I don’t usually read poetry but….

One hundred years after her birth in Worcester, Mass., in 1911, Elizabeth Bishop stands as the most highly regarded American poet of the second-half of the 20th century. She is admired in every critical camp—from feminists to formalists—who agree on little else. Her work also attracts a wide general readership. Taught and studied in high schools and universities, Bishop is, for the time being at least, the most popular woman poet in American literature after Emily Dickinson.

Wall Street Journal (via Arts and Letters Daily)

Filling Station

Oh, but it is dirty!
–this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it’s a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color–
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:

to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

10 thoughts on “I don’t usually read poetry but….”

  1. And this part I love:

    Somebody embroidered the doily.
    Somebody waters the plant,
    or oils it, maybe. Somebody
    arranges the rows of cans
    so that they softly say:

    to high-strung automobiles.
    Somebody loves us all.

    Art can celebrate the everyday and find beauty in daily family and work life. And faith. I find the ending of the poem stunning. It makes me catch my breath.

    – Madhu

  2. Call me a grumpy reactionary but writing poetry without meter or rhyme is like playing tennis with the net down.

    See, it’s just an oddly formatted sentence:

    Father wears a dirty,oil-soaked monkey suit that cuts him under the arms, and several quick and saucy and greasy sons assist him (it’s a family filling station), all quite thoroughly dirty.

    Kids these days, grumble, grumble, grumble…

  3. This kind of station was common in small towns in the 50s but this generation only sees something like it on reruns of mayberry rfd and there nobody is work stained.

  4. I do usually read poetry. Not as much as I’d like, since it requires concentration, and quiet time is very, very scarce.

    This is one by Elizabeth Bishop is pretty good. I saw the article about her on ALDaily and was intrigued.

    But I like the old stuff more.

    Here is a nice snippet, with meter but not rhyme:

    Then rose Elaine and glided thro’ the fields,
    And past beneath the wildly-sculptured gates
    Far up the dim rich city to her kin;
    There bode the night: but woke with dawn, and past
    Down thro’ the dim rich city to the fields,
    Thence to the cave: so day by day she past
    In either twilight ghost-like to and fro
    Gliding, and every day she tended him,
    And likewise many a night: and Lancefot
    Would, tho’ he call’d his wound a little hurt
    Whereof he should be quickly whole, at times
    Brain-feverous in his heat and agony, seem
    Oncourteous, even he: but the meek maid
    Sweetly forbore him ever, being to him
    Meeker than any child to a rough nurse,
    Milder than any mother to a sick child,
    And never woman yet, since man’s first fall,
    Did kindlier unto man, but her deep love
    Upbore her; till the hermit, skill’d in all
    The simples and the science of that time,
    Told him that her fine care had saved his life.

    Of course, Lancelot is unworthy of the pure love of the Lily Maid of Astolat.

    Here is one with rhyme and meter, but with such a modern sense and feel (bleak and bleak) you barely notice it.

    Aubade by Philip Larkin

    I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
    Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
    In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
    Till then I see what’s really always there:
    Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
    Making all thought impossible but how
    And where and when I shall myself die.
    Arid interrogation: yet the dread
    Of dying, and being dead,
    Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
    The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
    – The good not done, the love not given, time
    Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
    An only life can take so long to climb
    Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
    But at the total emptiness for ever,
    The sure extinction that we travel to
    And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
    Not to be anywhere,
    And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

    This is a special way of being afraid
    No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
    That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
    Created to pretend we never die,
    And specious stuff that says No rational being
    Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
    That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
    No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
    Nothing to love or link with,
    The anasthetic from which none come round.

    And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
    A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
    That slows each impulse down to indecision.
    Most things may never happen: this one will,
    And realisation of it rages out
    In furnace-fear when we are caught without
    People or drink. Courage is no good:
    It means not scaring others. Being brave
    Lets no one off the grave.
    Death is no different whined at than withstood.

    Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
    It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
    Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
    Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
    Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
    In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
    Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
    The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
    Work has to be done.
    Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

    I am glad I do not agree with Larkin.

  5. Hi Madhu, Shannon:

    Shannon’s in good company:

    For me I should be as satisfied to play tennis with the net down as to write verse with no verse set to stay me.

    Robert Frost, in a letter to Lesley Francis Frost, 1934.

    On the other hand, Frost’s talking about writing poetry, not reading it — and there are good technical reasons why writing within self-imposed constraints will force the poet to work through more revisions and see more possibilities than might otherwise be the case.

    But does that mean a reader should only read rhyming poetry in strict meter? Absolutely not! Dylan Thomas was a great poet, but at least one of his two or three greatest masterpieces, Fern Hill, is unrhymed, and although it’s often referred to as syllabic verse, even its syllable count is unevenly applied.

  6. Madhu, I don’t often read poetry, either. But Bishop is great. I have to teach poetry a third of each semester in intro to lit, and both I and my students tend to really enjoy her. You can delete this huge glop in the middle of your comments, but these are the ones the freshmen read & like. They also like “The Fish.”

    Shannon, I don’t know much about poetic forms and generally can distinguish only the most obvious and famous ones. However the poets I know deeply respect her in part because she was a formalist – she does what you are asking for very very well. In fact, she is often used to illustrate such structures in our texts – though I think we love them for what they say as much as how. Two of her most famous – ones my students love – are in complex forms: “One Art” is in the demanding form of the villanelle:

    One Art

    The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
    so many things seem filled with the intent
    to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

    Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
    of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
    The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

    Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
    places, and names, and where it was you meant
    to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

    I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
    next-to-last, of three beloved houses went.
    The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

    I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
    some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
    I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

    — Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
    I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
    the art of losing’s not too hard to master
    though it may look like (Write it!) a disaster.

    And she has tackled the even more complex form of the sestina, all of the rules of which I don’t remember but the patteren of line endings from the 1st stanza reappear in all later ones in a complex prescribed form, ending in a 3-line stanza in which all 6 appear); called “Sestina,” it is somewhat autobiographical.

    Elizabeth Bishop – Sestina
    September rain falls on the house.
    In the failing light, the old grandmother
    sits in the kitchen with the child
    beside the Little Marvel Stove,
    reading the jokes from the almanac,
    laughing and talking to hide her tears.

    She thinks that her equinoctial tears
    and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
    were both foretold by the almanac,
    but only known to a grandmother.
    The iron kettle sings on the stove.
    She cuts some bread and says to the child,

    It’s time for tea now; but the child
    is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
    dance like mad on the hot black stove,
    the way the rain must dance on the house.
    Tidying up, the old grandmother
    hangs up the clever almanac

    on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
    hovers half open above the child,
    hovers above the old grandmother
    and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
    She shivers and says she thinks the house
    feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

    It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
    I know what I know, says the almanac.
    With crayons the child draws a rigid house
    and a winding pathway. Then the child
    puts in a man with buttons like tears
    and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

    But secretly, while the grandmother
    busies herself about the stove,
    the little moons fall down like tears
    from between the pages of the almanac
    into the flower bed the child
    has carefully placed in the front of the house.

    Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
    The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
    and the child draws another inscrutable house.

    She saw her works in terrms of craft; side note: she did not want ever to be in women’s anthologies – she wanted to place (or not place) in what she saw as the gender transcending category of poet. Since she is generally considered one of the best in the last 50 years, that shouldn’t limit her anthologizing too much.

    Dana Gioia wrote a moving obituary for her in 2004 in the New Criterion and in the last week did a warm review of the new edition of her works.

  7. Speaking of poetry, recent events in Egypt reminded me of Leonard Cohen’s “Kerensky”–

    My friend walks through our city this winter night,
    fur-hatted, whistling,
    stricken with seeing Eternity in all that is seasonal.
    He is the Kerensky of our Circle
    always about to chair the last official meeting
    before the pros take over, they of the pure smiling eyes
    trained only for Form.
    He knows there are no measures to guarantee
    the Revolution, or to preserve the row of muscular icicles
    which will chart Winter’s decline like a graph.
    There is nothing for him to do but preside
    over the last official meeting.
    It will all come round again: the heartsick teachers
    who make too much of poetry, their students
    who refuse to suffer, the cache of rifles in the lawyer’s attic:
    and then the magic, the 80-year comet touching
    the sturdiest houses. The Elite Corps commits suicide
    in the tennis-ball basement. Poets ride buses free.
    The General insists on a popularity poll. Troops study satire.
    A strange public generosity prevails.
    Only too well he knows the tiny moment when
    everything is possible, when pride is loved, beauty held
    in common, like having an exquisite sister,
    and a man gives away his death like a piece of advice.
    Our Kerensky has waited for these moments
    over a table in a rented room
    when poems grew like butterflies on the garbage of his life.
    How many times? The sad answer is: they can be counted.
    Possible and brief: this is his vision of Revolution.
    Who will parade the shell today? Who will kill in the name
    of the husk? Who will write a Law to raise the corpse
    which cries now only for weeds and excrement?
    See him walk the streets, the last guard, the only idler
    on the square. He must keep the wreck of the Revolution
    the debris of public beauty
    from the pure smiling eyes of the trained visionaries
    who need our daily lives perfect.
    The soft snow begins to honour him with epaulets, and to
    provoke the animal past of his fur hat. He wears a death,
    but he allows the snow, like an ultimate answer, to forgive
    him, just for this jewelled moment of his coronation. The
    carved gargoyles of the City Hall recieve the snow as bibs
    beneath their drooling lips. How they resemble the men of
    profane vision, the same greed, the same intensity as they
    who whip their minds to recall an ancient lucky orgasm, yes,
    yes, he knows that deadly concentration, they are the founders,
    they are the bankers–of History! He rests in his walk as they
    consume of the generous night everything that he does not need.

  8. You’ve stirred up a fine flurry of poems here, Madhu!
    A riddle with feathers
    Born of ink that spills
    from a quill pen, this bird wings
    and sings to the ear.

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