27 June 2005

Mark Doty reading in Provincetown

Mark Doty reading last night. Yes, I did see him walking Commercial Street last week. He seemed shorter on the street and taller at the reading. Still a type of shorebird but more body to him than in 2003. I have heard more poets read since 2003. His performance passion struck me still, but I could hear the poetry better. I wonder how many of the poems I can remember. Jellyfish in the harbor. Old man Anthony and his dog Charlie—a poem titled “Rope.” Dog Arden trying to climb the stairs to sleep in Mark and Paul’s bedroom. Refinishing old wide floorboards. Poems were about time, hating and loving it. Mark tending toward the former, Paul advocating time’s usefulness . . . ?? Value? If not time, then these losses? A poem about student painters. The particular antique red paint on the trim of a barn. Mark chose poems written about a two block range, from the Fine Arts Work Center to the harbor. Many poems came from his most recent book, School of the Arts. “Coastal,” part of a poem from an earlier book. I was tired by the end. He oscillates between conversational diction and drenched language. He is easy in expressing raw emotional stuff that wavers at the edge of sentimentality and cliché. As if he vamps the language and the melodrama of lives, dips them down into easy recognition before keelhauling them up into his particular form of arabesque. He reads so pointedly he pops his p’s, hisses his s’s. Told a story of finding old dog Arden outside asleep in a furious rainstorm. Arden pushing through a hole in the screen on his way out to sleep in the garden because he could no longer make his way upstairs. Arden walking home from shopping, the hard work of it. The first poem, the one about student painters, talked about light fracturing, Provincetown light, and how what the painters painted struck him as amateurishly wrong until he, too, saw the gate in that lavender cast. The language reels off his tongue as elaborately spun song, but it’s too fast to capture, too soon by to appreciate. That is, I appreciate and miss simultaneously. What can I hear most clearly? Consonance and assonance or thread (I wrote tread) of meaning.

By the end, I heard less, watched the dome of his forehead and skull. Shiny, polished, not visibly damp, although a spot appeared near the end of his lower left rib in his brown silk shirt. Loose dark blue jeans, rolled at the ankles, I think, over some dark (black?) shoe. With that solid trunk, he’s not skinny as much as trunklike. Yes, he’s skinnier than not, but the stomach mildly out-rounds the chest, and that spoils the pure young man skinny I had remembered from last time. Also, last time I would say he covered less skin. A vein s-curved like a compressed river climbs his left temple, and driving diagonally up and back from it, a half-inch strip that seems possibly a scar, flat and old, a blow from a baseball bat might have made such a scar. It’s faint and unsuggests itself to the point of seeming a natural feature of this skull. A pinkish-yellow full-fleshed skull, bare from baldness instead of a razor, and the hair behind clipped short. Bare as if the force of poeticizing burned away the front follicles. A dome process, rising from his sometimes glazed glittering eyes—this is between poems, his come-down or a technique learned to end one and find the next. He had a scrap of paper mapping his reading, but each poem he found by flipping through the books, looking to the table of contents of the first one to find the first poem, the Sunday painter poem? Sometimes, particularly at the start, he thinned his lips and drew them back like a coarser primate in articulating precisely what he would be doing: not reading new work in the tradition he sketched out for us, new work as present proof of being no one would be likely to defy, but instead offering this clutch of poems created as evidence of this two-block geography. Walks and buildings and dogs. His love for old buildings where all the residents continue to abide.

23 June 2005

Carol Peters


By the end of the walk I wanted a dead whale, would have settled for
a fisherman’s net and the idea of salvaging his lost catch.
Before that, only four or five seals, two gulls on their backs,
white feathers browned from dying, parts of fish
and sixteen torn and scattered skins from balloons, string-tied nubs,
orange and black, yellow and silver, see-through,
but a whale,
dead enough to see again and again, to carry away small parts in my

Boiling bedsheets, oysterous gray flesh,
the thrusting white sole of a fisherman’s boot—part of the fin (I
      learned later)—
the scapula flaring next to boat-hull ribs, cream-colored, rinsed clean
through moiling hurling spoiling furling wave after wave.
Rush to it and halt
before the humping mass, the waterlogged bones, the brontosaural

Take what?
Why don’t you take a camera to record your seals and your whales,
your carbuncled coracles, your storied whelks?
Tried that—it doesn’t capture the shear, the blunderous rift of

I sniffed at no smell beyond the smell of the sea
washed washing out the whale
returned returning to the sea.

