My Eighth Lecture, About Elizabeth Bishop’s Poem…

At the Fishhouses, is now available.

For Elizabeth Bishop’s Birthday…

… let us consider one of her poems.

She was born 8 February 1911. Died in 1979.

She lived in and wrote about Key West, so that’s another reason for UD, who will soon move there, to write about her.

But the real reason to write about her is that she’s a spectacularly good poet. Very much in the way of UD‘s adored Philip Larkin. Compare this Larkin poem with the Bishop we’re about to consider.


Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel

Light spreads darkly downwards from the high
Clusters of lights over empty chairs
That face each other, coloured differently.
Through open doors, the dining-room declares
A larger loneliness of knives and glass
And silence laid like carpet. A porter reads
An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.

In shoeless corridors, the lights burn. How
Isolated, like a fort, it is –
The headed paper, made for writing home
(If home existed) letters of exile: Now
Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages.


If home existed. Bishop says almost the exact same thing in her poem Questions of Travel:

… “Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there… No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?”

We travel, she writes in Arrival at Santos, because of our “immodest demands for a different world, / and a better life, and complete comprehension / of both.”

Knowledge of the world before you leave it, and a perfectly clear understanding that you’ll gain very little knowledge before you leave it — it’s odd to UD that this shared pathos created in Bishop a restless traveler and in Larkin a stay-at-home. But then both of them seem to suggest that there isn’t any home anyway, that the world’s a bizarre mystery wherever you happen to plant your ass, so you don’t really need to travel. You’re always writing letters of exile. Poems are letters of exile.

In fact travel might backfire; it might rouse expectations destined to be disappointed. These expectations might involve the possibility of greater comprehension; they might also be about the possibility that you can make a new life — that having botched this one, you can make a good, new one by placing yourself in a different world. That’s the theme of this little Larkin ditty:

Poetry of Departures

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
It’s specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me to stay
Sober and industrious.
But I’d go today,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren’t so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.


The ongoing struggle of our lives is the same struggle anywhere; to chuck it all is to pretend otherwise, to pretend that having, say, mucked up one life, you can do the next one right.

But anyway. What strikes UD most about these two poets is their almost Kafkaesque sense of how fundamentally strange life is, and their related disengagement from the human realm. Their world is the world of the Royal Station Hotel abandoned by human beings, though recently and incompletely colonized by them… I mean, Larkin and Bishop notice again and again traces of our efforts to inhabit and understand the world. They notice the way the obdurate world responds to these efforts with a maddening inhuman self-sufficiency. The world goes on living its worldly life and gives away almost nothing. This conundrum of ours produces – if you’re a literary genius – extremely eerie sets of lines, evoking not emptiness, but an absence weighted with the failed effort to be present.

Cape Breton

Out on the high “bird islands,” Ciboux and Hertford,
the razorbill auks and the silly-looking puffins all stand
with their backs to the mainland
in solemn, uneven lines along the cliff’s brown grass-frayed edge,
while the few sheep pastured there go “Baaa, baaa.”
(Sometimes, frightened by aeroplanes, they stampede
and fall over into the sea or onto the rocks.)
The silken water is weaving and weaving,
disappearing under the mist equally in all directions,
lifted and penetrated now and then
by one shag’s dripping serpent-neck,
and somewhere the mist incorporates the pulse,
rapid but unurgent, of a motor boat.

The same mist hangs in thin layers
among the valleys and gorges of the mainland
like rotting snow-ice sucked away
almost to spirit; the ghosts of glaciers drift
among those folds and folds of fir: spruce and hackmatack–
dull, dead, deep pea-cock colors,
each riser distinguished from the next
by an irregular nervous saw-tooth edge,
alike, but certain as a stereoscopic view.

The wild road clambers along the brink of the coast.
On it stand occasional small yellow bulldozers,
but without their drivers, because today is Sunday.
The little white churches have been dropped into the matted hills
like lost quartz arrowheads.
The road appears to have been abandoned.
Whatever the landscape had of meaning appears to have been abandoned,
unless the road is holding it back, in the interior,
where we cannot see,
where deep lakes are reputed to be,
and disused trails and mountains of rock
and miles of burnt forests, standing in gray scratches
like the admirable scriptures made on stones by stones–
and these regions now have little to say for themselves
except in thousands of light song-sparrow songs floating upward
freely, dispassionately, through the mist, and meshing
in brown-wet, fine torn fish-nets.

A small bus comes along, in up-and-down rushes,
packed with people, even to its step.
(On weekdays with groceries, spare automobile parts, and pump parts,
but today only two preachers extra, one carrying his frock coat on a
It passes the closed roadside stand, the closed schoolhouse,
where today no flag is flying
from the rough-adzed pole topped with a white china doorknob.
It stops, and a man carrying a baby gets off,
climbs over a stile, and goes down through a small steep meadow,
which establishes its poverty in a snowfall of daisies,
to his invisible house beside the water.

The birds keep on singing, a calf bawls, the bus starts.
The thin mist follows
the white mutations of its dream;
an ancient chill is rippling the dark brooks.


This is a shag, by the way.


So let me take a voyage around this poem. Here it is again:

Out on the high “bird islands,” Ciboux and Hertford,
the razorbill auks and the silly-looking puffins all stand
with their backs to the mainland
in solemn, uneven lines along the cliff’s brown grass-frayed edge,

[As with Larkin and the objects in the hotel, so with Bishop and the animal objects she’s considering, there’s a weird intentionality that the poet casts upon them; they’re almost human, seeming to mean and feel certain things — The birds are solemn; they’ve turned their backs to the mainland in some meaningful gesture of withdrawal or rejection… ]

while the few sheep pastured there go “Baaa, baaa.”
(Sometimes, frightened by aeroplanes, they stampede
and fall over into the sea or onto the rocks.)
The silken water is weaving and weaving,
disappearing under the mist equally in all directions,

[The water weaves silk as a weaver weaves. It doesn’t merely move; it disappears. It means to disappear in the same mysterious way the birds seem to mean their rejection of the mainland.]

lifted and penetrated now and then
by one shag’s dripping serpent-neck,
and somewhere the mist incorporates the pulse,
rapid but unurgent, of a motor boat.

[Incorporates. The great poet finds the word. Takes into its body somewhere. The world has a mind and the world has a body, and these things are powerful and have their reasons. We have little to no access to them, though we can mark some of their operations.

We can’t see the boat because of the mist — the mist that will stand throughout the poem for the haunted and undisclosed Kafka-world in which we move.]

The same mist hangs in thin layers
among the valleys and gorges of the mainland
like rotting snow-ice sucked away
almost to spirit; the ghosts of glaciers drift
among those folds and folds of fir: spruce and hackmatack–
dull, dead, deep pea-cock colors,
each riser distinguished from the next
by an irregular nervous saw-tooth edge,
alike, but certain as a stereoscopic view.

[Toto, I don’t think we’re in Romanticism anymore… Rotting, sucked away, dead, stereoscopic… Here, consciousness takes in the natural world as a rigid neurotic oddball with morbid tendencies. Which has nothing to do with us.]

