Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Who is your dead mentor poet? Mine is Elizabeth Bishop







From the Documentary, "Welcome to This House"


Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is a poet I have admired for several decades, ever since I read her poem, "The Map" and then went in search of Questions of Travel and Geography III.



Here are poems of equal parts music, feeling, and meaning. Here are poems that could break your heart. "Awful but cheerful" are the words engraved on Bishop's tombstone in Worcester, Massachusetts. Bishop's childhood has been well documented as "awful" and her later life often ruled by her dual demons of drugs and alcohol. But these facts do little to explain her extraordinary genius with words. In fact, I fell in love with her poems, not her biography. She would be pleased by this. Of the Confessional poets of her generation she once said, "Sometimes, I'd rather they kept it to themselves."



But there are stories that make me feel I would have loved her and been exasperated by her as a friend. She certainly was not easy. Perhaps I loved the fact that when she began teaching at the University of Washington, she told anyone who would listen that she had taken the job just to get the funds she needed to fix the roof of her Brazilian home. Her honesty --- and her coyness. I loved that she and Marianne Moore kept a lifetime friendship going from trips to the zoo (when they were in the same area) to long letters (when they weren't).


And like any good magic--- it's the poems themselves that have lived long inside of me. The poems that first made me want to become a poet. To try and get it right. What Bishop admired most in a poem (she said -- but she said many things) was to watch the mind in motion. That is but one of the beauties of this villanelle.



One Art


The art of loosing 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 loosing isn't hard to master.



Then practice loosing farther, loosing 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-the last, of three loved houses went.

The art of loosing isn't hard to master.



I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent

I missed them but it wasn't a disaster.



Even loosing 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



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