Elizabeth Bishop, briefly

I wanted to post tonight, but I find I’m too tired to think of anything clever to say. Fortunately, the world is full of very clever things said by other people. One of my favourite non-fiction books ever is Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth-Century Poets, written by Ian Hamilton. In it, he provides brief outlines of the lives and works of 45 poets that include the obvious choices such as Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, Rupert Brooke, E.E. Cummings, Dylan Thomas and Philip Larkin, but also lesser known poets like Charlotte Mew, Hart Crane, Roy Fuller and James Merrill. The outlines are magnificent, a mere three or four pages each but packed with distilled literary goodness that brings together life and art in accessible and entertaining ways. These are followed by some samples of each poet’s writing, so in the space of ten minutes you can feel like you have some insight and appreciation where before there was only the absence of knowledge.

I thought I would quote Hamilton on Elizabeth Bishop, one of the few poets whose work I have read despite the fact I’ve never been obliged to study her. Bishop died in 1979, aged 68 and a highly respected, much lauded poet; during her lifetime she kept a wholly discreet cloak around her private life and remarked with some asperity on the contemporary ‘confessional’ poets, ‘You just wish they’d keep some of these things to themselves.’ Here’s what Hamilton has to say:

‘Austere and almost fiddlingly skillful, more interested in places than in people, detached almost to the point of authorial invisibility, she was there to be invoked as a cool, neo-classical alternative to the various slacknesses and excesses of the moment: excessive avant-gardism, excessive self-exposure, excessive political engagement, and so on. There was nothing excessive about Bishop, so it seemed. For her, there was an active virtue to be found in self-forgetfulness, in saying “look at that” instead of “look at me”.

‘The year 1994 saw the publication of Bishop’s Letters, and of two biographies – together, they revealed a life that had been filled almost to ruination by excess: drink, sexual passion, sickness, suicides. Suddenly it was possible to read the Bishop oeuvre in a different way: to find in its low-key formality a painful yearning for the non-excessive, the repetitive, the stable.’

And here’s one of her better known, and perhaps more personal, poems:

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 father, 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 loved 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!) like disaster.

8 thoughts on “Elizabeth Bishop, briefly

  1. This is one of my favourites! I discovered Elizabeth Bishop as a second year undergraduate English major in one of those required courses about forms and terms. My discover of her work was the one joy I could take away from the course.

  2. I have a few books of her poetry and this one of my favorites. I haven’t read her in a long time though. And I think I have one of those bios you mention and maybe even her letters on my bookshelf. One of these days I will get to them.

  3. Still waters – hello and how nice to see you! I’m so glad you like the Bishop poem – it is one of my favourites too. And it’s so good to have something bright and shiny to take away with you from a dull course. Well done you for getting through it and finding something to admire. Musings – it is sad, isn’t it? And I like the way it hides it and reveals it at the same time through that veneer of resilience. Booksplease – I, too, don’t read poetry much. But I make up for that by loving some poems inordinately. What wise words from you – acceptance is the hardest thing of all, I often think. Stefanie – you know, I wondered whether this poem would be familiar to you and thought it probably would be! I haven’t ever read a bio of Bishop (beyond Hamilton’s few pages) but I’m sure I could add one, in fantasy at least, to the enormous pile of my good reading intentions!🙂

  4. I love that Bishop poem! I teach it regularly, in fact. I think Bishop is great, and I’m so tempted to get a copy of the recently published correspondence between her and Robert Lowell. They had such an interesting friendship. The Against Oblivion book sounds great too; it would make a wonderful springboard into further reading in poetry.

  5. I read this at work the other day, but didn’t get a chance to comment. You’ve mentioned that book on poets before, and I still must get my hands on a copy. Poetry still scares me a little, but I like this E Bishop poem you’ve shared.

  6. Until this time last year I knew nothing of Bishop, but then one of our postgrads, who was supposed to be giving a seminar paper on his research work, decided to talk about the poet instead. I don’t know what his supervisor thought, especially as he’s at a stage in his PhD where he should have had rather a lot to say, but I was very grateful to discover such an individual voice.

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