Cover of The Worcester Review, Vol 32, No. 1 &2

All year long I’ve been celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of the poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979).

You can read some of what I’ve written about Ms. Bishop and her poetry on this blog.

Today, the 101st anniversary of the poet’s birth, to mark the completion of the centennial celebrations, I want to share my essay “Elegy & Exile: Elizabeth Bishop’s Poem ‘Crusoe in England’.”

Here is my essay as it appeared in The Worcester Review‘s special edition “Bishop’s Century: Her Poems and Art”:

 

A new volcano has erupted,

the papers say, and last week I was reading

where some ship saw an island being born

They named it. But my poor island’s still

un-rediscovered, un-renamable.— Elizabeth Bishop

So begins Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Crusoe in England” one of two fine elegies found in her last collection, Geography III, and her longest sustained narrative poem.

The island is “un-renamable,” which implies it was named by someone once. In fact, the speaker in the poem named it “The Island of Despair,” for its volcanic centerpiece, “Mont d’Espoir or Mount Despair.” He had time to play with names; twenty-eight years, by at least one account.

The speaker is, of course, the protagonist of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, Robinson Crusoe – and he isn’t.

Defoe’s Robinson was Christian, civilized, and strongly empirical in his thinking; Bishop’s Crusoe is skeptical and unsure of his knowledge and memory.

Both are displaced figures, but Defoe’s Robinson feels that displacement most acutely on the island upon which he is shipwrecked. Bishop’s Crusoe feels more displaced after his return to “another island,/ that doesn’t seem like one…” His home country of England.

Crusoe was lonely on the island; its clouds, volcanoes, and water-spouts were no consolation – “beautiful, yes, but not much company.” He experiences a “dislocation of physical scale,” as Bishop biographer Lorrie Goldensohn observed.

He’s a giant compared to the volcanoes, which appear in miniature from such distance; the goats and turtles, too. It is, Goldensohn writes, “an analogue of the nausea of connection and disconnection.”

Then “Friday” arrives, but even their relationship, in the Bishop poem, is tinged with loneliness. They both long for love they cannot consummate, “I wanted to propagate my kind,/ and so did he, I think, poor boy.”

Defoe’s Robinson is much less isolated. His island is visited by native cannibals who take their victims to the island to be eaten (Friday is their prisoner; until Crusoe saves him and names him), as well as Spaniards, and English mutineers. This last group helps Robinson return to England with Friday. There are other adventures in the novel, including a voyage to Lisbon and a crossing of the Pyrenees on foot.

None of this is for Bishop. Her goal was not to re-write the novel, but to re-imagine the story. Her Crusoe possesses, as C.K. Doreski has noted, “a weary tonality of such authenticity her character seems not an extension of Defoe’s fictional exile, but a real Crusoe, endowed with a twentieth-century emotional frankness.”

Bishop’s Crusoe finds even deeper loneliness back “home,” with its “uninteresting lumber.” Once there, he longs for the intensity of life on his island, its violence and self –determination, and its objects full of meaning.

The author at Elizabeth Bishop’s grave, July 4, 2011

“Disconcertingly,” as Goldensohn describes it, “Crusoe discovers that the misery from which he so willingly fled was the chief stock of his life.”

Defoe’s Robinson returns to England to find nothing there for him. Robinson’s family thought him dead after his 28-year absence, and there is no inheritance for him, no fortune to claim, no home.

Crusoe, in Bishop’s devising, also finds nothing for him at home, despite the longing he felt for it while a castaway. His loss is a spiritual and cultural loss.

While on the island, he tries to hold onto his home culture. He makes “tea” and a kind of fizzy fermented drink from berries he discovers, even a homemade flute with “the weirdest scale on earth.”

Alas, he doesn’t remember enough of his culture’s great literature to make him feel at home,

                                                The books

I’d read were full of blanks;

the poems – well, I tried

reciting to my iris beds,

“They flash upon that inward eye,

which is the bliss…” The bliss of what?

One of the first things that I did

When I got back was look it up.

The bliss is, of course, “solitude,” which is the word completing this line from Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” (” I wandered lonely as a cloud…”). We forgive Bishop this anachronism; Wordsworth’s poem was written over one hundred years after Defoe’s novel. By referencing this line she creates a sense of displacement or dislocation in us, her readers.

For Bishop’s Crusoe, solitude approaches bliss by way of banality, especially when he reflects on what was lost – including Friday, who was introduced with the banal phrase, “Friday was nice and we were friends.”

The potency of their relationship is merely hinted at; perhaps reflecting Bishop’s own sense of decorum in matters personal. (“Accounts of that have everything all wrong,” Bishop writes.)

