Monthly Archives: July 2017

Pieces Falling into Place


Pieces Falling into PlaceROBERT LOWELL ONCE SURMISED that the publication of his friend Elizabeth Bishop’s letters would lead to her being recognized “as not only one of the best, but also one of the most prolific writers of our century.” That day does not seem far off. One Art, the first selection of Bishop’s letters, appeared in 1994 and was nearly seven hundred pages long; her correspondence with Lowell himself, Words in Air, stretched across nearly nine hundred pages. Now Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker, the chronicle of her forty-five year relationship with the weekly magazine, has arrived and it is over four hundred pages.
The once well-guarded secrets of Bishop’s personal life are now exhaustively bare. Her early feelings of abandonment, her struggles with alcoholism and depression, her romances with various women—most notably her partner of fifteen years, Lota Costellat de Macedo Soares—and her careful stewardship of her own career have all shaped the reception and reading of Bishop’s slim output of poems. Bishop admitted she enjoyed writing letters because doing so is “kind of like working without really doing it,” and her letters focus attention on her fluid, relaxed style. Here, for example, is Bishop describing some Brazilian post office travails to Katherine White, an editor at The New Yorker:
It is such a job to mail things here—the stamps have no glue, or not enough, and you have to stand in line at a glue machine, and get all covered with it—if you trust stamps to begin with; they say they are stolen in the PO often, and the mail just thrown away. (A newspaper editor friend of mine here found a cache of thousands of pieces of mail for the paper that that had happened to—imagine.) So if you don’t trust stamps you have to go to the central office where there is a stamping machine—and in any case you have to go to one of the few post offices, since the mail boxes are never collected—haven’t been for years. No one ever dreams of writing a letter within the country—they just vanish. Fortunately air-mail in and out is considerably better … If you do receive this, it is an [sic?] earnest of more. I never used that expression before & I don’t think I like it—I also rather doubt you’ll be able to use this short poem [“The Shampoo”], but there are more coming.

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We will be reading and discussing the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28


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Coming Up Oxford Street: Evening

by Thomas Hardy

Coming Up Oxford Street EveningOxford Street, London 1872

The sun from the west glares back,

And the sun from the watered track,

And the sun from the sheets of glass,

And the sun from each window-brass;

Sun-mirrorings, too, brighten

From show-cases beneath

The laughing eyes and teeth

Of ladies who rouge and whiten.

And the same warm god explores

Panels and chinks of doors;

Problems with chymists’ bottles

Profound as Aristotle’s

He solves, and with good cause,

Having been ere man was.

Also he dazzles the pupils of one who walks west,

A city-clerk, with eyesight not of the best,

Who sees no escape to the very verge of his days

From the rut of Oxford Street into open ways;

And he goes along with head and eyes flagging forlorn,

Empty of interest in things, and wondering why he was born.
As seen 4 July 1872

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The sudden world

Anthony Thwaite welcomes a new Collected Poems to mark Louis MacNeice’s centenary year

The sudden worldCollected Poems

by Louis MacNeice, edited by Peter McDonald

836pp, Faber, £30
In the centenary year of the births of WH Auden and Louis MacNeice [2007], celebrations are scheduled for both. In many ways Auden might seem the stronger candidate; but there are signs, some of them coming from Ireland and its jealous feuds, that MacNeice is going to have just as much attention.
MacNeice was about as English as education in Sherborne, Marlborough and Oxford could make him. But he was born in Carrickfergus near Belfast, his father a clergyman in the Church of Ireland, later to become a bishop; and there is plenty of evidence, in the poems and elsewhere, that he felt himself to be a kind of troubled Irishman. His voice carried, behind its disdainful Oxford nasality, a sort of strangled Ulster utterance.
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The Dressmakers

R. S. Thomas

The DressmakersI return to it

again: avid faces,

conscious of the threads

fate has spun; fingers

with scissors to cut

those threads and release

the garment towards which

the muscular lover

helplessly is being drawn.
From: R.S. THOMAS TOO BRAVE TO DREAM Encounters with Modern Arts Edited by Tony Brown & Jason Walford Davies.
When R.S. Thomas died in 2000, two seminal studies of modern art were found on his bookshelves – Herbert Read’s Art Now (1933/1948) and Surrealism (1936), edited by Read and containing essays by key figures in the Surrealist movement. Some three dozen previously unknown poems handwritten by Thomas were discovered between the pages of the two books, poems written in response to a selection of the many reproductions of modern art in the Read volumes, including works by Henry Moore, Edvard Munch, George Grosz, Salvador Dalí, René Magritte and Graham Sutherland – many of whom were Thomas’s near contemporaries. These poems are published here for the first time – alongside the works of modern art that inspired them. Thomas’s readings of these often unsettling images demonstrate a willingness to confront, unencumbered by illusions, a world in which old certainties have been undermined. Personal identity has become a source of anguish, and relations between the sexes a source of disquiet and suspicion. Thomas’s vivid engagements with the works of art produce a series of dramatic encounters haunted by the recurring presence of conflict and by the struggle of the artist who, in a frequently menacing world, is ‘too brave to dream’. At times we are offered an unflinching vision of ‘a landscape God / looked at once and from which / later he withdrew his gaze’.

