Today marks the 100th birthday of poet Elizabeth Bishop, born in Worcester, Massachusetts on February 8, 1911.
Bishop is one of America’s leading poets. Among her best-known poems are “The Filing Station” (click on the audio link to hear Bishop read it), “In the Waiting Room,” and “The Fish” (click here for the poem with Bishop’s audio reading and here for Bishop’s correspondence with poet Marianne Moore on the poem).
Bishop’s traveled widely, lived for a while in Key West, Florida, and then moved to Brazil, where she lived for a number of years with her lover, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Bishop returned to the U.S. in 1970, taught at Harvard, and died in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1979 at the age of 68.
This past weekend, at the AWP conference in Washington, D.C., I attended a the Elizabeth Bishop Birthday Celebration, a panel led by editors, critics, and poets who knew Bishop and offered stories, readings of letters, and assessments of her work.
For those of you (sorry, Susan!) who were not able to attend, what follows is a synopsis of my notes from the panel.
Poet and writer Joelle Biele discussed Bishop’s long (over forty-years) relationship with The New Yorker, chronicled in the book, Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence, edited by Biele and published just last week by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Schwartz: “If I were delivering a formal paper, I would call it, A Creature Divided.” This refers to an obliquely autobiographical line in Bishop’s “Sonnet,” that was published posthumously. (Click here for Schwartz’s commentary on that poem. (The audio links, unfortunately, are broken).
Schwartz tried to show what a complicated person Bishop was. She devoted her life to art and works of art, for example, yet she wrote to Robert Lowell that “art wasn’t worth that much” and criticized him for not being accurate in his transcription of letters of Elizabeth Hardwick (Lowell’s wife).”
Bishop was a many-faceted creature. Her correspondence reveals her, as her friends knew her, as “Elizabeth.” Yet, there was also the proper, fastidious “Miss Bishop.” An image she went along with but, in large part, was created by the New Yorker, Schwartz noted. Her writing is wilder and stranger than they let her be. The New Yorker tried to tame her, change her.
Sometimes Bishop resisted, although that doesn’t mean she didn’t allow them to make the changes they pushed for in her work. But often she was uncertain about elements in her work, especially punctuation. In a letter to Howard Moss, Bishop asked about when it was correct to use “which” vs. “that.” “I can’t ever remember,” she said. “Don’t tell anyone.”
The back cover of Biele’s book shows the changes The New Yorker made to Bishop’s “North Haven,” Schwartz said. It shows how they “wrecked her poem.” In Bishop’s version of the poem, she had capitalized all the names of the flowers. The magazine changed it to make it conform to house style.
You can see some examples of letters between Bishop and editor Howard Moss on the poem, “Crusoe in England." Perhaps the funniest line is where Maxwell refers to the Wordsworth quote (from “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”) that Bishop has included in her poem:
I’d read were full of blanks;
the poems—well, I tried
reciting to my iris-beds,
“They flash upon that inward eye,
which is the bliss…” The bliss of what?
One of the first things that I did
when I got back was look it up.
Maxwell writes: “the whole quote is an anachronism. Is that ok?”
(By the way, I looked it up when I got back, too. The line ends: the bliss of solitude. Italics mine.)
Another case of altering her poems involved a lower case “g” that a New Yorker style editor had indicated needed changing because it “would go against English and looks monstrous.” Editor William Maxwell, at least conscious of the magazine’s inflexible attitude, jokingly wrote in a letter to Bishop that allowing a lower case “g” would “rock the magazine to its foundations,” and, so, asked her to please let them change it.
Bishop also liked 18th and 19th century punctuation and had a habit of beginning a line with a dash, but The New Yorker would not tolerate that. (Much as Emily Dickinson’s unique punctuation was tamed upon initial publication, Bishop’s lively, expressive, original punctuation was changed, too.)
