Photo: Chris Scott
We’ve had a beautiful problem in the last year or so: too many people wanting to come to Nothing But the Poem sessions.
I’m not complaining – the thought of cramming readers into the building to talk about poems is my idea of a day well spent. But in order to make room for people to squash around the tables, we’ve extended it to two sessions each month, one on a Thursday evening and one on a Saturday morning. We cap attendance at 12, and about 10 people made it to each session despite forecast snow on Saturday. Two people at each session told me they’d never read any Elizabeth Bishop poems before; and there was at least one person at each session who was more familiar with her life and work than I am. It makes for a good mix; the people who are coming to the work fresh can offer their first responses, and the people who know it better can add their experience.
We read: ‘The Map’, ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’, both from her first collection North and South (1946); ‘At the Fishhouses’, ‘The Shampoo’, both from A Cold Spring (1955); ‘Manners’, from Questions of Travel (1965); and her translation of a Portuguese sonnet by Vinicius de Moraes, which Bishop translated as ‘Sonnet of Intimacy’. Why that last one? I hear you ask. Because the Collected Poems has the translation by Bishop, and – in the introduction by Tom Paulin – a literal translation for comparison.
We read the poems aloud first, which is always a slightly strange experience – when else do you sit around and read poems out while others listen? You always hear something fresh, or notice a different aspect to the words when you actually feel them on your tongue, as opposed to that quick, frictionless reading we do in private and in silence.
The sound and experience of reading these poems brought out for some a strong sense of the amount of times she repeats words and phrases; for one reader, the susurration of ‘s-‘ sounds; for another, a re-awareness of her ‘speakerly’ rhythms and phrasing, even when working with a form that at first seems rhythmically even. There was the issue of complex syntax; some of the poems were at first hard to read aloud and retain the sense. We were taken with the strength, precision, richness, delicacy of visual description, and the vivid images. The dry but nostalgic affection of ‘Manners’ raised grins, as did the unexpectedly stately pissing in ‘Sonnet of Intimacy’.
On Thursday evening, we looked at ‘At the Fishhouses’ and ‘The Shampoo’, and on Saturday spent the rest of the session looking just at ‘At the Fishhouses’; one so long and ambitious in its aim, and the other short, lyric, and a later piece. I’d asked where people felt the longer poem changed in direction, or mood, or vision, or just seemed to take a breath and start a new line of inquiry; this is often slightly different for everybody.
Some other questions that came up included: What’s the effect of repeating that line ‘Cold dark deep and absolutely clear’? How she creates the sense of distance, and of stillness (or arrested movement); the ‘cold’ that appears throughout the poem. The conversation with the old man, and the encounter with the seal, both felt significant; but were they moments of intimate, human contact (yes, yes, even with the seal), or did they point towards a cool detachment? And most of all, as the poem twists and glides and keeps you reading at a strangely measured pace, where does it end up? At the finish, is it an ambitious but doomed attempt to describe the impossible, or a satisfying, illuminating moment of perfect if temporary peace?
Recommendations from readers who knew the poems well include: ‘One Art’; ‘The Fish’; and Alice Quinn’s edition of Bishop’s drafts. I’m adding a recommendation to borrow (when available) or beg or steal the two volumes of Collected Poems and Collected Prose, and I was specially struck by Anne Stevenson’s Five Looks At Elizabeth Bishop. One reader’s since added some further thoughts by email; he said that ‘At the Fishhouses’ ‘surprisingly made me think of a similar intellectual/religious/philosophical atmosphere in Matthew Arnold's ‘Dover Beach’’. Does this strike anybody else as being the case? You can tell us via Twitter (@byleaveswelive) or Facebook.
Reader Development Officer