Some critics have suggested that Friday in this poem is a stand-in for Lota de Soares Macedo, Bishop’s Brazilian lover; while others, James Merrill among them, wondered why Bishop couldn’t give us “a bit more about Friday?”

For almost as soon as Friday arrives they are taken off the island. By the end of the poem, we learn that Friday died of measles while in England, presumably a disease to which he had no immunity.

Bishop began writing “Crusoe in England” in the early 1960s – although notebook entries from 1934 hint that the poem may have its origins in her time at Vassar – and picked it up again after Lota’s death in 1967. (Goldensohn postulates based upon her reading of drafts of the poem that Bishop brought Friday into the poem at that time.)

She worked on it again after a visit to Charles Darwin’s home in Kent. She relied on Darwin’s notes from the Galapagos for her depiction of the island, along with Herman Melville’s “Encantadas,” and perhaps Randall Jarrell’s “The Island,” as has been suggested, as well as on her own experience of tropical and sub-tropical locales.

By the time she visited Galapagos in 1971, however, the poem had been delivered to The New Yorker.  She must have been fairly pleased that her description was almost spot-on. (My own experience of the Galapagos has the spitting and hissing she writes about coming from the iguanas rather than the turtles, but no matter.)

Bishop’s friend and fellow poet, Robert Lowell, thought “Crusoe” to be “maybe your very best poem,” and I’m inclined to agree. (Although the poem preceding it in 1979’s Geography III, “The Waiting Room,” gives it a run for my money.)

“An analogue to your life,”Lowell wrote in a letter to Bishop, “or an ‘Ode to Dejection.’ Nothing you’ve written has such a mix of humor and desperation.”

It’s true this poem has a kind of desperation to it that comes from desolation and longing, for “home,” in particular, be it the island or England. Bishop’s humor is evident, too, in such lines as

                        What’s wrong about self-pity, anyway?

With my legs dangling down familiarly

over a crater’s edge, I told myself

“pity should begin at home.” So the more

pity I felt, the more I felt at home.

“By making [Crusoe’s] life center around the idea of home,” writes biographer Brett Millier, Bishop “brings him in line with her own habitually secular and domestic points of view.”

Crusoe was also an unwitting solitary, who reluctantly gave in to his plight. As such, he appealed to Bishop, especially in his self-reliance. He made things from what’s at hand, just as she made poems from what surrounded her. She, too, had surrendered to her “exile” in Brazil.

There’s an ungentle madness to Crusoe the solitary, which also contrasts somewhat with Defoe’s Robinson. The latter reads the Bible and becomes increasingly more religious. Bishop’s Crusoe is more pagan, painting goats with berry juice, dreaming of “slitting a baby’s throat, mistaking it/ for a baby goat,” and has visions of endlessly repeating islands where he is fated to catalog their flora and fauna.

I’m tempted to see this last reference as almost a nightmare reflection of the poet’s own self-exile and imprisonment by her style: her oft-cited gift for description, which she saw as limiting.

Regardless of whether Bishop saw herself in her Crusoe, her own removal to New England from Brazil – to Harvard’s uninteresting lumber – must have caused equal disconnection, a “dislocating dizziness,” to borrow Goldensohn’s phrase.

“When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived,” Bishop wrote to Robert Lowell in 1948. In “Crusoe in England,” she captures the loneliness, displacement, and loss of an individual set adrift in emotional isolation, which leads to a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

For Crusoe, his island life seemed interminable and insufferable, only to turn romantic and desirable when the experience ended.

It seems likely Bishop was thinking of her life in Brazil with Lota, which had become increasingly strained towards the end, until the latter’s suicide, and the poet’s life thereafter. That makes this poem, along with “One Art,” from the same collection, an elegy with a depth beyond its surface.

Here is a link to the complete text of “Crusoe in England,” which includes an audio recording of Bishop reading the poem: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177903

–Scott Edward Anderson

 

Elizabeth Bishop photo from Louise Crane Papers, Beinecke Library.

As readers of this blog know, 2011 marks the centenary of Elizabeth Bishop’s birth. I’ve been trying to celebrate it in as many ways as possible and get to some of the events throughout the year, as well as visiting her grave in Worcester, MA, and promoting her work on this blog and on Twitter by using #EB100.

Last week I attended Visions Coinciding: An Elizabeth Bishop Centennial Conference, organized by NYU’s Gallatin School and the Poetry Society of America.

The conference featured interdisciplinary responses to Bishop and her work, including a slide show and talk by Eric Karpeles exploring rarely seen images of Elizabeth Bishop and a screening of footage from Helena Blaker’s forthcoming documentary on Bishop’s years in Brazil.

The screening was followed by a discussion moderated by Alice Quinn, editor of Bishop’s posthumous collection Edgar Allen Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, along with Blaker and Bishop scholars Brett Millier, Barbara Page, and Lloyd Schwartz.

