The Worcester Telegram announces a birthday commemoration for the poet Elizabeth Bishop:

On Tuesday, Bishop’s 100th birthday, there will be a gravesite ceremony at Hope Cemetery in Worcester at 4:30 p.m. The gathering will include a reading of Bishop’s poem, “The Bight,” whose last lines provide the inscription of her tombstone: “All the untidy activity continues, awful but cheerful.”

(Here’s a charming film about Bishop’s grave, and its inscription.)

There will also be Tuesday readings here and here, and a birthday party at a Halifax restaurant.


Bishop’s work is a villa of the mysteries; we feel her assuming the full weight of human life; we feel her somehow gently housing that weight in her poems. Because she brings experience under the control of language, because she shapes it poetically, we say she is a powerful poet. Yet she gathers power not through imposing any architecture of ideas or feelings upon reality, but rather simply through offering reality a roof for the night. Shelter here, in these lines. Let me lodge you, look at you.

“The more one reads a Bishop poem,” writes David Orr in the New York Times, “the greater the sense of huge forces being held barely but precisely in check … [One feels] the enormous patience and skill that allowed her to hold the volcanic feeling on exhibit here in the poised vessels of her finished poetry.”

A vessel poised above huge forces – this describes a good deal of the best art. Leonard Bernstein describes Mozart’s G Minor Symphony as “a work of utmost passion utterly controlled.” Brahm’s Fourth, says Roger Scruton, conveys a “tragic feeling that is nevertheless utterly controlled, and utterly in control.” The sublimity of Beethoven, Dmitri Tymoczko suggests, lies not in strident statement and emotion, but instead in the way a passage like this one in the Tempest sonata (click on the image and then zoom in)

symbolizes both desire – in the form of the chromatically ascending chords – and limitation, as represented by the fixed upper note. It is as if Beethoven were suggesting that, while no amount of effort on his part would enable him to leap beyond the limits of his piano, his music demands that he try – as if the world of sticks and wires, the ordinary physical realm in which pianos exist, cannot be reconciled with the world of Beethoven’s aspiration. …[T]his coupling of an exhortation to transcendence (here heard as an inexorable chromatic chordal ascent) with a warning about the impossibility of success (the stubborn pedal point at the top of the piano) recalls Kant’s conception of sublimity. Like the Temple of Isis, the music seems to question its own adequacy, giving with one hand what it takes away with the other.

Passion and a strategic yielding to limitation – this combination gives Bishop’s poems their remarkable soundness, what Anne Stevenson calls “a kind of interior sense of rightness and excellence.” “We see the place, the person or the thing [in her poems] as if we were truly there, and we feel emotions that the author doesn’t state overtly but slyly awakens inside us,” writes Dana Gioia.

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2 Responses to “The bight man was born for. Part One.”

  1. Nora Says:

    I should let you know that I heard Elizabeth Bishop do a poetry reading during my freshman year at Bryn Mawr. The occasion was “An Evening for Marianne Moore”. Both Bishop and Richard Wilbur read Marianne Moore’s poetry and some of their own. My freshman English teacher (the wonderful Mrs. Berwind) said we should go and I went. I enjoyed it a lot and have read some of the poetry since then.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Wow. The three of them! Mrs. Berwind was so right.

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