Awful but cheerful: Sunday Reflections on Elizabeth Bishop

 

One of my best friends and I share a special understanding of and appreciation for Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. “Your voice is kind of like hers,” he said to me once—about my poems, but also how I speak generally, my tendency to describe things ad nauseam. In particular, I often become fixated on describing my memories, revisiting past experiences near-compulsively, trying to make them come alive again with excruciating detail. I miss painting for this reason; it gives me a vocabulary to express, not just render, light; to linger over the emotion and tone a simple object can communicate; to express the fact that looking at the East River on a cold, spring evening illuminated by bright sun can send you deep into devastation.

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A cold spring: a March evening in 2015, when the light contradicted the temperature. #incipience

Bishop understands that something deep is communicated when you describe the spars of ships as “burnt match-sticks,” as she does in the identifiably early work, “Large Bad Picture,” from her first collection North & South. Bishop may be retrained in directly expressing her own emotions in her poetry, but she makes her descriptions come alive like a painting does, all of the feeling in each stroke.

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After many years of admiring Bishop —calling her my “favorite poet”—my best friend and I finally admitted to one another that we think some of her poetry sucks. It felt like a really intimate disclosure at the time, today less so. But I guess I often feel afraid to admit that people I admire have aspects of themselves that don’t ring true to me in some way—whether it be their work, personal choices, how their habits interact with their politics, etcetera. It’s not dissimilar to the way you might feel when you read in Us Weekly that a child celeb you loved is now actually a coke head. Anyway.

Sometimes, Bishop’s emotional guardedness falters and the poems’ defenses feel kind of off-putting; in “Large Bad Picture,” Bishop describes the (large and evidently bad) painting’s row of “scribbled… black birds” as “hanging in n’s”—n’s as in the letter. The way kids draw the contours of birds flying in the distance, sloped arches resembling m’s more than n’s to me. The irony of the poem—that it’s Bishop’s own aestheticization of, or at least affection for an image she thinks is “bad”—becomes less sharp as a result of descriptions like these. There’s something too clever in the bird contours being likened to n’s. It’s almost too self-aware, too conscious of the effect of its guardedness. Bishop’s smart descriptions keep her at a distance. Sometimes it works better than other times.

Once, in a college paper (this sounds sort of like one but I am trying this new mode of writing about poetry in a more “personal” way—hence blogging!), I referred to Bishop’s primary “mode”— her poetics, if you will—as being characterized by disposession, which I guess is not unlike disavowal. Scrupulous description of something—an experience, an object—in a way seems more like an attempt to possess, to capture, rather than dispossess. But Bishop’s constant resistances in emotional register and perspective indicate something more radical than representation.  Poetry is perfect for Bishop because she considers language an autonomous subject in and of itself, one in which she can invent her own experiential and imaginative epistemology. Description can be a way to question, rather than state, what an experience is actually like.

This afternoon, I found myself reading Bishop’s poem “The Bight,” which bears the italicized subtitle “On my birthday.” It’s always been an important poem for me, especially around this time of year—just before my birthday, which inevitably always occurs during “a cold spring” (the title of my favorite Bishop collection). I returned to the poem today because I was writing a birthday party invitation for myself, and wanted to include a quotation; I was also considering the fact that today would’ve been my grandfather’s 84th birthday. He died recently, in August 2016.

In “The Bight,” Bishop doesn’t directly probe what she is feeling on her birthday (always a weird feeling re: mortality, IMHO), but instead renders the “awful but cheerful” scene of a bight, the harbor-like space between two headlands: we sense the dredge’s “dripping jawful of marl,” pelicans “like pickaxes / rarely coming up with everything..” The water is “absorbing, rather than being absorbed.” The bight, Bishop tells us, is “littered with old correspondences” and filled with “untidy activity / Awful but cheerful.”

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Bishop takes the time to ask whether the water is absorbing or being absorbed. In this world, it’s not surprising that there is emotional guardedness. All of her emotion comes out in the act of description—in regarding and effortfully describing the contradictory, “awful but cheerful,” signs of chaos, entropy, and aging in this natural element that is both teeming with life and decay.

I wonder, often, to what extent I rely on using a heightened vocabulary to express my observations as a defense mechanism. If I am constantly seeking to describe what’s happening around me, am I ossifying my experiences into narratives rather than living experientially? Am I keeping myself at arm’s length from real intimacy? Or am I indicating my own vulnerability by expressing my resistance to it? A resistance communicated by trying to “possess” experiences in language. A clinging. A fear of letting go.

I’m not sure what the answer is, and I seek to explore these questions all the time, on my own, in therapy, with friends. But today I leave you with this question: is there any better way to express how you feel on your birthday than “awful but cheerful”? I doubt it.

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