Literary Birthday Celebration: Elizabeth Bishop

>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington, D.C.>>Anya Creightney: Hi everyone. Thanks for joining us this
afternoon to celebrate the birthday of a very special writer,
Elizabeth Bishop. My name is Anya Creightney. Come on in. And I’m the Program Specialist for
the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. I’m also a proud partner in
this series, representing and celebrating the careers of many of our most valuable
literary voices. Elizabeth Bishop is one of
those writers who shapes and contours our world
as though it were putty. Her poetics are indelicate, yet
solid, earthen, yet water bound, slippery, yet confidentially
precise. She is a poet with a
keen, unwavering eye. And lucky for us, she found
no scene too domestic, no folk too ordinary,
no object too small. So, perhaps it gives you comfort,
as it does many, to let Bishop, quiet and substantial as
she was, study the boundary between the external
and the internal, the boundary between
border and flux. Absolutely, it is with
this excitement that I welcome poets Jennifer
Atkinson and Vijay Seshadri. Both of whom will help us better
understand Bishop and her poetics. Each poet will lecture for
approximately twenty minutes. And both will conclude by sharing
excerpts of their own work. And I should note that Vijay is
going to share poems, Bishops poems, here today and then read
poems of his conclusion. Jennifer Atkinson is the author
of five poetry collections. The most recent, “The Thinking
Eye,” looks at the syntax of our evolving world, paying
close attention to landscape, ecology, myth and memory. She is a professor in
the BFA and MFA programs at George Mason University. Vijay Seshadri is the
author of three collections. The most recent of which
of the three selections, won the Pulitzer Prize
for Poetry in 2014. He is a professor and the Michele
Tolela Myers Chair in Writing at Sarah Lawrence University
in Yonkers, New York. Lastly, our event will conclude with
a tabletop presentation of items, that you see here to my left, from
the Library’s Bishop collection. And Mark Manivong here,
sitting here in the front row, is a curator from the Rare
and Special Book Division. And he will invite you all,
at the very end of the event, to take a look at the
items presented here. So, before I turn it over to
our poets here, let me ask you to turn off your cell
phones or anything that could interfere
with the reading today. And let me also say one little thing about the Poetry and
Literature Center. We are the home of the Poet
Laureate Consultant in Poetry, who currently is Juan
Felipe Herrera. And we put on thirty
to forty programs, just like this one, per year. To find out more about
this series and others, please join our mailing list. And you can do so at
the back of the room. There is a clipboard
you can fill out. And without further ado, let
me turn it over to our poets, first of whom is Jennifer Atkinson. [ Applause ]>>Jennifer Atkinson:
Thanks everyone for coming. And thank you Anya
and Matt and Mark. This stuff is amazing. You have to see this, if
you haven’t looked yet. So, I’m going to talk a little
bit and then read a few, like, three, I think, of my poems. And I’m going to concentrate on
— it was very hard to pick, like, which Bishop poem to
read, but to think about. But I picked in the end
a poem called “Poem.” Well, I’m going to start. Okay, I’ll start — you know, I’m sort of changing my mind
right now, while I talk to you. But no, I’m going to
go ahead with this. So, I’m going to go
ahead and read this. So, to celebrate Elizabeth
Bishop on her birthday, let’s begin with a snippet
from one of her letters. Her witty, sharp, funny,
affectionate letters. It’s a description of a remarkable
birthday present that she received at a party in Brazil, where
she was living at the time. She writes, “A neighbor
whom I scarcely know because we have no know
language in common for one thing, came bringing me my
lifelong dream, a Toucan. The woman, who gave him and her
husband, are Polish refugees and ran the zoo in Warsaw, I think. I never dreamed they’d
give me a Toucan. He eats six bananas a day. I must say, they seem to go
right through him and come out practically as good as new. Meat, grapes, to see him
swallowing grapes is rather like playing a pinball machine. And something I’d never known, they sleep with their tails
straight up over their heads. And their heads under a wing. So, the silhouette is just
like an inverted comma. I am calling him Uncle Sam or Sammy. He steals everything,
particularly something bright. But so far the favorite toy
is a champagne bottle cork, also from the birthday.” That story sounds just
like her, doesn’t it? The Polish refugees, who can’t
communicate with her exactly and whose sad story
she doesn’t quite tell. The precise and strange
images, feeding the bird grapes like playing a pinball machine or his sleeping silhouette
