Travel As The Central Metaphor In Elizabeth Bishop's Poetry

Modernist poets are considered the pioneers of instigating a shift away from the traditional approaches to poetry, and for that matter, literature in general. During this era of modernism, Elizabeth Bishop is a poet who brings in very distinctive additions to the prevailing approaches. Bishop’s awareness that poetry is a part of human perception exemplifies her exclusive stance. Unlike the conventional modernist poets, she does not completely reject the use of tradition, instead finds them valuable. Her prioritisation of use everyday language over poetic language reflects her being concord of language as a reflective act.

Thematically, Bishop addresses multiple idea like mutability of life, colonial complexities and much more but the subject of travel is encountered in fair amount of her work (comes from her personal love for travel). Her inclination to undertake a quest as a traveller is very prominently exhibited in the poems “Arrival at Santos” and “Question of Travel”. Her quest, then, is connected to the ideas of belonging, love; the idea of understanding oneself. On an extensive level, Bishop associates the idea of travel with an exploration of one’s identity (One tends to articulate a sense of individuality by means of interacting with a new space and its culture). Therefore, in this world characterised by flux and uncertainties, she attempts to find points of orientation which might provide her a limited degree of security.

Bishop proclaims in one of her essays that she has lived her entire life “just running down the edges of different countries and continents, 'looking for something’.” This desire of “looking for something” is propounded in the poem “Arrival at Santos”. Here, Bishop sets up the the desire to “define” against other forces. Bishop constantly portrays herself as an unhappy tourist along with a caution that travel in itself is a difficult quest. The motifs of travel can be self-indulging, a sort of self-deception emerges through them. Apart from her discussing the idea of travel as quest, Bishop dwells into the whole idea of capitalistic tourism and how it thrives on validation by the tourists. Even an exotic place such as Santos is dependent on their everyday commerce and trade that transpires via tourism. She emphatically critiques the superficial arrogance of the tourists in the poem:

This is Bishop talking about a tourist of a postcolonial scenario who, according to her, contributes to an unconscious sabotage of that particular along with its culture.

Contrary to the critique of the tourists, Bishop adds a more personal touch to the idea of travelling places and the anxiety that accompanies the experience. The character of Miss Breen reflects on the perception that home is not just a spacial category, it is a psychological one. Miss Breen, though she has her spacial home at New York, might possibly be searching for a psychological version of home. In a larger context, it alludes to Bishop's inability to find a home. In regards to the idea of home, Helen Kendler argues that home signifies something that is not yet been found or is lost or is just non-existent. Bishop, on the other hand, seems to assert that the person is most at home when he /she is searching for home. The process of searching home or say the quest, hence, have metaphysical and spiritual attributes to it.

“Question of Travel” is another poem that engages with the desire of “looking something” in greater details. The traveller here is overwhelmed by the landscape she observes, though she does thinks she is rushing too much into her life. This poem deals with the general idea of how tourists travel and “rush” around places without any sense of history or cultural context:

“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?”

Bishop critiques how 'alien' people remain to the social/ cultural context of the places they visit. The purpose remains frivolous as they show up to consume the 'other' (culture). The general expectations remain that it should fit into the category of being instantaneous, should provide joy; else the experience is deemed as a failure.

Travel, here too, indicates to the ides of home and once again, Bishop meditates on the figurative distance. She highlights the obvious logic of travel which is how one can always be displaced from home and the ‘here' keeps changing.: “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?”. Thus, she emphasises on how the void that travel brings along cannot be negated. Bishop, also mentions Blaine Pascal quotation where he comments that the entire world can be apprehended through our minds, there is no need to travel physically. Bishop, on the other hand, prioritises expansion of the mind through physical travel, because of how one gets to interact and know people. Use of adjectives like self pity, uncertain, evil; reflect how its the tourist's psychological limitations that lead to her disappointments because for a genuine discovery, she needs to undertake more riskier expeditions, she needs to push herself into the unknown territories within herself and of South America. In the last paragraph, when Bishop mentions “continent, city, country, society”; she hints at all these as structures of power and economy that determine the tourist choices as to who is travelling out of necessity, who is travelling out of pleasure and who is travelling because of displacement.

Thus, Bishop maintains a modernist skepticism and detachment. She focuses on the fluidity of the psychological experiences which according to her, hold value in themselves and may lead to larger discovery of the universe. Critics have argued that travel is one psychological experience which becomes the central metaphor in Bishop's poetry. Because travel for her, remains an act that involves imagination but also incites hegemonic control (how the whole culture is put at display for tourist purposes and a cultural capital is created). 

16 December 2021
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