One of the most famous examples is in her poem, “One Art.” In every one of her drafts, Schwartz pointed out, Bishop ends the first line with a colon:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master:
What follows in the poem is a list of lost items (keys, places, names, watch, years, etc.). The New Yorker changed Bishop's colon to a semi-colon and in later drafts, Bishop didn’t push to change it back. Why, Schwartz asked. Was it insecurity on Bishop’s part?
Another speaker on the panel, Jane Shore, poet and professor at George Washington University, was a student of Bishop’s at Radcliffe, and eventually her colleague at Harvard. In 1979, Ploughshares published an article by Shore titled “Elizabeth Bishop: The Art of Changing Your Mind.” (Unfortunately, the full article is not available online, only the first page.)
But Shore summarized some of the essay during her talk. She noted that because Bishop used the present tense in her poems, it is like eavesdropping on her thoughts. There are lots of examples where Bishop changes an image or thought mid-stream in a poem. Often she does this by asking a question, using a conjugation, or correcting herself with “rather” or “that is.”
Often Bishop gives the impression of a person who seems ambivalent, because she gives an image, then takes it away. But the clever result is that you are left with both images. In “Santarem,” for example, she gives a series of oppositions with slashes in between:
life/death, right/wrong, male/female
In her essay, Shore quoted from the poems and noted that Bishop deflates religion, politics, and art, and describes “moral owls.”
Looking back, Shore laughingly said, “I don’t know why, at the time, I thought Bishop wouldn’t see this article. It was published in Ploughshares and available at the bookstore in Cambridge!”
Sure enough, she received a letter from Bishop, dated May 10, 1979, and written on light blue stationery. “Dear Jane: I was both surprise and pleased” to see the article in Ploughshares. Bishop noted how one develops patterns in one’s writing without being aware of it. “I think I shall try to avoid such either- and or-ing in the future.”
Poet Elizabeth Bishop lived in Key West from 1938-48 and wrote a couple of her notable poems here, "The Fish" and "The Bight." Yesterday I rented a bike and pedaled out to 624 White Street in Key West, Florida. This is one of the poet's "three loved houses" in "One Art." A friendly black cat jumped down from the fence and rubbed against my leg. As the owner of a series of black cats, I took it as an auspicious welcome. Bishop, too, was a cat-owner, even though her asthma made it difficult for her to be around animals.
Key West is known for its colorful life, animal, literary and otherwise. Roosters and their harems of hens wander around freely, crossing the streets without looking. As I was sitting in Pepe's, the "oldest eating house in Florida," eating a slice of Key Lime pie with two of my fellow workshop poets, Chloe and Jessica, one of them got an unwelcome gift from one of the fowl creatures roosting in the trees above our patio. It happens.
But even though I generally shun (or run) from touristy places--and Key West certainly has a lot of tourists, thousands of them, disgorged daily from cruise ships and stumbling from bar to bar along Duval Street--I love this place.
Of course, it helps to be in the company of other writers in a place that has welcomed and housed so many poets and writers over the years: Earnest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens. The weather--83 degrees in January--doesn't hurt either.
Think of the long trip home. Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? Where should we be today?
"Betrayal wears a lot of different hats. You don't have to make a show of it like Brutus did, you don't have to leave anything visible jutting from the base of your best friend's spine, and afterward you can stand there straining your ears for hours, but you won't hear a cock crow either. No, the most insidious betrayals are done merely by leaving your life jacket hanging in your closet while you lie to yourself that it's probably not the drowning man's size. That's how we slide, and while we slide we blame the world's problems on colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, corporatism, stupid white men and America, but there's no need to make a brand name of blame. Individual self-interest: that's the source of our descent, and it doesn't start in the boardrooms or war rooms either. It starts in the HOME."
I was introduced to the poetry of Lucille Clifton, including her signature Homage to My Hips, when she
came to read as part of Quincy Troupe’s Artists on the Cutting Edge Series,
which took place in San Diego (1993-2002).
Having moved to San Diego nearly 20 years ago from the Bay
Area and before that, New York, I was dismayed at what I perceived as the lack
of “culture” in southern California.Troupe’s vibrant reading and performance series
introduced me to many remarkable poets, writers and musicians and gave me hope
for the literary and artistic life here.