like an inverted comma. And like the sandpiper
that famous Bishopy bird, Sam also keeps his eye open, looking
for something, something, something. Something bright to steal from the
random, incoherence of the world. Other sources may call
Bishop’s pet bird Sam, a parrot or say she named him in a moment of chauvinistic patriotism,
thus the Uncle Sam. But the story I choose
to believe is the one that says Sam the Toucan’s name, is an acronym for the three
qualities Elizabeth Bishop deemed most important to a poem. Spontaneity, S, accuracy, A and
mystery, M. All or nearly all of her poems exhibit Samminess. But because it’s one
of my favorites, let’s look at the poem, “Poem.” You know it, of course. It’s an Ars Poetica of sorts, though Bishop would never
use so grand a title. Even Marianne Moore’s poetry, is
a step too close to pontification. Bishop sticks with “Poem.” It’s up to us to generalize. She claims only that “Poem”
is a poem about a naïve, that is unstudied painting. She doesn’t claim, though we might, that “Poem” might have
something lasting to say about the art of poetry. So, let me read it to you. It’s in geography three. You can see a copy of that up here. “Poem.” “About the size of an
old-style dollar bill, American or Canadian, mostly the
same whites, gray greens, and steel grays this little
painting, a sketch for a larger one? Has never earned any
money in its life. Useless and free, it
has spent seventy years as a minor family relic handed along
collaterally to owners who looked at it sometimes, or
didn’t bother to. It must be Nova Scotia; only there
does one see gabled wooden houses painted that awful shade of brown. The other houses, the
bits that show, are white. Elm trees, low hills, a
thin church steeple — that gray-blue wisp — or is it? In the foreground a water
meadow with some tiny cows, two brushstrokes each,
but confidently cows; two minuscule white geese in
the blue water, back-to-back, feeding, and a slanting stick. Up closer, a wild iris,
white and yellow, fresh-squiggled from the tube. The air is fresh and cold; cold
early spring clear as gray glass; a half inch of blue sky below
the steel-gray storm clouds. They were the artist’s specialty. A specklike bird is
flying to the left. Or is it a flyspeck
looking like a bird? Heavens, I recognize
the place, I know it! It’s behind — I can almost
remember the farmer’s name. His barn backed on that meadow. There it is, titanium
white, one dab. The hint of steeple, filaments
of brush-hairs, barely there, must be the Presbyterian church. Would that be Miss
Gillespie’s house? Those particular geese and cows
are naturally before my time. A sketch done in an hour,
“in one breath,” once taken from a trunk and handed over. Would you like this? I’ll never have room to
hang these things again. Your Uncle George, no,
mine, my Uncle George, he’d be your great-uncle,
left them all with Mother when he went back to England. You know, he was quite famous,
an R.A. I never knew him. We both knew this place, apparently,
this literal small backwater, looked at it long enough to
memorize it, our years apart. How strange. And it’s still loved,
or its memory is. It must have changed a lot. Our visions coincided —
“visions” is too serious a word — our looks, two looks: art “copying
from life” and life itself, life and the memory of it so compressed they’ve
turned into each other. Which is which? Life and the memory of it cramped,
dim, on a piece of Bristol board, dim, but how live, how
touching in detail. The little that we get for free,
the little of our earthly trust. Not much. About the size of
our abidance along with theirs: the munching cows, the
iris, crisp and shivering, the water still standing
from spring freshets, the yet-to-be-dismantled
elms, the geese.” So, I’m going to look
at those Sam qualities. Spontaneity is everywhere in “Poem.” The voice that speaks the
poem is itself as alive as that shivering Iris, fresh
squiggled from the tube. As the speaker stops
and starts, asserts and qualifies her assertions,
shifting in tone from the parenthetical
aside, to the exclamatory. From a collage bit of reported
dialogue, to a meditation on memory, time and the intimacies of art. We feel as though we are hearing a
real person talking in real time. As if she’s just there across
the table chatting with us. It’s not chat, of course. Not tossed off or partially
considered. The poet has revised and revised,
toward that illusion of casual, off the cuff, in one
breath naturalness. It’s an artificially
created naturalness. And artfully rehearsed spontaneity,
“Heavens, I recognized the place, I know it,” the speaker says,
as if she had just then realized and is just now telling us. A just then, that happens over and
over, every time you read the poem. Hers is a spontaneity that endures
in the language of the poem. The next Sam quality, accuracy,
isn’t just about sticking to the facts, although Bishop
rarely veers from fact, in order to find some
kind of capital T, truth. Is there any such thing,