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By Sarah Creech

9 CLASSIC COUNTRY SONGSAs Johnny Cash once said, “Of love and hate and death and dying, mama, apple pie, and the whole thing. It covers a lot of territory, country music does.” Like a great short story, a country song evokes complex lives in a condensed amount of space. Songwriters create tension between sorrowful lyrics and sweet melodies, and no other genre employs humor quite as well. So much of the fiction writer’s craft is present in this form, yet out of all the musical genres, country music songwriting attracts the least amount of scholarship.
Country music struggles to divorce itself from the hillbilly image conjured in the early 20th century when the Carter Family first began recording. Stereotypes about the genre have created a barrier around it as a topic worthy of serious inquiry. While I was researching my second novel The Whole Way Home, I gained a new appreciation for this music too often associated with ignorance and discovered many similarities between its classic songs and my favorite works of literature.

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Listen to Hank Williams sing “I’M SO LONESOME I COULD CRY” (1949)

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Torn Down From Glory Daily

Anne Sexton

Torn Down From Glory DailyAll day we watched the gulls

striking the top of the sky

and riding the blown roller coaster.

Up there

godding the whole blue world

and shrieking at a snip of land.

Now, like children,

we climb down humps of rock

with a bag of dinner rolls,

left over,

and spread them gently on stone,

leaving six crusts for an early king.

A single watcher comes hawking in,

rides the current round its hunger

and hangs

carved in silk

until it throbs up suddenly,

out, and one inch over water;

to come again

smoothing over the slap tide.

To come bringing its flock, like a city

of wings that fall from the air.

They wait, each like a wooden decoy

or soft like a pigeon or

a sweet snug duck:

until one moves, moves that dart-beak

breaking over. It has the bread.

The world is full of them,

a world of beasts

thrusting for one rock.

Just four scoop out the bread

and go swinging over Gloucester

to the top of the sky.

Oh see how

they cushion their fishy bellies

with a brother’s crumb.
A final reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing the poetry of Anne Sexton this Thursday, July 27. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for a list of poems to be featured.

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“[The artist’s] function is to make his imagination … become the light in the minds of others.”


The artist_s function“[The artist’s] function is to make his imagination … become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people to live their lives.”

Read the complete article: Wallace Stevens on Reality, Creativity, and Our Greatest Self-Protection from the Pressure of the News.

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Reading Myself

Robert Lowell

Reading MyselfLike thousands I took just pride and more than just,

struck matches that brought my blood to a boil;

I memorized the tricks to set the river on fire–

somehow never wrote something to go back to.

Can I suppose I am finished with wax flowers

and have earned my grass on the minor slopes of Parnassus…

No honeycomb is built without a bee

adding circle to circle, cell to cell,

the wax and honey of a mausoleum–

this round dome proves its maker is alive;

the corpse of the insect lives embalmed in honey,

prays that its perishable work live long

enough for the sweet tooth bear to desecrate–

this open open coffin”

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Today’s Birthday: Wendy Cope

Wendy_CopeWendy Cope was raised in Kent, England, where her parents often recited poetry out loud to her. She has published several volumes of poetry including Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis and Serious Concerns. Cope possesses a remarkable talent for parody and for using humor to address grave topics.

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My Breakfast with Elizabeth Bishop

By A.M. Juster

My Breakfast with Elizabeth BishopMost poets who enter the canon arrive amid clatter and controversy. Elizabeth Bishop took a different route. In an era when it was still possible for a poet to become a national celebrity, Bishop avoided publicity and published only about a hundred poems. Nonetheless, her reputation rose slowly and quietly, and continued to climb after her death in 1979.
Bishop became a consensus favorite in the literary community. Formally oriented poets admired her innovative off-rhymes, skilled variations in line lengths, and the rhythms folded into her meter. Political poets of the left, such as Adrienne Rich, clashed with Bishop about being reluctant to promote the women’s and gay liberation movements through sacrificing her privacy, but most such critics stood down when Bishop’s lesbianism became more public. Today, she often seems beyond criticism.
Megan Marshall, a professor at Emerson College and former Bishop student at Harvard, accepts her subject’s greatness with no apparent hesitation, but readers should not be afraid to test that assessment. It is true that Bishop’s technical strengths make her a poet’s poet. When it comes to craft, Bishop’s poetry rivals that of James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott, and A.E. Stallings. When it comes to precise and striking extended descriptions, she is in a class by herself.

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We will be reading and discussing the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28

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