Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program

English and Comparative Literature


English (en)

Date of Award

Summer 9-5-2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Steven Meyer



The Foreign Ear: Elizabeth Bishop's Proliferal Wit & the Chances of Change

Elizabeth Bishop has been widely celebrated as a painterly or photographic poet, a naturalist and geographer, and yet she was a subtly exquisite musician of wordplay attuned to subvocal effects. This dissertation examines a network of Bishop's affinities and aesthetic commitments, including her wish to "say the most difficult things" and "be funny, if possible." One surprising claim regarding the poet's variously called "All Eye," "the famous eye," etc., is that her sense of the spiritual is rather antithetical to an ocular regime: even those extremely fluid, revising, surprising land and seascapes for which she is celebrated, are but the tip of the seas we are to attend.

Tracing her more properly experimental challenge to her explorations at Vassar, humoring her interest to get "an intense sense of consciousness in the tongue," in sensational revisionary "moments," I argue that she is a much more radical: and witty) poet than has been granted, and that even those taking her up in a postmodern vein have underappreciated this. Hers is the Emersonian/Pragmatist challenge of transition, and she positioned it particularly in the surface sounds of her words, profoundly attuned as she was to the liminal fringes of a Jamesian "stream of thought." Her wish to "portray not a thought, but a mind thinking" is a commonplace in the criticism, whereas the discussion of the phonotextual creations of sound by way of breath, gestures of transformation, and the affirmation of play, are less lit up. Her poems early to late, and comments outside them, assert her Transcendentalist and Pragmatist affinities, folding them into a radical aesthetic she called "the proliferal style." Though her use of religious imagery and language are often believed to evince nostalgic longings, or signal her entrapment in outmoded forms of thinking, I argue that, as part of this project, she made a canny and rigorous effort to adapt her religious inheritance toward the Darwininan understandings of proliferation, error and the ear-rational, pleasure and the chances of change.


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