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Much further into Harmonium. I love this book. It is the best book in the world some days.

"The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad" explains which and why. I felt a similar liberation when I talked myself into reading Kafka whenever that was - a second poet was added, so poetry was. Even Bishop has limits, can become (at times) another world of repeated days. Probably Harmonium could, but you know what?

It is pitched exactly and entirely at freeing those too closely pent in their being, those who have forgotten where voice can go. It's almost like it was written by someone following a non- ridiculous version of Poe's "Composition" essay, one working backwards from what's amazing in poetry to how that might be newly written down, rather than whatever bullshit's supposed to get us to "The Raven." Probably the way Harmonium would flag reread frequently, though, would be that the subject matter of all the examples in this model of how to make poetry is how-to-make-poetry. At times it's taken to such an extreme that it feels more like an illustrated kit for making your own how-to-make-poetry KIT. So don't drink more than four Harmonia per week, kids.

(Not that the fact that you can totally go as far with art-about-art artistically as you can with any other sort is not itself remarkably suggestive, and if not yet a clear part of the message here certainly becomes so later in Stevens. Well, clear as in camouflaged in standard Stevens "bric-a-brac" rather than forming a cloudier part of the lens through which he asks us to look, at first seemingly just to see how much bric-a-brac there can be.)

But if you haven't been reading, or haven't been reading right, as for whatever reason seems to have been true of me at most points in my life, Harmonium is perfect. It gives the whole, basic case, and nothing but the case, and in the most efficiently self-proving ways. And atomized! I love how atomized it is. Because that's exactly what you need when you've gone idiot. And memorable lines, and instant enigmas that are just teasing enough to keep you working (the answer is usually less than eight pages away, part of some similar neighboring molecule, when logic or memory happen to fail at the nonce). I'm sure many find it difficult, even nonsensical, but it is the easiest, clearest way into what isn't at all clear or easy (but's nonetheless worth it) I know of.

And so full of Shelley! Keats is big in a couple of the more famous bits, like Monocle and Morning, and Whitman's a sort of permeating absence (the person who wrote the even better, but less easified and atomized, Harmonium - the one for when your head's been unscrewed to the seeking point, for day five of the week and thereafter), but the Shelley is strong with this one. And made to eat Emerson's Nature whole, here:

To the One of Fictive Music

Sister and mother and diviner love,
And of the sisterhood of the living dead
Most near, most clear, and of the clearest bloom,
And of the fragrant mothers the most dear
And queen, and of diviner love the day
And flame and summer and sweet fire, no thread
Of cloudy silver sprinkles in your gown
Its venom of renown, and on your head
No crown is simpler than the simple hair.

Now, of the music summoned by the birth
That separates us from the wind and sea,
Yet leaves us in them, until earth becomes,
By being so much of the things we are,
Gross effigy and simulacrum, none
Gives motion to perfection more serene
Than yours, out of our imperfections wrought,
Most rare, or ever of more kindred air
In the laborious weaving that you wear.

For so retentive of themselves are men
That music is intensest which proclaims
The near, the clear, and vaunts the clearest bloom,
And of all the vigils musing the obscure,
That apprehends the most which sees and names,
As in your name, an image that is sure,
Among the arrant spices of the sun,
O bough and bush and scented vine, in whom
We give ourselves our likest issuance.

Yet not too like, yet not so like to be
Too near, too clear, saving a little to endow
Our feigning with the strange unlike, whence springs
The difference that heavenly pity brings.
For this, musician, in your girdle fixed
Bear other perfumes. On your pale head wear
A band entwining, set with fatal stones.
Unreal, give back to us what once you gave:
The imagination that we spurned and crave.

Of "13 Blackbirds" I best loved the last one and the icicles one, this time 'round. Probably they're always my favorites (--Which are yours?). Blackbirds and Fictive Music are not the most obvious influences on young Bishop, but I think they're damn close to decisive ones, given what I'm arguing. Luckily I don't need to prove that claim to put them to some kind of work.
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Rereading Harmonium for Bishop purposes.

"Le Monocle de Mon Oncle" is an archipelago of shotgun blasts to the me, at 39.8.