Day two featured two lectures on Bishop’s relationship with Art. Peggy Samuels gave a fascinating exegesis of Bishop’s interest in and influence by the work of Kurt Schwitters and William Benton displayed slides of Bishop’s own paintings, sharing his insights on their context in modern art.

Jonathan Galassi moderated a lively discussion with the editors of recent collections of Bishop’s poetry, prose and correspondence, including Joelle Biele (Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker correspondence), Saskia Hamilton (Words In Air, the Lowell-Bishop correspondence, and new edition of POEMS), Lloyd Schwartz (new edition of PROSE, as well as the Library of America edition of Bishop: Poems, Prose, Letters), and Thomas Travisano (Lowell-Bishop correspondence).

All this was followed by a reading by NYU Gallatin students who each read a Bishop poem and one of their own by way of response and, finally, a star-studded lineup of contemporary American poets, including John Koethe, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Mark Strand reading poems by Bishop.

Poet Jean Valentine read Bishop’s translation of Octavio Paz’s “Objects & Apparitions” with the original read by Patrick Rosal.  Maureen McLane read from her creative work-in-progress “My Elizabeth Bishop; My Gertrude Stein.”

This week is the opening of Elizabeth Bishop: Objects & Apparitions at the Tibor De Nagy Gallery in New York. The show comprises rarely exhibited original works by Bishop, including watercolors and gouaches, as well as two box assemblages inspired by the work of Joseph Cornell.

The exhibition also includes the landscape painting Miss Bishop inherited and that she wrote about in “Poem,” which begins

About the size of an old-style dollar bill,
American or Canadian,
mostly the same whites, gray greens, and steel grays
-this little painting (a sketch for a larger one?)
has never earned any money in its life.

Unfortunately, I’m going to miss the exhibit of her papers at the Vassar College Main Library, From the Archive: Discovering Elizabeth Bishop, which is on view until December 15th.

But there’s still time to celebrate Bishop’s centenary — until her 101st on February 8, 2012.

ESSO Station 2

Image by *Kid*Doc*One* via Flickr

I love a poet with a sense of humor and who delights in wordplay, especially when she achieves her poem’s aims while making the reader smile.

Those who know me or read my poetry blog or follow me on Twitter or have been on my National Poetry Month email list for some time know that Elizabeth Bishop is my favorite poet.  And you also know that this year marks the centennial of her birth (born 8 February 1911).  I’ve been celebrating this important centennial in a variety of ways.

I’d like to close this year’s National Poetry Month with a poem by Ms. Bishop called “Filling Station.”  I suggest you read it out loud and pay attention to the alliteration and internal rhymes.

It starts with an observation of a “dirty” family filling station, run by a father in a “dirty,/ oil-soaked monkey suit” with “several quick and saucy/ and greasy sons.”  They are “all quite thoroughly dirty,” which creates an incantation of “oily” and “dirty,” evolving into almost a portmanteau of dirty and oily in “doily.”

Bishop is playful in this poem and when she concludes with the final stanza by repeating “oi” and “so” and “-y” sounds, culminating in that brilliant arrangement of oil cans, I can’t help chuckling no matter how many times I read it.

Somebody loves us all, indeed. Happy Birthday, Ms. Bishop.

Here is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Filling Station”

Oh, but it is dirty!

—this little filling station,

oil-soaked, oil-permeated

to a disturbing, over-all

black translucency.

Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,

oil-soaked monkey suit

that cuts him under the arms,

and several quick and saucy

and greasy sons assist him

(it’s a family filling station),

all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?

It has a cement porch

behind the pumps, and on it

a set of crushed and grease-

impregnated wickerwork;

on the wicker sofa

a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide

the only note of color—

of certain color. They lie

upon a big dim doily

draping a taboret

(part of the set), beside

a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?

Why the taboret?

Why, oh why, the doily?

(Embroidered in daisy stitch

with marguerites, I think,

and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.

Somebody waters the plant,

or oils it, maybe. Somebody

arranges the rows of cans

so that they softly say:

ESSO—SO—SO—SO

to high-strung automobiles.

Somebody loves us all.

–Elizabeth Bishop

Here’s a recording of Ms. Bishop reading this poem from Poetry Foundation/Bishop

Today is “Poem-in-Your Pocket” Day and the poem in my pocket is Elizabeth Bishop‘s villanelle “One Art.”

This is perhaps the most famous of Bishop’s poems, touching as it does on the loss of love.   It is also a poem about writing poetry, as has been asserted by a number of critics,  and about giving up control for the sake of art.  There is a kind of mastery in losing control that I think both frightened and emboldened Bishop.

In the end, the poet (and the speaker) is not in control and the poem ends (almost) in disaster, with a stroke of poetic mastery in that last line.

