Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Bishop’

Elizabeth Bishop’s class at Harvard: “She wanted us to see poems, not ideas,” says Dana Gioia

Tuesday, December 1st, 2020

Harvard’s Kirkland House: they studied in the basement, among unwanted couches and broken bikes.  (Photo: Wikipedia)

A university student should have at least one unforgettable teacher during his or her formative years. So it was with poet Dana Gioia. In 1975, he began his last year as a graduate student in English at Harvard. He faced a choice: taking Robert Lowell‘s class on 19th century poets, or a relatively unknown Elizabeth Bishop teaching “Studies in Modern Poetry.” She rarely attracted more than a dozen students – but she attracted this one, who would go on to be chairman of the NEA. The class dwindled down to five, four of them undergraduates by the second meeting. But the friendship of the poet and the poet-to-be endured. After each class, he walked with “Miss Bishop” to their respective quarters, since they lived in the same direction from Harvard’s Kirkland House.

The story is one of several told in Dana Gioia’s new book Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Lifeout in January with Paul Dry Books. Also included in the collection are accounts of John Cheever, Robert Fitzgerald, James Dickey, and more. The publisher, too, has a story: he was a stock options trader, and a successful one, but the Harvard grad had a secret yen to be a publisher (read that story here). The Stanford Publishing Course convinced him to have a go.

Back to the class in the basement of Kirkland House: Elizabeth Bishop was new to teaching and it showed. “I’m not a very good teacher,” she began. “So to make sure you learn something in this class I am going to ask each of you to memorize at least ten lines a week from one of the poets we are reading.”

“Memorize poems?” one of the dismayed students asked. “But why?” Miss Bishop’s reply was modest and sincere. “So that you’ll learn something in spite of me.”

The class final at the end of the term, in Dana’s own words: “Our final examination surprised even me. A take-home test, it ran a full typed page (covered with the hand-scrawled corrections that by now were her trademark) and posed us four tasks unlike any we had ever seen on a college English exam. Furthermore, we were given exact word lengths and citation requirements, as well as this admonition as a headline: ‘Use only your books of poems and a dictionary; please do not consult each other.'”

The final hurdle of the test was this, in Bishop’s words:

Now, please try your hand at 24 lines of original verse; three poems of eight lines each, in imitation of the three poets studied, in their styles and typical of them. (In the case of Lowell, the style of Lord Weary’s Castle.) I don’t expect these pastiches to be great poetry! – but try to imitate (or parody if you prefer) the characteristic subject-matter, meter, imagery, and rhyme (if appropriate).

We may not have consulted each other about the answers to this test, but, walking out of Kirkland after the last class with the final in our hands, we could not help talking about the questions. Miss Bishop had gone off to her office, and we were alone.

“I can’t believe it,” one of the undergraduates moaned. “We have to write poems.”

Someone else offered the consolation that at least everything else on the exam was easy.

“Yeah, but we still have to write poems.”


His conclusion: “By this time, I had realized that, for all her fumbling disorganization, Miss Bishop had devised – or perhaps merely improvised – a way of teaching poetry which was fundamentally different from the manner conventionally professed in American universities. She never articulated her philosophy in class, but she practiced it so consistently that it is easy – especially now, looking back – to see what she was doing. She wanted us to see poems, not ideas. Poetry was the particular way the world could be talked about only in verse, and here, as one of her fellow Canadians once said, the medium was the message. One did not interpret poetry; one experienced it. Showing us how to experience it clearly, intensely, and, above all, directly was the substance of her teaching. One did not need a sophisticated theory. One needed only intelligence, intuition, and a good dictionary. There was no subtext, only the text. A painter among Platonists, she preferred observation to analysis, and poems to poetry.”

Dana Gioia’s archives go to Huntington, Stanford – including “tens of thousands” of letters!

Monday, April 20th, 2020

Dana Gioia’s books, manuscripts, libretti are now at the Huntington Library.

Dana Gioia is a man of letters in the time-honored sense of the term, influencing our culture as a poet and essayist, but also as a translator, editor, anthologist, librettist, teacher, literary critic, and advocate for the arts. His correspondence was extensive, and it went on for decades. Hence, his archive is a treasure trove, and though he has had offers from other institutions to acquire it, he wanted his papers to stay in California. Now it will. He has donated his substantial archive to the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, which announced today it had acquired the papers of the poet and writer who served as the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003–09 and as the California Poet Laureate from 2015–19.

