Snyder Riprap

The author’s copy of Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems by Gary Snyder.

Schuykill Valley Journal Online published my essay on Gary Snyder’s “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout” last month. Here are the introductory paragraphs and a link to the full essay:

To get to Sourdough Mountain Lookout, you hike a good five miles, gaining 5000 feet or more of elevation. The terrain is rugged and the hiking strenuous, but that’s to be expected in the Northern Cascades. Located 130 miles northeast of Seattle, Washington, the Forest Service opened one of its first lookouts here in 1915.

The view from the lookout station, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933, is a postcard in every direction: Hozomeen Mountain and Desolation Peak looking north, Jack and Crater mountains out east, Pyramid and Colonial peaks to the south with Ross and Diablo lakes directly below, and, as if not to be outdone, the Picket Range is off to the west. This is impressive country and you can understand why it’s been an inspiration to poets and writers for generations.

Poet Gary Snyder was 23 when he worked as a fire-spotter on Sourdough Mountain in 1953.

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David Simpson reading at NYU CEnter for Creative Writing in December 2014, while his brother Dan records.

I’ve known David Simpson for a dozen years, probably more. We were introduced by another writer in Philadelphia and became fast friends, sharing poems with each other, giving readings together on stages and coffee houses.

Dave was funny, direct, and touching in ways that few other poets were in those days. I mean without being solipsistic or confessional or glib or “clever.”

His work reminded me more of Gerald Stern, David Ignatow, or Frank O’Hara than that of any of his contemporaries. I admired a certain casual freedom he offered in his work.

When Dave, who along with his twin brother, poet Dan Simpson, is blind, contracted ALS recently, it seemed unfair. Here was this most gentle soul, funny and sometimes acerbic, always caring for others, stricken by a crippling and debilitating disease.

Dave and I both agonized over our collections of poetry – for years — and the length of time it took us to compile and find a publisher. Both outsiders in the “poetry biz” world, we had time to refine our collections, sharing poems and encouraging each other – even competing with and inspiring each other.

With the publication of his book, The Way Love Comes to Me, just a few months after my Fallow Field, I was ready to celebrate with Dave. It had been a few years since we’d seen each other, as life changes, moves, and other circumstances would have it. So when Dave read at NYU this past winter, I leapt at the chance to go see him, congratulate him, and hear him read again.

I wasn’t disappointed. Even though I could see he was suffering and the disease was clearly getting the upper hand in the battle, Dave remained the same hopeful, witty, entertaining, thoughtful person I’ve always known.

Yet, as his brother Dan wrote in a recent blog post, “ALS, like other terminal illnesses, forces you to redefine what you mean when you use words like ‘good’ and ‘hope.’ Dave says he can see losses every week. He no longer hopes to perform his one-man show. His idea of a good day has more to do with breathing well, with the help of his by-pap machine, and reading something stimulating than with treks into the city and hosting dinners for friends and family.”

At readings, his poem “Spring Fever,” was always a crowd-pleaser. It’s Dave’s “big hit.” He had to read it or his fans would clamor for it. He probably grew sick of reading it, not wanting to be a one-hit wonder.

When he read it at NYU in December, I immediately wanted to share it with my readers during National Poetry Month this year. Why? Because it has all those qualities I love in Dave and his poetry: humor, pathos, and a beautiful way of rendering tenderness in human interactions.

Here is David Simpson’s poem, “Spring Fever”:

A basketball bounces by the pharmacy as I go in.

Thin music from speakers overhead

mixes with the almost-B-flat hum of neon lights. A cashier,

seeing I am blind, locks her register,

grabs a basket, and leads me by the hand down narrow aisles

as we discuss best buys

on Colgate toothpaste with fluoride,

unscented stick deodorants, and three-roll packs

of two-ply toilet paper. In my ears,

my blood begins to prod: Condoms…condoms

and I say to her: “I need

batteries–four double A’s”

Condomscondomscondoms

“and then, let’s check out the condom display.”

She stands on tiptoes to take down

the box of twelve Latex nonoxynol 9’s,

dips low to read me others that advertise

ribs and dimples, or flavors of mint

and mandarin. “Don’t get the mandarin,” she advises,

her hair brushing my hand as she stands up.

The brand name Excita makes us laugh a little

and I get to talking about Ramses and all his offspring

and what kind of confidence would a name like that

instill in someone looking for birth control?

To nearby customers, it might seem as if

we’re lovers, or very married. I wonder if she…

if we… I choose a pack of Lifestyles; she

puts them in the basket, and for just

a moment before we move

toward the checkout line, they are ours.

c) David Simpson

Used by permission of the author.

PS You can order Dave’s book — and I encourage you to do so — on Amazon.

jack-gilbertI didn’t really know Jack Gilbert’s poetry much before my partner, Samantha’s mother (and my friend), Lee Langbaum, gave me his Collected Poems for the holidays, shortly after the poet’s death. (Gilbert died last November, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.)

My life has been enriched reading Gilbert’s poetry — at times acerbic, quirky, and irascible — but I need to take him in small doses. There’s a risk in getting too close to fire.

Emily Dickinson famously wrote that “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

Jack Gilbert’s poetry approaches that more often than not.

“He takes himself away to a place more inward than is safe to go,” the poet and novelist James Dickey said of Gilbert. “From that awful silence and tightening, he returns to us poems of savage compassion.”

