It amuses me to think of how many third-rate poems are exchanged on any given Valentine’s Day. In our culture, which routinely dismisses poetry as useless or lofty, the love poem is too often made to stand in for the whole of the genre. Nevertheless, love has always been a mainstay of poetry, even for the most accomplished practitioners of the art. The love poem comes with its own challenges: It can easily slip into sentimentality, and it runs the risk of becoming too private to generate meaning outside of the circumstances that inspired it.
Great poets find powerful means of skirting these potential pitfalls in their work. The 20th century is full of strange, moving, and subversive love poems, from T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to the sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay to Wallace Stevens’s intimate addresses to his muse or “interior paramour.” But the love poems I find myself returning to most often are those of Elizabeth Bishop.
Since her death in 1979, Bishop has become one of the most beloved American writers of our time. A keen observer and cataloguer of natural phenomena, Bishop finds the profound in the minutest details of the world around us, and critics and poets alike revere her work for its precision.
Bishop left us only a handful of love poems, the best of which achieve such a depth of meaning in a compressed space that they seem more enjoyable to me every time I read them. My favorite of them, “The Shampoo,” uses the simple act of washing a loved one’s hair as the basis for a brilliant meditation on the nature of time.
The speaker of “The Shampoo” begins by admiring not her lover, but lichens, superbly described as “still explosions on the rocks.” The lichens’ growth records the passage of time, and yet “they have not changed” in the lovers’ memories. “Time,” says the speaker, “is nothing if not amenable.”
To affirm that love can transcend the passage of time and the process of aging, the speaker focuses on her lover’s gray hairs in the poem’s final stanza. In just a few lines, Bishop transforms a trait we usually think of as undesirable into something sublimely beautiful:
The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
—Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.
As this stanza suggests, Bishop’s intimate relationships were mostly with other women, and her personal and aesthetic reticence about her sexual orientation is well-known. Certainly, such discretion was a necessity for much of Bishop’s life, when homosexuality was all but outlawed in the United States. But even her gay contemporaries James Merrill and May Swenson found cause to criticize her during her lifetime for not being more forthcoming in her work.
In some respects, these writers had a point. Several of Bishop’s love poems are too abstracted from their emotional sources to achieve the resonance of “The Shampoo.” By contrast, a love poem she left unpublished has an immediacy that ranks it among her finest work.
Now referred to by its first line, “It is marvellous to wake up together” concerns two lovers waking during an electrical storm, which can be read as both an accurate account of Floridian weather and a metaphor for the poet’s own turbulent life. Bishop deftly maneuvers between the aggression of the storm and the “light falling” of the lovers’ kisses. The poem ends with the haunting lines: “The world might change to something quite different, / As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking, / Change as our kisses are changing without our thinking.”
We can’t be sure why Bishop decided not to publish a poem of such magnificence, though it seems likely that she found it too candid. To focus too much on Bishop’s reticence, however, is to miss the moments of startling honesty that do appear in some of her published works. “Song for the Rainy Season,” a poem about her life in Brazil with her partner Lota de Macedo Soares, bemoans the “difference that kills, / or intimidates, much / of all our small shadowy / life!” I have to wonder how many readers of The New Yorker, in which the poem first appeared in 1960, picked up on what exactly that “difference” was.
Though the anxieties and uncertainties of a lesbian relationship are evident in “Song for the Rainy Season,” Bishop also finds reason to prophesy that “a later / era will differ”. Today, we can read her love poems with a deeper understanding of the social pressures that contributed to their creation. At the same time, reading them in a purely lesbian context does little justice to the scope of Bishop’s vision. By writing from a position of “difference,” Bishop reminds us of what connects us as human beings, gay or straight.