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 The only correspondence it includes are hitherto unpublished letters, rich in biographical detail and thoughts on the art of poetry, sent to Anne Stevenson while she was researching a monograph on the poet.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
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
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.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam