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  • I don’t usually read poetry but….

    Posted by onparkstreet on February 13th, 2011 (All posts by )

    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 Responses to “I don’t usually read poetry but….”

    1. onparkstreet Says:

      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. Shannon Love Says:

      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. dunce Says:

      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. Lexington Green Says:

      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. David Foster Says:

      Margaret Soltan has written extensively about Elizabeth Bishop.

    6. Charles Cameron Says:

      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.

    7. Anonymous Says:

      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.

    8. David Foster Says:

      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.

    9. Charles Cameron Says:

      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.

    10. onparkstreet Says:

      Best thread ever. I am not deleting even one wonderful comment or any of these wonderful poems.

      – Madhu