Monthly Archives: June 2017
In 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.
Read the complete article
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
by Alan Jacobs
By 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.
Read the complete article
Have 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.
To 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.
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” was published in The Harvard Advocate on June 3, 1907.
In 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.
HEATHER TRESELER[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.
Read the complete article
We’ll be reading and discussing the poetry of Anne Sexton on July 27 and that of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28.