Wondering if this fed those scenes I liked best in "It Follows," along with all that other stuff:

And you? Remember how the crickets came
Out of their mother grass, like little kin,
In the pale nights, when your first imagery
Found inklings of your bond to all that dust.

Not sure I ever fully appreciated the title till now, either. You're showing the friend a vision-helper inherited from your now-deceased uncle, presumably one you associate with him hence retained, so characteristic of how he appeared in middle age when you first knew him well. And realize idly that monocle and my uncle sound the same. And realize, picking it up, that it fits your present degree of poor eyesight. Realize, looking in the mirror, that it fits how you look at this age. That you look like him. And that you must now be looking at things now the way he did. To have picked up a monocle is to no longer feel one is the star of the show, one of the romantic leads. One is now a spectator, to some degree, and one now sees it all differently - both because one's eyes have decayed and because with those decaying eyes one has seen how all the eyes decay. One is but halfway there oneself - just one eye needs it. "Forty," we're later told. And though one couldn't have seen that one would see this way before, it was right there in front. My uncle, who was ridiculous, if nice enough. Who saw the world as I would never see it, because that I would never be him. And I wasn't necessarily wrong, as I'm not now necessarily that I. My eye is a new one: the eye of an uncle. How we see things is what we are, how we are how we see things. Or close enough - give or take one eye, one n. Corrected vision removes the blind spot, brings the visual fields together, takes that space in the middle away a la Mad Magazine in the day. Or maybe it's just that a crack has gone right through the center.

(I wish I had time to know more about monocles - if he's like Bishop with optics this will have been thought out down to a ridiculous level of detail. They must be for far-sightedness, since used occasionally, on just one eye, and by the c. 40+? Far-sightedness, my lad. Whatever, uncle.)
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Past the obvious Keats bird, a touch of Lycidas & co. in the form and flora and presumably some bits of Lowell himself, I'm wondering how much Diffugere Nives lies behind North Haven. Maybe even Housman's version, since she was a fan of his.

Horace doesn't mediate the recognition of loss through animals at all, nor does he elsewhere that I recall (does any ancient?), so that's all new. But death as stasis, life as change - however cyclical - that's there. The friend who's stuck. The Grecian underworld is barely a metaphor, and not just in Horace. It's a metaphor that leads you at once back to the literal you'd meant to dodge, like Yosemite Sam with his guns at either exit.

Bishop replaces Horace's Empedocles with Darwin, which both sets up a microcosm/macro parallel between Lowell's obsessive revisions and evolution and suggests the small but sufficient problem with both: the precious singularities crowded out, the best ideas shot past. I've come to see her as far more aggressive than I'd have imagined, so there's room for wholly characteristic rivalry and breeder-critique here: kids and blurry texts won't get you clear. Texts that have ridden a single melting (of however many years) won't either but the farthest throw still wins - North Haven will outlast anything of his, I assume she rightly assumed.

Holding, chaining and staying are prominent in DN, using Housman as stand-in for a crib (his is one of the few poems I've somehow kept memorized). But there isn't just night holding Hippolytus who must stay, or Theseus leaving Pirithous in those untakeable U breakable chains. There's also that maybe most amazing part - though Housman's line 4 is my favorite sonically:

Torquatus, if the gods in heaven will add
The morrow to the day what tongue has told?
Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
The fingers of no heir will ever hold.

To revise is to replace, Bishop argues, pace Keats. We will be changed right out by life, but that life that we are is also change (to revise what is inevitably revision is to miss this). I think I long missed what the Feast lines were saying, for some reason reading them as "rejoice! for the reason that what you have here is only for you, you're off the hook even trying to transmit it." But though there's a celebratory aspect to feasting it more directly means "feed with the most pleasing foods." It isn't good that this can't be shared, but since it can't be shared go nuts, go apeshit. It's not about pride that you've had what you did, but the Paterian-Horatian imperative to find whatever's here. Hence the flowers - there's just so much, the point of a bouquet.

No holding, at least once dead. No passing on. No need to tinker with the will. The uncharacteristic traditionality of the poem is part of this - revise the tradition, not yourself. Fill the role, since it's not you. What's you how could you even hope to say? It changes, and that's the part you can't simulate. The poem is not the person.