Dana Gioia in L.A. with friend, Doctor Gatsby (Photo: Starr Black)

It is the second large donation he has made in the last year. Last August, he gave to Stanford the large archive of Story Line Press, which he co-founded. The papers are the central archive for the New Formalism movement. The archive includes a number of people who have spent time at Stanford, including Donald Justice, Donald Hall, Christian Wiman, Paul Lake, Annie Finch, and of course Dana himself, among others. Stanford Libraries already holds the archive for The Reaper, so this is a natural pairing with that irreverent journal.

The larger Huntington archive includes correspondence with many of the major poets and writers for the last several decades, including Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, Ray Bradbury, Rachel Hadas, Jane Hirshfield, William Maxwell, Thom Gunn, Edgar BowersKay Ryan, Robert Conquest, Julia Alvarez, Thomas Disch, Cynthia Ozick,  Donald Davie, Anthony Burgess, John Cheever, J.V. Cunningham, and even some musicians, such as Dave Brubeck. It also includes his own books, manuscripts, and libretti. “Even after I pruned my correspondence, there is a lot of letters – in the tens of thousands,” said Dana.

“When I told my brother Ted that I had made the donation, he commented that I wanted my papers to be at the Huntington because our mother took us there as children. ‘You’re probably right,’ I said. I  still remember seeing the elegant manuscript of Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’ there nearly sixty years ago. It was my first glimpse into that enchanted kingdom by the sea called poetry.”

The Huntington picked up 71 archival boxes last December – the first part of his donation. Then Dana Gioia had a more urgent task: the next day he flew back to northern California home, which sustained fire damage during last year’s Kincade wildfire.

From the Huntington release:

The archive documents Gioia’s work as a poet through fastidiously maintained drafts of poems and essays from his books, which include five books of poetry and three books of critical essays. He is one of the most prominent writers of the “New Formalist” school of poetry, a movement that promoted the return of meter and rhyme, although his arts advocacy work situates him in a broader frame.

The archive en dishabillé, as Mary Gioia helps organize.

“In his correspondence, you see a writer who has been willing to engage the young and old, the esteemed and emergent—anyone who wants to critically discuss poetic form, contemporary audiences for poetry, and the importance of literary reading during decades when popular culture has become increasingly visual and attention spans have fractured,” said Karla Nielsen, curator of literary collections at The Huntington. “We are delighted that Dana has entrusted his papers to The Huntington, where his collection fits perfectly. He is a local author—he grew up in a Mexican/Sicilian American household in Hawthorne—and even as he attained international recognition as a poet and assumed the chairmanship of the NEA, he remained loyal to the region and invested in Los Angeles’ unique literary communities.”

“I’m delighted to have my papers preserved in my hometown of Los Angeles, especially at The Huntington, a place I have loved since the dreamy days of my childhood,” said Gioia.

While the range of correspondents in the collection is broad and eclectic, the sustained letter writing with poets Donald Justice, David Mason, and Ted Kooser is particularly significant.

Gioia’s work co-editing a popular poetry anthology textbook with the poet X. J. Kennedy from the 1990s to the present will interest scholars working on canon formation during those decades when the “culture wars” were a politically charged issue.

A portion of the materials represent Gioia’s work as an advocate for poetry and the arts at the NEA and as the California Poet Laureate. This work is integral to his career and will be important to scholars interested in the place of poetry and the role of reading for pleasure within greater debates about literacy and literary reading at the beginning of the 20th century. … At The Huntington, Gioia’s archive joins that of another businessman poet, Wallace Stevens; that of a very different but also quintessentially Los Angeles poet, Charles Bukowski; and those of two other New Formalist poets, Henri Coulette and Robert Mezey.

Tens of thousands of letters and much more – now at the library his mother Dorothy Ortiz took Ted and Dana Gioia to visit as children. Dana remembers the Poe manuscript of “Annabel Lee.”

Poet Elizabeth Bishop: “the loneliest person who ever lived.”

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

bishop-bookIn case you missed it, The New Yorker has a long feature by Claudia Roth Pierpont, “Elizabeth Bishop’s Art of Losing.” It catalogs precisely how much Elizabeth Bishop lost over the course of a lifetime. In one passage, about her unrequited love for a Vassar classmate, Bishop mulls over that vague word in English, “friend,” that can describe Twitter followers you’ve never met or a man you’ve dropped two babies with: “Bishop confided to her notebook a few months earlier, while suffering over Margaret Miller: ‘Name it friendship if you want to—like names of cities printed on maps, the word is much too big, it spreads all over the place, and tells nothing of the actual place it means to name.'”

