The Day – Reading Notes: Celebrating Elizabeth Bishop and a Conversation with Jonathan Post
Elizabeth Bishop is one of the best American lyric poets of the second half of the 20th century. She was adored (not too big a word) by her contemporaries Robert Lowell and James Merrill, her work was revered by John Ashbery and Seamus Heaney, also her contemporaries, and her genius was recognized early on by other poets such as Marianne Moore and Randall Jarrell. .
February is Bishop’s birthday month, his birthday remembered several years later in the little parenthetical top note of “The Bight,” a poem that appeared in the Pulitzer Prize-winning, “A Cold Spring” (1955). As with so many of her poems, “The Bight” has its origins in something she actually saw. Writing in 1948, from Key West to Robert Lowell, she observed, “The water looks like blue gas – the harbor is always a mess, here, little junky boats all piled up, some suspended with sponges and still a few- some half sunk or popped since the last hurricane. Kinda reminds me of my office.
Those words to Lowell were the seeds of “The Bight,” which opens with this beautifully flowing line –
At low tide like this, how pure the water is.
and carry on –
“The color of the gas flame has become as faint as possible.”
And further, as she said, reminding him of her office –
‘Some of the little white boats are still piled up
One against the other…..
Like torn and unanswered letters.
The bay is littered with old correspondence.
But let’s go back to the beginning, to the second line, “White and crumbling marl coasts” which “protrude and dazzle”. The ancient world rises (or is dredged). One of the Earth’s basic materials, marl has been used since time immemorial as a fertilizer and as clay for bricks. And here, in our world of poetry, we find an echo of marl, albeit “burning”, in the ancient, primitive landscape of Paradise Lost.
Geography and water, as well as travel, are key themes in much of Bishop’s poetry. The word “Bight” itself is layered, with its own geology, and as always with Bishop, each word is layered in meaning. When she read this poem in public, courteous as always to her readers and audience, she spelled Bight to avoid confusion with “bite.” In the OED we find ‘byhte’ to be an Old English word meaning a shallow or slightly indented bay, also, in its non-geographical definition, a bend or curve.
So when we read of ‘Pelicans’ who ‘crash/into that particular unnecessarily loud gas,/seems to me, like pickaxes,/seldom invent something to show,/and walk off with humorous nudges.’ , followed by “warbirds” which “hover / on impalpable currents of air / and open their tails like scissors on the curves”. we have Bishop’s joy—and ours—in the play on words, or, as one critic put it, his “magical illumination of the ordinary.”
For this reader too, “humorous” illuminates, in all its meaning, in a perfect poetic construction, the last word of the poem: “joyful”.
‘All the disorderly activity continues,
awful but happy.
Those last two lines have become a mantra for Bishop in his often very difficult life. They appear on his headstone (the last line at his request), and they can be seen today in Hope Cemetery in Worcester, Mass. Worcester, where she was born, is the scene of her other famous ‘birthday poem’, ‘In the Waiting Room.’
Ordinary, and yet not, “The Bight” is a landscape of “messy activity”, startling sounds, comparisons and “correspondences” – this last word that takes us back on a loop, this time to the color of the water, “the gas flame has turned as low as possible”, and suddenly we have the 19th century French poet, Charles Baudelaire (one of his three favorite poets, the other two being George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins) – Baudelaire who saw the world in terms of “correspondences”, words in terms of music, colors in terms of perfumes, etc.
You can feel it (the water) turning into gas; if we were Baudelaire
you could probably hear it turning to marimba music.
The little ocher dredge at work at the end of the wharf
already plays perfectly offset dry claves.’
And for those like me who aren’t familiar with marimba music, it’s played on a xylophone-like instrument, hence those “perfectly staggered claves”.
Click on. Click on. go flirt,
and reveals a mouth of dripping marl.
All the disorderly activity continues,
awful but happy.
These final lines contain a lifetime of humor and meaning, dredging the depths but always with levity.
* * * *
To help celebrate Bishop’s birthday month, I thought a fitting way would be a quick chat with Jonathan Post, whose “Elizabeth Bishop: A Very Short Introduction” is due out from Oxford in March (June to United States). As some of you know, Professor Post and his wife, Susan Gallick, are members of the Stonington community. He taught first at Yale and for many years thereafter at UCLA, where he is Emeritus Research Professor of English.
“Behind every book is a little story, and this one says something about Bishop’s status as a poet,” he told me. “I had enjoyed writing the very short introduction to Shakespeare’s sonnets and poems in the same series. I like the compressed format and the idea of writing for a more general audience, as well as the price. At $11.95 each, the books are a bargain. »
Much of Post’s earlier work, including Shakespeare’s book, has been in the earlier areas of the English Renaissance and the 17th century. But this is a more modern direction.
But Post noticed strong connections between the two historical periods, and Bishop participated in some of them.
“George Herbert was one of his favorite poets, as you know,” Post said. “In this, Bishop, like Merrill, participated in a long literary continuum, thank goodness; so, though wonderfully strange and unique, she is, like the best lyric poets, also available on her own immediate terms to general readers willing to ponder these matters.
Post emphasized the introductory nature of the book.
“At this advanced stage of Bishop’s studies, we are not at a point of market saturation but of increased scientific specialization, which often follows the discovery or recovery of an author,” he said. . “There are two societies named after him and now a new scholarly journal, three or four biographies and more critical books than you can shake your fist at. But for all these good works, it is difficult to have both an idea of the general outline of her great gifts as a poet and also a detailed understanding of the poems themselves, which is why we want to read about her in first place.
We all look forward to hearing more about Elizabeth Bishop, her poetry and her connection to this community on July 10 when Professor Post is in the library to deliver a talk as part of our Sunday Evening Lecture Series.
Belinda de Kay is Director Emeritus of the Stonington Free Library.