Though of course it is. "It must change" is here: Skunk Hour doesn't. "Dear friend, you did not change" with all your alterations is on some level the lament. She shows him how a touch too late.

Her titles always signify - she'd already claimed North for mind. The Haven for the mind is the notion of permanence, of an ordering principle worth any number of sacrifices to activate. A rock that stays. But we're not that kind of island. We're the condiment, the moss. The "wait wait wait" of nature, its attempt.
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From Bishop's diaries, I assume sometime between 1935 and '38:

The window this evening was covered with hundreds of long, shining drops of rain, laid on the glass which was covered with steam on the inside. I tried to look out, but could not. Instead I realized that I could look into the drops, like so many crystal balls. Each bore traces of a relative or friend: several weeping faces slid away from mine; water plants and fish floated within other drops; watery jewels, leaves and insects magnified, and strangest of all, horrible enough to make me step quickly away, was one large drop containing a lonely, magnificent human eye, wrapped in its own tear.

A much better fit for Ashbery's "Wet Casements" than the bit from very early Kafka he brings in as epigraph. Seems unlikely he'd have read her youthful diary by its writing c. 1975, but he of course knew the poems partly quarried from this well - "The Weed," "Sestina," and "The End of March" which I think had been in The New Yorker by then. But none are quite as close as this passage. Go figure.

Her optical stuff has been making me think I should reread "Self-Portrait," too, though it's not really time to go off-course.
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So Ashbery claims "Soonest Mended," one of the handful of poems even those of us generally unthrilled by Ashbery are thrilled by, grew out of a fan letter to Bishop in the late '40s and her postcard response. The letter was motivated by "2000 Illustrations," which in Ashbery's summary is describing an atlas.

So he de-Sunday Mornings it. He also, assuming the 2nd person addressed toward the end of SM (oy, same syllables and stresses as Stevens' also) is more or less Bishop's poem's speaker, takes 2000's message pretty straightforwardly. Vendler does this too, seeing it as an expression of religious nostalgia, but of course Ashbery may realize the speaker isn't Bishop and address him/her as an intimate friend anyway, since the poem meant so much to him in isolation. The layered critique of the religious impulse is more Bishop's point, and fact-facing art and an understanding of what we need from it her suggestion of a way forward. The anguish of the speaker isn't something she knows nothing about, but it isn't her own end point: it's a question she has never not had answers to.

Ashbery gets the poem well enough that his own answers aren't entirely incompatible, and on the other hand is enough of his own person that they don't directly reproduce hers (and takes his usual ambivalent swipes at the sublime). But evading the religious dimension may be what leads him to assume that 2000 is advocating attempts to return to an infantile sense of an ordered world, to see things like a child, as though the poem proved this mode is still available to us. Which I guess it does, and it's a common enough procedure of Bishop's to go back to sights and assumptions of childhood, but that's not the extent of what it's up to. His "so we were both right" tries to hoop together this supposedly advocated fact-ignoring child-vision with his sense that how we see and feel, our frame of reference, is in constant flux just as the world is (hence no highs, because no lows or middles - all tumbles and turns).

I don't at all mind his having read her this way. Her gullible, anguished avatars are one of the gifts she gives us (part of what Herbert gave her - and Spenser him, I wonder?), since they allow us to take the poem as a question, and our own (much Bishop-nudged) ensuing conclusions as at least partly our own. Which they inevitably are, but Ashbery's more so. Gilt-fingered Bishop's poem is about the innocence of desire (third-most present precursor here is The Emperor of Ice Cream), Ashbery's about the innocence of change. Freshness as an ultimate value isn't absent from hers, but I think it's mostly assimilated into desire, hence her metaphor of travel vs. Ashbery's of moored, apprehensive domesticity. He thinks of himself at home in space, though protean in time - in a sense the difference between At North Farm and The Prodigal is pretty much the same one as here. There, too, he cuts the head off a Bishop poem in order to get the body to slump in the direction he wants. I could doubtless have come up with a more sympathetic metaphor, but you get the gist. It and SM are both excellent poems, but their simplicities are less important and their complexities more private (though not more hidden) than Bishop's.