she might ask? Her idea of accuracy isn’t only about the honest admission
of ugliness either. “That awful shade of brown,” she says about her
beloved Nova Scotia houses. Nor is her accuracy only
for recalled details like Miss Gillespie’s
name or the size of American versus Canadian dollars. Bishop’s accuracy isn’t about
verisimilitude or realism, per say. Although, sometimes a sort of
magnified, super realism may result. Her sort of accuracy is
in inherent in her precise and uncannily strange images. A Toucan posed like an
inverted comma, say. Or this passage in poem, “A
specklike bird is flying to the left or is it a flyspeck
looking like a bird?” These are accurate images
that show, in their accuracy, how weird the ordinary actually is. The size of things shifts as that famous magnifying
eye finds its focus. A bird as tall and colorful as the
family size box of Froot Loops, is compared to a tiny black comma. A painted gull, is compared
to a flying speck or a speck of fly is mistaken
for a laughing gull. In the precision and de-familiarized
strangeness of her images, “Heavens, I recognize the thing,” our
perspective shifts and aware of our looking, we see with
sudden vividness and accuracy. Although, sometimes the view is like
the one a suddenly giant Alice saw through the wonderland keyhole. Or the one we see through the glass
in a Joseph Cornell assemblage. Bishop loved both, by the
way, Alice and Cornell. Sometimes her realism, as with
the trompe-l’oeil flyspeck, asks us to question the real, at the
same time as it seems represent it. The last of the Sam the Toucan triad
of key poetic qualities is mystery. The one hardest to describe. But here’s what I think it isn’t. It isn’t the dark murkiness
of imprecision. Or an answer withheld
until the who done it ends. Or some deep hidden meaning,
set down in Spark Notes. Bishop’s mystery isn’t
knowledge obscured or withheld from us readers. It’s not as something added
either, like a grating of nutmeg. Rather, it has something to
do with the way in “Poem,” a very well-known poet and an unknown outsider
artist, are connected. “How strange,” she says. How strange that their
two looks should coincide, compressing life and — I’m sorry. And the memory of it, such that
they’ve turned into each other. Which is which? Life or the memory of it? The real or the language of it? How strange art is. Listen again to the final lines. “But how live, how
touching in detail — the little we get for free, the
little of our earthly trust. Not much. About the size of
our abidance along with theirs: the munching cows, the
iris, crisp and shivering, the water still standing
from spring freshets, the yet-to-be-dismantled
elms, the geese.” Spontaneously alive in
voice, vision and language. Touchingly and ferociously
accurate in detail. And mysteriously simple,
the little we get for free. As birthdays remind us, it’s
not much, these few years, the size of our abidance. We are all of us like the green
and yet to be dismantled elms. At least part of the mystery
that animates a poem like “Poem” or the “Sandpiper,” “The
Moose,” “Crusoe in England,” all those great poems, is
the human connection we feel to a somehow still
living greenish speaker. And the poet who gave her voice. It’s the same mysterious
connection she feels to the artist squiggling
paint from the tube. I think of influence like that. The greenish effect of connection. The connection you feel as you
read — as your read — sorry. I’m changing as I go. The connection you feel as you
read to a living presence there, kind of beyond the
language in the poem. The person and the
maker of the poems. Heavens, I recognize you in that sidestepped
rhyme, that formal reserve. Or the way you made your sentence
sound so spontaneously off the cuff. Why not court that connection? Why not listen and
accept its magnetic draw? Far from feeling anxious about Elizabeth Bishops
influence, I seek it. What the heck. And rather than wanting to copy
her or to outdo or supplant her, as if I ever could, I hope
my work, all our poetry work, helps her poetry, all
poetry, keep its green, not yet dismantled Samminess. So, you’ll hear for yourselves,
I’m about to read some poems. You’ll hear if I’ve managed to
get anything Sammy into my poems. I’m going to read two
from the new book. The first of which is an
homage to my grandmother and also kind of sideways to Bishop. And my grandmother and Bishop
were about of a generation. Where’s the poem? They both were born in New
England and college educated. Which in that generation for
a woman was not that common. My grandmother kind of liked poems. She liked them especially
for other people. She thought everyone
should read them. But she loved wildflowers. That was her real passion. She would. She’s the first person who ever
said she thought I should be a poet. She gave me my first book
of poems that I ever owned, which was the collected
Wallace Stevens. So, that’s a pretty good one