An excerpt from the New Yorker article, which discusses Megan Marshall’s new biography, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt),

Bishop began to travel restlessly—France, Morocco, Spain—at about the time she began to publish, in the mid-thirties. She had no real home, after all. At school, she had always hated holidays, getting through in an empty dormitory or as a friend’s appendage or sometimes just staying in a cheap Boston hotel. Her father’s estate provided enough money so that she didn’t need to work, and the Vassar classmate who did respond to her feelings, Louise Crane, was seriously rich. (The Crane family made paper, including the paper used in dollar bills.) Bishop was attractive to both women and men, sometimes too much so for her own good. In 1935, she turned down a marriage proposal from a young man she had strung along (just in case?) since college. He committed suicide the following year, and a postcard he’d sent her arrived a few days later, inscribed “Elizabeth, Go to hell.”

Louise whisked her off to Florida to recover, and she soon discovered Key West. Still a sleepy backwater of an island, it became her regular haven for nearly a decade, long outlasting the relationship with Louise. Bishop was deeply drawn to islands—places where she felt isolated, solitary, safe. Although she continued to spend time in New York, she hated the city’s pressures. Even having lunch with people from Partisan Review (including [Mary] McCarthy) gave her nightmares. She wrote very slowly, often working on a poem for years, and increasing requests for publication only made her aware of how little she had done. Her finest works of the late thirties were two Kafka-like stories that seem to reflect her emotional state: “The Sea & Its Shore,” in which a man toils to keep a public beach free of ever-accumulating papers, working every night, by lantern light, and trying to make sense of the scraps he finds; and “In Prison,” a condition that the narrator anticipates with relief.

And one more excerpt, on the publication of her collection North & South and her relationship with poet/critic Randall Jarrell:

Reactions to the book itself were mixed, but the most influential voices were highly favorable. Moore, wholly ungrudging, wrote a keen appraisal in The Nation, and Randall Jarrell, the most brilliant critic of the time, set the tone for future evaluations with his praise of Bishop’s “restraint, calm, and proportion,” just as she was entering a period when she seemed to be trying to drink herself to death.

Jarrell gave Bishop another important gift when, in January, 1947, he introduced her to Robert Lowell. Tall, handsomely tousled, and six years Bishop’s junior, Lowell charmed her as no one had since she’d met Moore. Indeed, he soon replaced Moore as her most valued friend, even though his first commercial book, “Lord Weary’s Castle,” also published in 1946, beat out “North & South” for the Pulitzer Prize. Throughout their lives, his work was far more celebrated than hers. Yet any competitiveness was softened by his devotion to her writing, by his eagerness (and ability) to help her in material ways—grants, jobs, reviews—and by an aura of romance, which he perpetuated (Lowell gave pretty much everything an aura of romance) and she indulged. Two years after they met, he nearly proposed; he remembered later that she told him, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”

Read the whole thing here.

A villanelle on self-pity and a few words hurled at heaven

Wednesday, August 17th, 2016

heynA villanelle, for those of you who don’t know the lovely form with its remarkable incantatory power, is a 19-line poem with a rhyme-and-refrain scheme that runs as follows: A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2 where letters (“a” and “b”) indicate the two rhyme sounds, upper case indicates a refrain (“A”), and superscript numerals (1 and 2) indicate Refrain 1 and Refrain 2.

Got that? Think Elizabeth Bishop‘s “One Art” or Theodore Roethke‘s “The Waking.”

The history of the villanelle, from the Italian villanella, a rustic song, goes back to the 16th century. The French poet Théodore de Banville compared the interweaving refrain lines to “a braid of silver and gold threads, crossed with a third thread the color of a rose.” The complex form was fixed with Jean Passerat‘s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” in 1606.

Here’s one more to add to the repertoire: “Self-pity” by a poet from the calm shores of Lake Michigan, Marnie Heynwho has just published a collection of poems, Hades Lades, with The Writers’ Bloc Press. (She takes liberties, as many poets do – clearly Passerat didn’t have the last word. Though she keeps to 19 lines and interwoven refrains, she combines terza rima with the villanelle.)

And below that, a more recent poem Marnie has written, about five years ago, dedicated to Humble Moi. I ran another dedicated to myself, titled “Gravitas,” by Patrick Hunt last March. As I noted then, it’s one of the pleasant byproducts of having poets for friends.

What both Marnie’s poems have in common, oddly, are the inclusion of buses. I wonder why … though I expect Marnie is a longtime fan of public transit.


