Chatto & Windus (two volumes), £14.99 & £18.99, 368pp & 528pp. £13.49 & 17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Poems and Prose, By Elizabeth Bishop

That Elizabeth Bishop is a key figure in 20th-century American poetry is not in doubt. Her influence has even helped refurbish today's British verse, allowing it to escape the traditional face-off between Modernism and the lyric tradition. However, since 1994, when her selected letters were published as One Art, she has also come to be seen as a significant prose writer. In fellow American poet Robert Lowell's claim, "When Elizabeth Bishop's letters are published... she will be recognised as not only one of the best, but one of the most prolific writers of our century". Words in Air, the engaging duet that is his own correspondence with Bishop, appeared in 2008. Now these centenary editions of Prose and Poems have the responsibility of sustaining her reputation in coming decades.

Although published together, these volumes are not editorially symmetrical. While Poems is broadly inclusive, taking account of further unfinished work discovered since Alice Quinn's 2006 edition of uncollected material, the Prose is lightly selected. It omits for self-evidently practical reasons most of Bishop's translation of the book-length Diary of "Helena Morley". The only correspondence it includes are hitherto unpublished letters, rich in biographical detail and thoughts on the art of poetry, sent to Anne Stevenson while she was researching a monograph on the poet.

This scarcely matters for the reader new to Bishop's work; except that the writer who emerges can seem carefully accomplished in prose, yet risk-taking, even inconsistent, as a poet. It's a paradox that is probably intrinsic to the project. Bishop's method of composition – and indeed publication – was famously revisionary, and any reasonably comprehensive edition will necessarily unpick some of that revision.

Included here are, whisper who dare, poems whose heavy-handed use of rhyme sets up an unappealing, oddly-naive clangour. "Pink Dog", from the last year of the poet's life (1911-1979), may conceivably be imitating the folk art of the Brazilian Carnival, where it's set; but other uncollected poems sound frankly occasional.

Yet rhyme is what structures many of Bishop's canonical poems – such as "One Art", the experience of loss clicked shut in a villanelle, or "The Moose", five pages of "dreamy divagation" set on an long-distance bus – with her characteristically light yet steely touch. These major pieces manage a subtly patterned disobedience - "One Art" doesn't repeat its key couplet quite faithfully, the full rhymes of "The Moose" are irregularly distributed – which feels organic, or "slant". Rhyme, like all strict form, must pull against some aspect of a poem to create its pleasurable tensions.

However, Bishop's verse is oddly inhospitable to such complexity. Her poems are characteristically univocal, "spoken" by a kind of wandering or wondering, apprehension, often limpidly conversational:

Oh, but it is dirty!
–this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

"Filling Station" offers us a companionable narrator whose wry, fuss-budgety tone exemplifies the secret of Bishop's enduringly contemporary feel. When Christopher Isherwood wrote "I am a camera", he was helping usher in a post-war era in which objectivity would be personal, and authority relative. These poems, many written around the same time, do something similar. In place of omniscience they create a persona, a literal-minded character who leaves no room for narrative ambiguity or resonance. In the absence of those qualities, the language itself must take on poetic "second life" as patterned sound.

Bishop knows "that we are living in a material world". Indeed, it's in her exceptionally vivid observation that her processes of writerly distillation come into their own. From the hyper-real rock roses of "Vague Poem (Vaguely love poem)" – long circulated as lesbian samizdat – to joyously comprehensive poems of place, particularly those collected in A Cold Spring (1955), she pays patient attention to the obvious as well as the unobvious: "Bluish, associated with their shadows, /a million Christmas trees stand /waiting for Christmas" ("At the Fishhouses").

Sometimes the narrator herself appears, engaged in observation ("I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,/ slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones"), conversation, or even shampooing a lover's hair. Yet however much we follow her in thought and action, she remains a strangely affectless figure. Even "In the Waiting Room", a famous portrait of alienation, reads more as a thought experiment than as confessional verse.

In that poem Aunt Consuelo gives a "cry of pain that could have/ got loud and worse but hadn't." Bishop observed the constraints on prose slightly differently. "The Village", a remarkable memoir of a childhood marked by her mother's mental illness, famously opens, "A scream, the echo of a scream, hangs over that Nova Scotian village." In this and other, shorter, "Memoirs and Stories", there is so much telling to be done that it seems we can afford a little emotion. Although editor Lloyd Schwartz's categorisation seems both unnecessary and awkward, "A Trip to Vigia" is witty and exact about both place and human nature, while "The U.S.A. School of Writing" will strike a chord with anyone who has ever taught creative writing: the "primitive writer seems in a hurry to get it over with". Though Bishop's critical writing seems at times too withheld to achieve real engagement, what she has to say about poets like Marianne Moore, in whom she had personal investment, sheds vivid light on both writers' work.

If these prose pieces don't establish their own importance in quite the way that Bishop's finest poems do, maybe this doesn't matter. Better perhaps to read them as part of a broad version of the poet's work. Concerned, like her verse, with "Geographies" and with translation, they are further evidence of a brilliant, disciplined sensibility. Bishop is a poets' role model, and a reader's delight: her verse consummately its own justification. To have that work revisited by this centenary celebration can only be good.

Fiona Sampson's 'Rough Music' was shortlisted for the Forward and TS Eliot Prizes 2010

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?