When it comes to using detail in poetry, you perhaps cannot find more contrasting poets than Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Creeley. Bishop is very precise, and Creeley is fundamentally more vague. Creeley implies far more than he actually writes, whereas Bishop is careful not to leave anything out. Then again, what you leave out in your writing can be just as important as what you put in.
Does Creeley come to solid conclusions or leave you with questions as opposed to Bishop’s clear-cut definitions of things? Is it not the job of any good poem to leave the reader with more questions than answers? Or, should a poem be precise in what it presents? Bishop and Creeley may have far different poetic styles, but both are just as complex in what they write.
Creeley’s work is just as complex as Bishop’s. But, Creeley focuses solely on what is in front of him as it is. He constantly grasps for explanations of feelings he has no words to truly define; yet, even lacking the proper vocabulary, he struggles to define the shape of his feeling and outline it as best he can.
On the other hand, Bishop is legendary for her attention to detail and sensory perception. The Harvard Square Library website refers to her as “a poet of observation and not of personal relationships.” She trusts her senses. It seems Creeley does not.
To avoid a simplistic comparison, what is crucial here is not their differences, but their greatest similarity: they are both trying to make sense of things through their work. So, Creeley is easier to read, but does that mean he is also easier to understand? Is there more or less to understand? Or, is that sort of thinking a trap which only confuses the reader in analyzing these complex pieces of art?
Fortunately, even a quick look at each of their poetry yields some insight into answering these questions. First, it seems prudent to look at Elizabeth Bishop first, as her work is more detailed. Regarding her poems first makes the contrast between her style with Creeley’s will then be much more evident.
Bishop’s poem “The Map” is a perfect example of her close attention to detail.
“Land lies in water, it is shadowed green
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
Showing the line of long sea – weeded ledges
Where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.”
“The Map” is a clear example of Bishop painting vibrant landscapes through words. She observes what ordinary people would see as a simple map. Through this poem, she shows her admiration for the art of the map itself, as well as showing appreciation for the greater art of mapmaking. Bishops also shows appreciation of how tangible maps can make the great landscapes of the Earth. “We can stroke these lovely bays,” she writes, “under a glass as if they were expected to blossom, or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.”
Bishop reveals herself through this and other poems as a poet of nature, closely observing every little aspect of it. Even in the “the Man-Moth,” so awkward a misprint for mammoth, we are treated to the main character of her poem as a “shadow,” a man like an animal lurking in the night, fearful and primitive. There are no sympathies for this strange man she describes, just cold, hard observation.
Cracks in the building are filled with battered moonlight.
The whole shadow of Man is only as big as his hat.
It lies at his feet like a circle for a doll to stand on,
And he makes an inverted pin, the point magnetized to the moon.”
Bishop introduces the reader to an outcast, one who apparently lives beneath the surface of society. This is not a happy poem; it has a dark, solemn mood to it. Also, it does not speak well of man as a creature.
Creeley’s poetry is profoundly different at its core than Bishop’s. His poem “I Keep to Myself Such Measures…” is a good example of his work, and perhaps in a sense, personifies much of his poetry. Where Bishop was concerned with the minute details that made up the whole of a thing, Creeley is more concerned with the shape of things, as if to contemplate their substance much beyond that can do the reader a great disservice.
“I keep to myself such
measures as I care for,
daily the rocks
Creeley breaks off his lines in odd places. But, this is done intentionally to enhance the meaning of words at the beginning and ending of lines. He continues,
“There is nothing
but what thinking makes
it less tangible. The mind,
fast as it goes, loses”
Essentially, as Creeley alludes to a line from Hamlet, “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so…” to contemplate anything too long does not gain one much of anything good. Contemplating something too long can make more of a thing than it really is. In Creeley’s eyes, Bishop’s admirable attentions to detail would go too far. Basically, it is possible to become too engrossed in observation and distort the reality.
“pace, puts in place of it
like rocks simple markers,
for a way only to
hopefully come back to
where it cannot. All
forgets. My mind sinks.
I hold in both hands such weight
It is my only description”
There is a run-on sentence to finish that poem, as if two complete thoughts run together into a single grammatically incorrect mess. What can we take from that? It is a formless weight which he seems to call his “only description”. This is not only a profound departure from attention to detail, but it creates a new sort of poetry all its own. Creeley creates a form of poetry most interested in the shapes of things, rather than the color and close details, the more so-called romantic aspects of poetry. It is, then, possible to lose yourself to your observations completely.
Whereas Bishop’s poems are full of lines to mull over and paint landscapes in our mind’s eye, bring our minds to see exactly what she sees, Creeley completely departs from that and gives us vagueness and it is frustrating. The magical thing here about his work is that we can easily share those frustrations along with him. This aspect of his work is clear in Creeley’s poem, “Again,” which is about the everyday.
“One more day gone,
done, found in
the form of days.
It began, it
Ended – was
Slow, fast, a
Sun shone, clouds,
High in the air I was
For awhile with others,
Then came down
On the ground again.
No moon. A room in
A hotel, to begin
In very few words, Creeley has said much. He describes a daily cycle, vaguely yet somehow completely. Being vague for him is a way of expressing a complete thought. Bishop faithfully chronicles the details of circumstances and happenstances, whereas Creeley is more concerned with the bigger picture. He is more interested in what encapsulates all these different happenings and things.
Simply comparing and contrasting Bishop and Creeley’s varying styles reveal them to be poets from entirely different schools of thought. However, they write about many of the same things, just from wildly differing perspectives. There is the argument that all poets are simply having a conversation with one another. To look at these two poets in that way, you could somewhat fit Bishop’s poems inside of Creeley’s.
Creeley’s poems are much more like shells, written in fewer words than the complete whole of the poem’s substance would suggest. Bishop writes only what she means and what is right in front of her. Creeley sees many of the same things, but he does not romanticize and so closely scrutinize everything; he takes a much broader view of everything.
Bishop, Elizabeth. “The Map.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Ed. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’clair.
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.
Bishop, Elizabeth. “The Man-moth.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Ed. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert
O’clair. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.
Creeley, Robert. “Again.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Ed. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’clair. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.
Creeley, Robert. “I Keep to Myself Such Measures.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Ed. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’clair. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.
“Elizabeth Bishop.” Harvard Square Library. 2006. Harvard U. 6 August 2022 <https://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/cambridge-harvard/elizabeth-bishop/>.
“Robert Creeley.” Harvard Square Library. 2006. Harvard U. 6 August 2022 <https://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/cambridge-harvard/robert-creeley/>.