I’m rigid on the bus at all the halts.
I set my jaw against sincere persuasion,
And that is not the gravest of my faults.

I overdress at any provocation.
My smile will never soothe a single sting.
I set my jaw against sincere persuasion.

I can’t subtract. Above all things,
I dearly love to win an argument.
My smile will never soothe a single sting.

My correspondents don’t get what I’ve sent.
I’m validated by the times I pine.
I dearly love to win an argument.

I decline my rightful turn in line
And trample on some hapless stranger’s feet.
I’m validated by the times I pine.

I lead in polka dancing, miss the beat,
And trample on some hapless stranger’s feet.
I’m rigid on the bus at all the halts,
And that is not the gravest of my faults.


hurling words at heaven

for Cynthia

you know I feel the creator’s presence the way I feel
the lateral coziness of that odd woman’s thigh, there
on the Trailways bus between one city in a state where
I know no one, and a city in another state where I know
no one, but I will manage well enough, and I am in
no danger, and going somewhere I want to be, there
beyond loneliness,
…….and so I know you will understand
that this bright, windy day I will not mirror Moses or
echo Jeremiah, rather that I will toss easy catches,
underhand, with flourishes, telegraphing every move,
soft, slow lobs right at the sweet spot where the stroke
can’t miss,
…….and ask, please, shine a light on the monster,
toss a banana peel under the heel of that stalker, whisper
a homecoming recall into every throbbing ear, and just
let Sinai be, let it be, while you show your countenance
to the gentle, the patient, the weary, this year, even in


Postscript on 8/20: We have some nice pick-up from our friends at one of our favorite blogs, 3QuarksDaily, here.

Berkeley poet Chana Bloch: “There’s no point in wanting to be a different kind of a writer than you are.”

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

Chana Bloch-Peg SkorpinskiWe’ve written about Berkeley poet Chana Bloch before (here), but it’s been a few years since I spoke with her at the university, so I was happy to get an update at the “Talking Writing” website. Poet and translator Bloch, who has just released a “new and selected” Swimming in the Rain this year, was a longtime professor at Oakland’s Mills College. This first question (or rather, a comment, really) caught my eye – I’m constantly chastising myself because I’m not the fastest, most prolific, most profound writer in the English-speaking world. Apparently I’m not alone. Then I was caught by her list of favored poets.

Excerpt from her Q&A with Carol Dorf:

TW: I’m a slow writer.

CB: Slow is not necessarily bad. There’s no point in wanting to be a different kind of a writer than you are, though I must admit I’ve envied poets who are quicker, more prolific. I myself rarely stay with my early drafts. I tend to go over and over a poem—revising, distilling, trying to get at the essence.

TW: Most of your poems are brief lyrics. How do your longer sequence poems function compared with those that represent a single moment?

CB: I tend to write very short poems. Most of them fit on one page. Sometimes, a group of those poems asks to be stitched together. For example, I wrote a number of poems about my experience of ovarian cancer in 1986 that were then published in various journals. At some point, I realized that, by bringing them together in a sequence I called “In the Land of the Body” (from The Past Keeps Changing, Sheep Meadow Press, 1992), I could offer differing perspectives on the experience: that of my then-husband, our children, the radiologist, the surgeon.

TW: Which poets have been especially important to you?

swimmingInTheRainCB: George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Yehuda Amichai, Tomas Tranströmer, Elizabeth Bishop, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska, Charles Simic, Gerard Manley Hopkins—not necessarily in that order.

George Herbert was an early influence. In grad school, I fell in love with his work. We made a very odd couple. I was a Jewish girl from the Bronx, and he was a seventeenth-century Anglican minister. But his poetry was about the inner life, and that drew me. There was a human depth in his poems that I found very appealing. He wrote about the self with an unsparing candor—about his irresolution, his inner contradictions. And I loved the music in his poetry.

I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation about his work, and then a book—Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible (University of California Press, 1985)—about how he transforms the biblical sources in his poetry. Seeing him take a verse from the Bible and combine it with something from his life was like watching a mind in the very process of creation.

Read the whole thing here.

Poet Anne Stevenson: “We are losing contact with language…”

Friday, May 24th, 2013

Her 17th century cottage near Llanbedr, during my 2009 visit.

Anne Stevenson turned 80 in January – and the occasion whizzed past without my noticing it.  So it was a pleasure to be reminded of my neglect by the Times Literary Supplement this week, in an article by Thea Lenarduzzi  I was also unaware of Anne’s newest “probably my last” collection, Astonishment. I wrote about Anne a dozen years ago, here, and have had the pleasure of visiting her at both her residences, in Durham, and more recently staying in Wales, where she lives with husband Peter Lucas in a 17th century cottage near Llanbedr.

