Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop led a peripatetic existence. Raised in New England and Nova Scotia, an inheritance left her financially independent, and she spent much of her adult life in warm and vaguely exotic locales – Paris, Key West, Brazil. None succeeded in providing a real home. Her poetry suggests someone deeply ill-at-ease with her surroundings, no matter where they happened to be, and with her fellow humans, whose emotional terrains are foreign and frighteningly volatile.

Bishop was much more reserved than were her "confessional poetry" peers. Despite her avoidance of personal revelation, her bleak sensibility is only partially concealed by her verbal economy. People and places are tentative and impermanent. This estrangement tints her work.

She was influenced by Marianne Moore, but the elder woman’s staid attitudes led to friction and an unequal sharing of power within their relationship. Notoriously, Bishop and Robert Lowell were life-long friends and passionate correspondents. His halfhearted romantic designs, however, were not reciprocated; print was the ideal medium for their showy, fraught, competitive, and mutually inspirational relationship.

I prefer reading poetry to listening to poetry and am gratified by authors who reward my predilections by writing poems clearly meant to be read rather than heard. "One Art" is among Bishop’s most famous poems and is an exemplar of the Villanelle form.

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 farther, 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.

Elizabeth Bishop on Wikipedia

Elizabeth Bishop on Poets.org

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