Monthly Archives: August 2017

‘I seem to spend my life missing you’

The correspondence of two giants of American poetry has all the sadness, comedy and truth of love, says Peter McDonald

Bishop and LowellLike another Elizabeth and Robert before them, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell were in love; but they had more formidable obstacles to cope with than Elizabeth Barrett’s and Robert Browning’s comparatively tame encounters with Victorian respectability. For one thing, they were not lovers, in the conventional sense: Bishop’s homosexuality was unswayed by Lowell’s heterosexual charms. Also, for almost all of their 30-year relationship, the two located themselves far apart, with their own partners and wives, Bishop for much of the time in Brazil, and Lowell in Boston, New York and, towards the end, in England. Potentially the worst obstacle was the fact that they were the two best American poets of their time, something clear enough to each of them (and to plenty of their contemporaries). What wasn’t quite so clear then was that Bishop was also a very major poet by comparison with Lowell: Bishop herself seems not to have known this – or maybe did not want to know it – while Lowell, in his more lucid critical moments, could see its truth. For all of this, the two poets kept up a close relationship of mutual care and affection, delighting in one another’s vicarious company, over three decades of correspondence. Humanly, and not just artistically, that correspondence is vital.
Letters between poets, when they concern poetry, can seem like a game of tennis – the serve of an ars poetica, and the volley of some contrasting take on it – in which the intensity of the competition doesn’t always make up for the predictability of the match. Although Bishop and Lowell do write about their own and others’ poetry magnificently on occasion, it’s not at the heart of their correspondence as a subject; the letters are centred on their lives, the places they find themselves and the other people they love – centred, too, on the development of their own feelings for one another.

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We will be reading and discussing Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry on September 28. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for the list of featured poems thus far.


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“The Map:” Elizabeth Bishop’s First New York Poem

The Map Elizabeth Bishop's First New York PoemLand lies in water; it is shadowed green.

Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges

showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges

where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.

Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,

drawing it unperturbed around itself?

Along the fine tan sandy shelf

is the land tugging at the sea from under?
The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.

Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo

has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,

under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,

or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.

The names of seashore towns run out to sea,

the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains

-the printer here experiencing the same excitement

as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.

These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger

like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.
Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,

lending the land their waves’ own conformation:

and Norway’s hare runs south in agitation,

profiles investigate the sea, where land is.

Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?

-What suits the character or the native waters best.

Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.

More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.
“The Map” was Bishop’s first New York poem, written during the bleak Christmas season of 1934. She was suffering from severe asthma and the flu at the time, so she ended up spending New Year’s Eve alone in her New York apartment. Bishop spent much of this lonely night examining her framed map of the North Atlantic that contained the Maritime provinces, Greenland, Iceland, and Scandinavia (Millier 77). In 1978, Bishop said in an interview:
My mother’s family wandered a lot and loved this strange world of travel. My first poem in my first book was inspired when I was sitting on the floor, one New Year’s Eve in Greenwich Village, after I graduated from college. I was staring at a map. The poem wrote itself. People will say that it corresponded to some part of me which I was unaware of at the time. This may be true. (quoted in Travisano 41)

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Read also: “The Map:” A Structuralist Perspective
We will be reading and discussing Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry on September 28. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for the list of featured poems thus far.

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By  Richard Wilbur

MindMind in its purest play is like some bat

That beats about in caverns all alone,

Contriving by a kind of senseless wit

Not to conclude against a wall of stone.

It has no need to falter or explore;

Darkly it knows what obstacles are there,

And so may weave and flitter, dip and soar

In perfect courses through the blackest air.

And has this simile a like perfection?

The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save

That in the very happiest of intellection

A graceful error may correct the cave.

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Today’s Birthday: Rita Dove

Rita DoveRita Dove was born On August 28, 1952 in Akron, Ohio. Her books of poetry include Collected Poems 1974–2004 (W. W. Norton, 2016), Sonata Mulattica (W. W. Norton, 2009); American Smooth (W. W. Norton, 2004); On the Bus with Rosa Parks (W. W. Norton, 1999), which was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Mother Love (W. W. Norton, 1995); Selected Poems (Pantheon, 1993); Grace Notes (W. W. Norton, 1989); Thomas and Beulah (Carnegia-Mellon University Press, 1986), which won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for poetry; Museum (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1983); and The Yellow House on the Corner (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1980).
by Rita Dove

Billie Holiday’s burned voice

had as many shadows as lights,

a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,

the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.
(Now you’re cooking, drummer to bass,

magic spoon, magic needle.