Carol Peters & William Stafford

what if the ogre is after all benign
the pen blunt and slow-moving

          the beat of the dance
          the face of the girl
          all there is

rock and hum and later silence
soft singing

More William Stafford:

maybe the process of writing that I'd be interested in would be acquiring the knack of allowing the rejected cornerstones to become the cornerstones . . .

allowing those things that do not seem to have immediate negotiable relevance to have their right place in the real valid economy of your life. They're there waiting, but they don't have big voices, so you don't call on them . . .

the poem . . . is part of myself that I am keeping

22 June 2005

Stanley Kunitz on the unconscious

From The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden by Stanley Kunitz:

tapping the unknown . . . cracking the shell separating you from the unknown.

There’s no formula for accessing the unconscious. The more you enter into the unconscious life, the more you believe in its existence and know it walks with you, the more available it becomes and the doors open faster and longer. It learns you are a friendly host. It manifests itself instead of hiding from your tyrannical presence, intruding on your daily routines, accommodations, domestications.

The unconscious is very much akin to what, in other frameworks, I call wilderness. And it’s very much like the wilderness in that its beasts are not within our control. it resists the forms, the limits, the restraints, that civilization itself imposes. I’ve always felt, even as a child, that there was the decorum of the social structure, the family structure, and so forth, and then there was the wild permissiveness of the inner life. I learned I could go anywhere in my inner life. . . .

The poem, by its very nature, holds the possibility of revelation, and revelation doesn’t come easy. You have to fight for it. There is that moment when you suddenly open a door and enter into the room of the unspeakable. Then you know you’re really perking.

After you’ve written a poem and you feel you’ve said something that was previously unspeakable, there’s a tremendous sense of being blessed.

There’s a sense of emancipation, and then the recognition that you are not absolutely free, that there are limits, restraints, conventions that are the expression of the social order. You recognize that language itself is a creation of the social order; within such limits you travel as far as possible, but your feet are slipping off the roadway into the weeds and the mire.

That’s part of the journey. . . .

The mystery of the creative process is that the poem is there but not there within you, accumulating experience, accumulating images. It needs to be released, but sometimes there are barriers. The poem incites fear; you are coming into truth in the writing of the poem, you are hesitant to explore unfamiliar areas.

If the terrain were familiar, the poem would be dead on birth. I’ve written somewhere that the path of the poem is through the unknown and even the unknowable, toward something for which you can find a language.

It is that struggle, of course, that gives the poem its tension . . .

I’ve been grounded all my life to believe in the mystery of existence itself. Can there be any possibility of completely understanding who we are and why we’re here and where we are going?

These are questions that can never be answered completely so you have to keep on asking, and in some strange way every poem that you write impinges on that mystery. If it doesn’t, you really shouldn’t write it because it’s not really yours.

Mark Doty's "Idea of Order at Key West"

The ending of "The Chanteuse" from My Alexandria:

As she invented herself, memory revises
and restores her, and the moment
she sang, I think we were perfected,

when we became her audience,
and maybe from that moment on
it didn’t matter so much exactly

what would become of us.
I would say she was memory,
and we were restored by

the radiance of her illusion,
her consummate attention to detail,
name the colors—her song: my Alexandria,

my romance, my magnolia
distilling lamplight, my backlit glory
of the wigshops, my haze

and glow, my torch, my skyrocket,
my city, my false,
my splendid chanteuse.

Fates willing, I'm going to hear Mark Doty read Sunday night in Provincetown. If you haven't read this book, you should abandon what you're reading and read this instead.

21 June 2005

William Stafford, an old friend

William Stafford, The Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing Life:

I like being straight across from the reader . . .

I converse with live poems . . .

The appetite for reading or listening or learning—seeking out meanings—is an attempt to get beyond superficial, beyond appearances, to realize what is significant. The senses are fallible, and I don’t have the belief in my ability or anyone’s ability to get very far beyond appearances, but again, I have the appetite for it . . . like, I don’t think we ever find out what things are really like, but trying to get nearer is hunger. . . .

If you can get dumb enough you can write marvelous poems about things that are really close to you.

Where you live is not crucial, but how you feel about where you live is crucial.

The key to writing poetry may be a readiness. Relax, don’t resist. Be a receiver.

Writing is effective in so far as it has verbal events in it, not the assertion of feelings.

We need to write poems that won’t last forever.

