Elizabeth Bishop on the importance of travel and richness of our inner world

EBishop

Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet, born in 1911. Very early, both of her parents left, so most of her life was marked with moving from city to city, country to country and living with different relatives. For her life time she published only around 100 poems, but she was quite a perfectionist, constantly rewriting and editing her work. In the later years of her career she was globally recognized for her work, winning in the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for her collection, Poems: North & South/A Cold Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1955).

Her writing is best known for the usage of rich descriptions, giving sensual experience of her physical world to the reader, like in this poem:

Arrival At Santos

Here is a coast; here is a harbor;
here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery:
impractically shaped and–who knows?–self-pitying mountains,
sad and harsh beneath their frivolous greenery,

with a little church on top of one. And warehouses,
some of them painted a feeble pink, or blue,
and some tall, uncertain palms.

For a subsequent amount of time she lived in South America, where especially the stay in Brazil has made a profound influence on her work, which can be seen in her Questions of Travel (1965) poetry collection. In many of the poems, in this collection she raises question, why do we have the need for new experiences? How do we interact with something that is foreign to us? And what and where exactly is home?

In this poem, Question of travel she writes:

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theaters?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instangly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
—Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
—A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.
—Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr-dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
—Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages.
—And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians’ speeches:
two hour of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:

“Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there…No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?”

Among other themes, Bishop plays around with the notions of identity and its relation to the understanding of “being at home”, and “belonging somewhere”. We observe and absorb new experience, but how that impacts our inner world stays individualistic and personal. She further stirs thoughts and emotions on questions like: does travel makes us more aware of who we truly are, where do we come from and where we are heading?

How deeply rooted are beliefs? How the change of environment can enhance our attitudes and the way we see/perceive things?

Bishop implies that once we are self-confident enough, home is where we are. We don’t have to go to search for something out there, it’s our inner world that requires the most attention and nurturing.

She writes:

All my life I have lived and behaved very much like the sandpiper – just running down the edges of different countries and continents, ‘looking for something’.

New experiences are important. They shape our personalities, but once you begin to live your purpose, becoming who you truly are, you are at home. And your home will be with you wherever you go.


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