The wild road clambers along the brink of the coast.

[Unlike the trees, the road is animate; but wildly, in a way that has nothing to do with us.]

On it stand occasional small yellow bulldozers,
but without their drivers, because today is Sunday.

[As with the Royal Hotel poem, it’s the world weighted with our failure to be present that compels Bishop. For her, every day is Sunday, because we never really enter into and interact with the world.

And yes – If you find yourself drifting glacially toward Wallace Stevens’ Sunday Morning – he also lived in Key West – that’s dandy.]

The little white churches have been dropped into the matted hills
like lost quartz arrowheads.

[Brilliant simile.]

The road appears to have been abandoned.
Whatever the landscape had of meaning appears to have been abandoned,
unless the road is holding it back, in the interior,
where we cannot see,
where deep lakes are reputed to be,
and disused trails and mountains of rock

[She’s getting into it now. Notice how great poems don’t assert much of anything; they calmly and expansively describe a world, and then, naturally as it were, generate implications.]

and miles of burnt forests, standing in gray scratches
like the admirable scriptures made on stones by stones–

[Hey! UD gets all excited when she reads these lines. Faithful readers know why.]

and these regions now have little to say for themselves
except in thousands of light song-sparrow songs floating upward
freely, dispassionately, through the mist, and meshing
in brown-wet, fine torn fish-nets.

A small bus comes along, in up-and-down rushes,
packed with people, even to its step.

[Notice how by now, having evoked an obscure and powerful natural/spiritual world, Bishop’s introduction of people makes them and their things — buses, bulldozers, churches — seem like toys, absurd powerless things dropped in, crawling about, barely existent.]

(On weekdays with groceries, spare automobile parts, and pump parts,
but today only two preachers extra, one carrying his frock coat on a
It passes the closed roadside stand, the closed schoolhouse,
where today no flag is flying

[Again, just like the Royal Hotel, the setting is that of a place usually inhabited but now not inhabited.

from the rough-adzed pole topped with a white china doorknob.
It stops, and a man carrying a baby gets off,
climbs over a stile, and goes down through a small steep meadow,
which establishes its poverty in a snowfall of daisies,
to his invisible house beside the water.

[Notice too how the poet’s perspective moves in the poem from distant to closer and closer, from a long view of the islands to, by now, a specific view of a specific human being. Like a scientist, she is trying to understand, bringing the objects of her interest more and more to view.

The poverty, again, of our rather pathetic efforts to colonize and domesticate the world, to establish our presence by creating meadows of daisies instead of stands of firs.

And of course his house is invisible, holding back its meaning as much as any other thing on the island or the mainland holds back its meaning.]

The birds keep on singing, a calf bawls, the bus starts.
The thin mist follows
the white mutations of its dream;
an ancient chill is rippling the dark brooks.

[Frightening. We’re left, for all our mental exertions, with the same inscrutable soundings, and with a world that has a mind of its own — the thin mist propelled by its own dreams. The world is and always has been a cold place, despite our efforts to warm it. Cold and dark, with reminders of our brief battles here.]

Bray to Greystones.

La Kid, right now,
hiking the Bray to
Greystones Coastal Trail
on one of those incomparable
Irish afternoons.


The names of seashore towns run out to sea…

The photo makes me think of Elizabeth Bishop’s
also incomparable poem, “The Map.”

Inspirational Verse for this Special Day

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…

Elizabeth Bishop

Bear with me here…

… It’s spring. It’s sunny, cool, slight breeze, Garrett Park, Maryland. “The Park,” as some people call it (sounds pretentious to ol’ UD) is in industrial-strength bloom. Many friends, old and new, are emerging for brunches, lunches, and dinners at Black Market Bistro, a few hundred steps from UD‘s house.

And why not? This is the time to be here, a boffo Sunday in the right season, with UD‘s hometown arboretum pumping out its best views ever. Visitors don’t need to know how these tranquil plantings represent endless quibbling and kvetching at the Town Council (Why are we taking down the tulip poplars? Is that cherry tree unusual enough? What do you have against bamboo?…); they only need to breathe in the scent of the viburnums.

All of which is to say ne quittez pas. UD will get back on the blog horse in a few hours. At the moment, on top of her social obligations, she’s got to practice reciting It is Marvellous to Wake Up Together, which she will be reading next week at the wedding of her friends Courtney and Alicia. They asked UD to choose something, and they both very much like Elizabeth Bishop’s love poem.

It is marvellous to wake up together
At the same minute; marvellous to hear
The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,
To feel the air suddenly clear
As if electricity had passed through it
From a black mesh of wires in the sky.
All over the roof the rain hisses,
And below, the light falling of kisses.

An electrical storm is coming or moving away;
It is the prickling air that wakes us up.
If lighting struck the house now, it would run
From the four blue china balls on top
Down the roof and down the rods all around us,
And we imagine dreamily
How the whole house caught in a bird-cage of lightning
Would be quite delightful rather than frightening;

And from the same simplified point of view
Of night and lying flat on one’s back
All things might change equally easily,
Since always to warn us there must be these black
Electrical wires dangling. Without surprise
The world might change to something quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,
Change as our kisses are changing without our thinking.


‘Course, UD could get the same message across at the ceremony by clearing her throat and singing this.

Stanislaw Baranczak, a great Polish poet…

… and a kind and good man (UD knew him a little from the Harvard Polish community) has died.

Inspired by the villanelles of Elizabeth Bishop, Baranczak wrote this:

She Cried That Night, but Not for Him to Hear

(To Ania, the only one)

She cried that night, but not for him to hear.
In fact her crying wasn’t why he woke.
It was some other sound; that much was clear.

And this half-waking shame. No trace of tears
all day, and still at night she works to choke
the sobs; she cries, but not for him to hear.

And all those other nights: she lay so near
but he had only caught the breeze’s joke,
the branch that tapped the roof. That much was clear.

The outside dark revolved in its own sphere:
no wind, no window pane, no creaking oak
had said: “She’s crying, not for you to hear.”

Untouchable are those tangibly dear,
so close, they’re closed, too far to reach and stroke
a quaking shoulder-blade. This much is clear.

And he did not reach out — for shame, for fear
of spoiling the tears’ tenderness that spoke:
“Go back to sleep. What woke you isn’t here.
It was the wind outside, indifferent, clear.”


It’s a lot like Stephen Spender’s poem, “The Trance”:

Sometimes, apart in sleep, by chance,
You fall out of my arms, alone,
Into the chaos of your separate trance.
My eyes gaze through your forehead, through the bone,
And see where in your sleep distress has torn
Its path, which on your lips is shown
And on your hands and in your dream forlorn.

Restless, you turn to me and press
Those timid words against my ear
Which thunder at my heart like stones.
‘Mercy,’ you plead, Then ‘Who can bless?’
You ask. ‘I am pursued by Time,’ you moan.

I watch that precipice of fear
You tread, naked in naked distress.
To that deep care we are committed
Beneath the wildness of our flesh
And shuddering horror of our dream,
Where unmasked agony is permitted.