Treat the world as if it really existed.

Try to listen to poems in neutral.

What starts a poem must validate itself. We need the sense of being in worthy company. Also the poem must earn its way. Every advance must be earned.

Competition is bad, I think. Even competition with yourself is bad.

Language is never the same. The same sentence repeated is not the same.

Inside the language we speak lies a secret language, an induced language: the language of bare syllables which have their own meaning. . . . That is, all syllables tend to slide by inherent quality toward certain meanings, either because of varying demands on the throat of utterance, or because of relations among clusters of syllables which have become loaded with associated meanings, and so on. . . . Words like slide, slick, slither, slime, sludge, etc., embody an sl sound which will steadily induce something of its potential meaning into any other words it gets itself into. . . . My belief is that the language is continuously under the influence of such currents or tendencies and that alert or lucky speakers and writers ride such currents. . . .

An artist is a person who makes the decisions about the work the artist is doing. If you give that away, it’s not art.

Any chunk of carbon under pressure will turn into a diamond.

Poems are expendable, but the process is not expendable; it is lifelong. . . .

We torture the limits of the language. Simplicity is more difficult than complexity. . . .

Writing takes a lot of forgiveness, freedom, and welcoming. You should welcome the impulses that come to you. Don’t try to stiff-arm your own feeble little thoughts. They are all you have. . . .

Be content to say the things we always wanted to say.

18 June 2005

what makes a poet

Diane Wood Middlebrook’s biography of Anne Sexton describes the poet’s return from her first poetry workshop (1958):

Home from Antioch, Sexton wrote to Dr. Orne [her psychiatrist], who was away for the sumer, about what she had learned by living for a whole week among writers. The experience had confirmed an insight from therapy: even very personal poetry came from the power of words to radiate meanings beyond the poet’s conscious intention.

If I write RATS and discover that rats reads STAR backwards, and amazingly STAR is wonderful and good because I found it in rats, then is star untrue? . . . Of course I KNOW that words are just a counting game, I know this until the words start to arrange themselves and write something bettter than I would ever know. . . . I don’t really believe the poem, but the name is surely mine so I must belong to the poem. So I must be real. . . . When you say “words mean nothing” then it means that the real me is nothing. All I am is the trick of words writing themselves.

Sexton’s tone of humble self-assessment in this letter masks a deep insight into the workings of society: that “poet” is an identity extrapolated from a published poem. The poem’s “I” is real because it has become visible in the medium of print and circulated among those who are positioned to recognize it. The better the journal in which the poem appears, the more secure the identify deflected onto its maker. Like other forms of currency, the first-person pronoun has a value established in a cultural marketplace. That value accrues to the poem’s author as a side effect of the recognition of her or his work.

16 June 2005

two prose poems

[Selected and discussed by Carl Phillips in "A Brief Stop on the Trail of the Prose Poem" from Coin of the Realm]

Part of Eve's Discussion by Marie Howe

It was like the moment when a bird decides not to eat from your hand, and flies, just before it flies, the moment the rivers seem to still and stop because a storm is coming, but there is no storm, as when a hundred starlings lift and bank together before they wheel and drop, very much like the moment, driving on bad ice, when it occurs to you your car could spin, just before it slowly begins to spin, like the moment just before you forgot what it was you were about to say, it was like that, and after that, it was still like that, only all the time.

On the Writing of a Prose Poem by Russell Edson

When thinking of writing a prose poem it seems more than natural to think of suicide; to think of someone at last exposed to the God of things who might thunder, as I imagine it, from the sky, you have ruined my thing, now I shall ruin your thing.

14 June 2005

another letter to another poet

Elizabeth Bishop’s response to Donald Stanford, a young poet approximately her age, on his responses to the poems she sent to him when she was a Vassar student in 1933 and 1934:

I realize that “sickening rupture” and “awful socket” . . . are, as you say, crude—but at the same time I think they “go.” After all, the idea behind that sonnet is not a very pretty one, and “sickening rupture” is its introduction. “Awful socket” has been prepared for by it, and the following line, which you liked, closes the unpleasant incident. They are the perceptions which give rise to the whole thing, so I don’t see how they could very well be left out or smoothed over. In the last one I’m afraid I didn’t intend to suggest the machine age at all—as I remember it, I had just brought two clocks back from the jeweler’s—and surely clocks are ancient enough to appear with dignity. The fault is mine, though, if you thought I was talking about a canning factory. . . .

