Poetic Pragmatism: on Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo”

Too often young writers fall into the nebulous trap of attempting to be philosophical or spiritual without any practicality to ground them. As example, it’s not uncommon to see young poets write about clichéd themes with indistinct language, as their verse falls within familiar, tired tropes ultimately resulting in some limp attempt at poetry. Again, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to approach a poem, mind you, but when starting out, it’s typically better to start small, e.g., write about how much you enjoy drinking a cup of coffee, or what you notice while on line at the grocery store, or simply the pleasure you feel (for the gluten tolerant) when eating a bagel. Furthermore, it is important to keep mindful that all these pedestrian events can be philosophical if rendered well.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is regarded as a 20th-century poetic darling, who wrote much in the same vein as Marianne Moore, albeit less cerebral. Despite her thin output, Bishop managed to create several successful poems evoking a child-like eye, such as “The Map,” “The Moth-Man,” “The Moose,” “Questions of Travel,” and “In the Waiting Room,” among others. Her verse can be gentle and comforting, unpretentious and inviting, with all the while her narrative unfolding quietly and uniquely. Readers should be encouraged to study her Complete Poems (again, a thin output compared to many other poets), but her poetic approach can nonetheless offer some aid to the otherwise lost, disillusioned writer.

Now, onto the poem of the hour:

THE SHAMPOO

The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.

And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you’ve been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.

The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
– Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.

First, let’s look at the poem without the title—pretend it isn’t even there. So what is this about? On one hand, this poem can be seen as a declaration of friendship, where within the first lines, Bishop invites images of the sea, then traverses to that of outer space and the moon, to finally that of memory:

The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.

In the opening stanza, the speaker manages to convey the encompassing idea of memory, and how it remains unchanged, i.e., it’s not necessarily what we remember but how we remember. A simple rhyme that evokes children’s playfulness and youth, this is a nice way of alluding to the power of memory without actually stating such. Now goes her shift to the celestial:

And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you’ve been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.

Note how the narrative switches towards some ethereal mention through the use of ‘heavens’, but then is immediately followed with the words precipitate and pragmatical when describing the friend. This is akin to relaying something grand and showy, followed by something ordinary, e.g., you make my universe…and by the way…this cup of tea isn’t bad either—or something like that, more or less, depending on humor or context. A moment of high followed by low. Anyone familiar with Kurt Vonnegut knows he employs this tactic regularly. As example, just look at Slaughterhouse Five in how he describes Dresden after the bombing:

Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead. So it goes.

Simple and beautiful is sometimes all it takes. Then, once again Elizabeth Bishop’s poetic narrative returns us to the ethereal:

For Time is
nothing if not amenable.

Yet because of what has preceded, this phrase holds more heft than if left without context. This is the making of poetry. Finishing, the poem ends with:

The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?

– Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.

Once again, notice how the speaker refers not just to ‘shooting stars’, but those same stars within her friend’s black hair. Ending with a lovely, familiar rhyme, the context is held tightly in place and never veers towards the out-of-touch or nebulous. Then, we have the title—simple and straightforward—grounding us in reality, functional and putting us in a place of action. Is this merely a mediation on memory and friendship? Or could this be a caregiver who is tending to her friend in her final hours, offering one last shampoo? All is left to interpretation, but within these lines, Bishop accomplishes both the philosophical and practical. Life is both action and idea.

Admittedly, “The Shampoo” was a highly influential poem for me when I was developing as a writer in the early 2000s. Seems like eons ago, but I could say the same for a number of Elizabeth Bishop’s other poems, including “Questions of Travel,” which engages in a balancing act between the abstract and the literal. Ultimately, life is functional. We move about as physical beings that breathe and feel. We are in constant competition with the forces around us, and it is only we who can bring deeper meaning into the otherwise indifferent universe before us:

Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there… No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?

What is travel? What is place? To move from one location to another—is this done merely in mind or in body? To think that travel requires us to psychically relocate our bodies, as we often undergo airport unpleasantries, “Questions of Travel” addresses these very queries and certainly we’d like to believe that we—that is, humans are more than mere flesh—but ultimately we are likewise limited by our very physical nature. We are bound by our somethingness. Our bodies cease, are restricted by years and temperature—time imposes itself and all of this ends, but our ideas remain.

O, to live as a free-floating thought, the whim of a mind, or as some other object in question. In the interim, there is always a great poem somewhere achieving just the same.

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