Our bodies, stripped of clothes that seem,
And our souls, stripped of beauty’s mesh,
Meet their true selves, their charms outwitted.
This pure trance is the oracle
That speaks no language but the heart
Our angel with our devil meets
In the atrocious dark nor do they part

But each forgives and greets,
And their mutual terrors heal
Within our married miracle.


Baranczak’s is better, because it’s much less sentimental – “married miracle” is pretty horrible. Language fit for a diamond ring commercial. Yet the poems have in common that common lovers’ moment, when you’re awake and they’re asleep, or half-asleep, and you’re marveling at their utter vulnerability, stripped down in bed, late at night, with terrors and despairs most private, most enduring, most true. These are the moments you realize that for all your long intimacy there’s no getting at the psyche of those “tangibly dear” to you.

Like yourself (and that’s another thing about Baranczak’s poem – it’s as much about his convoluted unsharable cosmic grief as it is hers) the lover is essentially adrift in a separate sphere. In the wilds of her own consciousness.

A MOOC Morsel: Today’s Poetry Lecture

Lecture 18: Poetry and the Way it Undermines Us: Weldon Kees and Donald Justice

After a break of a few months, I’m back to conclude this lecture series on poetry. This is Lecture 18, titled Poetry and the Way It Undermines Us: Weldon Kees and Donald Justice. I will be producing five more lectures after this one, before I conclude the series.

I’ve been delighted by the response to my poetry talks – there are 2,205 of you and growing, from all over the world – and I encourage your continued comments, questions, and ratings.

For those of you interested in great prose as well as great poetry, I’m planning a new MOOC when I finish this one, and the subject will be the novels of Don DeLillo, author most famously of White Noise, and a person many people consider the best novelist currently writing in and about America. I invite you to sign up for that series when Udemy introduces it.

I’ve always been intrigued by this statement from the French philosopher, Albert Camus:

Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. Society has but little connection with such beginnings.

Sounds very negative, doesn’t it? We’re told again and again that the unexamined life is not worth living, but, as one of Saul Bellow’s characters once said in one of his novels, “sometimes the examined life makes you wish you were dead.” Society is where we all act together and keep smiles on our faces; poetry – like philosophy – is a more private place, where we do not act; we think, and we think in such a way – such an intense and exploratory and honest way – that the results can, Camus suggests, undermine us, literally erode the foundations – spiritual, moral, whatever – that keep us upright in the world.

Of course poetry differs from philosophy because it is not just thinking – it is thinking and feeling at the same time. Imagine a word which would be thoughtfeeling, or feelingthought – this is poetry. Here are some quotations from people attempting to get at the strange coincidence in poetry of thought and feeling, idea and emotion. Robert Frost, the great American poet, wrote that “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” You see the coincidence – in poetry, feeling and thought are inseparable; Frost says feeling has found “its” thought, as if all feelings are somehow matched by their appropriate thought, and the job of the poet is to make that match. Poetry renders how it feels to have thought something, and how particular thoughts carry with them particular feelings.

The successful poem can be understood as the verbal synthesis of these two drives – the drive to understand, and the drive to feel. Muriel Rukeyser writes that “Poetry is, above all, an approach to the truth of feeling . . .. A fine poem will seize your imagination intellectually—that is, when you reach it, you will reach it intellectually too— but the way is through emotion, through what we call feeling.” The truth of feeling is an odd phrase, but it’s trying to capture what I’m trying here to capture about poetry: poetry is the verbal form that clothes ideas in feelings, indeed that makes it clear that no idea, no thought, is without emotional substance, a foundation of feeling. We think what we think because of the way we feel, because of what we feel. We sense ideas as we move through life sensing our emotions.

You might even say that many poems are in this sense retrospective gestures – They are the poet saying okay, this is what I’m feeling right now (think of Auden feeling empty and nonexistent in Brussels, Larkin feeling the same way on the beach) and I feel this right now because … .well, let’s backtrack. How did I get to these feelings? Where did this sense of emptiness, say, come from? Hm, well, by following this feeling back, as it were, to some life experiences that formed buried but life-shaping convictions about life in me, I can arrive at some knowledge of those convictions…

Maybe most people remain in the realm of unselfconscious feeling most of their lives; maybe most people don’t undergo this sort of emotional/intellectual retrospective exercise… but the poet is a supreme thoughtfeeler, a feelingthinker, always at once feeling and thinking about what these feelings mean, how they are symptoms, if you like, of ideas.

The truth of feeling, Rukeyser says, as if we might well be suspicious of ideas as such, but emotions come at us with an unanswerable authenticity – this is what I feel, this despair, this elation, this fear, this confusion, this passion. And we can get at intellectual truths through a poetic arrestation of all that feeling (I’ve said throughout these lectures that poetry arrests life, and in this case arrests that cascade of feeling that most people are tumbling through for most of their lives.), through a special aesthetic examination of it, and ultimately through an ordered verbal rendering of it.

Remember that short funny poem we looked in Lecture 17, “Niagara River” by Kay Ryan. Remember how she describes life as an oblivious passage down the Niagara River – a river which, if we allowed ourselves to think about it, in fact finally dumps us into the Niagara Falls. But we don’t allow ourselves to think about that, because it would undermine us. It would make it more difficult for us to keep our balance, to keep floating on our little life raft on the Niagara River. Instead we feel the curious emotion Ryan features in that poem – a kind of pleased ignorant enjoyment of the passing moment, a willed cow-like not knowing…

So through poetic arrestation of this not-knowing, through an examination of the feelings that not-knowing (in the case of the Ryan poem) generates in us, we will get at truths – the most important truths, arguably, because they are the most human truths. They are not coldly deduced concepts and claims, but emotionally grounded actualities: This is what it means to be a human being; this is what it means to live in the world. Somehow I’ve gotten to this point; somehow I’ve evolved into a person who feels this and feels that – How did that happen? How did I get here? Only by bringing reflective intellect to the fact of a present emotional reality will I be able to thread together the complex interaction of thought and feeling that got me to this place.

“The office of poetry is not to make us think accurately, but feel truly,” writes Frederick William Robertson, reiterating what we’ve already heard from Frost and Rukeyser. I think that when you grasp this point, you also grasp what Mark Van Doren means when he writes, “The job of the poet is to render the world – to see it and report it without loss, without perversion. No poet ever talks about feelings. Only sentimental people do.” It is of course a typical and popular misreading of poetry that it’s all about sentiment, about the statement and airing of feelings. No sirree. You know you’ve got hold of a bad poet, a fake poet, a manipulative poet, when you’ve got someone panting away about the beauty of nature or whatever. (Recall my discussion of the unfortunate American poet Joyce Kilmer, and his thrill at the sight of trees. Recall also my discussion of the wallowing-in-her-own-emotions poet Anne Sexton.) Poetry is emotion under very tight control – under the control of serious thought.

