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By Joel Miller


The Montréal Review, October 2018


Elizabeth Bishop. Photograph: Courtesy Vassar College Library, New York


“Lack of observation seems to me one of the cardinal sins, responsible for so much cruelty, ugliness, dullness, bad manners – and general unhappiness, too” -Elizabeth Bishop


            By the time I launched into psychoanalytic training, with all its reading requirements, control cases, hours of close supervision and my own analysis, I had finally been able to absorb myself not only in the thoughtful and inspired content of psychoanalysis, but also the process of being completely immersed - of falling into and being surrounded by a discipline that satisfied me as no other. I wanted to continue finding that immersive experience after I graduated, but the idea of delving into psychoanalytic theory or history wasn’t the direction that gave me the same, all-enveloping, meaningful pleasure.

            Just these days it’s dawned on me that after training ended, seventeen years ago, I began to write, to explore my ideas and unexpectedly, have found that immersive experience again. It is as though the training had started, not ended, a journey, that it had given me a taste, though not quenched, my thirst. As I wondered why writing was becoming such a potent journey for me, I remembered an essay that an ex-partner, who was a writer, had given me.

            “Why I Write,” by Alan Shapiro, references a famous quote by Elizabeth Bishop. “What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” (2006, 205).  From this, Shapiro implies we write “for the same reason we read a book or look at paintings or listen to music: for the total immersion of the experience, the narrowing and intensification of focus to the right here, right now, the deep joy of bringing the entire soul to bear upon a single act of concentration. It is self-forgetful even though you are writing about the self, because you have disappeared into the pleasure of making.” (205)

            How did Elizabeth Bishop come to put words to this most-abstract-of experiences? As a poet she came to delight in her own observing, and, in this instance did so while reading the field notes of Charles Darwin in his voyage to Galapagos Islands. These notes became the skeleton for his ground-breaking book published in 1859, On the Origin of the Species, offering the theory of natural selection and the larger theory of evolution. As far as field notes, every self-respecting student of nature uses blank-page books to record his/her observations while out in nature, where things really are happening. Darwin knew that jotting down observations in words and illustrations required one to pay attention to every detail, even the seemingly unimportant ones. For the non-naturalist, these notes read as fragments of perception, often sketchy, impressionistic and numbingly detailed without any narrative coherence or personal opinion. Darwin observed nature but also observed himself occasionally noting the testy side of his personality, calling a plant, “‘such wretched-looking little weeds’ that they ‘would have better become artic rather than equatorial Flora, ‘”(Chancellor et al, 2006, 6) and, upon meeting one of an island’s tortoises, ”Met an immense Turpin, took little notice of me.”  Elizabeth Bishop read beyond these details, into his wandering, yet keen, mind as she imagines him sitting at his desk, years later re-reading his own notes. “One admires the beautiful solid case being built up out of his endless heroic observations, almost unconscious or automatic – and then comes a sudden relaxation, a forgetful phase, and one feels the strangeness of his undertaking, sees the young man, his eyes fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown. What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” (Bishop 2011, 414) She understands something about attending to details, that is much more than compulsive note-taking, especially when observing oneself in the process. As far as Bishop was concerned, Darwin’s immersive scientific inquiry was a creative venture equivalent to that of a painter, writer or musician.

             Darwin is my hero because the punctuation and grammar used in his field notes are secondary to getting down his impressions as precisely and immediately as they came to him. In describing the Thenca bird of Chatham Island, “They are lively, inquisitive, active run fast, frequent houses to pick the meat of the Tortoise, which is hung up, - sing tolerably well; are said to build a simple open nest. – are very tame, a character in common with other birds: I imagined however its note or cry was rather different from the Thenca of Chile?“ (Barlow 1963, 262) That last statement, which morphed into a question, is crucial for Darwin for it allows him to pause in time and ponder the significance of what he had just seen. In just a few sentences later, he sees these birds as different varieties of the same species, speculating that they had a common, but distant, ancestor. His theory of natural selection is itself beginning to take root in his imagination. Observing and note-taking are allowed the space for speculating then theoretical speculation.