“One has to maintain a distance, an air pocket between the poet and the poem—a pocket of objectivity. The poem isn’t an expression of what you could say better in ordinary language, or in theoretical language,” she told me in 2000.

“I do believe that writing poetry is not something everybody needs to indulge in. Encouraging more and more people to express themselves and, above all, to publish poems or put them on the internet, does tend to thin the blood—of literature, I mean. People forget how to read. They forget that you need to develop a strong degree of attention to read intelligently the poetry of, say, Auden or Yeats, or even Roethke and Elizabeth Bishop. You need to be sensitive to all the sounds, rhythms, echoes, et cetera, that constitute a poem to know what’s going on in it. If nothing is going on except the promulgation of some one-dimensional idea or personal experience, if the so-called poem is nothing but a cut-up piece of not-very-interesting prose, then it isn’t poetry at all. It’s not asking anything of the reader, except perhaps fellow-feeling or sympathy.”

Anne Stevenson

“A pocket of objectivity”

Not surprisingly, she is still a woman of strong opinions.  From the TLS piece:

More overtly underwhelmed by the possibilities of mixed media was Stevenson. “There’s an awful lot of poetry about”, she said, emphasizing one word in particular. “And with 9,000 teachers of Creative Writing in US Colleges, turning out ten protégés each . . . you’re bound to bring the standard down”. With characteristically wry humour she questioned that age-old obsession with “doing something ‘new’” (“it’s terribly hard to do anything new, you know”), which operates at the expense of more self-probing verse (not to be confused with the “Words about words about words to pamper the ego / Of some theoretical bore”); and “Do It Yourself Poetry” built in ignorance of proper craftsmanship (with no sense of rhythm, form, heritage ). “We are losing contact with language . . . . I wouldn’t even begin to talk about the visual arts, ‘Conceptual Art…’” (that carefully placed emphasis again, a glint in her eye, and a laugh: “I am eighty, you know!”).

“I’ll just throw all of that in”, Stevenson quipped before bringing the evening to a close with a reading of her most recent poem, “An Old Poet’s View from the Departure Platform”, its final stanza running thus:

“I gaze over miles and miles of cut up prose, / Uncomfortable troubles, sad lives. / They smother in sand the fire that is one with the rose. / The seed, not the flower survives.”

Oh, and this will keep me in my place: she says ““Blog is the ugliest word I ever heard …”  Read the whole thing here.

Poet Eavan Boland bags PEN prize

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

A winner

I’m on the PEN mailing list, so I got this one hot off the presses last week: Eavan Boland, director of Stanford’s Creative Writing program and one of Ireland’s leading poets, has won a 2012 PEN award for creative nonfiction with her acclaimed collection of essays, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet, published last year by W.W. Norton.

PEN Center USA will fete three honorees and give 11 awards in particular genres at its annual awards festival on Oct. 22 in Beverly Hills. Grove/Atlantic Press publisher (and Stanford alum) Morgan Entrekin will receive the Award of Honor; Joyce Carol Oates will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award and CBS correspondent Lara Logan will receive the Freedom to Write Award.

In addition to Boland’s award for creative nonfiction, the other genre awards are given for poetry, fiction, research nonfiction, children’s literature, graphic literature, journalism, translation, drama, teleplay and screenplay.

“I’m really honored to get the award. And especially from PEN, which is an institution that does so much to advocate for writers,” said Boland.

Boland has published 10 volumes of poetry – most recently New Collected Poems (2008) and Domestic Violence (2007) and an earlier collected volume, An Origin Like Water: Collected Poems 1967-87 (1996). She has received the Lannan Award for Poetry and an American Ireland Fund Literary Award. She has published a previous volume of prose, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time.

Joyce Carol Oates at Stanford, with Anne Fadiman and Tracy Kidder

A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet traces Boland’s own development as a poet, and also offers insights into the work of Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop and the German poet Elizabeth Langässer.

Irish author Colm Tóibín named it a “favorite book” in the Irish Times last year, calling it “urgent and wise.” Britain’s Poetry Review called her “one of the finest and boldest poets of the last half century.”

Boland balances two worlds: free-spirited California and Ireland, a land of historical persecution and occupation, with its “painful memory of a poetry whose archive was its audience,” she said in an Academy of American Poets interview.