I want to focus in this lecture on two great twentieth century American poets – Weldon Kees and Donald Justice – who did this sort of retrospective thoughtfeeling and feelingthought exercise at a very high, beautiful, and enlightening level. I mean that – to use Rukeyser’s language – when you REACH their poem, when you understand it, when you feel it, when you feelunderstand it, you feelunderstand a lot. And of course this is the payoff of the reading of poetry – not just that we get to consort with beautiful language and that it is, on a very simple, musical, level, an exhilarating delight to consort with glorious rhythm and words, but that as we read those words, crucial truths of human life, of our life, roll out of the poetic lines.

As with listening to music, those thoughtfeelings emerge slowly, line by line, as we listen, as we read. I made this point in my lecture on Elizabeth Bishop’s poem At the Fishhouses; most of it reads like pure description with no idea attached to it; yet in fact as we read there’s a gradual and sly gathering of meaning – somehow meaning squeezes itself out of each seemingly purely musical or descriptive line; an atmosphere of implication expands as we read, and though we may not be able – ever – to put that implication into straightforward propositions or claims, nonetheless when we finish the poem, when we REACH it, we realize that its accretion of detail has not been mere accretion, but has culminated in thoughtfeelings about the human condition.

Again, is this not the great value, the great gift to us, of poetry? That it brings us to actuality, carries us through feeling to the way things really are? Poems are not bloodless propositions or hypotheses about what it means to be a living human being in a glorious, crushing, and enigmatic cosmos; they are dispatches from the front; they are you are there chronicles of the moment to moment reality of our mind and our body moving through existence. I’ve said, along with Camus, that these dispatches also undermine us – that they may in some sense undermine us – but does it follow from this that we want, like the absurd people in “Niagara River,” to refuse to receive them?

Let’s consider first the Weldon Kees poem (remember that both the Kees and Justice poems are in the Materials section of this screen) titled “That Winter.”

Kees recalls, as his title suggests, THAT winter, one particular winter when something happened to him during a snowstorm, something that generated feelings which, on examination, enlightened him about himself, about all human beings. So it’s a lyric poem – short, personal, capturing one moment – but it incorporates a little narrative, the poet having had a vision, an experience, while walking, in the past, through a snowstorm.

Note that like Auden’s poem, another winter poem, “Brussels in Winter,” the Kees poem is in the second person – YOU. The choice of you transmits the poet’s conviction that this is not his experience alone, but has resonance for the reader – you know what I’m talking about; you’ve been in the same sort of existential moment. But the second person also conveys, in the Kees poem, the poet’s self-alienation, his rather disgusted confrontation with his naïve past self: you see yourself, a fool with smiles… So you because he’s literally addressing a different person – the person he was, but the person he no longer is. Essentially, in this poem, Kees has a vision of his youthful happy trusting self, springlike and fully alive; and to this vision he brings the full force of his current bitterness, coldness, frigidity…

So let’s look more closely at this poem.

Cold ground and colder stone
Unearthed in ruined passageways,
The parodies of buildings in the snow –
Snow tossed and raging through a world
It imitates, that drives forever north
To what is rumored to be Spring.

This is not a sentence; it is a series of descriptive phrases, listing one after the other the things the sees as he walks in a city buried under heavy snow. All is white except for some soil and stones visible now at a spot in a “ruined passageway” that the snow hasn’t covered. The snow, by blanking out the warm, busy, in motion, distracting world, and allowing the unearthing of some signs of the true gravelike deathliness of existence (cold ground, colder stone), has plunged the poet into the condition of intellectual and emotional clarity – coldness – that will generate the poem.

Parodies, imitations – that’s what the world is. It pretends to be a world of life, of buildings and movement, but it’s really as deadwhite as the snow itself. The snow shows – to quote Philip Larkin in one of his deathly poems – what’s really always there, unresting death.

The snow is “raging,” and that raging will return in the last line of the poem: And snow is raging, raging, in a darker world. Note that the poem is three six-line verses of more or less iambic pentameter; but note also that the poem ends in one freestanding line, which carries most of the weight of the poem, sitting out there at the end all by itself. And what it carries is the poet’s full emotional realization of his own rage, his rage at the conditions of human existence. The snow rages in the first stanza; by that final line, the poet, now in a darker world from the vision of his early self that he sees during the storm, also rages.

If winter comes, asks Shelley in “Ode to the West Wind,” can spring be far behind? In the bleak depths of winter, in the depths of sorrow, we project the return of life, joy, spring… Yet Kees is cynical: the snow drives “forever north / To what is rumored to be Spring.” But it is not spring; spring is mere parody, mere imitation, mere covering over of the permanent icy deathliness of life.

The next two stanzas will describe his vision during the snowstorm of a lighter younger world:

To see the faces you had thought were put away
Forever, swept like leaves among the crowd,
Is to be drawn like them, on winter afternoons,
To avenues you saw demolished years before.
The houses still remain like monuments
Their windows cracked, For Sale signs on the lawns.

He doesn’t see his own particular younger self yet; he sees the younger, more innocent world he grew up in, the faces of family and friends suddenly swirl around him, and he finds himself drawn to them, to his past – and this is what I meant earlier by the retrospective thoughtfeeling procedure of so many poems – the poem so often seems a backward maneuver, a present moment rather quickly pressing the poet back, back, back, into the past, so that he or she can compare past and present.

The literal ruined passageways of the first stanza become in the second the demolished avenues of the poet’s past – demolished literally, in that those old streets have fallen into disrepair to the point of unrecognizability; but also demolished in their having been crushed by the poet, pushed into a past he no longer wants to think about. Yet they are still avenues – ways to get somewhere – and the poet will, whether he likes it or not, go back, in feeling and thought, to the past.

The houses on the street where he grew up have “cracked windows” – a nice image, consonant with his current world of snow and ice … yet rather than follow his thoughts forward again to his current cold conditions, the poet will now, in his third and final stanza, deepen that memory, move further down that avenue to youthful innocence:

Then grass upon those lawns again! – and dogs
In fashion twenty years ago, the streets mysterious
Through summer shade, the marvelous worlds
Within the world, each opening like a hand
And promising a constant course. – You see yourself,
A fool with smiles, one you thought dead.

So – the fully realized vision. Snow is gone, and grass is again upon the lawns of his childhood avenue. Yet – and here I think is the heart of this retrospective, undermined, thoughtemotion, utterance – what the poet really sees in this vision is not the sentimental business of I once was young and now I’m old; rather, he sees the world not boringly monotonal under the white of snow but fascinating, mysteriously rich and multidimensional under dappling “summer shade,” marvelous with imaginative possibility (worlds within the world), each new world “opening like a hand / And promising a constant course.” This generative palmy human flowering is not the snowy world that “drives forever north / To what is rumored to be Spring,” but rather a constant course, like the course of a river in spring – instead of icy motionlessness, or a hard driving snow which we deludedly hope is heading for spring, the poet’s vision here culminates in a past feeling, a conviction, that some constant pulse, or flow, of life energy, imaginative energy, the capacity to imagine and maybe even generate, new worlds, persisted through time and seasons.

