"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Monday, March 22, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTERS VI: Upon being asked about first encountering Elizabeth Bishop

by Janet Baker

I feel like the narrator of "I Stand Here Ironing" saying "What you ask moves tormented through my mind." I first encountered Elizabeth Bishop's work when I was in my late twenties. I am now almost the age she was when she died. We have had a long association.

Being an academic as I was in the late 1960's, my reading was largely dictated by the requirements of course work. I was doing a doctorate in Canadian literature, and was therefore struggling through some pretty mediocre stuff. (My supervisor had discouraged my initial interest, Virginia Woolf, as being too insignificant for "advanced study" as he put it. So instead, I was reading Isabella Valency Crawford, who presumably was suitably significant. To say I was experiencing academe as surreal is to understate.)

A colleague arriving from cutting edge Ann Arbor during this time of draft avoidance knew Bishop's work, knew she had spent time in N.S., said she was the real thing and was shocked that I had never heard of her. One reading of "First Death in N.S." and I knew he was right. My next question, to myself and to my academic handlers, was why was she not better known in Canada? In Nova Scotia? To which I never ever received an answer.

In short: EB schooled me in "canons" and their ephemeral nature, in categories generally, in the buffoonery of the male dominated academic enterprise of the time, and in the dumbed down political correctness that followed. Her voice goes on and on, into eternity, in my fibres.

[Janet Baker is the author of Archibald MacMechan, Canadian Man of Letters. (Lockeport, Nova Scotia: Roseway Publishers, 2000).]

No comments:

Post a Comment