Monthly Archives: June 2017


The last love affair of Elizabeth Bishop, and the losses behind “One Art.”

By Megan Marshall

ELIZABETH AND ALICEIn the spring of 1970, Robert Lowell accepted a position at the University of Essex, in England, leaving a vacancy at Harvard, where he’d been teaching poetry for one semester each year since the fall of 1963. He wrote to his old friend, the poet Elizabeth Bishop, then fifty-nine, to ask whether she would fill in for the fall semesters of 1970 and 1971. Despite Bishop’s meagre teaching experience, the college was happy to offer her the job on the strength of Lowell’s recommendation and the National Book Award bestowed on her “Complete Poems,” in 1970.
Bishop was living in Casa Mariana, her restored colonial home in Ouro Prêto, the picturesque former mining town in southeastern Brazil to which she’d retreated after her longtime partner, the Brazilian modernist designer Lota de Macedo Soares, committed suicide, three years before. For two decades, Bishop had found solace in Brazil from the horrors of her early life in the suburbs of Boston—her father died when she was eight months old, her mother was institutionalized after bouts of insanity four years later, and she spent the rest of her childhood being shuttled between the households of relatives, some of them abusive. But Lowell’s invitation found her at a moment when she needed relief from memories of Soares. Bishop had recently sent The New Yorker two long poems, “In the Waiting Room” and “Crusoe in England.” The first contained a coded acknowledgement of her grief, a “big black wave” that threatened the young Bishop, and the second bade farewell to Soares in its closing lines, when the repatriated Robinson Crusoe recalls the loss of “Friday, my dear Friday,” who “died of measles / seventeen years ago come March.” Had Soares lived to one more March birthday, the couple would have spent seventeen years together.

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A reminder that we’ll be discussing the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28.

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for performance with Bach’s E Major Partita for Solo Violin, BMV 1006
There is, said Pythagoras, a sound

the planet makes: a kind of music

just outside our hearing, the proportion

and the resonance of things – not

the  clang of theory or the wuthering

of  human speech, not even

the bright song of sex or hunger, but

the unrung ringing that

supports them all.
The wife, no warning dead

when you come home. Ducats

in the fishheads that you salvage

from the rubbish heap. Is the cosmos

laughing at us? No. It’s saying

improvise.  Everywhere you look

there’s  beauty, and it’s rimed

with  death. If you find injustice

you’ll find humans, and this means

that if you listen, you find love.

The substance of the world is light,

is water: here, clear

even when it’s dying; even when the dying

seems  unbearable, it runs.
Listen to Hilary Hahn play Bach’s Partita No. 3, BWV 1006

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by Alan Jacobs

Auden-4By the mid-1930s, W. H. Auden was the most famous and most widely imitated young poet in England. His verse was brilliant, ironic, often funny, wide-ranging in its reference—equally at home in the worlds of Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry and the technology of mining—and sometimes impenetrably obscure. His poetic voice was from the beginning so distinctive that in 1933, when Auden was just twenty-six years old, Graham Greene could employ the word “Audenesque” in a movie review, confident that readers would know what he meant. The phrase “the Auden age” was in use before the poet turned thirty. But this widely recognized leader of the British intellectual avant-garde was an unhappy and confused young man.
Auden had been unable to believe in God since his adolescence. His loss of faith and his discovery of poetry had come, interestingly enough, at almost the same time. But in the late thirties, as Auden’s uncertainty about his role as a poet grew (along with political and social tensions in Europe) some odd things began to happen to him. When in Spain during that country’s Civil War, for instance, he was shocked and disturbed to see that supporters of the Republican cause had closed or burned many of Barcelona’s churches—but he could not account for his own reaction. Soon afterward, he met the English writer and editor Charles Williams, and felt himself to be “in the presence of personal sanctity”—though what sanctity meant in a world without God he could not say.
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R. S. Thomas

ManafonHave I had to wait

all this time to discover

its meaning – that rectory,

mahogany of a piano

the light played on? What

it was saying to the unasked

question was: ‘The answer

is here.’ The woman was right;

she knew it: The truth china

can tell in a cool pantry;

the web happiness can weave

that catches nothing but the dew’s

tears. The one flight over

that valley was that

of the wild geese. The river’s

teeth chattered but not

with the cold. The woman tended

a wood fire against my return

from my wanderings, a silent entreaty

to me to cease my bullying

of the horizon. There was a dream

she kept under her pillow

that has become my nightmare.

It was the unrecognised conflict

between two nations; the one happy

in the territory it had gained,

determined to keep it; the other

with the thought he could kiss the feet

of the Welsh rainbow. I was shown

the fact: a people with a language

and an inheritance for sale;

their skies noisy with armed aircraft;

their highways sluices for their neighbours’

discharge. If I wet my feet

it was in seas radiant but not with well-being.

I retire at night beneath stars

that have gone out. I stand

with my friends at a cross-road

where there is no choice. No matter;

that nightmare is a steed I am

content to ride so it return

with me here among countrywomen

whose welcome is warm at the grave’s edge.