The poet sees himself, his past self, “a fool with smiles,” a person he thought dead; and yet this retrospective capacity to feel again the life possibility suggests that the poet retains some of that earlier capacity. Still, the poem ends by returning, in that last single line, to the snow, with intensified rage at what the past has lost: snow is “raging, raging, in a darker world.”

Donald Justice, an admirer of Kees, wrote a similar retrospective thoughtfeeling – a poem titled “Absences.”

Of course we’ve already read a poem with this title – “Absences” by Philip Larkin, in Lecture 11. And a quick Google search turns up other poems with that title. Again I’d suggest that much of poetry amounts to a current feeling of loss measured against a past feeling of abundance, with the substance of the poem amounting to nothing less than an effort to conjure in real time this temporal depletion, the way it feels to live every day with death – again in the words of Larkin – a whole day nearer now, with the depletion of our physical, imaginative, and spiritual energies more and more intimately apparent to us.

Yet when is life, really, anything other than a variation on this theme? When we were young and welcomed by hand after hand of possibility, were we actually able to reflect and act on that abundance? Only when we get past unmindful, heedless, youth, are we capable of reflection and action, even if that action is compromised in various ways by the content of that reflection, by the undermining melancholy and bitterness that reflection may generate.

So that is a complex place to be in; but it’s real enough, and poetry is there – some poetry is there – to place us with clarity in that situation, to offer it to us as an insight so that we can know more about the truths that reside in our feelings. And even if this sort of prompt to thought is, as Camus suggests, undermining, this does not make it killing; it makes it an honest challenge to our tendency to deny our nature, and the nature of reality.

Okay, so let’s look at Justice’s “Absences.” (Scroll down.)

It’s snowing this afternoon and there are no flowers.
There is only this sound of falling, quiet and remote.

So we’re in the snow yet again, but this is a more sedate snow than Kees’s – it’s not a blizzard driving itself into his face, but rather a quiet and remote sound of falling. No flowers, of course, it’s winter; but Justice is in fact writing in Florida, so the snow is not only mild – and unusual – but there’s still plenty of natural life around.

The snow elicits a childhood memory – same deal as in the Kees poem – but here again things are softer:

Like the memory of scales descending the white keys
Of a childhood piano.

So the gentle remote music of the ticking snow reminds the poet of his piano practice as a child, working his way down the scales – using only the white (snowy) keys.

Outside the window – palms!
And the heavy head of the cereus, inclining,
Soon to let down its white or yellow-white

So he recalls a bizarre day of snow in Florida, its mix of dead white and the persisting green of the palms – instead of Kees’s clear distinction between white and green, we have a strange meld; and yet the feeling tone seems about the same – green youthful memory, current “no flowers” snowing.

Now the cactus flower “cereus” is a pretty inspired choice of flower on the part of Justice, and not merely because when you recite the word it sounds exactly like serious, as in being a serious person, or as in truly meaning something (“I’m serious.”). The poet recalls, as a young man, practicing at his piano during a freak snowfall, looking out the window and seeing not merely palms, but the cereus flower, a yellow/white bloom that typically blooms only for one night – as in night-blooming cereus – or one day. So here the poet conveys the fragile transience of that glorious past to which both poets retrospectively return in their poems.

The heavy head of the cereus – pressed under the weight of snow, and in any case soon enough to “let down its white or yellow-white…” It is soon, like the poet, to be pressed into serious life, or the kind of life in death that is this compromised adult aftermath sort of life.

In his second stanza, he brings himself back to the flowerless present, to this current snowfall.

Now, only these poor snow-flowers in a heap,
Like the memory of a white dress cast down…

So the fallen bloom, which makes a domed shape on the ground, reminds the poet of an innocent bridal gown cast down … This is poetry, deeply suggestive language… It takes us many possible places… So that if one wants to read this white dress cast down as an image of initiation into the adult world, the stripping off of the innocent garment in preparation for deflowering, one can certainly do that. But the poet won’t pursue the metaphor – he will simply move from feeling to thought, to the idea

So much has fallen.

This statement, again, can be read both literally – so much snow – and figuratively – I have in so many ways fallen away from what I was… Or, if you want to give it a Kees twist, the world has so much fallen away from what it once was… At least that’s how I feel, that’s what I think this feeling that my poem is trying to capture – nostalgia, a sense of the heaviness of life, the end of innocence – is ultimately about.

And here is how the poem concludes:

And I, who have listened for a step
All afternoon, hear it now, but already falling away,
Already in memory.

I think we can read that word “step” musically, given the piano practice context of this; I mean, I think on first reading we read this as the poet listening for the step of a human being, and certainly the poem allows for this reading. But let us at least double it and suggest that the poet has been trying to recall, all afternoon, a certain interval between two notes that he played when he was a child; a particular one/two sound that now haunts him. He hears it now; but, as is the nature of these retrospectives, always undermined and undermining lyrics; they are always temporally slipping away even as the poem is being written. The interval once found is quickly lost, already falling away, already in memory.

And now the poet concludes with a lovely paradox, a mystery, an impossibility:

And the terrible scales descending
On the silent piano; the snow; and the absent flowers abounding.

It’s a summation; in the final line the poet gathers all of the significant elements of the poem: piano, snow, flowers. The scales he remembers having played are now “terrible” because of their descent, their movement down the piano – a musical passageway of the sort – the ruined sort – Kees talks about. Those scales are temporality itself, as music is time, meter, played in time, and their descending character in his memory is linked to images of fallen flowers and cast down white dresses and inclining cereus heads – everything falling, fallen. The scales, you might say, have fallen from the poet’s eyes, and this is terrible as it is also terrible for Weldon Kees. The current piano is silent, yet it shakes with the descent of those remembered scales; the snow is flowerless and yet also abounds with the recalled – now absent – flowers that withstood – barely- the earlier snow.

Absent flowers abounding. – This paradox gets at the thoughtfeeling that in the case of Justice sustains him: imagination, emotion – these sustain and even proliferate the flowers, for after all the mind is creative, is itself generative, and can from the dead past reanimate some life. The mind, if you will, can go through that undermining emotional knowledge and come out still holding flowers, still somehow garlanded.

To think is to begin to be undermined – yes. But to go underground, to mine one’s memories, is not only unavoidable for thoughtful, feeling people, but potentially revitalizing, as indulgence in these heavy feelings may help you clarify where they came from, and how they might be put to less bitter use than Kees puts them.

The beautiful completeness of the realized poem is itself reassuring evidence of our capacity to retain strong feeling, to retain openness to the world, even as we feel beneath us our inescapable processes of erosion. Once again, poetry arrests life, suspends the erosive nature of temporal being, and exhilarates us with the truth of exactly where we are at this moment.

“Everything depends on which ‘nothing’ you are talking about.”

I suppose it’s all, at bottom, a category error; but UD is enjoying following the Krauss/Albert fulminating dust-up about science and philosophy.

I’ll admit I’ve never gotten far beyond scaring myself when thinking with any depth about why there’s something rather than nothing…

Not really scaring myself… Feeling very sharply the impossibility of moving my mind to the cosmological back-of-beyond.

