Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Welcome to our "Creative Project"

Maureen Cole and Brian M. Biggs welcome you to the world of poet,


(Born the same year as Ronald Reagan)

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of her birth.

Awards and Positions:
Received the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award for first book of poetry, North & South. 1946
Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, 1949 - 1950 (Now called: Poet Laureate of the United States)
Professor at: University of Washington, Harvard, NYU, & MIT
Pulitzer Prize for North & South and A Cold Spring (her first two volumes of poetry combined), 1956
National Book Award, 1968
First Woman to receive the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, 1976
(The only American to ever win this award)
National Book Critics Circle Award, 1977

"Manners" by Elizabeth Bishop

On the video to the right is Elizabeth Bishop's poem, "Manners" from her book of poems, Questions of Travel (1965).   Elizabeth Bishop lived with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia following the death of her father when she was eight months old and the mental illness that institutionalized her mother when she was only five years old.  Listen to the love and admiration she gives her grandfather.

Monday, February 14, 2011

"At the Fishhouses" by Elizabeth Bishop

John Timpane of The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote on February 9, 2011: "Like many people, I associate my discovery of Elizabeth Bishop with the day I came to poetry.  In my little local library, on a deserted 1968 afternoon, I happened upon  'The Fish' - and 'The Man-Moth.' ... I could not stop reading.  I ransacked the (very few) poetry books on the shelves for more Bishop.  'The Man-Moth' was Schwartz's first Bishop too. [Poet Lloyd Schwartz was a friend of Bishop's and was awarded the Pulitzer prize for Criticism]  He was sitting on the floor, he says, 'but if I'd been in a chair, I would have fallen off.'  Then he speaks for thousands of readers and writers about their first Bishop, their next Bishop, the Elizabeth Bishop of their lives...."

My (Brian M. Biggs) first Bishop was an excerpt from "At the Fishhouses" printed in The Oregonian by David Biespiel.  In his article, "High praise for Elizabeth Bishop's artistry and humanity" (12/26/2010), Biespiel states that Bishop is "one of the most widely praised poets of our era as a chronicler of the fusion of self and culture."

When I read the excerpt (the first half of the poem) it was as if I was there on the dock at twilight listening to a local woman talk with this old fisherman who sits in the shadows to repair his net.  The words are so perfect and precise that I smelled the codfish "so strong it makes one's nose run and one's eye's water."  I saw the rust stains "like dried blood" spilling down from the iron work on "an ancient wooden capstan."  And I heard the old fisherman talk of codfish and herring and wondered how he made it in that tough environment.  He told the woman he was waiting for the "herring boat to come in" so he could purchase more bait.  Maybe he was in for a large haul.  After all, the woman offers him a "Lucky Strike" and he accepts.

I had to read the end of the poem, and when I sent Biespiel's article to Clackamas Community College Poetry instructor, Kate Gray, she immediately sent me the link to the entire poem.  It was amazing, like nothing I've ever read.

However, the poem takes an abrupt turn after the final line in Biespiel's article.  According to Vicki Graham, (in The Explicator 53.2, Winter 1995) "A single line of perfectly regular iambic pentameter divides...Bishop's 'At the Fishhouses' neatly in half, separating a detailed and restrained description of an old fisherman, the Nova Scotia shoreline, and the tools of the fishing trade from an equally detailed but more passionate description of the ocean itself."  (The single line and final line in the Biespiel article is: "the blade of which is almost worn away.")

Brett C. Millier (in "The prodigal: Elizabeth Bishop and alcohol." Contemporary Literature 39.1, Spring 1998)
notes "The image of water that is flammable, dangerous, about to explode recurs frequently in Bishop's poems. ....The best-known fiery body of water occurs in 'At the Fishhouses.'  The water so cold it burns is first, of course, a physical description of the icy cold water of the North Atlantic. But at the same time, in a poem in which Bishop is considering her origins--on her first visit to her mother's home since her death in 1934--the cold water reflects the absence of maternal warmth in her life, and perhaps the drug with which she medicated that sense of loss.  The shifting sea of knowledge is both general , communal ('It is like what we imagine knowledge to be') and highly personal, as the startling image of rocky breasts makes her speculations suddenly physical again. ....She contemplates the choice between the impoverished but beautiful land and the tempting oblivion of the paradoxical, and alcohol-like sea: cold but burning; like knowledge, but promising death."

That choice is what children experience when going for their first swim in the ocean.  The water's cold and the waves are scary so they turn back to look for assurance from, not the "dignified tall firs" but their moms or dads. 