            Immersion is interest and attentiveness without urgency or conscious purpose. It is not meditation. It is not about emptying one’s mind. There is a train of thought, but it is not limited to words. Feelings are present but they are part of a bigger whole.  There may be a narrative, but it is one that finds itself as one wanders, without censor or judgement. It has a logic, but it has its own internal logic that gives it shape. Any narrative structure is secondary to the flow of the experience. It is an ongoing present moment that does not register as such.  It is similar to free association in that the mind is allowed to flow on its own, but dis-similar in that one is speaking only with the interior parts of the self and not substantially aware of outside others. Alan Shapiro adds this concentration is useless because “it’s its own reward, the mysterious joy of it.” (2006, 205)

            What is so inconceivable about Elizabeth Bishop is that she created anything at all, much less that it was delightful and intimate at times, yet neither cynical nor indifferent. I say this because Bishop had a horrible childhood. Born in 1911, eight months after her birth, her father died. Her mother decompensated into a severe psychotic depression and was permanently institutionalized when Elizabeth was five, never to see her again. She was taken in by familiar maternal relatives in Nova Scotia but a year later ‘kidnapped’ by her father’s wealthier kin near Boston. There, she was sexually abused and terrorized by an uncle, subsequently developing severe asthma and eczema, and finally given back to her mother’s sisters who read her poetry while she recuperated. At age sixteen, she was sent to an elite girls’ boarding school where another uncle assured the headmistress that no one in the family had spoken of her mother’s insanity. It was at Vassar that her talent was affirmed and her social life opened up. Decades later, during the few months she spent in psychoanalysis, she was told she was lucky to have survived her childhood.  With the small amount of inheritance she was allowed to travel, and resided in Key West, Spain, France, Morocco, Brazil and finally Boston.  Lesbian, but hidden, Elizabeth had a partner of many years, a notable architect in Brazil, who later committed suicide in her presence. Though receiving the Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1956, she did some of her best writing some twenty years later. She was the first female professor of an advanced writing course at Harvard. Alcoholism throughout her adult years required frequent hospitalizations, and gradually obliterated her life.

            Alan Shapiro offers a generous interpretation of the use of alcohol and drugs by some writers, including Elizabeth Bishop, when not writing. He sees this as an attempt to re-capture, however attenuated, the pleasurable and rewarding immersive experience so potently found when writing. (2006, 206). According to Megan Marshall, Bishop’s most current biographer, the heavy drinking served several options for the poet. It opened her up, allowing her to cry in the arms of a friend when her mother died; it closed her down, blotting out painful feelings of abandonment and guilt; but it also inspired her, “for the dreams that came after a boozy evening or morning, precious to her despite the inevitable ‘hours of hangover ahead.’ “(2017, 80)

            Wanting to know more about the immersive experience found in writing led me to explore Bishop’s poetry and then read what others had to say about it. As I read her critics and commentators I was Intrigued by what they had got wrong about the definitive style and tone in her poetry. Some described her work as ‘precise’, ‘controlled’, ‘meticulous’, ‘perfectionistic’, even ‘evasive’. Colm Toibin had referred to her writing style as austere, controlled, and that she “seemed to keep her sights low; in her fastidious version of things, she had a sly system for making sure that nothing was beyond her range. (2015, 2) Octavio Paz said her writing was an example of “the enormous power of reticence.” (Read 2017, 2) That assessment of Bishop is too reductive and punctilious, is too rigid and suffocating. Her tone does not suggest reticence, as though there were a conscious inhibition of emotion or an inability to speak freely or naturally. Conscious restraint is not reticence.

            If there is restraint detected in Bishop’s writing, it may be, in part, from what she described in herself as a Scotch-Canadian-Protestant-Puritan temperament. This was her cultural background. But the larger portion of this consciously reserved tone maybe what Meghan Daum described in the forward to her collection of personal essays, titled Unspeakable. “I do feel compelled to say again that, as frank as these [essays] are they aren’t confessions, not even close. They’re events recounted in the service of ideas.” (2014, 6) With her remarkable gifts of observing and writing Bishop could have written shockingly poignant confessional poetry or, at least, an eloquent and absorbing autobiography. She resisted this and instead referred to the confessional poets of her time as “’The School of Anguish’ “made up of ‘self-pitiers,’” (Marshall 2017, 207)

            What she needed to do was to produce art, and it is remarkable that she was able to balance that need, which she admitted was vital to go on living, with the need to be in contact with her personal history of horrific trauma, and its effect it had on her throughout her life. If not balance, then a truce between the aesthetic gift’s need to produce art and the personal need to not avoid or disavow, but allow the memories and anguish imposed by that trauma. A truce negotiated only by entering into the immersive experience.

            If there is perfectionism in her writing it came from her faithfulness to what she saw and how she saw it; “to get things straight and tell the truth. (Marshall 2017, 127) She admired the Surrealist’s attempt to capture thinking outside the control of reasoning, but understandably feared “the danger it gave to a mind ‘broken down.’ “(59), as she observed first hand from the early years of living with her mother’s insanity. Rather, she wanted to capture “the glimpses of the always-more-successful surrealism of everyday life, unexpected moments of empathy, …catch a peripheral vision of whatever it is one can never really see full-face but seems enormously important.” (Bishop, 2011, 414) Bishop was not trying to adhere to any external or objective standard for ‘perfect,’ “with its relentless demand for linear structure, for absolute truth, for a single right answer.” (Vida 1998, 7). Judith Vida gives an alternative to this concept of perfectionism, “…a recognition through feeling that a creative element in the unconscious has found a means of expression which captures multiple meanings simultaneously and expansively.” (7) This ‘perfect’ is demanding, or allows for it, but is not constricting. Paradoxically, it can be liberating as it calls for a deeper (that ‘creative element of the unconscious’) and more intense focus. It is Bishop’s own internal standard to tell the truth, to get it right, and scrupulously avoid anything easy or clever that defined ‘perfect’ for her. Elizabeth Hardwick called her a perfectionist in the sense that Bishop had to “wait to make everything absolutely right in tone and rhythm, without insistence.” (Hardwick 2017, 356)

