Erica McAlpine on Elizabeth Bishop at the American Literature Research Seminar at Oxford, 13 October
Thursday, 13th October, 5 PM: Erica McAlpine (Keble College, Oxford)
‘Fact-checking Elizabeth Bishop’
Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” bears the markers of a particular place and time—“Worcester, Massachusetts” and “February 5th, 1918.” Specificity is Bishop’s specialty, and this poem, which refers to real stories in that month’s National Geographic magazine, seems to combine specificity with truth. But Bishop’s facts are actually muddled: “My memory had confused two 1918 issues of the Geographic,” she explains in an interview after several critics notice that the stories she refers to in the poem do not appear in the same magazine. Does her memory’s confusion matter? Elsewhere Bishop insists upon accuracy—“I always tell the truth in my poems.” But can poetry make its own sense of what happened? Focusing on Bishop’s use and misuse of historical detail in this and other seemingly autobiographical poems, this talk suggests what readers might stand to gain from calling a mistake a mistake and separating fictionalized fact from empirical truth.
Erica McAlpine is the Robin Geffen Career Development Fellow in English at Keble College, Oxford. She is currently working on two academic books. The Poet’s Mistake looks at mistakes in poems — and critics’ responses to those mistakes — to explore the tension between errors in craft and moments of unintended creativity. Lyric Elsewhere examines the similarities between psychological mechanisms of defense and formal displacements of perspective in poems. She is also a poet and her latest collection is The Country Gambler (Shearsman, 2016).