I'd say one price she tends to pay is rhetorical - both of his get to flow better because on some level he's saying exactly what he means. He's not concerned with there being more than one way to look at what's being described, despite his caring greatly about the FACT that there are - for him, the second way to look will be another poem, and a third will follow. Any dialogue with other points of view gets literalized - that "you." Whereas Bishop's always working through two or more ways of seeing, like Stevens overtly did, Frost covertly; "through," because one's going to win, or some offspring of those present at the start will. And we'll be on board. His vision is mostly one of evasion. Though I suppose you could say he's an active procrastinator - everything gets into his verse except what he's avoiding, which also gets in as parts of explanations of why he's avoiding it.
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Getting to write about Bishop again was fantastic.

I remain flabbergasted that Karen Horney psychoanalyzed her, though. Colliding world vertigo.
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Damn. Nice catch by Bromwich:

In a brief note, Bishop traces the title to a newspaper misprint for "mammoth," but the reason for its appeal to her is plain when one remembers the man-moth of Shelley's Epipsychidion:

Then, from the caverns of my dreamy youth
I sprang, as one sandalled with plumes of fire,
And towards the loadstar of my one desire,
I flitted, like a dizzy moth, whose flight
Is as a dead leaf's in the owlet light,
When it would seek in Hesper's setting sphere
A radiant death, a fiery sepulchre

[leaves out the last line for some reason:]

As if it were a lamp of earthly flame.

Surely I noticed that at some point? But wouldn't I have remembered? Perception and memory, sieves both.

Owlet twilight? If an owl's light is night, a baby owl's is baby night? Didn't remember and/or notice that either.

She spoke in deep past tense of her Shelley/socialist period, apparently mid to late teens as was customary at the time, so this may have been involuntary. Though she was just c. 24 when she wrote the poem, and a couple years later published two Kafkan prose fables that pretty frankly face near-complete poetic indebtedness, In Prison and The Sea and Its Shore. And she tends to give the other Romantics a shout out where it's relevant. But of course with them she didn't have a period.

Her lower keyed urbanity and Chekhovian mosaicizing make her work look much quieter than Shelley's, but she's basically about totalizing hopes and total disappointments just like he is. Shelley you don't transcend with age, you bury. And Bishop never actually repudiated him, unlike Eliot and some others have. He became part of her bedrock. As probably did socialism.
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70. Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop

Finally finished reading another book, except not really, and one I'd read most or all of before. It's short and clearly the editor had to be exhaustive to fill even this many pages - every newspaper write-up that involved her answering questions made it in. She gave only three or four substantive interviews, all here, and all in her last decade. The Paris Review one's probably the best, but Dana Gioia's reminiscences of taking her class at Harvard (with only four other students!) is included too, and gives you even more of a sense of her, and especially her relation to Stevens, dozens of whose poems Gioia says she'd recite from memory.

But the newspaper pieces are pretty amusing, especially the ladies' magazine-style first piece, from c. 1950, and a '60s one by a young Tom Robbins where we get a lot of Robbins and pretty much just a cameo from his ostensible subject. The articles by Brazilians are adorably respectful and ornate. Bishop was right, it's in the magazines that it's clearest we're historical.

She offers the same opinions and anecdotes over and over, as one does for these things, including touting the same poets: Whitman as the best American though temperamentally foreign to her, Edward Lear, her friend Lowell - though at one point confesses she hates confessional poetry. She identifies as the major influences on her Stevens, her mentor Moore (though she denies this was deep), and Herbert and Hopkins, the latter two for style rather than content, famous Unbeliever that she was. Though she might not have been when she discovered them in early adolescence. I'm still at sea with Moore and with few exceptions find Hopkins useless and annoying, but I think I begin to see the Herbert. Her simplicity and directness of tone are pretty astonishing - how hard that is - and I admit he's near peerless at conveying that in verse. She mentions passing through a Shelley phase, Browning phase, and brief Swinburne one in her romantic teens. Dickinson she mentions with ambivalence, perhaps because of being introduced to her in the sentimentalized and basically censored early editions, Frost not at all.
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Though, re. Wilbur, from Remembering Elizabeth Bishop:

RICHARD WILBUR: The only time that I remember Elizabeth being undelectable, being cross with me, was on the day of a party at John Brinnin's house. When we had taken to the out-of-doors and were having drinks and would soon move on to croquet, Elizabeth took me up on it when I mentioned that we had just been to church. She said something like, "Oh dear, you do go to church, don't you? Are you a Christian?" I said, "Well, yes, going to church, I am likely to be a Christian." Elizabeth said, "Do you believe all those things? You can't believe all those things." I said, "Like most people, I have my days of believing nothing, and I have my days of believing much of it, and some days I believe it all."

