This essay explores Elizabeth Bishop’s use of war and imperialism to demonstrate the power—and inherently political nature—of poetic discourse. In her rarely discussed “Little Exercise” (1946), a poem Bishop wrote while living near a military base in Key West, Florida, the bombardment of a storm and the incantatory “exercise” of poetry are implicitly contrasted with a military exercise, moving us to consider the ethical dimensions of our availability to all types of discourse. During the postwar era of decolonization, Bishop uses Western imperialism’s figures of alterity to further develop her politics of description; poems such as “Florida” (1939) and “Brazil, January 1, 1502” (1959) invoke an indigenous American subject whose calls of distress are an ambivalent figure for the poet’s voice and vocation. Through their attempts to construct or attend to that voice, these poems illuminate the historically consequential processes by which a poet is called to her subject, and by which her poetry in turn solicits the reader’s attention. Bishop invokes the imperial violence of her time to suggest that poetic description—and the reader’s collaborative concentration—engage our political intelligence as thoroughly as a military exercise.
Elizabeth Bishop and the Mechanics of Poetic Pretence
Kathryn Van Wert is assistant professor of English and director of interdisciplinary studies at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Her research and teaching focus on contemporary Anglophone literature and transatlantic modernism, and her work has appeared recently in Journal of Modern Literature, Modern Language Studies, and various edited collections. Her current project deals with the development of philosophical materialism in modernist literature.