Here is Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”:

 

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel.  None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

–Elizabeth Bishop

 

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Elizabeth Bishop

(This is an essay I wrote for The Bloomsbury Review, which started as a review of One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, and originally published in their November/December 1996 issue.)

In the autumn of 1978, I heard Elizabeth Bishop read in Rochester, New York. I didn’t know much about her except that she was a friend of Robert Lowell’s and somewhat of a protégé of Marianne Moore–not bad credentials, in my mind.

She was small and puckish and reminded me of my surrogate “Aunt,” Gladys Taylor, who would have been her contemporary and with whom my family shared a house in Rhode Island during my formative years. Bishop’s similarity to this important personal figure, along with the poet’s own reading of her poems, put me into a holding pattern above the figure of Elizabeth Bishop. I have yet to touch ground.

In preparation for the reading, I had read the only books of hers I could find: Geography III (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976) and the Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969). I reacted to Bishop’s poems with startled bemusement. Here was a poet unlike the other American poets I had been reading–the Beats and confessional poets like Lowell, and modernists like Pound and Williams.

Her work was delicate and refined, quiet and well-crafted–the antithesis of the bombast and pluck to which I then subscribed, exemplified by Kerouac and Ginsberg’s credo “first thought, best thought.” Here was a quiet refutation of that dictum, the significance of which, in relation to my own poetry, I could not then have fairly understood. (Now, nearly twenty years later, as I seem to write poems only for the joys of revision, Bishop’s example is ever more profound.)

So when my editor suggested I review Bishop’s One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop (Selected & Edited, and with an introduction by Robert Giroux, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), I could not resist the temptation to get to know this poet more intimately than I ever imagined. Well over a year later, I have devoured nearly everything written by or about her, and still, when I open The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 (Noonday, 1983), I remain startled and bemused.

Such an intimate knowledge of Elizabeth Bishop and her life brings with it a certain responsibility; I’ve also discovered that the challenges posed by such an intense investigation have only deepened my feelings for her as both a poet and person. Having spent a year and a half with Elizabeth (I feel I know her well enough now to refer to her by her given name), I have rather fallen in love with the idea of Elizabeth Bishop, her work, and who she was.

This love affair is not without pitfalls. I have grown protective of her privacy and her gifts: How would she react to this exegesis of her life and work? What right do we have to pry so deeply into her private business? My Elizabeth Bishop, the one I have fashioned over all this time, is anything but reticent.

From the composite portrait offered by Brett Miller’s biography, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (University of California, 1993), and the uneven but engaging oral biography, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop (University of Massachusetts, 1994), compiled by Gary Fountain and the late Peter Brazeau, but chiefly from Elizabeth’s own writing, I’ve found a charmingly passionate guide to an alternative modernism.

(Add to these recent titles what I’ve gleaned from David Kalstone’s book on Bishop, Moore, and Lowell, Becoming a Poet [Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989]; Lorrie Goldensohn’s delightful Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry [Columbia University Press, 1991]; and Bonnie Costello’s critical study, Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery [Harvard University Press, 1991].)

What I’ve come to realize, beyond this, is that Bishop was an intensely personal writer; thus, our response to her work is equally personal. I know scores of people who respond to her sensibility; yet, each does so in a very distinct way. Bishop’s personal vision and precise expression touch her readers in ways that her contemporaries could not.

Lowell may have written more and with greater intensity, but the finesse and control with which Bishop observed her world is unmatched in our century. This is what makes her such an important poet to her expanding readership and to our age.

* * *

In an 1883 letter to his cousin (reprinted in The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson: Vol. II [Greenwood Press, 1969]), Stevenson wrote:

There is but one art–to omit! O if I knew how to omit, I would ask no other knowledge. A man who knew how to omit would make an Iliad of a daily paper.

Elizabeth Bishop’s creative work fills two small volumes–her Complete Poems weighing in at 276 pages and The Collected Prose (Noonday, 1984) at 274 pages. It is a wonder to have these letters, which bring her published writings, not counting the translation of The Diary of “Helena Morley” (1957, Noonday, 1995) or Brazil, the book she wrote for Life’s World Library in 1962, to just under 2,000 pages–but what pages!

Bishop was a private person, and I imagine she would be shocked at such a deep investigation of her private life and her public work. Her poetry has often been referred to, rather narrow-mindedly I feel, by a (largely male) community of critics as “dry,” “impersonal,” “distanced,” and “unemotional.”

For anyone who has spent any serious time with her work and who has been guided by the poet’s fine eye and ear for detail, her work is anything but dispassionate. She wrote slowly and with much deliberation and would not publish anything she felt was not absolutely ready.

