“The Map Shows Me Where It Is You Are”: Gloria Oden Responds to Elizabeth Bishop Across National Geographic and Rand McNally World Maps

Adele J. Haft



African-American poet Gloria Oden was among those inspired by Elizabeth Bishop’s seminal poem “The Map” (1934). In honor of Bishop, Oden wrote two poems about reading maps: “A Private Letter to Brazil” (1957) and “The Map” (ca. 1961). Like May Swenson’s “The Cloud-Mobile,” Oden’s poems overtly pay homage to Bishop. Like Howard Nemerov’s “The Mapmaker on His Art” and Mark Strand’s “The Map,” Oden’s verses reveal that she shares in Bishop’s understanding of the mapmaker’s art: its imaginative power and limitations, its technical achievement and arbitrary nature. Yet Oden’s two poems are far more politically and historically nuanced than Bishop’s “The Map”—or than any of the other map poems written shortly after Bishop won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for her collection opening with “The Map” (Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring). Furthermore, unlike her peers, Oden found inspiration in Bishop’s poem and in an identifiable contemporary map. By comparing both of her poems to Bishop’s original as well as uncovering, with the help of Oden’s own words, the identity of her maps, this paper will demonstrate how Oden’s penetrating critique of two popular 1950s wall maps helped her connect not only with Bishop but also with the world she found reflected in, or absent from, the map.


American Poetry; African-American Poetry; Gloria Oden; Elizabeth Bishop; Twentieth-Century World Maps; National Geographic Society; Rand McNally & Company

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