Clifton’s reading is not available on video, but many of the other
performances are.Click on this UCTV link and scroll down the list to see performances by Derek Walcott, Rita Dove, John
Ashbery, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Charles McPherson and a very funny piece
on the Illinois State Fair by David Foster Wallace.
Troupe’s departure from San Diego was a great loss to this
city.Clifton’s passing is a loss
for us all.
This morning I packed my 11-year-old
daughter’s lunch: a turkey sandwich, an apple, veggie chips, and carrots. She has a good
lunch program at her school, but she prefers to bring her lunch, partly for
variety, partly because she gets to choose her favorite foods, and partly, I
suspect, because she likes me preparing the food for her. I love food and share that love with
her. It’s an important part of our
family life and we take great pleasure in preparing and sharing food together.
By the time she gets home in the afternoon, it’s
been three hours since lunch and she is hungry again.So hungry that she is cranky and can barely talk to me until
I have gotten some food into her.It’s astounding how much she eats in the afternoon--she has another full
meal between lunch and dinner--but not surprising considering she has grown 3
inches this past year.Her body
needs the fuel.To grow, to
do her homework, to even carry on a conversation.
So I can’t imagine what it must be like for kids
that have no food at home.Literally.Without the
school lunch program they would not have any food that day.And what about weekends when there is
no school lunch program to feed them?
San Diego Food Bank's Food 4 Kids Backpack
Programwas launched in 2007 to
provide food to get chronically hungry elementary school students through the
participating children receive a backpack filled with child-friendly items such
as peanut butter, pop-top canned goods, cereal, juice boxes, fruit cups,
raisins, pudding cups, granola bars, shelf-stable milk and macaroni and cheese.
Each bag contains a minimum of 10 items.
The children receive free or reduced-cost meals
while school is in session, but do not have food available on the weekends or
school holidays for themselves and their siblings. Food 4 Kids provides food
directly to the children, without requiring their parents to receive a referral
to a local food pantry, pick up food at the pantry or prepare it at home.In order to qualify for the program,
students must attend a school where at least 80% of the population receives
free or reduced-cost lunch, and receive a referral from their teachers. Each
child must also return a signed permission slip from their parent/guardian.
During the 2008-2009 school year, the program
served just 200 chronically hungry elementary school children in eight schools
located throughout San Diego County.The need is much greater.As an example, the pilot program at one school in 2006 served 250
The economy has been hard on all of us this
year, but it has been hardest on those who were already struggling.Charitable donations are down, and
hunger in San Diego County is up.Those of us who love food and view it as a pleasure are so fortunate to
be in that position. The least we can do is try to ensure the children of our
community don’t – quite literally - go hungry.
With this goal in mind, San Diego’s food
bloggers and other members of the local community are coming together to raise
funds for the San Diego Food Bank’s Food 4 Kids Backpack Program.
A little goes a long way: the program costs
approximately $7 per week per child to fund, and a donation of $250 will
fund a backpack for a child for the entire 36-week school year.
5. Come to the Food and Backpack Drive at the Little
Italy Mercato on December 12, 2009 from 9 am-12 noon. Alice Q. Foodieand Caron Golden, who are spearheading
this event, will be giving away prizes in a drawing at our booth at the Little
Italy Mercato that morning.
We will also be collecting non-perishable,
child-friendly food items and backpacks.Come and meet your favorite food bloggers, drop off your donations and
celebrate the Holidays at the Mercato!
Suggested donation items:
medium-sized neutral design backpack, preferably red in color.
and kids' toothpaste
supplies (pencils, paper, sharpeners, markers, crayons)
foods, such as fruit roll ups; granola bars; boxed, packaged food items like
cereal, crackers, or nutrition bars; pop-top canned goods such as applesauce or other fruit; ready-made macaroni and cheese; and other easy, convenient
Thank you so much for your contribution. Happy Holidays!
“I like backpack because I
can have food on Saturday and Sunday.”