Elizabeth Bishop’s “Questions of Travel’ offers a glimpse into the places travellers journey through. Using Roman Jakobson, Jeremy Scott, and other theorists’ explanations on the literary poetic functions, sound, foregrounding, and deixis to analyse how the addresser is unable to truly comprehend the society they traverse through. Where their perceptions are biased, clouded and blurred by the inklings of past experiences.
The poetic function can be identified with Jakobson’s communication model (1960), the message of the poem speculates on the addresser’s opinion of traveling and the failure to gain an appreciation for it; hence the title ‘questions’ its necessity. The message demonstrates discomfort and passes it on to the addressees, even though it is a displaced interaction, creating a sombre atmosphere of distress that Bishop associates with travel itself, and subconsciously, the foreign.
When first reading the poem, the setting could have been Asia due to various Asian imagery, such as the rainy and cloudy weather projected throughout and how the imagery of flooding expressed by the metaphor; “the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships…” This suggests a summer monsoon season associated with southern Asian countries, trees being “robed in pink” suggesting Sakura blossom trees, “wooden clogs” akin to the traditional geta sandals, the deictic expression: “to see the sun the other way around” Bishop being from the USA meaning the other side is most likely Asia, and finally “a bamboo church”; a material only commonly found in China. However, Scott (2013) suggests the setting is
placed in Brazil, portraying the polysemy present in the poem, as he states; “the clogs have not been civilised; the church of ‘Jesuit baroque’ evokes the earlier sixteenth- century colonisers who founded numerous missions in Brazil and are the subject of an earlier poem in the collection, ‘Brazil January 1,1502”.
The sound of the poem is fashioned much like other modern day poetry, written in free-verse as there is no form of rhymes present, though in the terms of the poem’s metre, the style consists of an anapaestic beat of two unstressed and then a stressed syllable.
The poem’s foregrounding can be attained through deviation and parallelism as Boris Tomashevsky (1965) notes; “The old and habitual must be spoken of as if it were new and unusual. One must speak of the ordinary as if it were unfamiliar”. The defamiliarisation forces readers to look, allowing them to see things from a different, unusual perspective through methods that are linguistically noticeable. In terms of internal deviation, which is something that breaks the established patterns within a text, Bishop creates grammatical deviations; rhetorical questions throughout the second and fourth stanzas, for instance; “must we dream our dreams and have them, too?” and other similar rhetorical questions. This use of language differs from the established pattern Bishop has created within the text, further portraying the sombre tone of the message. The speaker conveys their pessimistic views on travelling and how they seem better in ‘dreams’.
In terms of the deixis of the poem, Keith Green (1992) discusses “Deixis and the Poetic Persona” which is a classification depending on the deictic centre. The deictic expressions are anchored to the “point zero” of the poem, whether it be centred around time, place, person, or situation, usually in an egocentric manner. For example, referring to place the speaker mentions their position as “here”; in juxtaposition to “home”. This adds semantic density to the lexicon as the narrator cannot identify with what they are beholding; the world in which they find themselves seems fake and foreign. Likewise, the first half of the poem is strongly suggestive of sight, using deictic expressions to manipulate the readers’ senses to make contact with the desired imagery. Phrases such as “watching strangers”, “to see the sun…”, “to stare at”, and “at any view” subtly focuses the reader to pay attention to the scene around them. Each specific expression indicates an attempt made by the speaker to highlight their surroundings.
However, the line; “crowded streams hurry too rapidly down,” directs the reader not to the imagery but rather the polysemy message. Instead, Bishop alludes to the mechanisms of the human capacity to process sight, therefore losing the ability to properly experience the spectacles and marvels of another’s native environment. Scott (2013) supports this as he states one of the features of stanza three is perceptual deixis and modality, as there are seven experienced events related in the present perfect which relate to some point in time and that these direct the readers using senses, as he writes; “Of the seven types of process encoded in the verbs (‘see’, ‘hear’, ‘ponder’), all but one are mental processes.”
Closer inspections of the structure of the poem reveal a decline towards the traditional; their disregard for it establishes Bishop’s critique of a human tendency towards the comforting familiar. With the inclusion of the formal shift in the last stanzas of the poem, Bishop reminds readers of the inherent arbitrary nature of attempts to answer questions regarding life, understanding, and the exotic. For instance; the quote about those who stare “at some inexplicable old stonework/ inexplicable and impenetrable”. These specific words, which are one form of parallelism due to their alliteration as well as their ending assonance and consonance, describe the limitations humans face when attempting to immerse themselves in other cultures, with vastly different customs, histories, and values.
Furthermore, the third stanza portrays a format of graphological deviation, resembling a shopping list, is an ongoing dialogue between the speaker and themselves. The customary format of the interrogatives showcases the
importance of singular answers. The speaker’s inability to come to a definite conclusion suggests that the question itself, and its interpretation, may be as crucial as the answers. The formal shift at the end of the poem, a graphological deviation indicated by the italics, demands the reader’s attention. There is a noticeable transition from “we”, in which the reader and the narrator share the experience together, to “the traveller”, in which readers are barred from the experience. By doing so, Bishop, suggests how limited in perspective human experiences are, and, simultaneously, how critically important it to become open minded to promote tolerance and understanding.
Through stylistic approaches such as sound, foregrounding, and deixis the addresser struggles to gain an appreciation for the disparities of the new places they encounter, questioning their travel when they could experience the same in the comforts at home. Readers are reminded of the importance of self-criticism and self-awareness in framing their world through the right questions in their search for the right answers.