Lifesaving Poems:Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Poem’



The funniest thing you will ever read about Elizabeth Bishop (or teaching, or anything else) is Mark Halliday‘s essay Moose Failure. In it  Halliday presents the idea that sometimes even very great poems do not work in the classroom, however intelligent the students, however careful the planning and wonderful the ideas of the teacher concerned.

This had been my experience of Elizabeth Bishop, until I came across ‘Poem’ in Helen Vendler’s Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry. I had read Bishop before, of course, but as I wrote the other week about Frank O’Hara, I felt I had not properly connected with her.

I felt she belonged to other people, not me. I knew other people had forged this connection as I kept meeting her in workshops (‘Sestina’, ‘One Art’), the poems of other poets (‘Skunk Hour’) and in essays (‘The Government of the Tongue’). But all I felt was failure. Moose Failure. I did not need to be persuaded of her greatness, I just wanted to find a connection.

More on a whim than a recommendation I picked up the Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry and began reading Helen Vendler’s clear-sighted Introduction. The essay ends with a brief overview of ‘Poem’. Twice she quotes what seems to me the poem’s central line and turning point: ‘Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!’, the second of these followed by this bombshell of plain-speaking:

It is the effect every poet hopes for; and, to be complete, it must be followed by that other, estranging effect which tells us, by style, that the elms in the poem are, by their placement in the virtual world of language, already dismantled and gone.

This seemed to be someone who I both wanted and now needed to do business with.

As Vendler points out the poem enacts its own meaning by presenting the ‘stages by which we enter a work of art’: indifference; recognition of generic features or of its making (‘fresh-squiggled from the tube’); sudden and emotional recognition (‘I know it!’); and finally the personal, which may also contain moral responses and those tinted with regret (‘the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese’).

I turned to the poem and read it knowing I already loved it, having been set up to by Vendler’s exposition. Then I read her essay again, and then the poem, noting on a scrap of paper which I have now lost these lines:

The poem stands before us brilliantly photographic and brilliantly verbal at once. If it were not also (to paraphrase Lowell) a shape solid with yearning and written in light, a shape formed by both heart and mind, it would expend its mimetic and verbal energies in vain.

I love Moose Failure. But I love this more.


You can read the full text of ‘Poem’ here


You can read a great blog post on ‘Poem’ by Susan Wood at the Voltage Poetry blog here

You can read about the rest of the Lifesaving Poems series here.

If you liked ‘Poem’, why not try Deryn Reee-Jones’s ‘What It’s Like to Be Alive’ or Carol Rumens’s ‘Coming Home’



  1. I really like the idea of what you remember and what you can see, (as in the picture) all informing each other and merging, so you can’t quite tell which is which.


    1. Hi Anne. I think you have nailed it. Merging is what it is all about. Memory becoming over time the thing that is remembered when it all began with looking at art. Thom Gunn called it ‘the longing/ has become in memory/ an inclusion’. Brilliant. As ever with thanks


  2. Confession: I used to suffer from Moose Failure too. That was in the days when I was working full-time or more than, and didn’t have the mental space for EB’s poems to do their curious, extraordinary work. At least that’s the best explanation I have. Had forgotten about this / repressed it, before reading your excellent post. ‘At the Fishhouses’ was the only exception, and that poem gradually led me to the rest.


    1. Dear Fiona, thanks so much for this. It was a really close call between At the Fishhouses and Poem. Heaney’s essay on the Fishhouses really cracked the door open for me, but Poem was the one I found on my own as it were and kicked it over. I think there is a Moose Failure poem or poet that we all have (or even several) and what I was trying to do was to recognise that, just I have confessed elsewhere on the blog about Poetry Exhaustion. I appreciate your comments as ever, with best wishes, Anthony


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