ElizabethBishop’s “Questions of Travel’ offers an insight into the placestravellers journey through. Using Roman Jakobson, Jeremy Scott, and othertheorists’ explanations on the literary poetic functions, sound, foregrounding,and deixis to analyse how the addresser is unable to truly comprehend thesociety they traverse through, where their perceptions are biased and cloudedby the inklings of past experiences.The poetic function can beidentified with Jakobson’s communication model (1960), the message of the poemspeculates on the addresser’s opinion of traveling and the failure to gain anappreciation for it; hence the title ‘questions’ its necessity. The messagedemonstrates discomfort and passes it on to the addressees, even though it is adisplaced interaction, creating a sombre atmosphere of distress that Bishopassociates with travel itself, and subconsciously, the foreign.When first reading the poem, thesetting could have been Asia due to various Asian imagery, such as the rainyand cloudy weather projected throughout and how the imagery of floodingexpressed by the metaphor; “the mountains look like the hulls of capsizedships..
.” This suggests a summer monsoon season associated with southernAsian countries, trees being “robed in pink” suggesting Sakurablossom trees, “wooden clogs” akin to the traditional geta sandals,the deictic expression: “to see the sun the other way around” Bishopbeing 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 polysemypresent in the poem, as he states; “the clogs have not been civilised; thechurch of ‘Jesuit baroque’ evokes the earlier sixteenth- century colonisers whofounded numerous missions in Brazil and are the subject of an earlier poem inthe collection, ‘Brazil January 1,1502″.The sound of the poem isfashioned much like other modern-day poetry, written in free-verse as with fewhalf rhymes and repetition present, though in the terms of the poem’s metre,the style consists of some anapaestic elements of two unstressed and then astressed syllable.The poem’s foregrounding can beattained through deviation and parallelism as Boris Tomashevsky (1965) notes;”The old and habitual must be spoken of as if it were new and unusual. Onemust speak of the ordinary as if it were unfamiliar”.
Thedefamiliarisation forces an unusual perspective through methods that arelinguistically noticeable. In terms of internal deviation, which is somethingthat breaks the established patterns within a text, Bishop creates grammaticaldeviations; rhetorical questions throughout the second and fourth stanzas, forinstance; “must we dream our dreams and have them, too?” and othersimilar rhetorical questions. This use of language differs from the establishedpattern she has created, conveying a pessimistic view on travelling and howthey seem better in ‘dreams’, (Joyceliao, 2014) further portraying the sombretone of the message.
In terms of the deixis of thepoem, Keith Green (1992) discusses “Deixis and the Poetic Persona”which is a classification depending on the deictic centre. For example,referring to place the speaker mentions their position as “here”; injuxtaposition to “home”. This adds semantic density to the lexicon asthe narrator cannot identify with what they are witnessing; the world in whichthey find themselves seems fake and foreign.
Likewise, the first half of thepoem is strongly suggestive of sight imagery, using deictic expressions to usethe readers’ senses to contact. Phrases such as “watching strangers”,”to see the sun…”, “to stare at”, and “at anyview” subtly focuses the reader to pay attention to the scene around them.Each specific expression indicates an attempt made by the speaker to highlighttheir surroundings.However, the line; “crowdedstreams hurry too rapidly down,” directs the reader not to the imagery butrather the polysemy message.
Instead, she alludes to the mechanisms of thehuman capacity to process sight, therefore losing the ability to properlyexperience the spectacles and marvels of another’s native environment. Scott(2013) supports this as he states one of the features of stanza three isperceptual deixis and modality, as there are seven experienced events relatedin the present perfect which relate to some point in time and that these directthe readers using senses, as he writes; “Of the seven types of processencoded in the verbs (‘see’, ‘hear’, ‘ponder’), all but one are mentalprocesses.”Closer inspections of thestructure of the poem reveal a decline towards the traditional; the speaker’sdisregard for it establishes her critique of a human tendency towards thecomforting familiar. With the inclusion of the formal shift in the last stanzasof the poem, Bishop reminds readers of the inherent arbitrary nature ofattempts to answer questions regarding life, understanding, and the exotic. Forinstance; the quote about those who stare “at some inexplicable oldstonework/ inexplicable and impenetrable”. These specific words, which areone form of parallelism due to their alliteration as well as their endingassonance and consonance, describe the limitations humans face when attemptingto immerse themselves in other cultures, with vastly different customs, histories,and values.
(Joyceliao, 2014)Furthermore, the third stanzaportrays a format of graphological deviation, resembling a shopping list. Thereis an internal dialogue between the speaker and themselves. The customaryformat of the interrogatives showcases the importance of singular answers. Theformal tone shifts from a graphological deviation of common font case to italicsat the end of the poem, making the tone appear more conversational.
In terms of grammar, there is anoticeable transition from the personal, plural pronoun “we”, inwhich the reader and the narrator share the experience together to the ambiguousterm; “the traveller”. This in turn, removes the readers from theexperience, suggesting as Joyceliao describes how limited in perspective humanexperiences are, and, simultaneously, how critically important it is to becomeopen minded to promote tolerance and understanding. (2014)Throughstylistic approaches such as sound, foregrounding, and deixis the addresserstruggles to gain an appreciation for the disparities of the new places theyencounter, questioning their travel when they could experience the same in thecomforts at home.
These techniques remind readers of the importance ofself-awareness within their own surroundings to understand the world.