Raising one’s eyes airplane-wise means simply upwards. You can say sidewise, why not up-wise, and so on to what’s up there?

I agree with you more on the subject of rhythm than would probably seem to be the case from the poems I sent you. I can write in iambics if I want to—but just now I don’t know my own mind quite well enough to say what I want to in them. If I try to write smoothly I find myself perverting the meaning for the sake of the smoothness. (And don’t you do that sometimes yourself?) However, I think that an equally great “cumulative effect” might be built up by a series of irregularities. Instead of beginning with an “uninterrupted mood” what I want to do is get the moods themselves into the rhythm. This is a very hard thing to explain, but for me there are two kinds of poetry, that (I think yours is of this sort) at rest, and that which is in action, within itself. At present it is too hard for me to get this feeling of action within the poem unless I just go ahead with it and let the meters find their way through. . . .

And one thing more—what on earth do you mean when you say my perceptions are “almost impossible for a woman’s”? “Now what the hell,” as you said to me, “you know that’s meaningless.” And if you really do mean anything by it, I imagine it would make me very angry. Is there some glandular reason which prevents a woman from having good perceptions, or what? . . .

You tell me to watch out for unpleasant phrases like “meditate your own wet”—when I have watched out for them and put them in deliberately. It has a lot to do with what I am attempting to write, so I guess I shall try to explain it to you. “Meditate your own wet” is unsuccessful, I see now, because it has such unpleasant connotations and it’s liable to carry the point rather afield. But—if you can forget all your unpleasant associations with the words—I think possibly you’ll admit that the phrase does for a second give you a feeling of intense consciousness in your tongue. Perhaps even that is unpleasant, but I think that momentary concentration of sensation is worthwhile . . . Have you ever noticed that you can often learn more about other people—more about how they feel, how it would feel to be them—by hearing them cough or make one of the innumerable inner noises, than by watching them for hours? Sometimes if another person hiccups, particularly if you haven’t been paying much attention to him, why you get a sudden sensation as if you were inside him—you know how he feels in the little aspects he never mentions, aspects which are, really, indescribable to another person and must be realized by that kind of intuition. Do you know what I am driving at? Well, if you can follow those rather hazy sentences—that’s why I quite often want to get into poetry . . .

letter to a poet whose poem I tried to critique

On further reflection, I feel that my argument was entirely flawed in that I was proposing a methodology to add a place for me in your poems, me being the iconic "reader"—whereas the whole idea of putting the reader in the poem is nothing but a construct proposed by various poets and/or critics and may have nothing whatsoever to do with your poetry.

That is to say, the MFA illuminates a field of received dreams, none of which may be your dream or mine, and the challenge, it seems to me, today and tomorrow, etc. is to take scraps of novelty gleaned from the MFA back into our own caves and try to recall what made us put words to page, syllables to music, thoughts to dancing.

Because no matter what we think, the MFA represents the academy, the state of affairs before you and I took note of received wisdom.

Whereas you and i represent our own art, what existed before we allowed the academy to probe and demolish, what persists today against a backdrop of greater, although not necessarily better, awareness.

Why are you writing a poem on June 14th? Not what do I or anyone else think.

13 June 2005

Time for Carl Phillips

From Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry, an essay titled "Myth and Fable: Their Place in Poetry":

Poetry shares, then, with myth and fable the strategy of building story around human experience, as a means of explaining that experience, or attempting to, and as a means of (sometimes) offering instruction regarding that experience. Also shared is a motivation. The reason I began writing—and continue to write—springs from a desire to understand in my own terms what is insufficiently understandable in the terms made available to me. But a shared strategy and motivation will not make myth out of poetry. Myth and fable are distinguishable by their applicability across time and cultural differences. When poetry has this quality, it is called—or I call it—resonant. This resonance gives poetry the valence and stamina of myth, at which point it can fairly be called great poetry. Some poetry takes on the mythic subject—love, death, loss, fear—but grounds that subject in such specifically autobiographical detail that we learn little more from reading the poem than that poet X has had such-and-such experience. The poem then has more the qualities of the journal or diary, its effect may be more cathartic than instructive (both for reader and wirter), more therapy than education, more history than myth, less resonant than reportorial. Which is not for a moment to say that such writing is not poetry, of which there are many different orders.