It is a different truth, a different

love I have come to, but one

I share with that afflicted remnant

as we go down, inalienable to our defeat.


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Borges in His Poetry


Borges in His PoetryTo talk or write about Borges has almost as disturbing an effect as reading him, for we are at once drawn into his disquieting dimension, the creating and fixing of which is his greatest accomplishment as a writer. The mind is made to quiver over tangible paradox. The effect of reading him hangs on beyond the written word, as a kind of vertigo (the Spanish word is asombro). I like best Leonard Michaels’s summing up of him as “a master of controlled estrangement”, for it underlines this effect, which Borges wears like an aura. We are not allowed to escape his ironies, for they are ours as well. For him, language—most of all in its ultimate refinement, literature, whether it be prose, poetry, or essay—is the supreme irony, in that it attempts to contain and perpetuate ideas and perceptions, an attempt which, by its nature, must inevitably mock both reader and maker.

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T. S. Eliot

If space and time, as sages say,
    Are things which cannot be,
The fly that lives a single day
    Has lived as long as we.
But let us live while yet we may,
    While love and life are free,
For time is time, and runs away,
    Though sages disagree.
 The flowers I sent thee when the dew
    Was trembling on the vine,
Were withered ere the wild bee flew
    To suck the eglantine.
But let us haste to pluck anew
    Nor mourn to see them pine,
And though the flowers of love be few
    Yet let them be divine..

Song-ts-eliot“Song” was published in The Harvard Advocate on June 3, 1907.

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The Hummingbird Never Came

R. S. Thomas
The hummingbird never came back
The Hummingbird Never Came

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by Lavinia Greenlaw

THE SPIRIT OF THE STAIRCASEIn our game of flight, half-way down
was as near mid-air as it got: a point
of no return we’d fling ourselves at
over and over, riding pillows or trays.
We were quick to smooth the edge
of every step, grinding the carpet to glass
on which we’d lose our grip.
The new stairs were our new toy,
the descent to an odd extension,
four new rooms at flood level
in a sunken garden – a wing
dislocated from a hive. Young bees
with soft stripes and borderless nights,
we’d so far been squared away
in a twin-set of bunkbeds, so tight-knit,
my brother and I once woke up finishing
a conversation begun in a dream.
It had been the simplest exchange,
one I’d give much to return to:
the greetings of shadows unsurprised
at having met beneath the trees
and happy to set off again, alone,
back into the dark.

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One Long Poem

HEATHER TRESELERElizabeth_Bishop-2[Elizabeth] Bishop’s confessional peers made it easy for her to be miscast as a cautious dowager. In the late 1950s and ’60s, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton, among others, boldly capitalized on the mid-century zeitgeist of domestic rebellion, writing poems that explored alcoholism and suicide, incest and infidelity, nuclear bombs and non-nuclear families—subjects that many Americans still regarded as taboo. By contrast, Bishop’s poems had a “Cordelia-like” quality, as Seamus Heaney described it: a sense that secrets were held in abeyance or dimly glossed as she rendered natural tableaux, ekphrastic meditations, and impersonal love poems, offering the reader startling moments—“the little that we get for free, / the little of our earthly trust”—without the full, wearying poignancy of what it took to arrive at them.
Bishop indeed avoided what she termed “the tendency . . . to overdo the morbidity” that became common as confessionalism—or Robert Lowellism—came into vogue, spearheaded by her close friend and correspondent. Lowell’s Life Studies was published in 1959, offering portraits of his Beacon Hill childhood and bipolar episodes, his dread of Eisenhower, and his drunken nights with Delmore Schwartz and a taxidermied, rum-pickled duck. A few years later, Sexton, Lowell’s student, electrified the Boston poetry scene with her rock band and poems about suburban despair—thrilling audiences with her well-dressed rebelliousness, chthonic verse, and lean good looks. The poetry reading had not been so sexed up since W. H. Auden had read at Harvard in his scuffed-up bedroom slippers.
Bishop did not approve. Writing to Lowell from her expatriate residence in Brazil in 1960, she asserted that Sexton’s poems “had a bit too much romanticism and what I think of as the ‘our beautiful old silver’ school of female writing. . . . They have to make quite sure that the reader is not going to mis-place them socially, first.” Aware of how a poet might capitalize on gender, class, and family name, Bishop largely steered clear of autobiographical conceits and political critique in her first collection, North & South (1946). Later, as her poems engaged more directly with the plights and pleasures of the individual, they never showed up with a bassist, a menstrual cycle, or an aristocratic clan primed for desecration. Alongside the confessionals’ striptease, Bishop appeared reliably clothed.
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We’ll be reading and discussing the poetry of Anne Sexton on July 27 and that of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28.


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Your Favourite Poem(s) on June 22

Your Favourite Poem(s) on June 22A final reminder that this Thursday, June 22, we will once again share and discuss some of our favourite poems. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for this year’s list, with links to texts.

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