when you’re fourteen, you know. That’s a place to start. But this poem is called
“Landscape with Blood Root.” “She demanded I pay attention. For example, to the
wildflowers we walked by. Not just the easy ones like Queen
Anne’s lace or butter-and-eggs, but harder, stranger one’s, trailing
arbutus, hepatica, dead man’s pipes. To tell the truth, I didn’t
always love, wholly, our walks and her half stern,
half joking catechism. What’s that? What’s that one called? When she pointed to a flower I
couldn’t name, we collected a sprig to bring home to the other Bible. Her headstone heavy, precious,
we had to wash our hands first. North American wildflowers. She made it my work to count
the petals, assess the leaves. Seriated or smooth? Lobed, alternate, waxy, downy? Then keeping in mind the season and
context, field, slope, brook side. To page through my favorite
part and solve the mystery. We paired the real to the right
illustration and proper name. When I asked how a flower got
its name, why fleabane, cowslip, Saint Johns, I thought it was wart with an A. Some of
the stories she knew. Others I know now, she
made up whole cloth. And at least once, stumped
or who knows why now, she asked me, why am I Martha? Why are you Jenn? She’d be saddened by
how much I’ve forgotten. Which celandine is greater? Which blue aster is which? And just where in the Cockaponset
Woods, her favorite pink white, turning white, pink
turning white, arbutus grew. And perhaps grows still. I’ve not lost all together
though, her lessons. The habit of close attention. The pleasure of names and of
seeing in the actual sprig, the guidebooks painted version. As well as the deep
harder, here to confess, heart leaps of joy in recognition. As on an April wooded
hillside, when white, gold stamen stars open among
the under rot, eight petaled, from a basil rosette
of bluish lobed leaves. I can almost hear the name
in her voice, blood root.” This a brand new book for me. I’ve never read from it before. It just came out. This next one is called
“Landscape with Goats Eye.” And it takes place in India,
near Bodh Gaya, in Bodh Gaya, where the historical Buddha
sat underneath the fig tree until he reached enlightenment
or so the story goes. Landscape — there’s
a lot of goats there. “Landscape with Goats Eye.” “A page where the flipbook
of memories always opens. Or when thumbed through,
stutters and stops. The road is a pale dust track. The bullocks hoof beats muffled. Wooden cartwheels creek. On the horizon, the high fig
tree, fruitless in this season, rocks with the jounce of the cart. Through sleepy Bodh Gaya, a boy
rides his sloped shouldered buffalo, past temples and t-stalls,
pilgrims and tourists. Among them, but refusing,
stubborn, the trees sacred shade. I buy bread and bananas
and feed the peels and overripe bits to the goats. The dust is a variorum of tracks. The bullock’s hooves beat steady. Wooden cart wheels’ creak. On the horizon and overhead the
pale changeable cataracted sky. I set sweet rice aside on the
plate, practicing renunciation. Practicing restraint
or was it compassion? And the goats bucked and
nudged, more than companionably. So much forgotten, but not that
goaty, cow licked, knobby head. The loose drape of her
ears and that fixed eye. A sliver of goat inscrutable gold
leaf, as if lifted from an icon in the sky, barely
lustrous, sheer and creased. The road from the station is pale. The bullocks hoof beats. Weather chases. Wooden cartwheels creek. Wearing froze in the dust.” And one more, a little
one, very different. I think still there’s
some Bishop in it, but not maybe as much as those two. This is from a book called
“Canticle of the Night Path.” And all the poems in it
are in the same rough form. That is, each has five things. Five couplets, five lines, five
sentences or five paragraphs. And it’s about all that
they have in common, but they’re in alphabetical order. So, “Canticle of A”
is the first one. “An almanac of almost and
almonds amended accounts, always askance, a slant. Ah, as chance would have it. An atlas at last of
aphorism and aftermath. Of master, oaker, mask and umber,
all had for an anaphoric song. An archive of lives and
ghosts, haloed and halfcocked. A canticle of alpha to zed,
apple to zebra, aardvark to zarf. A gospel of asters of ask her, of
azure assurance, not gone askew. And attar and atar
of roses and ashes. A Webster’s of wishes. Word lists of what
if’s and why not’s. Wine cups kept ever brim full.” Thank you. [ Applause ] [ Silence ]>>Vijay Seshadri: Well, I didn’t
actually prepare any remarks, which might be your misfortune because I can ramble all
day about Elizabeth Bishop. And but what I’m actually
going to do is give you a sense because Anya asked me to,
when we talked about this, of my relationship to her. And I want to say first of all,
that I was one of the early adopters of Elizabeth Bishop
before she became kind of the agreed upon canonical poet and you know the tong
