
We met a stranger on foot.
My grandfather’s whip tapped his hat.
“Good day, sir. Good day. A fine day.”
And I said it and bowed where I sat.
Then we overtook a boy we knew
with his big pet crow on his shoulder.
“Always offer everyone a ride;
don’t forget that when you get older,”
my grandfather said. So Willy
climbed up with us, but the crow
gave a “Caw!” and flew off. I was worried.
How would he know where to go?
But he flew a little way at a time
from fence post to fence post, ahead;
and when Willy whistled he answered.
“A fine bird,” my grandfather said,
“and he’s well brought up. See, he answers
nicely when he’s spoken to.
Man or beast, that’s good manners.
Be sure that you both always do.”
When automobiles went by,
the dust hid the people’s faces,
but we shouted “Good day! Good day!
Fine day!” at the top of our voices.
When we came to Hustler Hill,
he said that the mare was tired,
so we all got down and walked,
as our good manners required.
Corey Van Landingham is the author of Antidote. Recipient of a 2017 NEA Fellowship and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, she is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cincinnati and a book review editor for Kenyon Review.