Tag Archives: Elizabeth Bishop

Recently in “Issues”: End of Term 2

Now that it’s almost the end of April and three weeks after classes have finished, it’s well past time for an MA update. Here’s a quick review of the second half of the second term of my “Issues in Modern Culture” MA program(me).

Modern Sex ended and I embarked upon a five-week Post-War American Poetry module taught by Mark Ford. He took a similar approach to this class as he did with the Elizabeth Bishop seminar, looking at how one could critically approach each poet if one were to write about him/her. Let me break down the seminars:

  • We started off with Robert Lowell, the best confessional poet you’ve never heard of! We read poems from his Life Studies (1959), the volume that basically kicked off the “Confessional Poetry” movement, which Sylvia Plath took up and made famous. Lowell came from the blue-blooded Boston Lowell aristocracy that traced its roots all the way back to the Mayflower. But dear Robert suffered from manic-depression and was in and out of hospitals for a good chunk of his life — these experiences, of course, he crafted into poems, such as the moving “Waking in the Blue.” Lowell was also good friends with Elizabeth Bishop and was highly influenced by her poetry. He represents the major trajectory of many post-war American poets — a trajectory that we talked about for almost all the poets we looked at in the class: early poems are grounded in formal tradition, then the poet has some sort of breakthrough into a new idiom of expression. The Modernist–>Postmodernist trajectory, if you will.
  • My favorite seminar was on Allen Ginsberg. I love reading Ginsberg, in part because of his Whitmanesque roots (since I also love Whitman). The seminar was somewhat comical because Mark spent much of the time talking about how Ginsberg is actually really hard to write about (“immune to literary criticism”), because his poetry and persona are pretty transparent to begin with. That said, there are definitely ways to approach him: Jewish inheritance, Ginsberg and money/capitalism/marketing, Ginsberg’s body, the Cold War and paranoia… If you haven’t read any Ginsberg, go read “Howl” and “A Supermarket in California” now.
  • Frank O’Hara frankly (pun intended) didn’t do much for me. Maybe because I don’t know New York City very well and many of his poems are set there. That said, the seminar was really good. We talked about O’Hara in the context of the New York School of Poets (who disliked Lowell and loved Bishop) and about his “camp” wit (think Sontag) and the city as central to his work. He wrote a lot of what Mark called “I do this, I do that” poems (“A Step Away from Them” is a good example) and “lunch poems.”
  • For the Adrienne Rich seminar, we covered Rich and the “female” poetry resistant to patriarchal oppression that she, Plath, and Anne Sexton wrote. “Diving into the Wreck” is a fun read that can be interpreted in myriad ways.
  • Our last seminar was on St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott, best known for Omeros, his rough re-interpretation of The Iliad. We read Book I of Omeros for the seminar and the discussion centered largely on Walcott’s hybridity and all-encompassing method that blends together European tradition with “New World” (North & South American, Caribbean) methods. Omeros employs some features of the epic poem and its characters all have some relation to myth and tradition.

Post-War American Poetry was a great course and I learned a huge amount about the poets, poetic tradition, and critical approaches to poetry, all of which has made me a bit more comfortable reading and talking about poetry.

On Wednesdays, Authors kept on plugging to the end of term. Our last four seminars (after Elizabeth Bishop) were on Sylvia PlathThomas Pynchon (full disclosure: I got about 1/8 of the way through Mason & Dixon), Tom Stoppard (Travesties is brilliant and hilarious — read it!), and J.M. Coetzee (I couldn’t stand Disgrace but the seminar was good).

So that’s it for courses.

But that’s not all for the program(me).

We still have a take-home essay exam for “Authors” and an essay each for Contexts and the two Options (Modern Sex and Poetry for me). Oh, and a dissertation proposal. All of those are due between 1 May and 2 June. Then we spend all summer writing the dissertation, to be handed in on 1 September.

What am I writing about for all these essays? I can’t disclose details since the essays haven’t been marked, but I can give you a list of topics/texts: Madame Bovary, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Sherlock, E.M. Forster’s Maurice, and Billy Collins. For the dissertation? No idea.

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This Week in “Issues”: Reading Elizabeth Bishop

The second half of my second term of graduate school kicked off this week with a stimulating seminar on Elizabeth Bishop. Our professor, Mark Ford (also a poet; he even has his own little Wikipedia page!), helped us get into Bishop by discussing different critical approaches one could take if one were to write an essay on her. As I am not a “poetry person” and often struggle with identifying vague metaphors, this was a really helpful way for me to think about Bishop’s work (and poetry in general); Mark’s approach made it very accessible. Here are some ways one could approach Bishop and her poetry:

  • “Bishop and [anything]” (that could mean “Bishop and birds,” “Bishop and coasts,” etc.)
  • Queer theory: Bishop was a lesbian, so one could look at her in relation to other homosexual poets like Frank O’Hara or Adrienne Rich
  • Bishop’s post-war work in relation to the Modernist poets (Eliot, Pound)
  • Bishop and the tradition of Romantic lyric poetry (vs. the radical experimentation of many other “post-modernist” poets)
  • Postcolonial angle: Bishop traveled a lot and lived for a while in Brazil, so one could take a postcolonial approach to her Brazil poems
  • Looking at Bishop’s work through the lens of her selfhood and growing up “in a void,” with a dead father and insane mother — along with this, the concept of home/homelessness that is evident in Bishop’s life and poetry.
  • Bishop’s use of form: she was “technically resourceful” and used traditional poetic forms — villanelle, sestina, sonnet, ballad — in interesting ways
  • Bishop’s representation vs. experience of the world

Mark had us look at a few of Bishop’s poems to show how we could take some of the above approaches to her work. We started with “The Map” (1936), which Mark said was a good portal through which to approach the “Bishopian.” Here’s the poem in full:

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?

The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
-the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.

Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,
lending the land their waves’ own conformation:
and Norway’s hare runs south in agitation,
profiles investigate the sea, where land is.
Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
-What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.
More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.

Lovely, no? This poem gave us a good start in talking about Bishop’s whimsy and her representation of the aesthetic vs. reality. Whimsy is everywhere, in the “moony Eskimo,” “stroke[ing] these lovely bays,” the printer “experiencing…excitement,” and taking the water “between thumb and finger.” Is Bishop here feminizing a masculine creation (maps, created by male explorers)? Or is this merely a childlike whimsy, as in posing the faux-naive question, “Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?”

“More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors,” the poem ends. Bishop is playing with representation of a map as a piece of art, an aesthetic representation of historical, geopolitical reality. The art of the map is an escape from historians’ reality — but history still lurks at the edges.

After “The Map,” we went on to discuss the above and other aspects of Bishop’s poetry in: “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” “At the Fishhouses,” “Questions of Travel,” and “Crusoe in England.” Mark ended the seminar by noting that the different factions of American poetry in the post-war years all hated each other — but they all loved Bishop.

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