Reading as a Writer: Geography III as Transitional Object

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Dominic McLoughlin:

When I was in my twenties I took a job as a bookseller at Books & Co on Madison Avenue at 74th Street, an independent bookstore in Manhattan, just next door to the Whitney Museum. It was not well paid but one of the perks was a licence to choose volumes to take home and keep. Once I chose Auden’s Homage to Clio, but no sooner had I left work for the evening than I discovered I had left the book on the back seat of a taxi cab. As a friend said at the time, “Easy come, easy go!” On another occasion I took home a paperback copy of Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III. This volume of poems has stayed with me for almost thirty years since. It is hard to think what my life would have been like without it. I make this dramatic statement not as a poet, but, first and foremost, as a reader. Why is it that some books slip through our fingers, while others stay with us forever?

A partial answer to that question is suggested by the work of D.W. Winnicott, whose book Playing and Reality is another that I consider to have changed my life. I remember the precise moment during an interview for post-graduate studies when I was first told about it; I had an instant sense of life being different. The notion of reading being about relationships – akin to falling in love – suggests that psychoanalytic theory might be helpful as a means of speaking about the dynamics of literary exchange. Winnicott’s ideas also lend themselves well to an understanding of the negotiation between subjective and objective modes of experience that is such a vital dynamic in Geography III, and throughout the work of Elizabeth Bishop.

The application of theories of human development to the cultural sphere is a project that Winnicott addresses in his chapter, ‘The Location of Cultural Experience’ in Playing and Reality. Here, the concern is not to explain the origin of artistic activity, as Freud had begun with ideas of sublimation, but rather, to ‘tell us where in the mind cultural experience is’. This emphasis on location is picked up in the title of an essay by Murray M. Schwartz who asks ‘Where is Literature?’ In this essay, Schwartz uses Winnicott’s idea of ‘potential space’ to reconcile the objectivity required of students of literary studies with the subjective response literature necessarily demands.

Winnicott’s concepts of ‘potential space’ and the use of ‘transitional objects’ provides a theoretical framework for learning and creative development not just in literature but in any sphere. For Winnicott, the filling in of the potential space is what gives the infant the capacity to survive the loss of the [maternal] carer in her inevitable failure to meet his/her needs. In ‘good enough’ mothering—where the infant knows that the mother will return eventually and that [s]he is not facing a catastrophic loss—the infant is able to make use of transitional objects to console itself through which [s]he can gain an appreciation of the boundaries between ‘not-me’ and ‘me’. Through this process the child gains a capacity to be alone, to play, to relax, and to concentrate:

The baby’s confidence in the mother’s reliability, and therefore in that of other people and things, makes possible a separating-out of the not-me from the me. At the same time, however, it can be said that separation is avoided by the filling in of the potential space with creative playing, with the use of symbols, and with all that eventually adds up to a cultural life.

Geography III is a book of poems that is full of transitional objects itself— from the National Geographic magazine of ‘In the Waiting Room’, to the knife in ‘Crusoe in England’, to the curious creature appearing out of the woods in ‘The Moose’, to the endearing landscape painting in ‘Poem’. Repeatedly and insistently, the reader is given the opportunity to play with meanings and feeling states, and thus to forget herself/ himself in what Bishop calls ‘perfectly useless concentration’. The state of reverie is also conjured by the depiction of a series of rooms or enclosed spaces: a shack near the beach (‘The End of March’), a night-bus (‘The Moose’), a bedroom in the early morning (‘Five Flights Up’) which might be considered as potential spaces.

What is at stake then, in Winnicottian terms, is the creation of ‘the place where we live’. Rather than a therapeutic space, it is ‘the place, using the word in an abstract sense, where we most of the time are when we are experiencing life’. The enduring appeal and great value of Bishop’s work for ordinary readers is the occupation of a place that is recognizable, even familiar – even if we do not quite know why. This is a place which acknowledges the pain of loss and how, as in ‘Five Flights Up’, the days sometimes feel ‘impossible to lift’. In contrast to the isolation that is ultimately rejected in ‘The End of March’, where one would be reduced to reading ‘long, boring books’, it is a social, rather than solitary space. This creative space grants the freedom for personal engagement and spontaneity enough to say, ‘Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!’ as in ‘Poem’. In summary, it is also a place of intimacy. Yet, crucially, it is not a place for the confessional. Bishop’s gift in the eyes of critics such as David Kalstone, Langdon Hammer, and Bonnie Costello is to be able to create a sense of intimacy between writer and reader that does not rely on the revelation of personal secrets. Bishop was writing at a time when confessional poetry found its voice with her close friend and mentor Robert Lowell, one of its key innovators. For Lowell, together with a melding of autobiographical facts and poetic truth, the subject of the person in history was fundamental to his poetics. Conversely, Bishop had her own views on how one should handle the paradox of separating out ‘life and the memory of it’, another negotiation central to her poetics.