10 June 2005

09 June 2005

Becoming Elizabeth Bishop

For almost two weeks I've been reading Elizabeth Bishop: her poems and prose as well as three biographies by Brett C. Millier, Gary Fountain and Peter Brazeau, and David Kalstone.

The Millier volume takes the traditional approach: chronological rendering of birth, early death of father, institutionalization of her apparently insane mother, shuttling the orphaned child from one relative to another, schooling, lovers, jobs, travel, fame, death. A good job of biography, except for Millier's occasional tendency to say something important, e.g., "The sense that something was ending between herself and Margaret hovered at the edge of Elizabeth's conscious mind while making these travel decisions, though she was not yet aware of how imminent and how final the break would be," and then fail to clarify. Margaret is Margaret Miller, who up until this point in the biography has been EB's friend, but suddenly, after a gory accident, she is no longer's EB's friend? The reader waits for more, but there is no more.

The problem, I think, is the handling of the lesbianism. Millier is hesitant to specify friend vs. lover. People didn't talk about it back then, and rarely wrote things down. I am guessing EB's journals and letters are not explicit. Thus, the data must be gleaned from the recorded behavior and interviews with those still living, who may demand various forms of secrecy. But Millier would have done better to make things clearer sooner for the reader.

That leads me to the other intense weirdness: the naming of all parties except the lover EB brought to Brazil after the death of EB's long-time Brazilian lover, Lota de Macedo Soares. Millier calls the mystery woman Suzanne, Fountain/Brazeau reveal that Suzanne is a pseudonym, Kalstone reveals that her real name was Roxanne. Fine, if someone wants to remain unknown, but why not come right out and say, "We're protecting the innocent here." Innocent, now there's a word.

This is the problem with personality-based biographies. The facts of EB's life surely twined with the art she produced, but only elliptically, and the truly interesting stuff is what EB wrote. Millier does a good job of locating the creation of poems in time, and relating aspects of the poems to events and places in EB's life. She also documents EB's illnesses: asthma, allergies, alcoholism. One wants to know, I suppose, as much as is offered about the alcoholism. It was nearly disastrous for EB, but she lived through it, never conquered it, undoubtedly used it not only to survive but to allow the art. In my view, EB's alcoholism played a role similar to Lowell's psychosis. With such pressure, something needed to give. How lucky I feel that both artists survived as long as they did, produced such wealth.

The Fountain/Brazeau volume follows a pattern Peter Brazeau adopted with an oral biography of Wallace Stevens. Fountain joined up because Brazeau died before he could finish. The text offers brief stage directions that identify time, place, and players, then switches to transcribed interviews of people who knew EB. Most of the greats (Moore, Lowell, Lota) do not appear because they are dead. Still, we hear the words of teachers, schoolmates, friends, maids, doctors, publishers, admiring poets who knew EB at least through correspondence. She comes to life. I wish more biographers took the oral bio route.

But Kalstone's is the great book, and the sadness is that he died while writing it and was not able to conclude with a full discussion of EB's final poems, the great poems of Geography III. Nonetheless, this volume is breathtaking, not only as a wise, thoughtful, and loving unpacking of the poetry of Bishop, Marianne Moore, and Robert Lowell, but as an exploration of the relationships between great artists. Bishop found and introduced herself to Moore and became her student. Moore in some ways became the mother EB never had, and I say that in the kindest and most grownup way. EB was a Vassar graduate by the time she and Moore connected. EB sought a mentor, but disagreed from the very beginning. She BEGAN with her poetic genius, and needed to learn only how other "moderns" aimed and placed their energies. Moore endorsed and sharpened EB's descriptive power, and introduced her to her first publishers. All the while, EB resisted Moore's attempts to refine her. No, she would not eliminate water-closets and dung from her poems. Yes, the location of a poem in an apartment was precisely what mattered.

Kalstone shifts halfway through his book from Bishop-Moore to Bishop-Lowell. I can only begin to sense the passion between those two because I've not yet read all the collected letters. I can hardly wait. Kalstone spins the thread of their relationship by holding an EB poem next to an RL poem and talking through the texts as well as the information added to the texts by the letters. What a tragedy that Kalstone also has died, of Aids, in the '80s, and I know very little about him except that he was friend of Edmund Wilson, Adrienne Rich, James Merrill, Richard Howard.