wars of American poetry. The one that you know every
faction could say was a great poet. And you know that sort
of started happening around the nineteen eighties. And I encountered Bishop because
of a very influential book, when I was in an early reader
of poetry, was “Life Studies.” And of course, the great poem that
ends “Life Studies,” “Skunk Hour,” dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop. So, I knew the name, at a time
when she wasn’t’ very well read in America and left out of major
anthologies and stuff like that. And she had kind of
had returned to America from a long period in Brazil. And was trying to cobble
together a life up in Boston. And not many people knew about her and things seemed to
have passed her by. But she was always interesting to
me because of the Lowell connection. And because from sort of the
mid nineteen seventies on, I worked in the fishing industry on the West Coast, in
the Northwest Coast. And Bishop is of course, one
of the great maritime poets. And I had her book and I recognized
that immediately about her. And also the one connection
I had to literature at that time was a
subscription to the New Yorker. And if you were a subscriber
of the New Yorker in the nineteen seventies,
you would get the magazine and I would read every week. And every once in a while
a Bishop poem would appear. And these were the poems
in “Geography Three.” And they were kind of
masterpiece after masterpiece. I mean, they were just, you know,
it’s a very, very small book. But you know about as perfect a
book of poetry as one can find. And I would read the poems
and be intrigued by them. I mean, I remember
a poem when it came in the New Yorker and
“Crusoe in England.” And I can’t remember the
sequence, but at a certain time, in that period, the New
Yorker published the second of Bishops two birthday poems. The first is one called
“The Bite,” which is sort of not necessarily
a favorite of mine. The second one is called “In
the Waiting Room,” which I — when I was teaching poetry, I
would introduce it to my students by saying, this is the
greatest poem ever written. And then I would go on to say that this is the greatest
poem ever written because this is the greatest poem
that could possibly be written. Because it’s about the absolute
limit of human experience. The thing that we recognize when
we recognize self and being. And that you know you cannot
aspire to a loftier subject. And you can never arrive at it. It will always slip away from you. And in fact, this is a
poem about almost arriving at a certain fundamental
revelation, a certain enlightenment and having it slip away from you. And so, I read this poem,
you know, when I was living on the Oregon Coast
and it just dazzled me. So, this poet I had read,
who I thought was kind of a good poet, you know. And I mean, who I had a lot of
respect for and had admired, I think for a lot of reasons
that were adventitious, you know. She represented a kind of culture
that I regarded as authentic. She was an embodiment of a certain
kind of down East, Anglo-Saxon, non-conformism that
I recognized as kind of a threat in American culture. She had, you know, what
Emerson famously called a transparent eyeball. She just kind of, you
know, world reflected. I mean, when one reads Bishop
and sees the way she sees, like you’re always reminded of
that famous saying of [inaudible]. And [inaudible] saying at one point,
“It is better to think than to do. Better to feel than to think,
but best of all nearly to look.” And she allows you to look and
look and look, inexhaustibly. And so, I recognize and
appreciated all of that. And I love the diction
and the natural tone. It connected me to other
writers, whom I admired, in a kind of historical continuity. Going back through Yeats to
Wordsworth, the conversational tone, the commitment to prose order. All of those things I was
picking up because that was a time when I was living in Oregon
when I was trying to make myself into a poet, along with all
the other things I was doing. And you know and then I
came across this poem. And I realized that this person
who I thought was, you know, a model of a certain kind of
literary virtue and a certain kind of clarity and simplicity and order, was actually an incredibly
dramatically ambitions poet. And I’ll read “In the Waiting Room.” And then I will read kind of its companion poem,
“At the Fish Houses.” And this is the first
poem in “Geography Three.” “In the Waiting Room.” “In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her in the dentist’s waiting room. It was winter. It got dark early. The waiting room was full
of grown-up people, arctics and overcoats, lamps and magazines. My aunt was inside what seemed
like a long time and while I waited and read the National Geographic. I could read. And carefully studied
the photographs: the inside of a volcano, black, and
full of ashes; then it was spilling over in rivulets of fire. Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches, laced boots, and pith helmets. A dead man slung on a pole