Take all day if you have to

with your mirror and your bracelet of song.)

Fact is, the invention of women under siege

has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.

If you can’t be free, be a mystery.

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Rhetoric of Natural Beauty

By Thomas Kinsella

Rhetoric of Natural BeautyA crimson ocean sunset
halved on a calm horizon
Paused in seeming fullness
before the dark embrace.
In the face of God’s creation
our last doubts fall silent
fulfilled in acceptance,
Reflect, and disappear.

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Can Poetry Change Your Life?

Why we are so defensive about the art form’s value.

By Louis Menand

Can Poetry Change Your LifeThe first eight pages of Michael Robbins’s new book, Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music (Simon & Schuster), make reference to Annie Dillard, Harold Bloom, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Kenneth Burke, Geoffrey Hill, Kenneth Koch, Adam Phillips, Frank O’Hara, Emerson, Boethius, Nietzsche, Freud, and Miley Cyrus. The book is a collection of mostly previously published pieces, some on poetry, some on pop music, some on both, written, as the names suggest, in a critical style that could be called advanced pop.
Advanced-pop criticism would be criticism premised on the belief that you can talk about cultural goods loved uncritically by millions in terms originally developed to talk about cultural goods known mainly to an overeducated few. Advanced pop is Boethius and Springsteen, Artaud and the Ramones, and it yields sentences like “I assume that what Burke”—the literary theorist Kenneth Burke—“says about poetry applies, mutatis mutandis, to the songs of Def Leppard.” It’s erudite but caj, geeky and hip, alienated and savvy—on the inside of the outside. Another word for the attitude might be “Brooklyn,” which is indeed where, as an author’s bio unnecessarily informs us, Michael Robbins lives.

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We will be reading and discussing “The Poetry in Popular Music” on October 26. Please bring your own favourite examples and post them first on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly.

See the SCHEDULE PAGE for submissions to-date.

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The Promise


The PromiseStay, I said

to the cut flowers.

They bowed

their heads lower.
Stay, I said to the spider,

who fled.
Stay, leaf.

It reddened,

embarrassed for me and itself.
Stay, I said to my body.

It sat as a dog does,

obedient for a moment,

soon starting to tremble.
Stay, to the earth

of riverine valley meadows,

of fossiled escarpments,

of limestone and sandstone.

It looked back

with a changing expression, in silence.

Stay, I said to my loves.

Each answered,


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Robert Hass

THE PROBLEM OF DESCRIBING COLORIf I said – remembering in summer,

The cardinal’s sudden smudge of red

In the bare gray winter woods –

If I said, red ribbon on the cocked straw hat

Of the girl with pooched-out lips

Dangling a wiry lapdog

In the painting by Renoir –

If I said fire, if I said blood welling from a cut –

Or flecks of poppy in the tar-grass scented summer air

On a wind-struck hillside outside Fano –

If I said, her one red earring tugging at her silky lobe,

If she tells fortunes with a deck of fallen leaves

Until it comes out right –

Rouged nipple, mouth –

(How could you not love a woman

Who cheats at the Tarot?)

Red, I said. Sudden, red.

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Ted Hughes

WindThis house has been far out at sea all night,

The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,

Winds stampeding the fields under the window

Floundering black astride and blinding wet
Till day rose; then under an orange sky

The hills had new places, and wind wielded

Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,

Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.
At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as

The coal-house door. Once I looked up –

Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes

The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope,
The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,

At any second to bang and vanish with a flap:

The wind flung a magpie away and a black-

Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house
Rang like some fine green goblet in the note

That any second would shatter it. Now deep

In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip

Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,
Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,

And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,

Seeing the window tremble to come in,

Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.
Listen to Ted Hughes read “Wind”

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Announcing the 2017 American Poets Prizes Winners

Announcing the 2017 AmericanLaunched in 1936, the annual American Poets Prizes are among the most generous prizes for poets in the United States. This year, the Academy of American Poets has given over $200,000 to poets at various stages of their careers. 

See the complete list of winners

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