Coming, as much of her work did, at a time when others were engaged in personal introspection and egotistical posturing, it is easy to see why her perfectionism was often mistaken for reserve. Very few of her poems–“The Shampoo” and “Armadillo” being exceptions–were overtly personal in reference. She possessed a highly tuned sense of good manners, what used to be known as decorum. Bishop maintained a modesty throughout her life that is ill-suited to our society’s passion for grisly details.

Bishop deplored what she saw as an inappropriate use of one’s personal life (and the lives of one’s acquaintances or friends) as fodder for poetry. When Robert Lowell published The Dolphin (OP) in 1973 and included therein many poems formed (and deformed) out of letters from his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick, Bishop quotes to him a letter written by Thomas Hardy in 1911, which refers to

an abuse which is said to have occurred–that of publishing details of a lately deceased man’s life under the guise of a novel, with assurances of truth scattered in the newspapers.

She objected to the “mixing of fact and fiction in unknown proportions” throughout The Dolphin, and clearly felt uncomfortable with Lowell’s (and others’) mining of the darkest recesses of their own lives in their poetry. She concludes her quote from Hardy,

the power of getting lies believed about people through that channel…by stirring in a few truths, is a horror to contemplate.

* * *

Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote in a letter date September 10, 1864 (Poems and Prose, Penguin 1971):

the letter-writer on principle does not make his letter only an answer; it is a work embodying perhaps answers to questions put by his correspondent but that is not its main motive.

How easy it is to imagine that Hopkins would have found in Elizabeth Bishop the very kind of correspondent he demanded. Her letters anticipate questions and provide insight into her own life as well as the lives of her addressees. She wrote exquisitely about her daily existence, her work, reading, and the people with whom she came in contact.

Like Hopkins, whose letters Bishop had read in their published version, she never merely answered letters. In all her missives, of which a mere 500 or so are represented in One Art, Bishop entered into a dialogue with her correspondents. The dialogue begins in this book when Bishop was an innocent college senior, full of promise and just beginning to lay the groundwork for her life of letters.

Throughout this volume, Bishop’s correspondence grows progressively intuitive and is deepened by her awareness of life’s inner and outer turmoil. A poet of decorum and modesty, Bishop is a candid, but never immodest letter writer. When she admits that her companion and lover of 14 years, Lota de Macedo Soares, is battling mental illness and arteriosclerosis, she remains true to her conscience:

She has had violent fights with all our friends except two–and it seems they all thought she was “mad” several years before I did. But of course I got it all the time and almost all the nights, poor dear. I do know my own faults, you know–but this is really not because of me, although now all her obsessions have fixed on me–first love; then hate, etc.

Nearly all of Bishop’s letters to Lota were destroyed after the latter’s suicide in 1967, so our record of their relationship is rather one-dimensional. We do know, as Bishop tells one of her correspondents, that 10 or 12 of the years they spent together were the “happiest” the poet had known.

What we are left with, however incomplete, is as close to an autobiography as Bishop ever got (although a few of her stories, which appear in the The Complete Prose, deal with her early childhood in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts). Our feeling for the poet is deepened by the record of her life as represented in One Art; we come away thinking she was as much a genuine human being as a great artist.

These letters came from capable, if not always steady, hands. Bishop’s letters to Dr. Anny Baumann, who helped her overcome alcoholism and deal with asthma and psoriasis, reveal how her bouts of insecurity often led to depression, which aggravated both her asthma and her drinking. Yet, even here, our picture of the artist and person is not clouded by overt confession or melancholia. She could easily have dwelt on these problems, but in an early letter to Dr. Baumann, Bishop writes:

The drinking seems to have dwindled to about one evening once or twice a month, and I stop before it gets really bad, I think. Of course that’s still once or twice too often, but what is best about it is that I don’t seem to think about it any more at all, or go through all that remorse. I get to worrying about the past ten years or so and I wish I could stop doing that, but aside from that the drinking and the working both seem to have improved miraculously.

Bishop’s obeisance to decorum prompts a chaste response to Robert Lowell’s confession that “asking you [to marry him] is the might-have-been for me.” She took four months to write back to him, and even then barely mentions the incident, only to say,

the whole phenomenon of your quick recovery and simultaneous productivity seems to me in looking back to be the real marvel of my summer.

* * *

Elizabeth Bishop’s letters, even towards the end, kept her forthright, as she practiced a dying craft taken to the level of a personally revealing art. There are only two flaws with One Art: the twinned absence of the previously mentioned letters to Lota and the several thousand that Mr. Giroux had to forgo publishing in order to keep the volume manageable and affordable.

