Bishop, "Insomnia," and Psychoanalysis


Today in EN290, we discussed Bishop’s poem “Insomnia” from a psychoanalytic perspective. I started the class by turning to some important themes in Bishop’s biography, themes which find expression quite often in her work–loss, alienation, dislocation, and so on. This allowed us to differentiate formalist from psychoanalytic methodology, while also giving us a starting place for our return to the basic principles of psychoanalytic theory. For the next 20 minutes or so, I tried to establish a sense of continuity and difference between this and earlier theoretical approaches we’ve studied–there can never be too much repetition! What ideas/images/practices would most interest a psychoanalytic critic? A deconstructionist? A structuralist? A New Critic? A Russian Formalist? I think that working backward, continually, from the approach-of-the-day may be useful in encouraging students to continue asking the same question of different theories.

For homework, I’d asked each student to annotate a poem of their choice using the tools of psychoanalytic analysis, and some poems were particularly well-suited; the one we worked on as a class, “Insomnia,” had been given short shrift in the annotation. I used an example of close reading for theme to model how to start or set-up an analysis, and we briefly discussed the poem as a whole–I am constantly amazed that students don’t immediately gravitate toward the title as a site for analysis! Then the students got into smaller groups to discuss the poem, jot down notes, and so on. Then, students individually worked on a paragraph of their own analysis–starting with a completion of the sentence, “Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘Insomnia’ addresses….” We weren’t able to finish the paragraphs, so I’ve asked students to finish and revise at home. If I were to have done this class again, I’d truncate the discussion time, which did run a little over, and devote more to the writing and full-class discussion of their analyses. Nonetheless, I do like the continuity established through revision; there’s just never enough time in the period!

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