Sunday, February 6, 2011

Bishop centenary linkage

The Elizabeth Bishop centenary is on Tuesday, and twitter has been abuzz with Bishop linkage. So here are two of Bishop's translations of stories by Clarice Lispector (via Jenny McPhee via the indispensable seventydys on twitter). Here, via Bookslut, is a Bishop short story at the Library of America. (I wish she'd written more!) And, at the same place, a post by Lloyd Schwartz that quotes that beautiful late unpublished aubade of hers:
Breakfast Song
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue.
I kiss your funny face,
your coffee-flavored mouth.
Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you,
without the easy breath
and nightlong, limblong warmth
I've grown accustomed to?
—Nobody wants to die;
tell me it is a lie!
But no, I know it's true.
It's just the common case;
there's nothing one can do.
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue
early and instant blue.


Despite my fondness for her work I remain puzzled by Bishop's popularity and, as Schwartz says, centrality in American literary culture. Her direct influence seems to me limited to two types of poet -- the maximalist New York school descendants who picked up her habit of writing superficially inconsequential poems, and formalists of all kinds. Perhaps both schools are over-represented in academia/mags? The poems themselves, I think, are more uneven than is generally admitted; even the very best ones, like "At the Fishhouses" and the "Concordance" poem, have some clunky transitions, and far too many have an annoying habit of going transcendental on you at the end. ("The Fish" is the canonical example here.) This is one of many traits Bishop shares with Philip Larkin, another anti-confessional perfectionist. Perhaps what is most interesting about Bishop is the peculiar relation of her poems to speech: she is like an amorphous George Herbert at times, a voice almost defined by quietness and reticence; there is never much rhetorical drive, the climaxes have to be processed higher up in the brain than in most other writers. The only remotely similar writer in this sense is Stevens, but his reticence comes off differently because of the Christmas-tree plenitude of the language... None of this seems likely to help someone become popular, though.

Addenda. 1. Cynthia Haven has a centenary post. 2. Someone pointed out on twitter that superbowl can be parsed as superb owl.

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