As a literary type, though, I’ve loved nothingness poems and prose all my life. I’ve loved writing that captures the conviction and the feeling all thoughtful people occasionally have, that – in the words of Leopold Bloom, struck down for a moment in a Dublin pub by absolute nihilism – no one is anything. Everything depends on the nothing you are talking about, and I’m not talking about the nothingness that a field without particles might represent; I’m talking about the “death in the soul” Albert Camus felt in Prague. What Don DeLillo in Libra imagines Lee Harvey Oswald feeling in Texas:

He walked through empty downtown Dallas, empty Sunday in the heat and light. He felt the loneliness he always hated to admit to, a vaster isolation than Russia, stranger dreams, a dead white glare burning down.

What James Agee, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, felt, also on a Sunday, in Alabama:

… the subdual of this sunday deathliness in whose power was held the whole of the south… nothing but the sun was left, faithfully blasting away upon the dead earth…

In my next Faculty Project Lecture, I’m talking about three great nothingness poems – Auden’s Brussels in Winter, and Larkin’s Absences, as well as his Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel. And of course there’s Elizabeth Bishop’s Cape Breton.

I find a curious reassurance in these evocations of … psychic vastation? What to call it without sounding pretentious, ponderous? Everyone laughs when people say things like If you remember the ‘sixties, you weren’t there. But, you know, the business of not being there… that sense of suspension from yourself, the world, everything… It feels like a serious business, one with insights in it that might compete with quantum field theory.

My MOOC Just Passed Four Hundred

Or, if you’re just joining us, my Massive Open Online Course on poetry has just enrolled four hundred people from around the world.

Onward and upward. This Saturday, I’m recording a lecture on Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, At the Fishhouses.


un peu ivre (Prickly Pear Cactus Margarita) so this isn’t the best time to introduce this idea, but how about this:

There are three kinds of hills or mountains.

1.) Soft, sweet, reassuring, domesticated. Every August, on our drive back to our wee upstate NY house from UD‘s birthday dinner at the Bear Cafe, UD likes to watch the sun slip behind the low round green-to-the-top Catskills. It’s a calm, bucolic, verdant sort of deal, a world of cows and dogs and maple sugar candy.

2.) Wildly, elaborately, sculpted; strange, exhilarating, massive, unsettling. The red rocks of Sedona are all these things, but at the same time you feel you can have a human relationship to them. They don’t seem the same utterly natural part of the landscape the Catskills do (the Catskills can feel kind of backgroundy), yet they do seem earthly… We might not know exactly how these formations formed, but we rather easily claim them as part of our world. People give them homely names – Coffee Pot, Chimney – and ride their bikes along their rims. For all their massiveness, the eye can take each one in entirely, hiking along to a point of great closeness to particular rocks and examining their curves and lines and tracings.

It’s even perhaps easier to have a human relationship to the Sedona rocks than to the Catskills. The Catskills are a rather undifferentiated massing of green; each Sedona rock is strikingly different from the other. So you can fixate on one particular outcropping with great intensity.

3.) Cold, unworldly, “element bearable to no mortal,” as Elizabeth Bishop says of frigid ocean water. These are the Himalayas – inconceivable in altitude, impossible to take in fully with the human eye, crushing our lungs with the thinness of their air…

I’m suggesting that the Sedona rocks are a kind of aesthetic ideal – both beautiful and sublime (if you agree that something can be both of these things), while the Catskills are only beautiful, and the Himalayas only sublime.

Everyone Loves Adelstrop.

And why?

Because it’s one of those ur poems, one of those echt poems, one of those poems that simply does what a poem can do, and does it beautifully. Everyone loves Adelstrop because it isn’t showy and it isn’t sentimental and it isn’t welcome to my psyche. Art arrests life, wrote someone or other, and Adelstrop artfully describes life suddenly arrested so you can see it pure. Pure – what do I mean by pure… I mean life for most people contains these very occasional epiphanic moments when the sheer flow and contingency of event breaks and you see – quoting Wallace Stevens here, in his poem Snowman:

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The poet’s poet – Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop – is almost always doing Adelstrop, variations of Adelstrop. These poets evoke a consciousness able for a moment to perceive the true silent steadfast life of the world – call it Gaia, if you’d like – as it breathes its being behind our daily agitations. Meditation, prayer – there are disciplines that can take you to a similar place. But the most powerful poetry represents a body of writing that inaugurates you into this condition of calmed and clarified consciousness, this state of full receptivity to the song of the earth, simply by making you feel what someone feeling the receptivity feels.

Yes. I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.


The life train suddenly and inexplicably puts on the brakes; we have no idea where we are. No motion, and a silent empty platform, and letters that don’t refer to anything. ADELSTROP means to designate a place, but designates instead the nothing that is. Its very absurdity eases the poet into nothingness in a way Portsmouth – a name with meanings in it – wouldn’t.

There’s hardly any sound – hissing steam, a throat cleared – and everyone’s abandoned the midday June heat for the shade. But for the poet in the passenger car, the full summer sun can now burn into the human void and shed absolute radiance on the world of natural objects, objects commonly obscured by humanity. He lists each thing he sees as if playing a children’s game, reconstituting the world out of nothingness … I spy with my little eye… Each of these objects hits him with the same newness, the same sense of having burst fresh and alone from the earth’s body, that objects seem to have to children playing pointing games in the semi-dark. Grass. Haycocks. Meadowsweet.

The name, the objects: all seem

No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

As his eye lifts to the clouds, the poet realizes that while each of these singular objects claims radiant independent life, each is also part of a mysterious multiplicity. The willow has a kinship with the cloud – both are infused with powerful and beautiful being, and together with all the natural objects of the world they make the world, the world whose life, again, always seems mere backdrop to our human drama.

So for this minute the world discloses itself to the poet. He sees its singularity and multiplicity. For him for this minute it pulls itself into singing unison, allowing him to hear all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

And just like The Snowman, and just like Virginia, this poem, which wants to give verbal life to the staggered accretion of life-awareness, will compose itself out of small lines and small words – new to this newly disclosed form of life, we bring to it a child’s gathering recognitions.

After Nobel Week, A Return Visit, If I May, To …

… a past winner, 1987’s Joseph Brodsky.

A Russian poet tossed out of Russia for being a poet as well as a Jew, he lived in the States for many years until his early death (heart attack; he was a prodigious chain smoker) at 55. He loved the English language, and used it beautifully, but wrote most of his poems in Russian — and then turned around and translated many of them into English. He’s famous not just for his great poems and essays, but for the sass he gave a Soviet judge (“Who decided you’re a poet?” “Nobody. Who put me in the ranks of mankind?”).

In a review of a memoir about Susan Sontag, the reviewer cites a Brodsky anecdote:

[Joseph] Brodsky could outdo [Susan] Sontag both in heedless self-absorption and European-style imperturbability – though of course Brodsky, a Russian, was hardly more European than his paramour [Sontag]. Late in the book, [its author] reflects on something he had said over dinner: “You know in the end, none of it matters, what happens to you in your life. Not suffering. Not happiness or unhappiness. Not illness. Not prison. Nothing.”