“Long Pig,” the caption said. Babies with pointed heads wound
round and round with string; black, naked women with necks wound
round and round with wire like the necks of light bulbs. Their breasts were horrifying. I read it right straight through. I was too shy to stop. And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date. Suddenly, from inside, came an oh! of pain, Aunt Consuelo’s
voice not very loud or long. I wasn’t at all surprised; even
then I knew she was a foolish, timid woman. I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn’t. What took me completely
by surprise was that it was me: my
voice, in my mouth. Without thinking at all I
was my foolish aunt, I– we– were falling, falling, our
eyes glued to the cover of the National Geographic,
February, 1918. I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old. I was saying it to
stop the sensation of falling off the
round, turning world. Into cold, blue-black space. But I felt: you are an I, you are
an Elizabeth, you are one of them. Why should you be one, too? I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was. I gave a sidelong glance —
I couldn’t look any higher — at shadowy gray knees, trousers and
skirts and boots and different pairs of hands lying under the lamps. I knew that nothing
stranger had ever happened, that nothing stranger
could ever happen. Why should I be my
aunt, or me, or anyone? What similarities boots, hands, the
family voice I felt in my throat, or even the National Geographic and those awful hanging
breasts held us all together or made us all just one? How I didn’t know any word
for it how “unlikely”. How had I come to be here, like
them, and overhear a cry of pain that could have got loud
and worse but hadn’t? The waiting room was
bright and too hot. It was sliding beneath a big
black wave, another, and another. Then I was back in it. The War was on. Outside, in Worcester,
Massachusetts, were night and slush and cold, and it was still
the fifth of February, 1918.” So, that is about that moment of
recognition, that moment of being. That we arrive and arrive and
arrive at and always, you know, seem to slip past at the
moment of our arrival. And it’s interesting,
at the end of her life, she goes back to that experience. Which is sort of — and she
frames it in an interesting way. She frames it in the
context of herself. Because that experience
has many facets. And you know often when you look at
Bishop as a whole, you tend to sort of see her as a —
either a Christian poet in a post Christian world or a
post Christian poet, you know, still laboring in a Christian world. And there’s kind of that constant
tension, that doubling of her sort of spiritual consciousness. And you know and at the end of her
life she seems to have freed herself from the contradictions
that sort of defined and fructified her
poetry throughout its, you know, flowering in her life. And just gets back to an irresolvable existential
core and dilemma, you know. And that is not really true about
the middle part of her career. It’s sort of — that question
isn’t sort of reducible. That question of being, isn’t
reducible in the middle part of her career, to merely the
existential condition of the South, but has all of this sort of
doctrinal fullness to it. And an example of that is the
next poem I’m going to read “At the Fishhouses,”
which is sort of — you know, I guess in a
way the companion poem to “In the Waiting
Room” in some way. And you know, I mean, I
think she tends to sort of recycle motifs throughout
her career because — well, for one reason
because she worked on poems for so long, you know. I mean, I think “The Moose” was around for twenty-five years
before it got finished. I think it’s late nineteen
forty-eight that she takes that, you know, that bus ride
that “The Moose” describes. And she doesn’t publish that poem
until the nineteen seventies. So, there’s a kind of constant
return to certain ideas and themes, which reflects a sort
of a temporal reality in which she was always living. So, kind of really interesting. And I think even “Poem” has a — I think that painting is actually
mentioned earlier in her work. I can’t remember exactly
where it is now, but you know that painting
comes back again at the end. So, it’s sort of, you know. And this is sort of the theme of
“In the Waiting Room,” conceived and understood from a different
point of view entirely. “At the Fishhouses.” “Although it is a cold evening, down by one of the fishhouses an
old man sits netting, his net, in the gloaming almost
invisible, a dark purple-brown, and his shuttle worn and polished. The air smells so strong of
codfish it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water. The five fishhouses have
steeply peaked roofs and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables for the wheelbarrows to
be pushed up and down on. All is silver: the heavy surface