In his biography, Elizabeth Bishop LIFE and the Memory of It, Brett C. Millier tells us that on this return trip to Nova Scotia, Bishop made several notebook entries that contributed to poems.  "At Lockeport Beach on the Atlantic Ocean,....'Description of the dark, icy, clear water--clear dark glass--slightly bitter (hard to define).  My idea of knowledge.  this cold stream, half drawn, half flowing from a great rocky breast.'  Earlier,...she had noticed

                   a million Christmas trees stand
                   waiting for Christmas

"Elizabeth had a poem in mind when she made these notes; next to each of the ideas that eventually contributed to 'At the Fishhouses,' ....is the notation 'GM' --explained once as 'Geographical Mirror' and suggesting that the trip and the later poem were part of an attempt to find herself reflected in the land and sea."

It is interesting that she crossed out "great rocky breast."  Robert Lowell suggested she take the phrase out but luckily she left it in.  Millier says that "The chill maternal image at the end of the poem is startling but reminds us that Elizabeth Bishop's Nova Scotia is her motherland, the scene of her disturbed and disturbing childhood. Having spent a good part of the previous two years working with Dr. Ruth Foster on the origins of her depression and alcoholism, Elizabeth must indeed have felt that her inheritance from her mother , what she "derived" from that troubled relationship--her "knowledge" of herself and her Nova Scotia past--was indeed "flowing and drawn" and hopelessly temporal and irremediable, "historical, flowing and flown."

Vicki Graham suggests that "the work of the fisherman scaling his fish becomes an analogy for the work of the poet who shapes a perfectly regular line. ....Motion predominates in the second half of the poem. ...The line of iambic pentameter marks a boundary between shore and water, stasis and motion, which the speaker is reluctant to cross. ....To go beyond it, she must invent a new rhythm and enter a new realm with a different order, both poetically and thematically.  She hesitates, tensed against immersion in the sea.

''Total immersion' in the poem, however, is metaphorical; the speaker never touches the water - she doesn't even dip her hand in.  But literal immersion is not necessary; what matters is for the poet to bring the poem into alignment with the sea.  The line of iambic pentameter at the center of 'At the Fishhouses' suggests that Bishop intended to direct attention to work and to the mastering of craft.  She meant us to understand that we can't get to the sea, to knowledge, without work.  Adam's curse falls on fisherman and poet alike.  Both must labor.  Like the old man working in the twilight, the poet must handle her knife precisely, using her craft to release beauty."
And to me, she does exactly that: release the beauty.

Elizabeth Bishop and Revision

Elizabeth Bishop was notoriously painstaking and particular about her poems; meeting her own standards was almost impossible. This is one reason she published a relatively small body of work and left behind many unfinished fragments and revisions. Her unpublished work, over 3500 pages, is preserved at the Special Archives at Vassar College, her Alma mater. Much of this has been published in Edgar Allen Poe & the juke-box: uncollected poems, drafts, and fragments.

Her longtime friend Robert Lowell once wrote of her in a poem, asking, "Do/ you still hang your words in air, ten years/ unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps/ or empties for the unimaginable phrase—/ unerring muse who makes the casual perfect?" (O'Rourke, 2006)

She sometimes began poems and put them aside for years. For instance, “The Moose” had its origins in a bus trip in 1946 and Bishop continued to work on it even after reading it in June 1972 at a ceremony at Harvard. What we learn from this is that not all efforts result in a poem. Mastery of self-expression is the miracle.  In a letter to Marianne Moore, she asks: “Can you please forgive me and believe that it is really because I want to do something well that I don’t do it at all?” (Quinn, 2006)
"One Art," Draft 16

Editors understood her perfectionism and regularly tried to goad her into sending them poems. One relatively swift success was "One Art," which was revised only 16 times and written within months, as  opposed to the sometimes decades long period between the start of a poem to her satisfaction with it. She said it almost wrote like a letter (2006).

Bishop worked hard at avoiding imprecision; she was known for her exactness. She was talented at describing scenes as if the reader were living, breathing, feeling, and thinking through the poet’s eyes. She often wound an uncertainty and self-consciousness into her poems which would reveal something painful or intimate or unearth a truth, often unexpected, to the reader. Bishop worked hard, and for years sometimes, to find just the right words to convey this sense of purpose to the reader.

As Bishop herself said when speaking about Wallace Stevens’ Owl Clover, “What strikes me as so wonderful about the whole book - because I dislike the way he occasionally seems to make blank verse moo - is that it is such a display of ideas at work-making poetry, the poetry making them, etc. That, it seems to me, is the way a poet should think.” (2006)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Marianne Moore's influence on Elizabeth Bishop

On March 16, 1934 Elizabeth Bishop, then a senior at Vassar College, met the poet Marianne Moore through the Vassar librarian.   By April 26th (the date she wrote a letter to Donald E. Stanford, a graduate student at Harvard) Bishop enjoyed a visit to the circus with Miss Moore: "The most interesting thing I've been doing lately is taking Marianne Moore to the circus. ....[She] really is so nice--and the most interesting talker; I've seen her only twice and I think I have enough anecdotes to meditate on for years..."  (ONE ART, Elizabeth Bishop LETTERS  by Robert Gioroux, p. 23.) 

