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

Friday, September 20, 2019

From Pen to Hook: Part 2

This delightful image is inspired by Bishop's "Poem," a late work that responded to a painting done by her Great-Uncle George W. Hutchinson. I like the fact that Lighthall has given us a nice sky. Bishop writes in that poem that skies were her uncle's specialty. (Again, photo by Susan Kerslake.)

Here is the original painting, which is a view of Great Village looking east-northeast from the river, or so we think (there is some debate). It would have been painted probably in the 1890s or earlier. It is now owned by Rachel Jacoff, who happens to live in Lewis Wharf in Boston -- at least the last time I heard about her.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

From Pen to Hook: a must-see exhibit in Halifax

At the EBSNS AGM on 22 June 2019, Truro fabric artist Penny Lighthall opened an exhibit of eight delightful hooked rugs inspired by Bishop poems, designs that Lighthall calls her “interpretations.” This exhibit hung in the Echoes of EB gallery in St. James Church until late August. Now, these eight, along with a dozen others, are part of her “From Pen to Hook” exhibit at the Halifax Central Library, in Pavia on the top floor. Lighthall was supposed to have a launch, but Hurricane Dorian interfered with this plan. The rugs will remain, however, on exhibit until 28 October. I urge anyone who lives in the city (or who is visiting) and is a Bishop fan or a fan of hooked rugs to go have a look. These rugs are charming, whimsical, colourful, uplifting. EBSNS member and friend Susan Kerslake took photos of the rugs and I am going to post these images over the next month and a half – one at a time – with a comment or two. For now, I offer these images of the context of the spatial and artistic context of this exhibit.
(Some of the rugs in situ at Pavia, Halifax Central Library.
Photo by Susan Kerslake.)
(Penny’s artist statement. Photo above and
below by Susan Kerslake.)

Of the eight exhibited in GV, this is my favourite, though it is hard to pick a favourite. This rug was inspired by Bishop's poem "Sestina," set in the kitchen of the EB House. this poem begins, "September rain falls on the house." An appropriate way to begin this September/October exhibit and my brief commentaries. Note the wonderful hooked rug on the floor -- a hooked rug inside a hooked rug: "It was to be, says the Marvel Stove..." Bishop's grandmother and aunts all hooked rugs and Bishop vividly remembered "hooking bees" that happened at the house. Lighthall's inspired exhibit makes total organic sense in terms of the kinds of artisanal creativity Bishop experienced as a child. I must add that these rugs are also for sale. Lighthall tells me that she's already sold several of them.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 126: The Lowells, Part 2

Bishop’s final extant 1962 letter to her aunt is dated 22 September, from Rio. Nearly two months had passed since the previous epistle and she acknowledged right at the top that “it is ages since I wrote to you.” It was so long that Elizabeth Naudin “even telephoned this week saying that [Aunt] Mary said that you said you hadn’t heard from me!”  The family kept tabs, of a sort, on each other. Bishop confessed the silence had been caused by “lots of reasons.” The principle one, however, was the most complex, the visit of “my friend Robert Lowell his wife (also named Elizabeth), his 5½ year old daughter, Harriet, & a Radcliffe girl named Tony, to look after Harriet.” She couldn’t remember what she had already told her aunt about them, but noted that they had come “for one month, supposedly.” In the end, “they stayed on for two months,” because “apparently [they] had a good time.”

Bishop quickly observed that she was “awfully fond” of Lowell “of course,” but she had to “be frank with you!”: “it was pretty much of a strain.” She declared that she and Lota were “worn out.” Lota managed to get “off to work every afternoon” (the job with the park), “but I was right here.” Bishop took the brunt of their need to be entertained.

The Lowells had “stayed at Copacabana Palace,” where they “had a big apartment.” She and Lota had hosted them at Samambaia, “but only one week-end in all that time” (in addition to three trips to Cabo Frio, where they went “out on a boat”). This outline of accommodation and itinerary was not, however, what mattered to Bishop, as tiring as it was. She described her friends as “very bright, and ‘intellectual’,” positive enough attributes; but not sufficient qualities for parenting: “they have no more idea how to manage a small child, how to treat a small child, than a couple of fish.” 
(Copacabana Palace, circa 1960s)
“Poor little girl!” was Bishop’s take, because she was “about the worst child anyone has ever seen.” Bishop felt she and Lota were “pretty tough, and used to having children around,” but even these two seasoned babysitters “could only take one week-end.” Bishop quickly added that “no one blames the little girl,” describing her as “miserably unhappy.” But even conceding these assessments, “no one can stay in the room with her for more than ten minutes at a stretch.” Poor Harriet indeed! 
(Robert and Harriett Lowell)
When the one-month stay stretched into two, Bishop reported that they “sort of ran out of entertainment.” Bishop knew Lowell better than she knew Hardwick, but she “knew” enough to anticipate that this wife “wouldn’t like things here very much,” and that she was a “nagger.” Makes one wonder why the Lowells extended their stay.

