Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Bishop’


Elizabeth Bishop and her cat in a car

Dear friends and readers,

Of the many women poets I’ve written a foremother blog about, just now Elizabeth Bishop may be the best known — both for her poetry and about her life and letters. There is a recent consensus about her importance and transcendence (if that’s not too pompous a word). She is reprinted everywhere (though maybe her refusal to allow her poetry to be printed in all women anthologies has slowed down the dissemination); dozens of articles, several individual books, two biographies (at least). For this blog I recently read Megan Marshall’s partial autobiography, Elizabeth Bishop: a Miracle for Breakfast, and Zachariah Pickard’s Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description. It’s easy to learn supposedly little-known facets of her talent too: such as she also drew and painted, as in William Benton’s “Elizabeth Bishop’s Other Art” (New York Review)

It seems most of her pictures are of her travels; she liked to draw the places she lived in as a sort of visitor, or temporarily, her domestic spaces, and typical woman’s objects: so still life flowers presented from a overtly plain life angle:


Daisies in Paintbucket

From a very young age, she began to pile up awards— even when she had published little outside college newsletters or a slender number of poems. She is likened to the finest poets in tradition: as Emily Dickinson, about whom she wrote in a “poignant and pointed” review of a book of letters by Dickinson that has survived (Emily Dickinson’s Letters to Doctor and Mrs Josiah Gilbert Holland and also of Rebecca Patterson’s Riddle of Emily Dickinson (the riddle is Dickinson was lesbian). There she is also with Helen Hunt Jackson, Muriel Rukeyser, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath (in Vivian Pollak’s Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference). I’ve now attended and myself led two zoom get-togethers of poets and readers happy to spend two hours and more close reading Bishop’s poetry. In both we felt we had hardly started and gotten through too few poems.

Paradoxically, this means I can write rather less than more about her, and the way perhaps to add to what is known is pick slightly less frequently printed poems.

**********************************


Again with her cat

About her life, I think it important to know that she was the daughter of New Englanders, one of whom, her father, was from a wealthy and well-connected (Brahman) family, from whom she inherited a legacy that kept her afloat (precluding the necessity of work for higher wages), and enabled her to go to good schools where she made the right connections: Walnut Hull School to study music as a girl led to Vassar College (1929) where she wrote and met (among others) Mary McCarthy, Eleanor Clark (whose Rome and A Villa is one of the most brilliant meditative books about a place I know), and Marianne Moore who became a dear friend (never a lover apparently), who mentored Elizabeth and helped her publish. Like Bishop, Moore avoided controversy by erasing references to her gender beyond the obvious, steering well clear of telling anything explicit about her personal life, or overtly political. According to Kathleen Spivack, like many women writers of her generation, Bishop internalized the misogyny of the 1950s. I can understand why she would want to protect herself against prejudice and the judgmental tendencies of the wider public.

She had a difficult childhood: her father died when she was very young, and her mother was institutionalized; she lived with different relatives and it took time for these people to realize and act upon the apparent reality that the child was more comfortable with her maternal relatives though they were the less educated, and not part of forward-thinking circles. From her young adulthood on, she suffered badly from depression and alcoholism (she alienated people, she lost time from serious work), and her history includes several liaisons, some longer, some shorter, with the most important woman a Brazilian woman from a pre-eminent political family, Lota (Maria Carlota) de Macedo Soares. Bishop lives with Soares in Brazil for years; alas, over this relationship, Soares killed herself. An important friendship with a male poet was with Robert Lowell; Elizabeth became involved with his troubles with his wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick (whom Lowell treated very shabbily and whose letters he plagiarized). Very late in life Elizabeth became deeply involved with a woman much younger than herself. There is an equally complicated history from her young to her later years of academic appointments.

She not only does not write free verse; from an artistic point of view, hers is a highly patterned poetry, using formal and stringent rhyme schemes, stanzaic forms, with continual subtle uses of assonance, alliteration (sometimes she seems to drill down into rhythms of anglo-saxon prosody across a line). Annie Finch has written about how this formality, love of patterns, is a characteristic of l’ecriture-femme, women’s poetry (see Finch’s The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self and A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women). Sestinas, villanelles, double sonnets, repeating tercets (a poem using just three rhymes). Her poems with the most moving content convey their ideas and articulated feeling through close visualized description and the verse musical refrains. She is a foremother poet’s poet, loving repetitive structures, imitative sounds for moods and evocations.

**********************************

I’ve chosen a few poems where I kept my inability in this blog to replicate stanzaic forms demanding indentation visual pictorialism in mind, and which I fancy might be less known and are not too long.