“I sought out American poetry because of that powerful, inclusive diversity,” she said. “I always remember I’m an Irish poet there, but at the same time some part of my sense of poetry feels very confirmed by the American achievement.”

On Elizabeth Bishop: “The laughter is quick, sharp, deep. No way to transcribe it.”

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

“You know what we used to do with peppermint sticks? You stick it in half a lemon, and you suck it. Very good.”

Elizabeth Bishop was a sucker for candy canes. Who knew?

Ploughshares has republished its 8,000 word interview with the poet George Starbuck, first published in 1977.  The interview feels pretty much unedited, replicating the twists and byways a conversation can take, as if the editors were reluctant to let even the tiniest bit go. And some things couldn’t be described: “The laughter is quick, sharp, deep. No way to transcribe it.”

My favorite bit is about her friendship with Marianne Moore, dating back to Bishop’s collegiate days:

EB: Actually, I didn’t tell her I wrote for a long time. … I guess she must have known by the time I graduated. Even then—I suppose this was a little odd even then—we called each other Miss for about three years. But I admired her so much.

She had a review of Wallace Stevens that I don’t think she ever reprinted. I went over there, to Brooklyn. She waved me through the back door (the elevator wasn’t working). And she had two of those baskets for tomatoes, just filled with papers. Two bushel baskets. And these were the first drafts of this rather short review. You can see how she worked.

She asked for rhymes. (Photo: Carl Van Vechten)

She had a clipboard that she carried around the house to work on a poem while she was washing dishes, dusting, etc.

Now all her papers, or almost all, are in the Berg Museum in Philadelphia. … the exhibit of manuscripts was marvelous. If ever you want to see examples of hard work, it’s just perfect.

She wrote a poem about the famous racehorse, Tom Fool. The man who arranged the collection had done a beautiful job, in glass cases: dozens of little clippings from the newspapers and photographs of the horse. And then the versions of the poem. It goes on and on and on. The work she put in!

GS: I’d be fascinated to see how she did those inaudible rhymes—whether that came first or kept changing. How that figured.

EB: She was rather contradictory, you know. Very illogical. She would say, “Oh—rhyme is dowdy.” Then other times, when she was translating La Fontaine, she would ask me for a rhyme. If I suggested a rhyme, she would be very pleased. She liked that ballad of mine [“The Burglar of Babylon” –ed.] because it rhymed so well. She admired the rhyme Many Antennae. You could never tell what she was going to like or dislike.

GS: That was the other thing about “The Moose.” There’s that nice casual little six-line stanza, but you establish different interlocking ways of making at least a couple of pairs of rhymes out of the six lines.

EB: I thought it would be regular, but that turned out boring. It seemed almost like a ballad. The first stanza was what I thought of first, and then it just seemed to go. It was so funny, Octavio read it when it was published somewhere. He talks about rhyme a lot. Then he read the first stanza aloud and he said, “Oh, it rhymes! Oh it rhymes some more! Rhymes and rhymes and rhymes!” Robert Lowell is always saying, “I like rhyme.” He tries to go back to rhyme but doesn’t. Says he can’t seem to do it any more. His first poems violently rhymed. You—you’ve written sestinas. Rhymes. I’ve always thought I’d write a villanelle.

GS: But you did

EB: Finally did. Never do it again.

He loved mice. (Photo: Walter Albertin)

And this tidbit about E.E. Cummings:

GS: You seem to write more and more kinds of poems but without exhorting yourself to be suddenly different.

EB: Ha. I know I wish I had written a great deal more. Sometimes I think if I had been born a man I probably would have written more. Dared more, or spent more time at it. I’ve just wasted so much time.

GS: Would it have been extra works in other genres?

EB: No.

GS: Long poems?

EB: No. One or two long poems I’d like to write, but I doubt that I ever will. Well, not really long. Maybe ten pages. That’d be long. I read Robert Penn Warren’s Collected Poems. He wasn’t lazy. And Cummings.

Oh. I did know Cummings. When I lived in the Village, later on, I met him through a friend. He and I had the same maid for two or three years. “Leave a little dirt, Blanche,” he used to say to her. Blanche finally left them. They wouldn’t put traps down for the mice. Mrs. Cummings told her a story about how there was a little mouse that would come out and get right on the bed. They would lie in bed and watch her roll up little balls of wool from the blanket, to make her nest. Well, Blanche was appalled.

GS: Was he sparing the mice on humanitarian, vegetarian principles?

EB: Oh no. Cummings just loved mice. He had several nice poems about mice. He adored them. He used to…

Well, I haven’t said anything profound.