Then Elizabeth began mentioning points of Christian doctrine that she thought it intolerable to believe. She said, "No, no, no. You must be honest about this, Dick. You really don't believe all that stuff. You're just like me. Neither of us has any philosophy. It's all description, no philosophy." At that point Elizabeth shifted to talking about herself and lamenting the fact that she didn't have a philosophic adhesive to pull an individual poem and a group of poems together, but she was really quite aggressive at that point. It surprised me because of her bringing up, [from which she] had many Christian associations, cared about many Christian things. and had got [them] into her poems here and there. I think that's what she was left with, the questions, if not the answers, of a person with a religious temperament.

Relevant comparisons: "I shall say what I think - had Shelley lived he would have finally ranged himself with the Christians..."

And: "Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had "pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated"; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists - and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before - in wondering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us."

Bishop found her philosophy in description, like Shelley, like Melville--though the latter two loved to editorialize also (nothing wrong with that). And none of the three believed, not on any day at all.

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There are two ways.

Each of which, of course, is many millions of ways.

There are two ways.

Creatures of one thing at a time, we will always forget this.

No, not that: the creature's what sits on us, pushing the two apart.
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You can also allegorize the approach to the thing you can only conditionally think about. Bishop does this: a lot is translatable, but it fades into what isn't quite. I guess that's why she's so unprecedentedly satisfying--she makes a tangible, coherent object and shimmers every part and angle back toward something deeper. Like great wine in a lovely bottle, or your loved one in the body of your loved one, or...something. Viva Bishop! I think I have a more personal sort of love for her than for any of them but Shelley. She makes you feel you know her.
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Under the Window: Ouro Preto, by Elizabeth Bishop

The conversations are simple: about food,
or, "When my mother combs my hair it hurts."
"Women." "Women!" Women in red dresses

and plastic sandals, carrying their almost
invisible babies--muffled to the eyes
in all the heat--unwrap them, lower them,

and give them drinks of water lovingly
from dirty hands, here where there used to be
a fountain, here where all the world still stops.

The water used to run out of the mouths
of three green soapstone faces. (One face laughed
and one face cried; the middle one just looked.

Patched up with plaster, they're in the museum.)
It runs now from a single iron pipe,
a strong and ropy stream. "Cold." "Cold as ice,"

all have agreed for several centuries.
Donkeys agree, and dogs, and the neat little
bottle-green swallows dare to dip and taste.

Here comes that old man with the stick and sack,
meandering again. He stops and fumbles.
He finally gets out his enamelled mug.

Here comes some laundry tied up in a sheet,
all on its own, three feet above the ground.
Oh, no--a small black boy is underneath.

Six donkeys come behind their "godmother"
--the one who wears a fringe of orange wool
with wooly balls above her eyes, and bells.

They veer toward the water as a matter
of course, until the drover's mare trots up,
her whiplash-blinded eye on the off side.

A big new truck, Mercedes-Benz, arrives
to overawe them all. The body's painted
with throbbing rosebuds and the bumper says

The driver and assistant driver wash
their faces, necks, and chests. They wash their feet,

their shoes, and put them back together again.
Meanwhile, another, older truck grinds up
in a blue cloud of burning oil. It has

a syphilitic nose. Nevertheless,
its gallant driver tells the passersby

"She's been in labor now two days." "Transistors
cost much too much." "For lunch we took advantage
of the poor duck the dog decapitated."

The seven ages of man are talkative
and soiled and thirsty.
Oil has seeped into
the margins of the ditch of standing water

and flashes or looks upward brokenly,
like bits of mirror--no, more blue than that:
like tatters of the Morpho butterfly.


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