Monday, February 8, 2010

99 Today

One of my earliest and still one of my favorite 20th century poets, Elizabeth Bishop was one of the first poets in my aesthetic education who taught me to "see" what I was writing about. She was also a sign of contradiction amid a generation of poets known for its subjective, confessional style.

Born in Worcester, Mass., Bishop was virtually orphaned after her father died and her mother went mad. Perhaps her move to Nova Scotia to live with her grandparents was part of my early fascination with her work – which features much of this region’s landscape and character.

This little peninsula dangling like a comma off Newfoundland into the North Atlantic happens to be home to many of my people. (Yes, I’m a “Newfy,” it’s true…). My father tells me we came from fishermen and sealers (which probably explains why I never got along with Greenpeace).

At any rate, Bishop’s style ran contrary to her contemporaries – especially John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, and her lifelong friend Robert Lowell, all of whom embodied the “confessional” style of the 1950s. Serving as a sort of counterpoint, Bishop wrote in a more objective vein that married a talent for description with insights into the importance of a writer's "place."

Her own greatest influences were the modernist poet Marianne Moore of the previous generation and Lowell – of her own generation. The friendship between Bishop and Lowell served as one long writer’s conference for two – as they continually inspired one another’s work. The contribution of their collaborative friendship is as important in its own way as that of Pound and Eliot.

It is said that Lowell was hopelessly in love with Bishop – hopelessly because she was a lesbian. She never made her sexual orientation a featured element of her work, though, preferring to look at her craft not as a vehicle for personal politics but as an attempt to establish a serious voice in American literature.

Recognizing her contributions to the craft, writers continue to read Bishop today; in fact, the body of her work can be taken together as a lesson in “seeing with words.” The Library of America published her complete works and selected letters in 2008 - edited by Robert Giroux (FSG published the majority of her work during her lifetime). Bishop died in 1979.

Elizabeth Bishop on Writing:

“When I think about it, it seems to me I’ve rarely written anything of value at the desk or in the room where I was supposed to be doing it — it’s always in someone else’s house, or in a bar, or standing up in the kitchen in the middle of the night. . .” (In a letter to poet James Merrill)

Poem by Elizabeth Bishop:


September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

Elizabeth Bishop Writing Assignment:

The sestina is at once one of the easiest or poetic forms to write in and the most difficult. It is the easiest because there are few rules: 7 stanzas – one through six have six lines and the 7th stanza (known as the "envoi") has only three lines. Each line ends with one of six words in the first six stanzas – and are tucked two to a line in the envoi. On the other hand, it is also one of the more difficult forms to master because it requires a fresh use of each word so that the poem does not lapse into moribund repetition, the death knell for the sestina. The poetic form is meant to serve as a “show off” whereby the poet demonstrates both the flexibility of language and his own adroitness and cleverness. All the same, the final product, if successful, has a certain musical quality - through the repetition of the words throughout - which sets it off as a perennial favorite.

Write a sestina using the following six words (in any starting order):
1. the first object you see in your desk drawer
2. your state’s bird
3. the first word that your finger lands on in a dictionary
4. your birthstone
5. your preferred type of alcohol
6. the model of your first car (i.e. Corvette, Escort, Caravan, etc.)

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