I have, among my books somewhere, I have the Time-Life book she was commissioned to write about Brazil, in which, according to Starbuck, she writes “such wonderful bright clear stories from the history of Brazil.” I’ll have to find it.

The rest of the Ploughshares interview here.  And my own post on Bishop, as remembered by Dana Gioia and Thom Gunn (as well as my own visit to her Brazilian home) is  here.

Literary pilgrimages here and there, and Sylvia Plath in Chalcot Square

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Mells, Somerset

Okay. I’ll admit it’s a habit. When I travel, I often check out literary landmarks — the place where a favorite author was born, died, wrote, or was buried.  I’ve seen Mikhail Bulgakov‘s digs in Kiev, Elizabeth Bishop‘s glorious hideaway outside Samambaia, C.P. Cavafy‘s modestly exotic flat in Alexandria, Siegried Sassoon‘s grave in Somerset — I even visited Boris Pasternak‘s idyllic dacha in Peredelkino.

Milton scholar Martin Evans shares my enthusiasm.

His journeys to London are sometimes literary pilgrimages — he’s intrigued by the fact that his beloved John Milton and (my beloved) John Donne were both born on Bread Street.  He wants to show you these and more literary coincidences for your next trip.  Hence his new website,  Authorial London.  Please, do not be daunted.  It’s not complicated at all.  It’s  a really easy site.  And if you’d rather read about it than look at it, try Corrie Goldman‘s description of the site and how it came about here.

One passage intrigued me:

Nice man, odd habit (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Readers may be surprised to learn that Sylvia Plath once lived in the same modest house in Primrose Hill in which W.B.Yeats lived many years earlier. In Plath’s time, it was a working class area beset with blue-collar workers and struggling artists. These days, glamorous socialites like Kate Moss and Sienna Miller have been dubbed by the British tabloids as the “Primrose Hill set.”

The website explains that Plath’s apartment consisted of a small bedroom, a kitchen, a living room and a bath. “Plath loved it, at least at the beginning,” the website explains. Here, Plath wrote her great social commentary of mental illness, The Bell Jar.

I was among the readers not surprised by this revelation — in fact, Plath moved to this flat precisely because Yeats had been a previous tenant.

I remember a trip to London — oh, over a decade ago — when I was writing a piece for the San Jose Mercury on the British reception of Sylvia Plath (a bare-bones, unillustrated version of it is here; the August 20, 2000 piece has disappeared from the Mercury‘s website).

The article opened:

Yeats lived here, too

IN THE Primrose Hill area of London, where Gloucester Road and Prince of Wales Road wind back on each other in a hopeless bend, one arrives at 3 Chalcot Square, a turquoise door on a five-story building painted the color of raspberry sorbet.This summer, a simple plaque was added to the building’s facade:

Sylvia Plath
lived here 1960-1961

Question: Why has it taken Britain nearly 40 years to offer this first, minimalist postmortem recognition for the American poet who spent her last five years in London?

One answer: The British hardly see the need for it. When it comes to Plath, one of America’s most celebrated female poets, the British just don’t get it.

Alas, since the painting of the building has disappeared over the years, we are left with these newer images.  The torquoise door remains — but raspberry sorbet?  I think not.

Elizabeth Bishop centennary: Dana Gioia, Thom Gunn, and my long-ago trip to Samambaia

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

The young Bishop

Feb. 8 marks the centennial of Elizabeth Bishop‘s birth, and her publisher Farrar Straus & Giroux, has put out a triple-hitter: a compilation of her letters to and from The New Yorker and a pair of companion volumes called simply Poems and Prose.

Dana Gioia reviews the trio in the Wall Street Journal, here.  He is too modest to say, except in passing, that he studied with Bishop at Harvard, but he’s wrote about it years ago for the New Yorker — an excerpt is here, and it’s definitely worth the read.  As always with Dana, it’s a good general introduction to Bishop and her oeuvre.

But on one point I must quibble:

In 1952, having embarked on a trip around the world, Bishop took ill in Rio de Janeiro. There she met Lota de Macedo Soares, an architect, who became her lover. Bishop quickly settled in Brazil, and the two women lived together for 15 years—the one extended period of domestic stability in Bishop’s life. Then in 1967 the Brazilian idyll was terminated by Soares’s suicide.