of the sea, swelling slowly as if considering spilling
over, is opaque, but the silver of the benches, the
lobster pots, and masts, scattered among the
wild jagged rocks, is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss growing
on their shoreward walls. The big fish tubs are
completely lined with layers of beautiful herring scales and the
wheelbarrows are similarly plastered with creamy iridescent
coats of mail, with small iridescent
flies crawling on them. Up on the little slope
behind the houses, set in the sparse bright sprinkle of
grass, is an ancient wooden capstan, cracked, with two long bleached
handles and some melancholy stains, like dried blood, where
the ironwork has rusted. The old man accepts a Lucky Strike. He was a friend of my grandfather. We talk of the decline in
the population and of codfish and herring while he waits
for a herring boat to come in. There are sequins on his
vest and on his thumb. He has scraped the scales,
the principal beauty, from unnumbered fish with
that black old knife, the blade of which
is almost worn away. Down at the water’s edge, at the
place where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp descending
into the water, thin silver tree trunks are laid
horizontally across the gray stones, down and down at intervals
of four or five feet. Cold dark deep and absolutely
clear, element bearable to no mortal, to fish and to seals. One seal particularly I have
seen here evening after evening. He was curious about me. He was interested in music; like
me a believer in total immersion, so I used to sing him Baptist hymns. I also sang “A Mighty
Fortress Is Our God.” He stood up in the water
and regarded me steadily, moving his head a little. Then he would disappear,
then suddenly emerge almost in the same spot, with a
sort of shrug as if it were against his better judgment. Cold dark deep and absolutely
clear, the clear gray icy water. Back, behind us, the
dignified tall firs begin. Bluish, associating
with their shadows, a million Christmas trees
stand waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended above the
rounded gray and blue-gray stones. I have seen it over and over,
the same sea, the same, slightly, indifferently swinging above the
stones, icily free above the stones, above the stones and then the world. If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately, your bones would begin to
ache and your hand would burn as if the water were a transmutation
of fire that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame. If you tasted it, it would
first taste bitter, then briny, then surely burn your tongue. It is like what we imagine knowledge
to be: dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, drawn from the
cold hard mouth of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since our knowledge is
historical, flowing, and flown.” She always starts out so
low, so even, you know. It’s just kind of a — and you never
quite realize how much pressure is building up. Because the control is
so magnificent, you know, the kind of — the
mastery of the sentence. The commitment to like living
the poem along the sentence and seeing its opportunities
and expanding it outward, but at the same time, there is
this other narrative taking place in her mind that, you know, of
which we are just getting tiny little glimpses. You know, we don’t quite
understand what’s going on, but the way in which she sort of
continually shepherds us, you know, further and further and further. Until she can’t go
any further, you know. I mean, in some sense,
she kind of always arrives at a limit that’s fundamental
in some way I think. And you know I think one of the — you know, I think a part of it has
always, when I’ve contemplated her. And of course, I’ve
contemplated her a lot. She was a poet who freed
me, along with Auden. When I was kind of in my sort
of early and mid-twenties, freed me from the terrible burden of
having to write like John Ashbery. Because he was sort of,
like, when I was a kid, I was a hip young poetry
reader and literature reader. And Ashbery was really cool. This was, like, before
“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” when he was sort of a
New York coterie figure. And all the hip literary kids I knew
came from New York and they listened to “The Velvet Underground”
and they read John Ashbery. And I thought I had to be like them, but I couldn’t quite
be like them, you know. And but I recognized the distinction
of someone like Ashbery and I sort of felt, well, you know, I
had to find another model. And Bishop came along and
she was really a lifeline for me in that way, you know. And I sort of felt, like, oh, yeah,
you know, this is really great. And it seems in some
way unmarked by time. It seems like there seems to be something perennial
about these concerns. They will always be
the same concerns. There’s some — seems to be something absolutely
eternal about the allegiance. You know, the allegiance
to language at this level. The kind of recognition that