Her letters are obviously the most important of the three most recent books about Bishop mentioned in this essay. All three, however, should be read by anyone seriously interested in what informed the writing of one of our country’s finest poets. Finally, however, we are best left with Elizabeth’s own words on her life and work, from the poem “One Art”:

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident the art of losing’s not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

–Scott Edward Anderson, The Bloomsbury Review, November/December 1996

Elizabeth Bishop at 100

February 8, 2011

Acclaimed poet, Elizabeth Bishop, class of 1934

Elizabeth Bishop at Vassar

Elizabeth Bishop is my favorite poet.   I am addicted, as John Ashbery suggested, to her poetry like that of no other poet I know.

Unfortunately, there is just so little of it; she published 88 poems in her lifetime, which is probably the yearly output of MFA types.

Yet, as Ashbery said, “like other addicting substances, this work creates a hunger for itself: the more one tastes it, the less of it there seems to be.”

Nearly all her poems were perfect, if a poem can be perfect.

There is something about the clarity of her language and the painstaking approach she took composing poems that makes almost all of her poems feel absolutely contemporary.

Bishop was born 100 years ago today and died on October 6, 1979.

Some years ago, a friend of mine, a fiction writer, to whom I sent Bishop’s poem, “The Fish,” said that reading this poem helped her finish a story she was writing about “shooting a halibut.”

If you’ve ever fished for halibut, you know that you have to shoot or club the enormous fish in order to land it.  My friend was struggling with the ending, because she didn’t want to shoot the fish, but she knew she had to shoot the fish to finish the story.

Here is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “The Fish”:

 

I caught a tremendous fish

and held him beside the boat

half out of water, with my hook

fast in a corner of his mouth.

He didn’t fight.

He hadn’t fought at all.

He hung a grunting weight,

battered and venerable

and homely.  Here and there

his brown skin hung in strips

like ancient wallpaper,

and its pattern of darker brown

was like wallpaper:

shapes like full-blown roses

stained and lost through age.

He was speckled with barnacles,

fine rosettes of lime,

and infested

with tiny white sea-lice,

and underneath two or three

rags of green weed hung down.

While his gills were breathing in

the terrible oxygen

–the frightening gills,

fresh and crisp with blood,

that can cut so badly–

I thought of the coarse white flesh

packed in like feathers,

the big bones and the little bones,

the dramatic reds and blacks

of his shiny entrails,

and the pink swim-bladder

like a big peony.

I looked into his eyes

which were far larger than mine

but shallower, and yellowed,

the irises backed and packed

with tarnished tinfoil

seen through the lenses

of old scratched isinglass.

They shifted a little, but not

to return my stare.

–It was more like the tipping

of an object toward the light.

I admired his sullen face,

the mechanism of his jaw,

and then I saw

that from his lower lip

–if you could call it a lip

grim, wet, and weaponlike,

hung five old pieces of fish-line,

or four and a wire leader

with the swivel still attached,

with all their five big hooks

grown firmly in his mouth.

A green line, frayed at the end

where he broke it, two heavier lines,

and a fine black thread

still crimped from the strain and snap

when it broke and he got away.

Like medals with their ribbons

frayed and wavering,

a five-haired beard of wisdom

trailing from his aching jaw.

I stared and stared

and victory filled up

the little rented boat,

from the pool of bilge

where oil had spread a rainbow

around the rusted engine

to the bailer rusted orange,

the sun-cracked thwarts,

the oarlocks on their strings,

the gunnels–until everything

was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!

And I let the fish go.

–Elizabeth Bishop

You can read an essay I wrote about Elizabeth Bishop for The Bloomsbury Review in 1996:  Elizabeth Bishop Under the Microscope

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth!


Aria Aber
Photograph by Nadine Aber

“Afghan-American relations are really complicated and intense,” the poet Aria Aber said in an interview with Poetry magazine’s editorial staff. “The fact that, politically, there is still so much history and still so many things that are going on that we don’t know about, just seems very fertile to me creatively.”

Born and raised in Germany to Afghan refugee parents, Aber writes in English, her third language, and her debut collection, Hard Damage, won the Prairie Schooner Award and was published last year by the University of Nebraska Press.

I want to share Aber’s poem, “The Mother of All Balms,” in part because I love the play on words and sounds and slant rhymes she deploys in an otherwise somber poem, which reminds me a bit of how Elizabeth Bishop used similar strategies in a number of her poems on serious subjects.

“The Mother of All Balms” is, of course, a play on the name of the US-made weapon of mass destruction that was dubbed the “Mother of All Bombs,” and which was dropped over the Nangarhar Province of her parents’ native homeland, Afghanistan, in April 2017.

“English being my third language, I often mishear or mispronounce things,” Aber told Poetry, where the poem originally appeared. “And I am very interested in how that source of humiliation can also be a source of creativity.”

Meditating on the proximity of sound in which “bomb” and “balm” reside, Aber was reminded that in many religions and spiritual traditions “creation” and “destruction” often derive from the same source.