Some years ago, I made the trip to Samambaia — outside Petropolis, which is outside Rio — and wrote about it for the Times Literary Supplement on February 8, 2002:

Brazilians use the expression “toda vida” — for all life — where we would say, “continue to the end of the road”. On the narrow, bumpy brick roads around Petropolis, about sixty miles outside Rio de Janeiro, you may indeed feel you will reach life’s end before you reach your destination: Sitio Alcobacinha, the long-time home of the poet Elizabeth Bishop, in the outlying village of Samambaia. You have to stop every few minutes to question a resident, typically one of the ubiquitous men, shirtless and enervated by the Brazilian summer, drinking beer in the street-side cafes of this trendy, if slightly threadbare, former imperial capital. Continue down the left fork, they will tell you, “toda vida”.

Outside Petropolis ... Bishop's home for years

Bishop didn’t quite end her days here. But certainly a crucial era of her life concluded in Samambaia in 1967, when she left Brazil after a sixteen-year stay that began as a lark, endured as a deep and difficult love affair, and ended with a death. She was to return to Brazil, more particularly to the home she bought and refurbished in Ouro Preto, another 150 miles or so due north, but she never stayed long, and visited more and more sporadically, until she finally left Brazil for good in 1974.

Bishop occupied a marginal, even ostracized, place in Brazilian society at the time, and has done since; how odd, then, the current clamour about her life here. An acclaimed play, a spicy fictionalized “biography” and an excellent set of translations of her poems into Portuguese have all appeared in Brazil in the past few years, and a major film is planned. The poet who once described herself as “the loneliest person who ever lived” is hot.

The reasons for this enthusiastic reclamation, and for the original banishment, are many. The obvious one is that Bishop wrote in English, not Portuguese. Yet perhaps two dozen of Bishop’s small output of poems are about Brazil, and she was a cheerleader for Brazilian poetry, publishing her own translations in an influential anthology in 1972. Her feelings about Brazil were perplexed, puritanical, and patronizing. (“As a country I feel it’s hopeless not in the horrible way Mexico is, but just plain lethargic, self-seeking, half-smug, half-crazy, hopeless”, she wrote in a letter.) Brazilians also resent the fact that she never took the trouble to learn Portuguese properly. (“I must take Brazil more seriously and really learn the damned language”, she moaned.) Other reasons are interwoven with the explosive history of Brazil during the period of Bishop’s stay, and with the mercurial temperament of her aristocratic lover, Carlota de Macedo Soares, a self-trained architect and civic planner universally known as Lota. Lota dabbled, however peripherally, in politics, and another cause of Bishop’s banishment was her lover’s controversial friendship (and by association Bishop’s) with Rio de Janeiro’s Governor, Carlos Lacerda, the anti-Communist politician, orator, and sometime journalist.

Aterro: The park Lota designed in Rio

The story was a sad one, ending with Bishop’s affair with a younger woman (the woman she was to spend the rest of her life with, who would remain unnamed for many years) and Lota’s death:

The more active Lota became in civic affairs, as Lacerda appointed her to create Rio’s equivalent of Central Park, the less time she had for her beloved “Cookie”. The more Elizabeth drank, the more overwrought Lota became.

Lota had a breakdown — from the stress of her civic work as well as her fraying relationship — and turned to tranquillizers. … Lota, rejoining Bishop in New York in 1967, took an overdose of valium the morning after her arrival.

When I interviewed Thom Gunn in August 2003 (the interview was published in the Spring 2005 Georgia Review), he described her as an “extremely nice woman, delightful to know.”

TG: The only time I ever saw her drunk was the first time I met her. This was a meeting set up by a friend of hers in San Francisco. I think it was news to me that she’d moved to San Francisco. She wanted to meet me, which was flattering. So I spent an evening with her, and her friend, whose name I have forgotten. The woman she was living with. I guess I shouldn’t say her real name, because everybody calls her “X” or something.

CH: I think it’s come out.

TG: Roxanne. Anyway, whatever it was. She was out of it, she was out of it. I mean, she was so out of it she was not following the conversation, just making strange remarks that had nothing to do with anything. So I received a message—whether it was from this guy, or whether Roxanne phoned me. It said, “Let’s try over,” which was very nice to say. So we did try over and we got on excellently.  She gave the one good party for poets that I’ve ever been at.  Most of those can be obnoxious or boring or pretentious. She knew all these poets—like Robert Duncan—who were just poets. I think it was a Christmas party. We had a great time together.

Dana notes: “She published only five volumes of verse and a short illustrated book on Brazil.”  I have the work-for-hire that she wrote for Life’s “World Library” series on my bookshelf — not her best work, admittedly, but a dutiful tribute to the country she came to love.