“The hard part for me is to find the poem—a poem that matters,” Gilbert told The Paris Review. “To find what the poem knows that’s special. I may think of writing about the same thing that everyone does, but I really like to write a poem that hasn’t been written. And I don’t mean its shape. I want to experience or discover ways of feeling that are fresh. I love it when I have perceived something fresh about being human and being happy.”

Here is Jack Gilbert’s poem, “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart”:

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
Get it wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not a language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.

-From THE GREAT FIRES: POEMS, 1982-1992 (Alfred A.Knopf, 1994)

Here is an audio recording of Gilbert reading this poem on April 12, 2005 at The New School in New York: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19351

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

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!

Two Poems of the Beach

August 1, 2010

My dog Calvin on the beach at Oak Island, NC

I’ve been on vacation this past week on the North Carolina Coast.

Oak Island is one of the south-facing islands that are not part of the more famous Outer Banks and neither as far south nor as celebrated as Myrtle Beach.

We like it there because it is quiet and sleepy in an old-fashioned way.  It is a far drive from Philadelphia, but these days you need to go pretty far to get far away.

Being on the beach reminded me of two poems I wrote about other Atlantic Coastal vacations, back in the early 90s.

The first, “Gleanings,” was written in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, and appeared in an anthology called “Under a Gull’s Wing: Poems and Photographs of the Jersey Shore.” It was written for two old friends, Jim Supplee and Diane Stiglich:

“Gleanings”

Look at the two of them, bent

to the early morning tide.

They cull glass from the sandy surf.

Strange and wonderful alchemists,

who search for the elusive blue

of medicine bottles, caressing

emerald imitators from “Old Latrobe,”

or amber sea urchins

left there like whelks at low tide.

They discard broken bits of crockery,

forsaken like jetsam of the sands.

Beach glass is opaque

with a false clarity:

Polished by sand and sea,

the edges don’t cut

like our lives, lived elsewhere,

out beyond the last sandbar,

where plate tectonics rule the waves.

The second poem was written down the coast a bit in Chincoteague, Virginia.   Chincoteague is famous for its wild horses and for its mosquitoes.   But I chose a couple of other focal points in my poem “Spartina,” which later appeared in the magazine Philadelphia Stories:

“Spartina”

Herring gull dragged from the cordgrass by a bay cat,
who drops the sputtering gull under a tree.

The gull’s left wing and leg are broken — right wing thrashing,
body turning round a point, compass tracing a circle.

Wild chorus of gulls tracing the same circle in salt haze
only wider, concentric, thirty feet overhead.

The cat lying down in shade, making furtive stabs,
powerful paws slapping down motion.

The cat’s feral, calico-covered muscles ebb and shudder
in the bay breeze. She is Spartina, waving in wind or water.

Now she yawns indelicately, fur and feathers
lofting on the incoming tide.

The gull plants his beak in the sand,
tethered, like all of us, to fate.

–Scott Edward Anderson

##

I hope your vacation plans take you to a coast somewhere.  “The sea is a cleanser,” as a good friend wrote to me recently.

Let’s hope that’s true, for the sake of the Gulf Coast.

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Poet Kiki Petrosino, who has been tweeting as @harriet_poetry for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog, tweeted a question this morning:

Good morning, poets. If poetry=a tree with many branches of influence, then to whose twig do you attach your own bright leaf?

I’ve thought about this question over the years, but started to visualize it a bit in reaction to Kiki’s (or Harriet’s?) question.

My poetry is rooted in what Robert Hass called the “strong central tradition of free verse made out of both romanticism and modernism, split between the impulses of an inward and psychological writing and an outward and realist one, at its best fusing the two.” (Hass, Introduction to Best American Poetry 2001)

I studied with Hass and with Gary Snyder, along with the late Walter Pavlich, and have had some great guidance along the way from poets Alison Hawthorne Deming, Donald Hall, Colette Inez, and Karen Swenson, along with a cast of other friends, both poets and poetry readers.

If I look at poetic influences — teachers by example, rather than in person — Elizabeth Bishop, and by extension, her Hopkins, Herbert and even Moore, could be counted among mine.

But also Pound, Rimbaud (in the Varese translations), the two Kenneths, Rexroth and Patchen, at various times, especially in my early days; the Robert Lowell of Life Studies, and novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje.

I’d have to add to that list a trio of Irish voices (tenors?), including Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, and Paul Muldoon. And while we’re on the British Isles, let’s not forget Geoffrey Hill, John Clare and, of course, “the Bard,” Robert Burns.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose “Mariner” was given to me by my Aunt Gladys, directly influenced my first “serious” poem (now lost, thankfully) about my great grandfather, a whaler who sailed out of New Bedford.

There’s also a curious group of more experimental influences from Anne Carson and Mina Loy to Lorine Niedecker and Jorie Graham. Walt Whitman, Fernando Pessoa, and Allen Ginsberg, all great experimenters themselves, were also part of my early poetry reading education.

It’s an eclectic, multi-branching tree, to say the least.  I’m not sure one can see the influence of any one more than another in my work — someone once wrote that the influences of Bishop and Hall were most evident — but it would be a rather spectacular looking tree, should one chose to design it.

One could get easily lost in such a forest.

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