Winnicott’s theoretical framework and object relations perspective, then, enables us to see the value of Bishop’s poetry as a transitional space allowing for the inter-subjectivity of writer and reader. In Bonnie Costello’s view, Bishop’s poetry rises above the binaries of inside/outside and subject/object, both by questioning the terms and locating the problem of interpretation in the text of the poem itself. In Bishop’s work, there is rarely any firm boundary between the inside and the outside. Nor is there any final access to knowledge, nor key to interpretation. Accordingly, the impossibility of knowing and being known can tend to leave us frustrated, like a child banging on the door wanting to be let in.

A crucial point of overlap between Winnicott’s concerns in the therapeutic realm and Bishop’s in the literary is the common interest in the negotiation between inner and outer experience, what Winnicott calls ‘the exciting interweave of subjective and objective observation.’ As he formulates his seminal ideas, Winnicott’s writing style becomes questioning, thoughtful and conversational, exhibiting some of the negative capability on which his ideas were based: ‘For a long time my mind remained in a state of not-knowing, this state crystallizing into my formulation of the transitional phenomena.’ In terms of human development, inhabiting and making use of the potential space is how we learn to balance the pressing needs of our innate desires and appetites with a capacity to wait and to be uncertain. Transitional objects function as comforters that help us to manage unbearable anxieties. In particular, they teach us the possibility of tolerating loss. In infancy they may be a teddy bear or a favourite blanket, and in adult life they take the form of any object in the cultural field. An essential feature of transitional objects is that they are partly found and partly made— that is they are invested with meaning by the infant and are therefore to that extent in his control.

In terms of reading as a writer, this links to the idea of poets having other poets as ‘best friends’ in the sense that they are instances of ‘not me’ that are invested with special meaning. They are not handed down by an externally validated authority and not necessarily the same as those Elizabeth Bishop referred to as ‘the best poets—whom we all admire’. Rather, they are an inevitable consequence of an individual’s own poetic make up. Winnicott makes it clear that he is not concerned to develop a theory of art and artists: ‘the creativity that concerns me here is a universal. It belongs to being alive’. The idea of a potential space and a facilitating environment make themselves available to explain the conditions needed for learning and for creative thinking in any sphere. It is an environment which allows for a kind of formless play. The link between playing in childhood and adult cultural experience may seem far-fetched, but Murray M. Schwartz, in his chapter ‘Where is Literature?’, underlines its importance: ‘Winnicott has defined an area of experience at the point of its inception. If it seems perverse to suggest that literature is a teddy bear, I find it enlightening to realise what they have in common, the place of their meaningful experience for us, first as children, later as adults.’ For Winnicott the ability to play becomes in adult life the ability to be creative in our apperception: ‘There is a direct development from transitional phenomena to playing, and from playing to shared playing, and from this to cultural experiences’.

There is an added value in holding in mind Winnicott’s ideas in relation to the experience of reading Elizabeth Bishop. The title she gave her haunting account of studying in a quiet room at the top of the dormitory at boarding school was: ‘On Being Alone’. This youthful meditation (written in 1929 when she was just seventeen) was developed further in her undergraduate essay ‘Time’s Andromedas’ (1933) with its opening description of ‘studying very hard’ and how she was ‘expecting Heaven knows what sudden revelation’ when she became aware of a sunset: ‘My own thoughts, conflicting with those of the book, were making such a wordy racket that I heard and saw nothing—until the page before my eyes blushed pink.’ The concern of these first writings chimes with Winnicott’s 1958 paper ‘The Capacity to Be Alone’ where he stresses the developmental requirement for the infant to be able to be alone in the presence of the mother: ‘When alone in the sense that I am using the term, and only when alone, the infant is able to do the equivalent of what in an adult would be called relaxing.’ What Bishop’s essays show and Winnicott’s theories explain is that in order to read (that is, to be alone in the presence of another) we do need to be able to manage the complex ‘wordy racket’ from within and without. It is this negotiation of subjective and objective experience which became a central idea throughout Bishop’s writing.

