Category Archives: Study

Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet”

Introduction by Lloyd Schwartz

Elizabeth Bishop's SonnetElizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet” is often taken to be her last poem. It was published in The New Yorker on October 29, 1979, three weeks after she died. And it feels like a posthumous poem, with its images of release from illness, from emotional conflict, from being “a creature divided.” In fact Bishop had written it more than a year earlier, then with surprising speed finished another poem, “Pink Dog” — a bitterly ironic, grotesquely comic “samba” set in Rio at Carnival time, in which she advises a “poor bitch,” a hairless scavenger with scabies (her chilling mirror image, another creature out of place among the Cariocan revelers), to “Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!” The New Yorker rushed this mardi-gras poem into the February 26 issue, while “Sonnet,” acquired months before, would have to wait another eight months to see the light of day.
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Yet in some ways “Sonnet” really is the later poem. Bishop began drafting “Pink Dog” in Brazil as early as 1963, under the title “Goodbye to Rio” — one of the first signs that she had started to think about leaving Brazil, where after more than a decade the sweetest life she’d known was beginning to sour. “Sonnet” is the very last poem that she both started and also completed. It’s the closest thing we have to her final poetic testament.

Sonnet

Caught — the bubble

in the spirit level,

a creature divided;

and the compass needle

wobbling and wavering,

undecided.

Freed — the broken

thermometer’s mercury

running away;

and the rainbow-bird

from the narrow bevel

of the empty mirror,

flying wherever

it feels like, gay!

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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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Elizabeth Bishop, Fighting The New Yorker Over Extra Commas and Steaming Cowflops

By DWIGHT GARNER

Elizabeth Bishop, Fighting The New Yorker“What I think about The New Yorker,” the poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote in 1940 to her mentor, Marianne Moore, “can only be expressed like this: *!@!!!@!*!!”
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Bishop was 29 at the time, not so long out of Vassar, and had just published her first poem in the magazine. Moore was nearly 60 and had just had a poem rejected by its editors. Bishop’s fit of typographical pique was her way of expressing sympathy.
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Over the next four decades, until her death in 1979, Bishop would publish nearly all of her best poems — fastidious, plainspoken, uniquely potent — in The New Yorker. She helped define what a New Yorker poem, in the best sense of that phrase, was. She was their gold standard. In turn the magazine helped define her.
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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 Invisible Poems Hidden in One of the World’s Oldest Libraries

A new technique is revealing traces of lost languages that have been erased from ancient parchments.
RICHARD GRAY
The Invisible Poems HiddenFor centuries they have gathered dust on the shelves of a library marooned in a rocky patch of Egyptian desert, their secrets lost in time. But now a collection of enigmatic manuscripts, carefully stored behind the walls of a 1,500-year-old monastery on the Sinai Peninsula, are giving up their treasures.

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The library at Saint Catherine’s Monastery is the oldest continually operating library in the world. Among its thousands of ancient parchments are at least 160 palimpsests—manuscripts that bear faint scratches and flecks of ink beneath more recent writing. These illegible marks are the only clues to words that were scraped away by the monastery’s monks between the 8th and 12th centuries to reuse the parchments. Some were written in long-lost languages that have almost entirely vanished from the historical record.
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But now these erased passages are reemerging from the past. In an unlikely collaboration between an Orthodox wing of the Christian faith and cutting-edge science, a small group of international researchers are using specialized imaging techniques that photograph the parchments with different colors of light from multiple angles. This technology allows the researchers to read the original texts for the first time since they were wiped away, revealing lost ancient poems and early religious texts and doubling the known vocabulary of languages that have not been used for more than 1,000 years.
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Good-Bye

Elizabeth Bishop [unpublished]
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Good-Bye-imageGood-Bye-text
Dated by Vassar “[1931–34]” (Vassar 64.3); published in
Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box. Due to the state of the manuscript, some words are barely legible (and are enclosed in slashes in the transcription). In line 4, Alice Quinn offers “curly”; in line 11, “you’re” has been read as “your”; no satisfactory interpretation of the word in line 13 has been found; in line 19, Quinn also offers “slick”; in line 20, Quinn offers “negotiate.”
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We will be reading and discussing the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for the list of featured poems thus far.

