In my current research, I argue that Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Monument” represents a more democratic attitude toward aesthetic objects than what we see from her contemporaries Robert Lowell and John Berryman. Eschewing the “tutelary” relationship between poet as teacher and reader as student, Bishop offsets her own position of power as the artist-creator by including the voice of a resistant, reluctant onlooker whose interrogations about what it is they are supposed to be looking at position the reader as the monument’s curator, one who must select between descriptions, views, depth, and purposes for the monument. The monument’s physical presence is brought into being collaboratively between the two speakers who create it’s shape and it’s potential and the reader who must parse and prioritize the verbal network of the poem. Furthermore, Bishop, who started writing “The Monument” in her Key West notebooks (see Barbara Page) after just having read Wallace Stevens’ Owl’s Clover, enters into public discourse about the relevance of public monuments (and by extension art) in a social, political, and economic climate in which people are suffering, nations are warring, and the realities of daily life seem to negate the place and purpose of art. Sounds familiar, no?
Bishop responds by arguing that monuments (and painting, and poetry, and sculpture) are significant because they are sites of “commemoration”–an interesting word choice because the word “commemorate” requires communal activity. Unlike her friend Robert Lowell who uses the bronze relief by August Saint-Gaudens in Boston Commons to establish historical connection and significance for himself as an artist, Bishop imagines the monument as evolving to purpose rather deriving from it.
Visualizing the poem as a network demonstrates how the speakers’ relationship to one another builds out of their discursive description of the monument. In the networks below, each speaker is related to the monument through questions and description (recorded as the statements they make in the poem). I have characterized those statements as grounding the monument in physical space, with tangible attributes, insisting on its materiality [repesented by blue lines] or on the other hand imagining the monument’s potential or possibility through questions, equivalences (is it this or that statements) and statements that intimate a metaphysical presence for the monument [in orange].
The networks are formed by matching each speaker up with with each statement made in the poem. As a result, this is a “bimodal” network: one which takes actors and text and studies the relationship between them. The relationship, represented by a line is further characterized as advancing the monument’s status as “wood” (a physical object belonging to the material, and therefore “real” world) and the word’s homophone “would” (a representation of possibility, potential, and by association the “imaginary” life of the mind).
The reader as curator, then, must choose among the wood and the would–between the multiply rendered descriptions of the monument’s physical presence and its imagined potential, which is a new beginning itself, the shape of which could be poetry, painting, statue or monument, depending on choices the reader makes.