            After reading Hardwick, even my use of the word ‘restraint’ may not be the best descriptor for Bishop’s tone. More so, ‘deliberate’ or that oft-used, but less persuasive, term, ‘intentional.’ Living and writing at the pace of deliberate slows one down, allowing, only then, the reality of trauma to live, and not be sequestered or extinguished. This is not a healing of that trauma and certainly not an undoing of the past, but deliberately allowing the space and time for the reality of that trauma to be.

            Some critics and commentators have used ‘perfectionism’ and ‘reticence’ also to explain Bishop’s relatively little poetic output, barely a hundred over her lifetime. Langdon Hammer notes that for Bishop this presented a failing on her part.  But he believes that, [her] “inability to write more poems than she did was also a refusal to do so.” (1997, 1)

            Bishop’s “The Mountain.” (1983, 197), published when she was just twenty-five.
            At the evening, something behind me.
            I start for a second, I blench.
            Or staggering halt and burn.
            I do not know my age.
            In the morning it is different.
            An open book confronts me,
            Too close to read in comfort.
            Tell me how old I am.

            And then the valley stuffs
            impenetrable mists
            Like cotton in my ears.
            I do not know my age.

            I do not mean to complain.
            They say it is my fault.
            Nobody tells me anything.
            Tell me how old I am.

            The deepest demarcations
            Can slowly spread and fade
            Like any blue tattoo.
            I do not know my age.

            Shadows fall down, lights climb.
            Clambering light, Oh children!
            You never stay long enough.
            Tell me how old I am.

            Stone wings have sifted here
            With feathers hardening feather.
            The claws are lost somewhere.
            I do not know my age.

            I am growing deaf. The birdcalls
            dwindle. The waterfalls
            go unwiped. What is my age
            Tell me how old I am.

            Let the moon go hang,
            the stars go fly their kites.
            I want to know my age.
            Tell me how old I am.

             As a stylistic method Bishop qualified or outright corrected a word or phrase she had just committed to paper. For “The Moose,” she wrote, “A moose comes out of/ the impenetrable wood/ and stands there,/ looms, rather/ in the middle of the road.” In “The Sandpiper, a bird “watched his toes,” was corrected to, “-Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them.” Bishop is apprehending her mind as it was attending to, reflecting and editing itself in action. Colm Toibin perceptively suggests she was writing “because the illusion needs to be created that nothing else was true at the time the poem was written. (2015, 27).  For Bishop that truth was not lofty or philosophical. It was a truth that was rigorously experiential and, therefore, sensuous and relatable.

            At the time I was reading her poems, I noticed something about the instructions that come with any new appliance or piece of furniture from IKEA. What was the first sentence? “Read instructions carefully before starting,” or just “Read instructions carefully,” as though we weren’t going to do so, had no intention of doing so. By using repetition and revision in her writing Bishop knew we would too quickly move from line to line, or fill in the spaces between words, suspicious that we were putting too much of ourselves in her poem, unwilling or unable to let go of our mind so we could encounter hers. 

            “One Art” was written towards the end of her life after her female lover announced she was engaged to a man.

            “One Art” (1983, 178)
            The art of losing isn’t hard to master:
            So many things seem filled with the intent
            To be lost that their loss is no disaster.

            Lose something every day, Accept the fluster
            Of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
            The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

            Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
            Places, and names, and where it was you meant
            To travel. None of these will bring disaster.

            I lost my mother’s watch. And look! My last, or
            Next–to-last, of three loved houses went.
            The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

            I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
            Some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
            I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

            -Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
            I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
            The art of losing’s not too hard to master
            Though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

             As late as draft 11, the loss of Alice still registered in the poem’s concluding stanza as the one misfortune Elizabeth could not withstand; “My losses haven’t been too hard to master/with the exception (Say it!) this disaster.” (Marshall 2017, 274) In the final version she is committing herself to ‘write it’ unrestrained, write the word ‘disaster.’