If all of this was not difficult enough to navigate, Bishop paused briefly with “Well —” and then declared she would tell Grace “the worst,” adding immediately, “but please don’t repeat it to Mary because it would get back here, probably.” That eventuality was real enough from the opening of this very letter. Word got around, even across vast stretches of space-time. Bishop told Grace that she was trying to keep this “worst” as “quiet as I can,” even though it was really “no secret.” She just didn’t “want to talk about it here.” Upon reflection, she conceded that “everyone in N.Y. probably knows already!”

This worst involved “Lowell — Cal that is,” who Bishop declared “is my dearest friend, just about.” She assured Grace that she regarded Lowell as “a magnificent poet — but alas, he is schizophrenic,* and has breakdowns — every two or three years.” Bishop explained to her aunt that the “one reason why I only wanted them to stay for a month” was her knowledge of Lowell’s mental illness. And not too far into their visit, Bishop “could tell he was working up to one [a breakdown].” She noted with some incredulity that if she could see such a thing happening, “surely his wife must have realized it.” Even Lota could see it.

Perhaps Hardwick did realize it because after a quick ellipsis, Bishop noted that she and Harriett “went off by boat to N.Y. the 1st of the month,” leaving Lowell to go “off to Argentina for four days, supposedly — on the verge of a breakdown.” As one might expect, in such a state, Lowell “wouldn’t listen to anyone at that point.” Barely arrived in Argentina, the inevitable happened: “Of course he went to pieces.”

It was left to Bishop “to call in the U S embassy, etc — his doctor in N.Y. (fortunately we remembered the name).” Those who did the hands-on, managed to get him “locked up in a sanatarium [sic] in Buenos Aires” Bishop reported that “the latest idea is to send him back to NY on a U S Army plane — the airlines won’t take anyone in that condition, of course.” As Bishop was typing her letter, she noted that she was “expecting to hear from the Embassy here at any minute.”

Bishop’s summary terms for this situation were “an awful mess and an awful strain.” She told her aunt that she wouldn’t “feel much better until I know he’s back in N.Y. in a hospital there and with his own doctor.” As problematic as Lowell was, Bishop, perhaps unkindly, though perhaps understandably given the circumstances, observed: “I really think his wife is as crazy as he is” — or worse, in her view. Lowell was “perfectly sane most of the time and behaves sensibly, etc.” Elizabeth Hardwick, on the other hand, in Bishop’s opinion, was “just sort of crazy all the time!” She had to ask again, incredulity bursting forth, “How could she go off and leave him here?”

One of Bishop’s main aims was “to keep it out of the papers here if I can.” Scribbled in the margin with an “→” was, “they love gossip so.” Just like “poor little girl,” Bishop declared “Poor guy.” She averred that he “is a darling when he’s himself.”

Sounding weary, Bishop ended this saga with another “Well —” and the reiteration, “all this is why I haven’t written any letters, or done anything much, for the last six weeks, at least.”

This letter was only just getting started. Bishop had other things to update. The next post shifts focus to other stressful matters.


*Note: Lowell was bipolar, something quite different than schizophrenia. In a 14 June 1970 letter to Dorothee Bowie, Bishop applied this term not only Lowell, but also to her mother and Lota! Neither of these women suffered with this mental illness. Nor were they bipolar. Why someone as intelligent as Bishop used such a specific term incorrectly is odd. Perhaps she was using it in a common parlance way, like saying someone is “insane,” a kind of general label. Kay Redfield Jamison’s study Robert Lowell: Settingthe River on Fire: A study of Genius, Mania, and Character explores his mental illness in great depth and with deep compassion. I have tried to explore Gertrude’s illness in a similar way in my book Lifting Yesterday: Elizabeth Bishop and Nova Scotia. Carmen Oliveira writes about Lota’s illness in Rare and Common Place Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares, translated by Neil Besner. 

Thursday, September 12, 2019

New Elizabeth Bishop biography due out this fall

Bishop scholar Thomas Travisano's new biography is imminent. Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop, by Penguin/Random House/Viking will be published this fall. Check it out here.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Special event in Great Village on Friday 13 September

(Click image to enlarge)
If you are anywhere near Great Village on Friday, take in this evening event, featuring two artists from the U.K. I certainly wish that I could attend! Heather Tookey tells me that their project will have an electronic life, so if it is at all possible to share it online, I will pass on the way to do so. Thanks to Laurie Gunn and the St. James Church of Great Village Preservation Society for making such opportunities possible.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 125: More about babies

After the account of their recent company, Bishop turned to her cousin in the 31 July 1962 letter. And after having just praised Elizabeth Naudin’s daughters for being better behaved than Harriet Lowell, Bishop embarked on a rather critical account of her cousin’s parenting.