language is sort of a living thing and you have to get out of its way
and let it do what it should do. And then, you know, the
commitment to the world, especially the visual world. And the yeah, there’s
something beyond these kind of games we’re playing. And also I think there’s
a kind of historicity too because Bishop was never — she
never abandoned the romantic ode. You know, she’s like kind of
the person of her generation who continued to write them, after
people like Roethke and Lowell and Berryman sort of let them go and
started trying to do something else. She was kind of committed to that,
you know, to that great series of poems that begin, you know, in
the seventeen nineties and move up to her and she managed them. She managed them very beautifully. So, she was very important to me
and it’s great to come down here and sort of be allowed to
celebrate her, you know and thank her in some way. Well, she’s dead and gone. She’s not listening to
us, I’m sure, positive. Anyway, I’m going to read a poem
of mine and which is a recent poem. And I guess it’s sort of — it’s
Bishop-like in a lot of ways, but it’s also a celebration
of sight. And it’s a poem about my mother, who
is very old and kind of, you know and in distressed physical
condition now. And she also is, like Bishop,
is a strong and scrutable woman. The poem is called,
“Your Living Eyes.” They wheeled you, your caregivers
did, to the picture window to watch the birds
fretting at the feeder. Then they forgot you
there and you forgot them. A thousand years later, the
angel of death sidled in, disguised as a little girl. Clutching at her pinafore and
chewing the ends of her pigtails. She had a look whose
vacancy was over rehearsed. But I hear your interview
with her went well. I hear actually, that it went better than anybody could
ever thought it would. She said, “beauty and
sadness are never far apart.” You said, “bullshit.” She said, “some birds are real, some
are invisible, but which are which?” You said, “back off, bitch.” She stared out the window. Her eyes narrowed,
but they didn’t touch. What was she seeing? What was she saying to herself? Do I know or do I care? Enough with these impassive forces. This one or that other one, the one who gave you life,
you, who gave me life. The yellow of the finches
is as molten as ever, splashing on the holly bushes. The moon, pale white inside the pale
blue morning, dropping its panicles of glass on the bright
grass, is climbing up. But the sun is climbing down. The world your eyes see is
the world as it really is. And you and I are going
to live in it forever. And we will hitchhike to
the painted hills together and hop a freight back home.” Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Mark Manivong: Good
afternoon, I’m Mark Manivong, curator in the Rare Book and
Special Collections Division. First of all, I’d like to thank
our readers for being here today and also the Poetry
and Literature Center. Oh, I’m sorry. I’d like to thank the
Poetry and Literature Center for organizing this wonderful event. In addition to the
rare book collection, our renowned rare book
collection, The Rare Book and Special Collections
Division, we also hold more than a hundred special collections. One of which is our Poets
Laureate Collection. Which is our attempt to
bring together all the works of the Poets Laureate in the United
States and have a repository here at the home of Poet Laureate. Elizabeth Bishop, having
been a Poet Laureate, is represented in this collection. And I’ve brought together
several things that she produced and that we hold. The first of which
is the first edition of her first book,
“North and South.” As well as the book that won
her the Pulitzer Prize, poems, “North and South, A Cold
Spring, nineteen fifty-five. And in addition to just our, you
know, first editions and monographs, we also hold broadsides, chapbooks
and also bibliographical oddities. One of which is up
here called “The Fish.” And that’s a broadside
that was produced by David Eshee [assumed
spelling] of Seattle. He was a book seller
and an avid fisherman. And he decided at some
point to have a broadside of her poem “The Fish,” produced. Mainly to distribute to
friends, but of course, it was an unauthorized
copy of her poem. And when he approached her and
asked her to sign it, she refused. She did relent a couple of years
later, when he attended one of her readings and asked her again. So, that’s up here. It’s one of twelve
copies that were produced. We’re one of the few
institutions that hold it. And we just acquired this,
so you’ll be the first people to see it up here. So, that’s all I have. Please do stop up. I have a list of works
exhibited at the end of the table, please help yourself. And feel free to ask
me any questions. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>This has been a presentation
of The Library of Congress. Visit us at

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