There are further similarities between the accounts of cultural experience as described by Winnicott and Bishop. In the chapter in Playing and Reality where he describes how playing is a key element in the ‘search for self’, Winnicott concludes that ‘searching can come only from desultory formless functioning, or perhaps from rudimentary playing, as in a neutral zone’. It is through the activity of play that,

 

[we] experience life in the area of transitional phenomena, in the exciting interweave of subjectivity and objective observation, and in an area that is intermediate between the inner reality of the individual and the shared reality of the world that is external to individuals.

 

Some of the meaning and even some of the music of this statement written in 1971 can be heard before its time in Elizabeth Bishop’s comment to Anne Stevenson in a letter of 8-20 January 1964, which in turn is reminiscent of Keats’s account of negative capability:

 

What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.

 

Taking his title from this quotation, Langdon Hammer brings Winnicott to bear in his paper, ‘Useless Concentration: Life and Work in Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters and Poems’. He shows how Bishop’s letters themselves can be usefully seen as inhabiting an in-between space that is neither the professional space of her poems nor the amateur space of ordinary friendship. In his analysis of Bishop’s ‘Poem’ from Geography III, Hammer shows how an intricate series of relationships is built up between the writer and her subject, and between poem as object and writer and reader. ‘Poem’ takes as its starting point a description of a painting by the poet’s uncle. Here, the painting functions as a transitional object. The poem begins with steady observation, constructing layers of meaning through close attention to the canvas. We are drawn into thinking about the difference between the marks, ‘titanium white, one dab’, and what they represent, ‘his barn’. The poem then becomes a touching encounter between two artists at the moment of epiphany when the poet brings herself into the frame with the exclamation, ‘Heavens, I recognise the place, I know it!’ The drama of personal identification makes possible a different order of knowledge—for writer and for reader— not simply one reliant on factual accuracy.   Once the personal connection has been made, a new kind of reverie can take place:

 

 

I never knew him.  We both knew the place,
apparently, this literal small backwater,
looked at it long enough to memorize it,
our years apart. How strange. And it’s still loved,
or its memory is (it must have changed a lot). 
Our visions coincided—“visions” is 
too serious a word—our looks, two looks: 
art “copying from life” and life itself,
life and the memory of it so compressed 
they’ve turned into each other. Which is which?   

 

 

Drawing on Bishop’s formulation in the letter to Stevenson, which importantly speaks to the activity of both reading and writing, Hammer sees that,

 

It is ‘self-forgetful’ concentration because in this state one’s attention is absorbed by an object outside the self; to enter it is to enter the liminal, ‘potential’ space’ Winnicott speaks of, a space of reverie where the subject is ‘held’ by an object.

 

Being held by a transitional object—a poem or work of art—allows us to tolerate tensions that are an inevitable consequence of the need to mediate between subjective and objective experience. Hammer proceeds in his discussion of Bishop’s work:

 

Truth to objects is not the final concern of this art. Rather, the artist’s relation to the world is the ground for an inter-subjective relation—an intimacy—between artist and audience. That is the situation in ‘Poem’, where the painter’s relation to the world he paints is structured like the poet’s relation to the painting she describes, which is in turn structured like the reader’s relation to ‘Poem’.

 

 

Understood this way, art comes to seem like a form of personal correspondence (rather than the other way around).

Winnicott’s idea of a transitional object, and Langdon Hammer’s use of this to capture an essential part of Bishop’s poetics, allows us to see how a different kind of intimacy—one that does not involve the betrayal of personal confidences—can be created. This is an intimacy that is inter-subjective—writer and reader are joined in a creative interaction that allows them to mediate between inner and outer worlds. The choices we make of cultural objects may partly choose us too.

Dominic McLoughlin

About Dominic McLoughlin

Dominic McLoughlin has published poems in Poetry Review, The Rialto, The SHOp (Ireland), and Oxford Poetry. He has a PhD on literary influence in Elizabeth Bishop and May Swenson.