Marianne Moore not only acted as a mentor to the young poet, she also filled the maternal void created when Bishop lost her mother to a mental hospital at age five.  Once Bishop's mother entered the hospital, the two never made contact and her mother died shortly after Bishop met Marianne Moore.

Brett C Millier, in his book Elizabeth BISHOP, LIFE and the Memory of It, (p.76) explains what the early mentoring accomplished:  "'The Map' was a breakthrough for Elizabeth. ...It presents such a contrast to those mannered, imitative college poems that the reader wishes for an explanation.   The example of meaning generated through contemplation of a single object, the familiar object reseen, the commitment to accuracy, the reach of a simile, the wisdom of tone, the naturalness of diction--these are gifts Marianne Moore gave Elizabeth as well as infinite subjects less hackneyed than "sorrow" and "love" and the ability to trust her own instinct in handling those subjects.  This is the first "Elizabeth Bishop" poem we have, and Elizabeth knew that well enough to place it first in North & South and first in her collected poems of 1969."  "The Map" is printed in a separate Post on this blog.

"Bishop's poem, 'The Fish' [also] exemplifies these characteristics of Moore's influence. ... Every minute detail that Bishop shares about the experience of catching a fish, and examining it builds to her throwing it back into the water." (Laura Ebberson, "Elizabeth Bishop's Poetic Voice: Reconciling Influences," p. 3)

When Bishop first sent "The Fish" to Marianne Moore she wrote: "I am sending you a real 'trifle'... I'm afraid it is very bad..."   (ONE ART, p. 87)  After Marianne Moore critiqued the poem, Bishop wrote back, "And thank you for the marvelous postcard, and the very helpful comments on 'The Fish.'  I did as you suggested about everything except 'breathing in' (if you can remember that), which I decided to leave as it was."  (ONE ART, pp. 87-88)   "This early poem largely depended upon Moore's critique.  Without Moore's suggestions and approval, Bishop could have continued to believe it a 'trifle,' and she may not have published what would become her most anthologized piece."  (Laura Ebberson, p. 4)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Robert Lowell's influence on Elizabeth Bishop

Poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop met in 1947 and remained friends until his death in 1977.  These two poets were at the cutting edge of a golden age in literature and they shared their poetry with each other, praising or not praising, always honest in evaluating each other's poems.  They realized  that though they shared many common interests, they each brought something different to the table.  Bishsop's exactness, precision and nuanced observation was something that Lowell treasured.  Lowell's force and directness were traits that Bishop assimilated to some degree.

Both poets experienced trying childhoods that left scars: Lowell was hospitalized many times for his manic depression (bipolar disorder) and Bishop, tossed from grandparent to grandparent to aunt, dealt with asthma and depression and battled alcoholism for much of her life.  Bishop was exceedingly shy; Lowell was outgoing, more famous, and had a huge circle of connections which he readily put at Bishop's disposal.   Both thought of letter writing as an art.  There are over 400 letters between them in the book, Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.

After Lowell's death in 1977 Elizabeth Bishop wrote her poem, "North Haven, In Memoriam: Robert Lowell"
The last two stanzas are:
Robert Lowell & Elizabeth Bishop

Years ago, you told me it was here
(in 1932?) you first "discovered girls"
and learned to sail, and learned to kiss.
You had "such fun," you said, that classic summer.
("Fun"--it always seemed to leave you at a loss...)

You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue...And now--you've left
for good.  You can't derange, or re-arrange,
your poems again.  (But the Sparrows can their song.)
 The words won't change again.  Sad friend, you cannot change.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Some comments on her poetry

Robert Lowell remarked, "Elizabeth Bishop is the contemporary poet that I admire most...There's a beautiful completeness to all of Bishop's poetry.  I don't think anyone alive has a better eye than she had: The eye that sees things and the mind behind the eye that remembers."

John Timpane (2/9/2011) of the Philadelphia Inquirer says "Bishop, who called writing poetry 'an unnatural act,' was an obsessive perfectionist, keeping poems for years, publishing only about 80 in her lifetime.  But for many readers, they're indelible.  In poems such as "The Fish" and "The Armadillo," she emerges as one of the greatest descriptive poets in English."

Elizabeth Bishop, "Writing poetry is an unnatural act.  It takes great skill to make it seem natural.  Most of the poet's energies are really directed towards this goal: to convince himself (perhaps, with luck, eventually some readers) that what he's up to and what he's saying is really an inevitable, only natural way of behaving under the circumstances."

Elizabeth Bishop (1960's) "Off and on I have written out a poem called 'Grandmother's Glass Eye' which should be about the problem of writing poetry.  The situation of my grandmother strikes me as rather like the situation of the poet: the difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real; the natural with the unnatural; the curious effect a poem produces of being as normal as sight and yet as synthetic, as artificial, as a glass eye."