So we can start here, with Brodsky’s nihilism (“I was a normal Soviet boy,” [Brodsky once] said. “I could have become a man of the system. But something turned me upside down: [Fyodor Dostoevsky’s] Notes from the Underground. I realized what I am. That I am bad.”), which of course wasn’t nihilism, or wasn’t thoroughgoing every blessed day nihilism… He’d been through enough horror and absurdity in his life to feel the pointless degradation of being human — at least in the corporate sense (“I think the world is capable of only one thing basically — proliferating its evils.”). Yet he insisted in his Nobel address that

Regardless of whether one is a writer or a reader, one’s task consists first of all in mastering a life that is one’s own, not imposed or prescribed from without, no matter how noble its appearance may be. For each of us is issued but one life, and we know full well how it all ends. It would be regrettable to squander this one chance on someone else’s appearance, someone else’s experience…

Personal salvation, if you will, was indeed possible, through the mutual misanthropy, the consciousness-equality, of aesthetic experience:

A novel or a poem is not a monologue, but the conversation of a writer with a reader, a conversation, I repeat, that is very private, excluding all others – if you will, mutually misanthropic. And in the moment of this conversation a writer is equal to a reader, as well as the other way around, regardless of whether the writer is a great one or not. This equality is the equality of consciousness. It remains with a person for the rest of his life in the form of memory, foggy or distinct; and, sooner or later, appropriately or not, it conditions a person’s conduct. [A] novel or a poem is the product of mutual loneliness – of a writer or a reader.

Take his poem, Seaward:



Darling, you think it’s love, it’s just a midnight journey.
Best are the dales and rivers removed by force,
as from the next compartment throttles “Oh, stop it, Bernie,”
yet the rhythm of those paroxysms is exactly yours.
Hook to the meat! Brush to the red-brick dentures,
alias cigars, smokeless like a driven nail!
Here the works are fewer than monkey wrenches,
and the phones are whining, dwarfed by to-no-avail.
Bark, then, with joy at Clancy, Fitzgibbon, Miller.
Dogs and block letters care how misfortune spells.
Still, you can tell yourself in the john by the spat-at mirror,
slamming the flush and emerging with clean lapels.
Only the liquid furniture cradles the dwindling figure.
Man shouldn’t grow in size once he’s been portrayed.
Look: what’s been left behind is about as meager
as what remains ahead. Hence the horizon’s blade.


A man takes a train journey, with his lover, to the coast. He reprimands her for her romanticism. Nothing like traveling on a swaying train late at night, the windows dark, muffled voices from other compartments, the natural world blurred by the force of the train’s onward rush… Or so you think, love. Really, we’re just traveling from Point A to Point B. The lovers in the next compartment? They’re as ridiculous as we are when we go at it.

The world of the train is in fact cramped and pitifully reduced to basic human needs, a place of hooks for the bags of food we’re carrying, and little toothbrushes for our smoke-stained teeth. Hook to this, and brush to that — the setting is ridiculously like a military camp, full of machines that want to be of service but are “dwarfed” by a sense of futility.

Be happy, then, for the busy, legible, utilitarian world that will reveal itself outside all this, when the sun comes up. We prefer that richly elaborated world, because losing ourselves in it means losing our sense of pointlessness.

Only trapped inside of places like trains, where our essential reduction reveals itself, do we recognize the truth. Only negotiating the narrow bathroom recalls us to our degraded condition.

In other words: Want to see yourself? Look at your piss dwindling in the flushed toilet bowl.

Man shouldn’t grow in size once he’s been portrayed.
Look: what’s been left behind is about as meager
as what remains ahead. Hence the horizon’s blade.

Not really in a holiday mood, is he? She thought they’d steal away for a romantic weekend at the shore; he’s brooding over the stinky, sicko, Toy World we all agree to live in… Only thing to do is be honest about it. Let’s not give ourselves airs. We’re just as stupid and embarrassing in our pretensions to a higher passion as the people in the next compartment. The cramped toy world of wrenches and nails hasn’t been left behind when we go to the majestic shore. On the contrary, the horizon over the ocean is just another machine — a blade — which makes clear, with infinite precision, the chopped up, meager nature of the earth.

The technique here is the same as Auden’s (a major influence on Brodsky) and the same as Elizabeth Bishop’s:

What interests me is [Auden’s] symptomatic technique of description. He never gives you the real . . . ulcer . . . he talks about its symptoms, ya? He keeps his eye all the time on civilization, on the human condition. But he doesn’t give you the direct description of it, he gives you the oblique way. …[I]f you really want your poem to work, the usage of adjectives should be minimal; but you should stuff it as much as you can with nouns — even the verbs should suffer. If you cast over a poem a certain magic veil that removes adjectives and verbs, when you remove the veil the paper still should be dark with nouns.

Language, using language in a certain way, turns out to be, for Brodsky, the one reliable non-nihilism:

A person sets out to write a poem for a variety of reasons: to win the heart of his beloved; to express his attitude toward the reality surrounding him, be it a landscape or a state; to capture his state of mind at a given instant; to leave – as he thinks at that moment – a trace on the earth. He resorts to this form – the poem – most likely for unconsciously mimetic reasons: the black vertical clot of words on the white sheet of paper presumably reminds him of his own situation in the world, of the balance between space and his body. … The one who writes a poem writes it above all because verse writing is an extraordinary accelerator of conscience, of thinking, of comprehending the universe. Having experienced this acceleration once, one is no longer capable of abandoning the chance to repeat this experience…

The train is a pathetic, jerry-built interior accelerating extraordinarily through an immense outer darkness. To this train the poet brings his train of thought, his wordkit. However dark the manifest content he derives from the meeting of mind and machine, consciousness and world, the poet will in fact be celebrating, scrunched up in his little compartment, his writing pad on his knees. For he has felt the ecstasy of comprehension. And that’s the ticket.

The bight man was born for. Part Two.

On Elizabeth Bishop’s centennial, a reading of The Bight.

Go here for the poem uninterrupted by my commentary.



[A shallow bay. We’re in Key West, where Bishop lived for a number of years, and we’re looking at a harbor. The word bite, and the word blight (Bishop was fond of Gerard Manley Hopkins, author of Spring and Fall), should certainly be floating around in our heads while we read.]

On my birthday

At low tide like this how sheer the water is.

[this. is. low. how. A simple poetic balance, and a calm straightforward assertiveness, express themselves right away.  And consider how low we are:  Already we’re at a bight; and now the bight’s at low tide.  Already a sense of melancholy.  Yet she says the poem’s written on her birthday.  Not in a very celebratory mood, I think.]

White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.

[As if the fluidity and depth of water weren’t compromised enough by all that shallowness, there’s also morbid skeletal marl sticking up out of the bight; and the anchoring pilings seem sadly pointless, since there’s so little water.  Upright, gathered, like sticks, they resemble matches.… Note the assonance throughout: tide, like, white, dry, pilings, dry.]

Absorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.

[Low again.  And water like fire?  We’ve seen it before, in one of her most famous poems, At the Fishhouses:

If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.]

One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.

[Baudelaire could make it sizzle; I cannot.  For me, the sound of nature is turned way down low.]

The little ocher dredge at work off the end of the dock
already plays the dry perfectly off-beat claves.

[That’s my music: An arid percussive click rather than any tonality; something strange and off the beat rather than something harmonic and measured.  That’s what I hear when I look most deeply at earthly life, when I dredge down to the truth.]

The birds are outsize. Pelicans crash
into this peculiar gas unnecessarily hard,
it seems to me, like pickaxes,
rarely coming up with anything to show for it,

[You see how she’s – what’s Gioia’s word? – slyly awakening emotions in us?  Emotions having to do with what — depletion, futility, the contrast between our immense efforts to understand the depths of existence, to get the goods of life, and the paltry products of those efforts: rarely coming up with anything to show for it.]

and going off with humorous elbowings.
Black-and-white man-of-war birds soar
on impalpable drafts
and open their tails like scissors on the curves
or tense them like wishbones, till they tremble.

[An elaboration of the effort-and-futility idea: We struggle (man-of-war) toward meaning (transcendent rather than earthly here, on impalpable drafts) until the sheer effort of it makes us tremble.]

The frowsy sponge boats keep coming in
with the obliging air of retrievers,
bristling with jackstraw gaffs and hooks
and decorated with bobbles of sponges.

[There’s something annoyingly stupid and pathetically messy about the ongoingness of human existence.  Although the scene is junky and depleted, eagerly panting little boats still keep coming in, their crappy cargo hanging out of their mouths.]

There is a fence of chicken wire along the dock
where, glinting like little plowshares,
the blue-gray shark tails are hung up to dry
for the Chinese-restaurant trade.

[A sharp dry eat-or-be-eaten world.  No treasures here.]

Some of the little white boats are still piled up
against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,

[Wonderful pun on stove – gas fire, but also the little boats crushed in any old way.]

and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,
like torn-open, unanswered letters.

[Nothing to show for the boats, relics of the last, not-yet-overcome trauma.  There’s something vaguely guilt-inducing about their abandonment and open vulnerability, something of  O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this! This is everyone’s messy moral and emotional life, bursting with compromise and unfinished business.]

The bight is littered with old correspondences.

[Since Baudelaire’s been mentioned, we might think here of his most famous poem, Correspondences.  But there’s nothing in Bishop’s poem akin to the almost mystical “profound unity” between our subjectivity and the natural world that appears in Baudelaire. “The unnamed correspondences [in Bishop] are not ecstatic, Emersonian revelations of relationship; rather, they are almost wholly negative,” writes Brett Candlish Millier.]

Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.

[The sharp bite of the dredge’s jaw unearths more white marl.  Same old shit.]

All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.

[We conclude how?  We conclude that, looked at with biting lucidity, the shabby contingency of life is simply awful.  A blight.  Yet, contemplating another birthday, another setting out into more life, we’re compelled to note also the sheer survivability of it all, the way most of us are in it and what the hell.]

The bight man was born for. Part One.

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.

Plath Memorialized

An article in the Guardian about “strong calls for a proper memorial to [Sylvia Plath’s] life and work” prompts UD to consider just why she’s such a fine poet.

Readers tend to think of the spiky violent famous poems (Daddy, Lady Lazarus), but for UD it’s mainly about small moody works which are able, like many of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, to make the natural world somehow broadcast the poet’s inner extremity.

    Sheep in Fog

The hills step off into whiteness.
People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.

The train leaves a line of breath.
O slow
Horse the colour of rust,

Hooves, dolorous bells –
All morning the
Morning has been blackening,

A flower left out.
My bones hold a stillness, the far
Fields melt my heart.

They threaten
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.

The unsettling unclarity of this poem — the sense that the perceptual sense of the speaker is strangely and movingly messed up — signals a spiritual condition of urgent existential threat. A depressive person gradually loses her sense of the physical world around her in these few lines, and the final lines of the poem confirm that as the perceptual world dissolves, an entire world of death supercedes it.

Plath’s ability to establish this imperiled mood quickly, and sustain it through mere sequences of sketchy images, goes to the very heart of what makes lyrical poetry great: condensation, image, and the intense evocation through condensation and image of a particular state of consciousness.

The poem’s title is a painting’s title, naming what the artist will (we assume) describe — here, the way white sheep on a foggy hillside merge with the fog and become a sort of nothingness. The larger point of course will be the way in which the poet’s entire world is losing sharpness, definition, meaning, legibility.

She starts with personification:

The hills step off into whiteness.

Not merely the sheep step off, white into white, but rather the hills themselves, along with the entire natural world, undergo a white-out.

People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.

This strikingly perceptual poem includes not merely the poet’s perceived world, but the poet perceived by the world; and since in her affectless state the distinction human/natural doesn’t really apply, she feels herself equally surveyed by stars and people. Or is it that she can’t tell the difference? Between the face of a star and the face of a person? Between a white sheep and a white hillside? In any case, in a reflection of her self-hatred, her despair reads all apprehensions of her as disappointed.

The train leaves a line of breath.
O slow
Horse the colour of rust,

Hooves, dolorous bells –

A brilliant and packed objective correlative here, the train carrying, as it were, the weight of her self- and world-annihilating misery. Her own final breath is anticipated in the trace of breath the train leaves behind; her mental and physical lassitude expresses itself in the poetic O slow; her sense of her rusted-out life appears in the color of the train – the train compared to a horse, with, again, a weird melding of the natural and the human-made… And note how carefully she’s worked the repeated O sounds in this stanza: O, slow, colour, hooves, dolorous. It amounts to a lament: O, O, O, O. Color and dolor make a rhyme, part of the odd incantatory feel of this lyric.

All morning the
Morning has been blackening,

A flower left out.

From white to black here – from the sheep, and the steam, and the foggy hills, all white, to the immediate reality of her inner experience: the blackness of sorrow. The world moves O slowly; but her depressed day moves swiftly, blackening by the hour as a flower left out will quickly blacken. Her repetition of morning, in the context of blackness, hints at mourning.

My bones hold a stillness, the far
Fields melt my heart.

Her frantic mind moves her toward death; she feels herself as a physical being already dead: her bones hold a stillness. Her feelings, though, are most acute: From her infinitely pulled-back perspective, the far fields, the fields dissolving into obscurity and meaninglessness as she withdraws from life, break her heart, for they are the avatars of her oncoming reduction to nothingness.

They threaten
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.

See how she returns to stars at the end of the poem; liberated into death, the poet no longer suffers the disappointed face of stars (notice also all of the near-rhymes here, which deepen the poem’s mystical, chanting feel: threaten/heaven, star/dark, father/water, a feel conveyed throughout in any case merely by the radical shortness of each line). Her paradoxical heaven looks like hell – it’s pure death, after all, dark and starless. But heaven nonetheless, because it removes her from an agonizingly inchoate and uncomprehending world.

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