The first, as a Trollope scholar, her brilliant meditation on the part of Trollope’s North America where he visits Washington, DC, during the civil war and projects the depression and despair Trollope felt while there, partly a result of what he saw in the city.


South National Mall, Washington, D.C. 1863

From Trollope’s Journal

As far as statues go, so far there’s not
much choice: they’re either Washingtons
or Indians, a whitewashed, stubby lot,
His country’s Father or His foster sons.
The White House in a sad, unhealthy spot
just higher than Potomac’s swampy brim,
— they say the present President has got
ague or fever in each backwoods limb.
On Sunday afternoon I wandered, – rather,
I floundered, – out alone. The air was raw
and dark; the marsh half-ice, half-mud. This weather
is normal now: a frost, and then a thaw,
and then a frost. A hunting man, I found
the Pennsylvania Avenue heavy ground …
There all around me in the ugly mud,
— hoof-pocked, uncultivated, — herds of cattle,
numberless, wond’ring steers and oxen, stood:
beef for the Army, after the next battle.
Their legs were caked the color of dried blood;
their horns were wreathed with fog. Poor, starving, dumb
or lowing creatures, never to chew the cud
or fill their maws again! Th’effluvium
made that damned anthrax on my forehead throb.
I called a surgeon in, a young man, but,
with a sore throat himself, he did his job.
We talked about the War, and as he cut
away, he croaked out, “Sir, I do declare
everyone’s sick! The soldiers poison the air.”

John Bowen argues that Bishop’s double sonnet gives us an epitome, the core quintessence of Trollope’s North America: Trollope’s mood, central attitudes to the war. Bishop saw the same city many years later and had the same take on it. It is not a cynical perspective but an accurate response to aggressive militarist people, an unpretentious disquieting vision. She takes words from Trollope’s letters and wove them into her verse.

The next poem inspired a novel by Lisa Weiland about Bishop.

Paris, 7 A.M.

I make a trip to each clock in the apartment:
some hands point histrionically one way
and some point others, from the ignorant faces.
Time is an Etoile; the hours diverge
so much that days are journeys round the suburbs,
circles surrounding stars, overlapping circles.
The short, half-tone scale of winter weathers
is a spread pigeon’s Wing.
Winter lives under a pigeon’s wing, a dead wing with damp feathers.

Look down into the courtyard. All the houses
are built that way, with ornamental urns
set on the mansard roof-tops where the pigeons
take their walks. It is like introspection
to Stare Inside, or retrospection,
a star inside a rectangle, a recollection:
this hollow square could easily have been there.
—The childish snow forts, built in flashier winters,
could have reached these proportions and been houses;
the mighty snow-forts, four, five, stories high,
withstanding spring as sand-forts do the tide,
their walls, their shape, could not dissolve and die,
only be overlapping in a strong chain, turned to stone,
and grayed and yellowed now like these.

Where is the ammunition, the piled-up balls
with the star-splintered hearts of ice?
This sky is no carrier-warrior-pigeon
escaping endless intersecting circles.
It is a dead one, or the sky from which a dead one fell.
The urns have caught his ashes or his feathers.
When did the star dissolve, or was it captured
by the sequence of squares and squares and circles, circles?
Can the clocks say; is it there below,
about to tumble in snow?

Written in 1937 while for three weeks in Paris Bishop seeks to capture the architecture of the place she is living in, uses the image of a star inside a circle to recreate the way Paris grew out from itself (as Hugo has it in his Notre Dame de Paris) here like a star-fish. We have the present grim winter time (the Nazis were making their inroads on Europe, whence the reference for a need for ammunition), with Dickinson’s image of hope now “a dead wing with damp feathers.” I love the way the registering of the fleeting and transient (a child’s snow fort becomes a child’s sand castle) becomes something eternally remade over the seasons, with the image of stone signalling Paris’s long history, its eternity in stone in its ancient buildings. The idea of time is carried through the second stanza: “can the clocks say; is it there below?” What there?

And for a last, this sonnet where I find Bishop keeping herself calm by making order and harmony through making a poem which can harnesses the very rhythms of her heartbeat and body as she writes and we read it. This is the way I read Jane Austen’s novels, say Emma: the orderly rhythm of her sentences, their elegance and deeply felt content within patterns soothes and keeps me calm, strengthens me. This is what Bishop is doing through her very finger-tips, her lips, her whole body healing. Is there any more beautiful evocation than that “moon-green pool” which reminds me of lines by Pope and Anne Finch [to be cited, and linked in]

And this Sonnet (1928)

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

*******************************

I conclude with a YouTube of Elizabeth Bishop reading a group of her poems at the 92nd Street Y in NYC in 1977.

Ellen

Read Full Post »