I don't much want to talk about Becoming a Poet because I want you to buy it and read it. Read it slowly, as I did. Yes, it's about EB, MM, and RL, but more than that, it's about how a poet, a writer, learns to enter her own material and build her work. It's about three very different poets and how they created their worlds. Kalstone mostly ignores EB's illness and psychic trauma in order to pursue her work and the artistic process that allowed her to create her work. I have learned about myself through reading Kalstone. Now, can I use this learning to enter my own work?

08 June 2005

fake velvet

From Kalstone’s Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore & Robert Lowell, of the years 1952/53, EB in Brazil, RL in Amsterdam with Elizabeth Hardwick:

She told Lowell—encouraging him to write his autobiography—that writing the two stories [“In the Village” and “Gwendolyn”] had given her a great deal of satisfaction: “that desire to get things straight and tell the truth—it’s almost impossible not to tell the truth in poetry, I think, but in prose it keeps eluding me in the funniest way.” Lowell, too, found prose a recalcitrant medium: “a hell of a job,” he wrote her, “it starts naked, ends as fake velvet.” The point for each of them was not simply a deflection into prose. They were exploring the limits of prose as a vehicle for autobiography—just the reverse of what these efforts appeared to be. They were sharpening and altering their notions of what it meant to tell the truth in verse.

Kalstone also offers this quote from Bishop’s journal:

I think when one is extremely unhappy—almost hysterically unhappy, that is—one’s time sense breaks down. All that long stretch in Key West, for example, several years ago—it wasn’t just a matter of not being able to accept the present, that present, although it began that way, possibly. But the past and the present seemed confused, or contradicting each other violently and constantly, and the past wouldn’t “lie doon.” (I’ve felt the same thing when I tried to paint—but this was really taught me by getting drunk, when the same thing happens, for perhaps the same reasons, for a few hours.)

Fake velvet is generally what I feel about my own prose. Remarkably close but not real enough.

07 June 2005

a scrap from Elizabeth Bishop's story

From “In the Village," that story The New Yorker accepted with difficulty:

It was a hot summer afternoon. Her mother and her two sisters were there. The older sister had brought her [the mother] home, from Boston, not long before, and was staying on, to help. Because in Boston she had not got any better, in months and months—or had it been a year? In spite of the doctors, in spite of the frightening expenses, she had not got any better.

First, she had come home, with her child. Then she had gone away again, alone, and left the child. Then she had come home. Then she had gone away again, with her sister; and now she was home again.

Unaccustomed to having her back, the child stood now in the doorway, watching. The dressmaker was crawling around and around on her knees eating pins as Nebuchadnezzar had crawled eating grass. The wallpaper glinted and the elm trees outside hung heavy and green, and the straw matting smelled like the ghost of hay.



Oh, beautiful sounds, from the blacksmith’s shop at the end of the garden! Its gray roof, with patches of moss, could be seen above the lilac bushes. Nate was there—Nate, wearing a long black leather apron over his trousers and bare chest, sweating hard, a black leather cap on top of dry, thick, black-and-gray curls, a black sooty face; iron filings, whiskers, and gold teeth, all together, and a smell of red-hot metal and horses’ hoofs.


The pure note: pure and angelic.

The dress was all wrong. She screamed.

The child vanishes.

Later they sit, the mother and the three sisters, in the shade on the back porch, sipping sour, diluted ruby: raspberry vinegar. The dressmaker refuses to join them and leaves, holding the dress to her heart. The child is visiting the blacksmith.

In the blacksmith’s shop things hang up in the shadows and shadows hang up in the things, and there are black and glistening piles of dust in each corner. A tub of night-black water stands by the forge. The horseshoes sail through the dark like bloody little moons and follow each other like bloody little moons to drown in the black water, hissing, protesting.

Outside, along the matted eaves, painstakingly, sweetly, wasps go over and over a honeysuckle vine.

Inside, the bellows creak. Nate does wonders with both hands; with one hand. The attendant horse stamps his foot and nods his head as if agreeing to a peace treaty.


And nod.

A Newfoundland dog looks up at him and they almost touch noses, but not quite, because at the last moment the horse decides against it and turns away.
Outside in the grass lie scattered big, pale granite discs, like millstones, for making wheel rims on. This afternoon they are too hot to touch.

Now it is settling down, the scream.

Now the dressmaker is at home, basting, but in tears. It is the most beautiful material she has worked on in years. It has been sent to the woman from Boston, a present from her mother-in-law, and heaven knows how much it cost.

First published in The New Yorker, the story later appeared as a prose piece in the middle of Bishop’s Questions of Travel and as the last piece in The Collected Prose.