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ELIZABETH BISHOP’S MISUNDERSTOOD “BRAZIL”

By Benjamin Moser

ELIZABETH BISHOP_S MISUNDERSTOOD “BRAZIL”Half a century has passed since the Life World Library was launched, in 1961. Today, its volumes languish in Internet bookstores, begging for takers at less than a dollar. They are cheapened by their age, their association with the mass-market Time Life brand (“Mysteries of the Unknown,” “Home Repair and Improvement”) and its suburban, middle-brow readership, though that might be too strong a term: one wonders how many people actually read these picture books. But the Life World Library was once wildly popular, and not without ambition and quality, as the author of the volume on Brazil proves.
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This was no less than Elizabeth Bishop, who, by the time she came to write it, had been living in Brazil for a decade. Her eccentric aristocratic spouse, Lota de Macedo Soares, gave her entrée to the highest political and artistic circles: in the twentieth century, no foreign visitor of similar rank was as well-placed, or stayed as long (fifteen years). Because Brazil was everywhere in her work, and because the Life World Library contains her longest statement on the subject, the book has been granted a degree of scholarly attention seldom lavished on its fellows.
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Making it even more intriguing are the clouds of censorship that swirl above it. These are emphasized by Lloyd Schwartz, the editor of “Prose,” a collection of Bishop’s writing, which appeared last year. Bishop “famously disliked how the editors changed what she wrote,” Schwartz says. Moreover, her original final chapter was “completely different” from the published chapter, which “deals with what the United States and Brazil have in common, and in it she praises Brazil’s more effective way of dealing with issues of race.” Schwartz therefore chose to publish a version “taken mainly from her own typescript at Vassar.”
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We will be reading and discussing the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for the list of featured poems thus far.

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The Sandpiper

By Elizabeth Bishop

The_SandpiperThe roaring alongside he takes for granted,

and that every so often the world is bound to shake.

He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,

in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.
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The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet

of interrupting water comes and goes

and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.

He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.
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– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them

where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains

rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,

he stares at the dragging grains.
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The world is a mist. And then the world is

minute and vast and clear. The tide

is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.

His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,
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looking for something, something, something.

Poor bird, he is obsessed!

The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray

mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.
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Elizabeth Bishop’s Sandpiper is concerned with the particular. Through a controlled tightening of focus, like the turn of the lens on a telescope, Bishop draws our attention ever closer to the minutiae of existence, of which the bird is solely conscious: from the water glazing over its feet, to its toes, to the spaces between its toes, to the grains of sand, and finally to the very nature of each grain, their precise colours and the stones and minerals that constitute them.
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But while it is concerned with the specific, the poem makes us very much aware of the larger stuff that is outside of this focus. The sea is referenced in a way that we, unlike the sandpiper, cannot completely ignore. Its roaring is the first thing that the poem announces, along with the fact that ‘every so often the world is bound to shake’. The roaring and the shaking are not trivial events. And it is not merely water, or even the sea, but that gigantic ocean the ‘Atlantic’ that drains between its toes.
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By drawing attention to that which is ignored, the poet foregrounds the apparent oddity of a consciousness that can shut out something as vast and imposing as an ocean. It provides a kind of irony throughout the poem, that beside something all-encompassing one can focus on something so minute.
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In 1976, three years before Elizabeth Bishop died, she wrote:

“All my life I have lived and behaved very much like that sandpiper – just running along the edges of different countries ‘looking for something’.  I have always felt I couldn’t possibly live very far inland, away from the ocean; and I have always lived near it, frequently in sight of it …. timorously pecking for subsistence along coastlines of the world.

A reminder that we’ll be discussing the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for the list of featured poems thus far.

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With a Perfect Contempt: On Editing Marianne Moore

Heather Cass White

With a Perfect ContemptIn trying to sum up the experience of having spent the last ten years editing the poetry of Marianne Moore, most recently in the New Collected Poems, I think of a recent classroom interaction I had. Toward the end of a course on twentieth-century poetry, one of my students, clearly at the end of her patience with me, demanded to know why I kept asking them, “But what is a poem?” It’s probably a measure of how deeply I feel that question that I hadn’t noticed I’d asked it even once before she pointed it out.
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I do know why I am stuck on it, however. Editing Moore’s work will deprive anyone of their certainty about what a poem actually is. All poetry editing raises a fundamental issue: Is a poem a specific ordering of words on a page? And if so, which page? The one the poet originally wrote, whether by hand or type; or the one that was first published; or the one that was last published? If all of those arrangements of words are identical, one may duck the question, but they rarely are. Typesetters and proofreaders make mistakes, and they also make corrections which poets find agreeable. Poets change their minds. Conventions of spelling and punctuation vary from house to house, and change over time. There are competing theories about how to handle such issues, and consensus views to guide practitioners, but the questions must always be confronted.

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Pieces Falling into Place

BY HANNAH BROOKS-MOTL

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.
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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:
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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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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.
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From: R.S. THOMAS TOO BRAVE TO DREAM Encounters with Modern Arts Edited by Tony Brown & Jason Walford Davies.
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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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9 CLASSIC COUNTRY SONGS AND THE BOOKS THEY PAIR WITH

FROM DOLLY PARTON TO DOESTOEVSKY

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.
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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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