Thursday, September 1, 2011

Poets as vending machines

I like this conceit from Michael Hofmann's piece about Bishop in the new LRB:
Other poets are predictably and more or less unvaryingly themselves, like cellophane packs of cigarettes from a vending machine; with Bishop you get the surprise gift in a plastic ball – sometimes purposeless and perplexing, more often flat-out exhilarating, the toy of your dreams, like ‘An acre of cold white spray … Dancing happily by itself’. Bad Lowell is just bad Lowell; it has something parodic and clanking about it, as the epigrams sail bafflingly past their targets. Lesser Bishop may be disappointing, but it isn’t demoralising, somehow doesn’t affect the whole. You stand in front of the machine, the dispenser of miniature planets, and throw in more quarters; surely you will be luckier next time; you have the obscure but possibly correct feeling that it is your fault for not understanding the toy you have been given.
[Also cf. "little worlds made cunningly."] The review is otherwise very good (I always want to describe these reviews as "awful but cheerful" -- sadly the tag never fits). As Hofmann says, for instance, "Things in Bishop are anarchically themselves. Her shoes clack in different keys." And "One Art" is indeed "a poem so stifled in its compressed clamour I’ve never cared for it." Marina's favorite line about "a mind thinking" makes its inevitable appearance. And this is really fodder for a later, more thought-out post, but I was intrigued by Hofmann's remark about the pronoun thing:

Bishop is [...] a poet of ‘eye’ and not ‘I’, or even of ‘eye-and-tears’ and not ‘I’, and also of ‘we’ and not ‘I’. Both the ‘eye’ and the ‘we’ are ways of not saying ‘I’, of getting around it or playing it down. (It’s not that Bishop never says ‘I’, but she seems almost to ration it, in a militant modesty, to no more than its statistically probable occurrence among the other pronouns.) She makes that very change, movingly, in a fragment called ‘A Short, Slow Life’:
We lived in a pocket of Time.
It was close, it was warm.
Along the dark seam of the river
the houses, the barns, the two churches,
hid like white crumbs
in a fluff of gray willows & elms,
till Time made one of his gestures;
his nails scratched the shingled roof.
Roughly his hand reached in,
and tumbled us out.
Originally, that read ‘I lived in a pocket of Time’ (and ‘tumbled me out’) – a little nightmare of scale and vulnerability and the end of cosiness, alongside the pocket plays on ‘close’ and ‘seam’ and ‘fluff’. But no, that wouldn’t do, too much pathos, too much drama of self, too much contemplation of the ungainly blunt fingers (what is their rude gesture?), and so the ‘I’ is scratched out and becomes a ‘we’, and the poem loses its identity and its urgency (perhaps neither of them especially Bishop-like qualities anyway), and the Robert Louis Stevenson or Hans Christian Andersen idea, now gone mousy and a little folksy, fails to survive.

Not clear on the extent of Bishop's interest in/acceptance of Puritanism, but this reminds me among other things of Frank Kermode on Cowper's "Castaway" (in The Uses of Error):
Calvinism suited this poet's dementia almost exactly; but it was not only mad but theologically incorrect for him to suppose himself singled out from the rest of humanity for both election and reprobation.
PS Hart Crane as claw crane


zbs said...

Hm, don't buy the thing about "I" at all.

Zed said...

I'm a little curious to know if this is in fact statistically true. I'll email Language Log, no real hope of their replying of course.