            I was partnered to a writer a few years back. The one who showed me Alan Shapiro’s essay, “Why I Write.” Even though we had lived together for a while, when I came home from the office one day he looked up from his writing desk and announced he’d written three sentences that day but had taken two out. That was the speed of his writing. I was shocked. I knew writing was a very conscious and diligent act, requiring much effort, but not at the pace of a sentence or two, or none, a day. For his book he had in mind a climactic moment and a few nodal narrative points to touch along the way. But the rest was up to the writing, sentence by sentence, crafting them, letting that last sentence guide him into the next.

            When I’m not writing, which is most of the time, I’m doing other stuff. A friend and I went to see Watts Towers in South Central Los Angeles last September. Beginning in 1921, Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant, single-handedly built these seventeen, inter-connected towers, the tallest being ninety-nine feet. Rodia made these towers from broken pieces of Milk of Magnesia and 7 Up bottles, as well as bits of crockery and ceramic tiles he saw every day along the railroad tracks near his home. These all artfully held together by cement and wire mesh. Imprinted in the cement were the tools he used to build the towers, but also sundry items such as a cornbread mold, rug beater and water faucet handles. Described by Geoff Dyer as, “…sturdy, intricate, graceful: science-fictiony, daft and Gaudi-esque all at once.” (2016, 184), if hand-built radio towers could be both rock-solid and lace-glittery Rodia had achieved it. As far as their construction, Rodia had no pre-determined image, no blueprint. Their materials were objects he found at hand, the contours and dimensions of the towers were incrementally improvised by what had just been built. ‘Improvised’ may be too lax a term as he would erect a couple of stories of tower, be displeased for whatever aesthetic reason, then tear it down and start up again. As though editing and disposal were as much a tool as were the pouring of cement and decorating with glass and tile.  Yet they bear the sense of deliberately being made as they now stand. Decades later, in the same Watts’ neighborhood, which had come to be defined by Rodia’s towers, local artist Noah Purifoy would take his students on ‘junk hunts’ transforming what was available into something meaningful, changing the perception of their neighborhood. “Turning finding into making” (Jones 2017, 8), analogous to Bishop’s turning observing into writing, or Darwin’s note-taking into theory-building.

              Starting at age forty-two, it took Rodia thirty-three years to build these towers. It took Darwin forty years to go from fields notes to completing On the Origin of the Species.  “The Moose” took Bishop some twenty-five years to complete.  As though each of these constructions came from a gradual building up of ideas, finding their own way, making sure the structure was solid and true to itself. Or rather, built, torn down and re-built, steadily.

             As far as why I write, sometimes it can be problem solving or ideas wanting to be wrenched from the vague and amorphous into language. All too often it comes down to a mental wrestling match. For me, the immersive activity, the looking for and attending to the ideas and images found at hand, the construction from sentence to sentence, draft by draft, the creating of it all, offers itself, over time, as a means of filling me out from the inside. Something which may not be detected from the outside.  This kind of immersive activity presents itself, from moment to moment, as a certain kind of hope.

            Which is a discovery… I had not… expected.


Joel Miller is psychiatrist and psychoanalyst with a private practice in Pasadena, California, and a training and supervising analyst at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Los Angeles. He is a regular contributor to the Arts Section of the American Journal of Psychoanalysis. Joel Miller could be reached at joelemillermd@gmail.com .



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Bishop, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems, 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus   and Giroux, 1983.

Bishop, Elizabeth. Prose – Elizabeth Bishop, edited by Lloyd Schwartz. London: Chatoo and           Windus,. 2011.

Chancellor, Gordon, John van Whye and Kees Rookmaaker, “Darwin’s Field Notes on the

            Galapagos; ‘A Little World within Itself,’” (2007). http://www.darwin-online.org.uk.

Daum, Meghan. The Unspeakable; and Other Subjects of Discussion. New York: Farrar, Strauss   and Giroux, 2014.

Dyer, Geoff. White Sands. New York: Pantheon Books, 2016.

Hammer, Langdon. American Literary History. London: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Hardwick, Elizabeth. The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick, edited by Daryl Pinckney. New             York: The New York Review of Books, 2017.

Jones, Kellie. South of Pico, African America Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

            Durham and London: Duke University Press,2017.

Marshall, Megan. A Miracle for Breakfast. Boston: Houghton Miflin Hartcourt Company, 2017.

Read, Bridget. “The Powerful Reticence of Elizabeth Bishop,” The New Republic Digital- Edition


Shapiro, Alan. “Why I Write,” In The Best American Essays, 2006, edited by Lauren Slater.           Boston: Houghton Miflin Company, 2006.

Toibin, Colm. Colm Toibin on Elizabeth Bishop. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University          Press, 2015.

Vida, Judith. “Life Lessons: What One Psychoanalyst Learned from Contemporary Art,”    presented at the Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, California, February 1, 1998.


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