Mystery Before Mastery

I really don’t know how poetry gets to be written. There’s a mystery & a surprise, and after that a great deal of hard work. —Elizabeth Bishop1

What has always interested me about Bishop’s statement is its declaration that a poem is “a surprise”—which I take to mean “an act of discovery.” I don’t believe that Bishop is talking about the kind of sudden intuition that often leads us to write a poem—that flash of understanding or

brilliant (to us, at least) phrase that often sparks a poem. Bishop’s poems probe and question—they lead me to unexpected places, word by word, observation by observation. They prove what Robert Frost said about surprise in poetry:

It is but a trick poem and no poem at all if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last. It finds its own name as it goes and discovers the best waiting for it in some final phrase at once wise and sad. . .No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.2

Elizabeth Bishop’s poems often discover mystery by listing. Take her poem “Filling Station,” for example. The poem opens:

Oh, but it is dirty!

—this little filling station, 

oil-soaked, oil-permeated 

to a disturbing, over-all 

black translucency.

Be careful with that match!3

Despite the “disturbing” “oil-soaked” aspect of the grubby filling station, Bishop does not flinch but continues to look, examining the filling station’s cement porch with its “set of crushed and grease-impregnated wickerwork,” which forces her to notice “on the wicker sofa/a dirty dog, quite comfy.” Why all this close observation? What does she think she will see?

Ah, but the point for Bishop is to not avert our eyes, even from what she’d rather not look at too closely. With her the point is to simply look, and looking, to be brought to wonder.

In her essay on Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station,” Molly Peacock speaks of the function of description—of listing objects, sense impressions or remembered events—in this way:

When you can’t make sense of the world in any other way, merely to describe what you see before you leads to understanding. . .Description becomes knowledge. Details inform you of the shape of the world. Shape means perspective. If you are in a state of disorientation, you will gain a point of view. A point of view makes a sense of humor possible.4

One thing that seduces me in Bishop’s poems (like this one or “The Moose” or “At the Fishhouses”) is her way of examining what might easily be overlooked and finding there layers of image and memory, humor and, finally, mystery. Bishop looks long enough to see not only the oily furniture and the dingy doily, but also the “big hirsute begonia” and the embroidered flowers (“marguirites”) on the doily. Each a potential source of beauty, the doily marred by grime, the begonia by its heavy, hairy leaves. Bishop simply lists what she is noticing, until she sees both its beauty and its ugliness.

What she has noticed brings her to question what is behind the scene:

Why the taboret?

Why, oh why the doily?5

And here the poem has moved from its ironic, half- laughing opening vision of the filling station, oil-soaked and run by a father in a “monkey suit,” assisted by “several quick and saucy/and greasy sons” to something unexpected. Simply by looking long enough to see what is there, Bishop has taken the poem to another level—both in tone and in content. She has written herself into surprise. And as she pursues her questioning, she realizes the care and the intention that keep the plant alive, that placed the doily there and arranged the oil cans “so that they softly say:/ESSO—SO—SO—SO/to high-strung automobiles.” Attention itself is an act of love.

Frost also famously said that a poem should “begin in delight and end in wisdom,” this poem begins in a kind of distaste and ends in transcendence: “Somebody loves us all.” It achieves this motion from darkness into light because Bishop questions what she sees. Peacock notes that 

part of the watching way of life is watching again. . . The poet models changing her mind, deepening her description. . .[making] revisions, modifications and corrections as the focus sharpens. . .correcting. . .the wrongness of immediate impressions.6

For me as a writer, the function of making lists as a way to begin a poem is to invite attention to the particular, the concrete objects and textures of the scene or event. Looking—and looking again, we begin to question what we thought we saw.

Jack Gilbert’s poem “Failing and Flying” finds its way to an unexpected conclusion in this way. Gilbert questions accepted wisdom as he examines the aftermath of a failed relationship.

The poem begins with a surprising line, “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.” It continues

It’s the same when love comes to an end, 

or the marriage fails and people say 

they knew it was a mistake, that everybody 

said it would never work. That she was

old enough to know better. But anything 

worth doing is worth doing badly.7

Gilbert invokes clichés (“people say . . .”), setting us up to see a reality beyond the expected. He inverts an aphorism to insist that even a failed marriage is “worth doing” and proves his point with a list of ordinary moments from the end of the relationship: “Every morning she was asleep in my bed . . .,” he marvels. Gilbert somehow allows us to fall in love with the relationship that’s over, simply by making us see what he saw: “Each evening I watched her coming back/. . ./the sea light behind her and the huge sky/on the other side of that”—as if the world coalesced around her silhouette.

Even the stars can (will) fail, he insists, watching how “love [was] fading out of her/the stars burning so extravagantly . . ./ anyone could tell you they would never last.” By the end of the poem, he has convinced me that “Icarus was not failing as he fell,/but just coming to the end of his triumph.”

In each of these poems, the poet enacts a reversal of the feeling created by the act of naming what is seen until the unseen flashes forth, embodied in what the poet describes. Each poem “finds its own name as it goes,” to quote Frost again. Each poem “discovers the best waiting for it in some final phrase.”

What can we learn from these poems? First, to quiet ourselves and look long enough to find the mystery behind what we think we know. Secondly, to use the power of lists. The third thing, and the key lesson, though, is to question the experience and revise our vision.

Go back to an unbeautiful moment or scene or to a failure. Begin by making a list that describes the unwanted circumstance, the thing you have avoided seeing. Be expansive: think Whitman! Be minute: think Dickinson!

Not knowing how to go forward—or what the moment might mean, look and look again. Question what you are seeing. Find the beauty and the unbeautiful. Ask why, as Bishop does, or why not, as in Gilbert’s poem.

Draft a poem of twenty to twenty-five lines using images from your lists. Include at least one question in the poem and one unexpected place (Provence!) and maybe even an aphorism. Let the poem find its name as it goes. Be surprised.

1 Elizabeth Bishop & Alice Quinn. “The Art of Losing.” New Yorker (March 28, 1994).

2 Robert Frost, “The Figure a Poem Makes,” Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays (New York: Library of America, 1995).

3 Elizabeth Bishop. “Filling Station,” The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 127-128.

4 Molly Peacock, “Joy: ‘The Filling Station,” by Elizabeth Bishop,” How to Read a Poem and Start a Poetry Circle (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), 164-178.

5 Bishop, ibid.

6 Peacock, ibid.

7 Jack Gilbert, “Failing and Flying,” Refusing Heaven (New York: Knopf, 2007), 18.

Leatha Kendrick is the author of three volumes of poetry, including her most recent, Almanac of the Invisible. Her poems and essays have been widely anthologized, and she is a two-time recipient of the Al Smith Fellowship in Poetry from the Kentucky Arts Council and has received fellowships from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Her MFA in Poetry is from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she leads workshops at the Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning.

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