“But the balm is not necessarily something that creates,” says Aber. “It only restores and preserves something that is already there but broken.”

Here is Aria Aber’s “The Mother of All Balms”

Morning she comes, mother of all balms.

Only the news reporter says it wrong:

but aren’t you strung: little ping

and doesn’t memory embalm

                           your most-hurt city:

those yellow creeks                                of your rickety holm

where your mater: your salve:

left all her selves behind

so she could surrender to a lifetime

of Septembering: what she members most:

yellow grapes and celeries

and visiting her father’s glove

a balm, to be by absence so enclaved:

your mender

a follower, devoted

to what she cannot see. O air miles,

how can it be real?

How uncertain you should

be             if it existed, if there are no photos left

of her playing

on her childhood lawn—

burned are all the documents, or eaten—

this ink,

like memory,

an ancient unguent,

enshrining what cannot be held

of what went missing—the dog, her hat of hay,

one brother.                              She was in prism,

your mother says—and that’s how you will write her,

atoning her, just in fluorite a figurine caught

to fracture                                  her stolen years,

                                                        her brother,

all her once-upon-a-chimes.

Source: Poetry (September 2019)

Here is Aria Aber reading her poem, “The Mother of All Balms”

You can learn more about Aria Aber on her website: ariaaber.com.

A few years ago, a remarkable thing happened to poet Maggie Smith.

Portrait of Maggie Smith by Devon Albeit Photography
Maggie Smith (Devon Albeit Photography)

As she tells it in a note for the website Women’s Voices for Change, “I tend to labor over poems for weeks, months, even years, revising many, many times, working in different documents and comparing versions.”

This new poem, however, she wrote “in about half an hour in a Starbucks, scrawling it in green ink on a legal pad. I deleted only one word between the first draft and the second (final) draft.”

You’ve likely read this poem—the poem, “Good Bones,” went viral shortly after it was published in Waxwing in June 2016. It appeared the same week of the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and the murder of MP Jo Cox in the UK, when people were struggling to make sense of what was happening in the world.

When a reader posted a screenshot of the poem on Twitter, it was soon picked up by others, retweeted and reposted, and then celebrities got hold of it and started circulating it to their large groups of followers. In short, the poem went viral.

I’m sharing “Good Bones” here in part because it has something we could all use these days: a desire to “believe in the ultimate goodness of the world for the sake of one’s children,” as a reviewer wrote in the Washington Post.

Now, I know this poem is kind of a signature poem of Ms. Smith’s, like Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” (“It’s my ‘Freebird,’” she said in an interview, referring to the ubiquitous Lynyrd Skynyrd song request.)

And she’s probably tired of it being the one Maggie Smith poem so many people know (and she has many others that are fine poems in their own right, so you should check them out: Maggie Smith).

Like “One Art,” however, there’s a reason this poem is so popular: it’s a solid poem that speaks directly to people.

“I wrote the poem in 2015,” Smith says, “and clearly I’d been thinking about what it means to raise children in fraught times: What do we tell them? What do tell ourselves? I continue to grapple with these questions, as a mother and as a poet.”

Maggie Smith is the author of a book of short inspirational prose pieces, Keep Moving (Simon & Schuster, 2020), which originated from her Twitter account @maggiesmithpoet, the eponymous Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017), as well as The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, 2015) and Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005).

Here is Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones”:

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least

fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative

estimate, though I keep this from my children.

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.

For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,

sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world

is at least half terrible, and for every kind

stranger, there is one who would break you,

though I keep this from my children. I am trying

to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,

walking you through a real shithole, chirps on

about good bones: This place could be beautiful,

right? You could make this place beautiful.


“Good Bones” is from Good Bones, published by Tupelo Press, copyright © 2017 by Maggie Smith. Used with permission of the author. First published in Waxwing Magazine.

For more on National Poetry Month, go to: poets.org/national-poetry-month

Kicking the Leaves Donald Hall_

Kicking the Leaves by Donald Hall, 1978

I began to write poems with some seriousness in my teens. During that time, I consumed as much poetry as I could get my hands on, devouring books like a beast impossible to satiate.

My high school English teachers, Richard Taddeo and Jack Langerak, fed that beast too. They paid attention to what I was reading, asked me questions, and suggested other books and poets in a kind of personal curation that predated Amazon’s algorithm by almost 30 years. (Taddeo also published my first poem to appear in print, a short couplet of little note, in the school literary magazine.)

It was Taddeo who gave me Donald Hall’s Kicking the Leaves, shortly after it came out in 1978. Hall’s poems in that book spoke to me. As a native New Englander, the landscape was familiar – Hall’s hardscrabble New Hampshire a good match to Frost’s flinty Vermont, where I’d summered as a child.

