If you are within striking distance of New York City next Tuesday, February 8, you must mark what would have been Elizabeth Bishop's 100th birthday by attending this celebratory reading co-sponsored* by the Poetry Society of America under the leadership of Alice Quinn. In a recent correspondence with Alice, I asked her about the upcoming reading. Her replies make it clear why this is an event not to be missed:
When she died in 1979, she was a (if not the, which was often the case) favorite poet of a wide, wide range of distinguished contemporaries, from John Ashbery to Mark Strand, Adrienne Rich, James Merrill, Jean Valentine, Thom Gunn, Robert Pinsky, and scads more, I’m sure. Since those days, another several generations of poets have come along to express their deep admiration and pleasure in her work, and the list of poets reading at the event, which is taking place on her actual birthday, reflects the ever-widening readership she has.
There will be poets in their 30s like Gabriele Calvocoressi and Tracy K. Smith and mid-career poets like Elizabeth Alexander, Kimiko Hahn, and Vijay Seshadri and magisterial figures like John Ashbery, Richard Howard, Mark Strand, Jean Valentine, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Marie Ponsot. So many of these poets down the years have been and are teachers, and Bishop's reputation has grown in classrooms all over the world. (Ed note: for a complete listing, go here.)
Additionally, she roved over the world and is not really identified with one American place, and her poems reflect her wide-open curiosity and receptivity. She was part of no clique, published most of her poems in The New Yorker, a magazine accessible to the general reader, where people interested in all the arts could keep up with her development. Also, her poems are so different from one another. That’s something she greatly admired about George Herbert—his invention of a form for each particular poem.
There’s a great transparency to the work and at the same time ever-beckoning mysteries. She seems inexhaustibly interesting artistically, and her life was dramatic in very touching ways, so the personal story is one we seem not to tire of mulling over.
SDH: What can aspiring poets learn from reading and hearing Bishop's poetry (and prose)?
AQ: One Art, the volume of her correspondence published many years ago, edited by Robert Giroux, and now this new volume of her correspondence with her New Yorker editors, reveal that she was a very dedicated, diligent worker from a young age. She read and memorized poems from age five or six, and the great essays written in her college days and reprinted in both the newly edited Prose, edited by Lloyd Schwartz and the Library of America volume, also edited by Lloyd—I’m thinking of the absolutely riveting essays, “Time’s Andromeda’s” and “Gerard Manley Hopkins: Notes on Timing in His Poetry”—make clear how passionately she thought about her art and the importance she placed on having ideas about poetry. (See her letter to Marianne Moore, Dec 5, 1936, when she was 25, about Wallace Stevens’ Owl’s Clover,
“What strikes me as so wonderful about the whole book—because I dislike the way he occasionally makes blank verse moo—is that it is such a display of ideas at work—making poetry, the poetry making them, etc. That, it seems to me, is the way a poet should think.”
So with respect to aspiring poets, I think her large, thoughtful ambition for her poetry combined with an innate modesty of scale—an early masterpiece such as At the Fishhouses has, nonetheless, a homespun air—should make poets feel so entirely free to go about things in their own way provided they strive for a level of serious achievement, too. The great variety of her work is also testament to a poet making it new for herself over and over. Each poem presents a separate challenge and opportunity.
She is certain proof of what Dickinson wrote, “The brain is wider than the sky….”
SDH: What is it that you most respond to in Bishop?