05 June 2005

nothing avant garde, please

From Gary Fountain and Peter Brazeau’s Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography:

in two cortisone-induced sleepless nights she finished “In the Village” . . . The New Yorker [in 1952] purchased the story for twelve hundred dollars, even though the editors felt it was an experimental piece for them because of its suggested rather than explicit story line. They wrote to Bishop about what appeared to them as non sequitors in her story, and she quipped that she did not “believe they could follow their noses.”

04 June 2005

Marianne Moore

One sentence from "Nine Nectarines":
      Fuzzless through slender crescent leaves
           of green or blue or
           both, in the Chinese style, the four

      pairs’ half-moon leaf-mosaic turns
out to the sun the sprinkled blush
      of puce-American-Beauty pink
      applied to bees-wax gray by the
uninquiring brush
      of mercantile bookbinding.

It is possible for me to figure out what this might mean, but I don't feel a need to know.

03 June 2005

utterance vs. poem

This morning I discovered Denise Levertov in a 1968 essay called "Origins of a Poem":

what the poet is called on to clarify is not answers but the existence and nature of questions; and his likelihood of so clarifying them for others is made possible only through dialogue with himself. Inner colloquy as a means of communication with others was something I assumed in the poem . . .

What duality does dialogue with himself, dialogue with his heart, imply? “Every art needs two—one who makes it, and one who needs it,” Ernst Barlach, the German sculptor and playwright, is reported to have said. If this is taken to mean someone out there who needs it—an audience—the working artist is in immediate danger of externalizing his activity, of distorting his vision to accommodate it to what he knows, or supposes he knows, his audience requires, or to what he thinks it ought to hear. Writing to a student in 1964, I put it this way:

. . . at some stage in the writing of a poem you must dismiss from your mind all special knowledge (of what you were intending to say, of private allusions, etc.) and read it with the innocence you bring to a poem by someone unknown to you. If you satisfy yourself as reader (not just as “self-expressive” writer) you have a reasonable expectation of reaching others too.

. . . A self-expressive act is one which makes the doer feel liberated, “clear” in the act itself. A scream, a shout, a leaping into the air, a clapping of hands—or an effusion of words associated for their writer at that moment with an emotion—all these are self-expressive. They satisfy their performer momentarily. But they are not art. And the poet’s “making clear” . . . is art: it goes beyond (though it includes) the self-expressive verbal effusion, as it goes beyond the ephemeral gesture; it is a construct of words that remains clear even after the writer has ceased to be aware of the associations that initially impelled it. This kind of “making clear” engages both the subjective and objective in him. The difference is between the satisfaction of exercising the power of utterance as such, of saying, of the clarity of action; and of the autonomous clarity of the thing said, the enduring clarity of the right words.

The poet—when he is writing—is a priest; the poem is a temple; epiphanies and communion take place within it. The communion is triple: between the maker and the needer within the poet; between the maker and the needers outside him—those who need but can’t make their own poems (or who do make their own but need this one too); and between the human and the divine in both poet and reader. By divine I mean something beyond both the making and the needing elements, vast, irreducible, a spirit summoned by the exercise of needing and making. When the poet converses with this god he has summoned into manifestation, he reveals to others the possibility of their own dialogue with the god in themselves. . . .

The need I am talking about is specific . . . the need for a poem; when this fact is not recognized, other needs—such as an undifferentiated need for self-expression, which could just as well find satisfaction in a gesture or an action; or the need to reassure the ego by writing something that will impress others—are apt to be mistaken for specific poem-need. Talent will not save a poem written under these misapprehensions from being weak and ephemeral.

01 June 2005

traveling with Elizabeth Bishop

Here in Truro for the month of June, my first companion is Elizabeth Bishop -- her poems, prose, and letters, three biographies, and various essay collections. I began with Brett C. Millier's biography, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. Here is a poem from Bishop's second collection:


The moon in the bureau mirror
looks out a million miles
(and perhaps with pride, at herself,
but she never, never smiles)
far and away beyond sleep, or
perhaps she’s a daytime sleeper.

By the Universe deserted,
she’d tell it to go to hell,
and she’d find a body of water,
or a mirror, on which to dwell.
So wrap up care in a cobweb
and drop it down the well

into that world inverted
where left is always right,
where the shadows are really the body,
where we stay awake all night,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.

I particularly like the shadows are really the body.