Donald Hall’s example in Kicking the Leaves – and hearing Elizabeth Bishop read her work later that fall — showed me a different path: I wanted to become a poet. A decade later, after I met Hall at one of George Plimpton’s Paris Review parties at the latter’s Sutton Place apartment, we began a correspondence.

I sent him poems. He wrote back, postcards mostly, which I knew from one of his essays were recorded by Dictaphone while watching Red Sox games from his blue chair in the same farmhouse described in Kicking the Leaves. He hated everything I sent him and told me so. This was good. Tough love was just what I needed. He helped me improve, revise, and be hard on my own work.

In the late 90s I gave a craft talk at the University of Alaska Anchorage as part of their Writing Rendezvous conference. In the lecture, which I called “Making Poems Better: The Process of Revision,” I examined many drafts of Hall’s poem “Ox Cart Man,” including the version that appears in Kicking the Leaves, and my own “Black Angus, Winter,” which was part of a group of poems that won the Nebraska Review Award in 1997. You can read it here.

Hall’s book – his 7th book of poems — came out when he was about to turn 50. My book, Fallow Field, came out as I turned 50, and includes “Black Angus, Winter” and several poems that Hall hated in earlier versions, all of which were improved by his terse, meaningful criticism.

You can find Donald Hall’s “Ox Cart Man” here (permission restrictions prevent me from publishing the poem in its entirety and an excerpt won’t do it justice) or better yet, buy his Selected Poems. And here is a recording of Donald Hall reading “Ox Cart Man.”

 

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust

Legend has it that 13-year-old Marcel Proust answered fifteen questions in the birthday book of Antoinette Felix-Faure. Seven years later, at another social event, he completed another questionnaire. Ah, parlor games!

Over the years, Vanity Fair and other magazines have featured a version or another of this questionnaire, now called the “Proust Questionnaire.”

In the wake of David Bowie’s death last month, his answers to the Vanity Fair version were circulated by Maria Popova on her wonderful Brain Pickings blog.

I decided it would be fun to answer a version that closely approximates the original version Proust completed.

Name: Scott Edward Anderson
Date the questions were answered: 30 January 2016
Age: 52
Village / Town / City you live in: Brooklyn, NY
Occupation: Consultant and Poet

(The questions include Marcel Proust’s answers)

 

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Proust: To be separated from Mama

Scott Edward Anderson (SEA): To be without love.

 

Where would you like to live?

Proust: In the country of the Ideal, or, rather, of my ideal

SEA: I’m happy where I am right now in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. It feels like home to me. 

 

What is your idea of earthly happiness?

Proust: To live in contact with those I love, with the beauties of nature, with a quantity of books and music, and to have, within easy distance, a French theater

SEA: Cooking and eating a good meal with my wife after a nice long hike in the woods, enjoying a great glass of wine or a Hendricks martini, and retiring to the living room to read some poetry or listen to favorite music by the fire.

 

To what faults do you feel most indulgent?

Proust: To a life deprived of the works of genius

SEA: I am intolerant of ignorance and authority and, most especially, ignorant authority.

 

Who are your favorite heroes of fiction?

Proust: Those of romance and poetry, those who are the expression of an ideal rather than an imitation of the real

SEA My favorite heroes are always creative travelers in strange lands who survive by their wits and wiles.

 

Who are your favorite male characters in history?

Proust: A mixture of Socrates, Pericles, Mahomet, Pliny the Younger and Augustin Thierry

SEA: Teddy Roosevelt

 

Who are your favorite heroines in real life?

Proust: A woman of genius leading an ordinary life

SEA: Billie Holiday and Elizabeth Bishop

 

Who are your favorite heroines of fiction?

Proust: Those who are more than women without ceasing to be womanly; everything that is tender, poetic, pure and in every way beautiful

SEA: Same as heroes: Creative travelers in strange lands who survive by their wits and wiles.

 

Your favorite painter(s)?

Proust: Meissonier

SEA: Monet and Vermeer

 

Your favorite musician?

Proust: Mozart

SEA: The Beatles

 

The quality you most admire in a man?

Proust: Intelligence, moral sense

SEA: Integrity and creativity

 

The quality you most admire in a woman?

Proust: Gentleness, naturalness, intelligence

SEA: Integrity and creativity

 

Your favorite virtue?

Proust: All virtues that are not limited to a sect: the universal virtues

SEA: Diligence

 

Your favorite occupation?

Proust: Reading, dreaming, and writing verse

SEA: Add walking in the woods to what Proust said.

 

Who would you have liked to be?

Proust: Since the question does not arise, I prefer not to answer it. All the same, I should very much have liked to be Pliny the Younger.

SEA: A better friend to some, a better man at times, a better husband to my wife, and a better father to my children.

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