She began this critique with a positive, reiterating again that the “new baby is adorable,” describing her like “a pink doll, really.” But then she reported something alarming, “she had pneumonia, at 3 weeks.” She wondered if Grace had heard. “E spent several days in the hospital with her” because “she was in an oxygen tent.” Bishop suspected she had “caught a cold from one of the others, poor infant.” Bishop had seen Patricia last on 4 July “I think!” and “she looked fine.” Catching something from her sisters seemed inevitable to Bishop, “(grandma E know all!),” because they “have too damned many colds — one right after the other.” “Grandma E” believed it was so because their mother “never opens her window!” She also kept her daughters “indoors much too much of the time,” as least in Bishop’s opinion.

Having blurted all this out, she added a caution, “Of course I never breathe a word of this — so don’t you ..!” Bishop knew she shouldn’t “criticize … but when I go there I nearly stifle.” Frustratingly, for Bishop, her cousin’s home “has one of the most magnificent views in the world, honestly.” But rather than basking in it, “she stays indoors with all the venetian blinds drawn tight.” Bishop couldn’t understand this modus vivendi, wondering, “do you suppose it’s to spare the carpet?” Or, perhaps, it came “from having lived in a cold northern city all her life.” For Bishop, “one of the advantages of living here — where there are so many disadvantages — is that you can really live out-doors all year round.” To prove her point, she noted that it was “why I think L & I almost never have colds, grippe, etc.” Even though two previous letters had reported bad colds, first for Lota and then her.

After all this venting, Bishop concluded, rightly, “But it’s none of my damned business I know very well.”

She then shifted to a child much farther away: Miriam. She reported to her aunt that she had not “had a chance to see Decio (that doctor),”* who had caused Phyllis some offence. She was hoping that when she got “back to Samambaia,” where she hadn’t been “for 3 weeks now,” she would see him because he was “up there for a vacation,” so he would have “more time” to talk.

Bishop clearly thought a great deal about Phyllis’s daughter and observed, “I suffer whenever I think of poor little Miriam.” She felt her situation was “a cruel thing” and declared in characteristic parlance that “life can certainly be awful.”
(Grace and Miriam, 1961. Source: Acadia University Archives.) 
Another “//” signaled a shift to more baby news, this time for Grace: “I think you must have still another grandchild now, and hope all went well.” This baby was the first child of Bud and Lois Bowers. I never met Bud and Lois’s children, who all lived in Ontario. Bishop quickly noted that they were going to have “some mail sent down [from Samambaia] today,” so she was hoping “to hear from you.” Perhaps with news about theses new additions. Grace’s family was expanding quickly.

As her hurried letter began to wind down, she noted that she had “so much work to do I don’t know where to begin.” The apartment in Rio was too chaotic a place for her to work (undoubtedly, she missed her estudio): “the phone rings too much … too many interruptions … Lota is too busy.” She had decided to rent ‘a room from a friend,” a place to work. She would “go out every A M from 8 to 1.” They had decided that it was “the only solution.”

Another “//” began the final wind-down with a plea for her aunt to “forgive this confused and gossipy note.” She promised to “write more lucidly in August!” Their friends would “be off to Argentina & Peru by the 10th, I think.” She was sort of wrong about this prediction. The fact that “there are revolutions in ALL the countries here,” something of a “speciality [sic]” the continent provided “for distinguished guests,” perhaps spoke to the disaster that was about to unfold for Robert Lowell.

She signed off with “much love to you as always,” and turned back to the chaotic life she was leading at that moment.

The next post will take up Bishop’s final extant letter to Grace for 1962, accounting for the happenings with the Lowells and other news.

*Note: I have since discovered who the doctor Decio is: Decio Soares de Sousa.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 124: The Lowells arrive

Bishop next wrote to her aunt on 31 July 1962, two months after her previous letter of 31 May. The long gap was occasioned by the visit of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick, which was still happening at the time of this epistle, an event that caused Bishop all manner of stress. The first paragraph of what was, for Bishop, “a very hurried note,” outlined this reason, so as to “explain why I haven’t written before.” 
(Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick)
First, Bishop acknowledged receipt “your letter of the 24th of June.” She wanted to reassure her aunt that she hadn’t “forgotten you, & shall write at length when I have time.” Even though Bishop clearly was in a rush, she still took time to sketch the basics of the main cause of the delay.

She vaguely remembered that she “may have told” her aunt about this visit when she last wrote, and confirmed that “my friends the Lowells came, around July 1st.” Already a month into the visit, Bishop reported that it “has kept us awfully busy.” She quickly qualified, “ — though a great pleasure to see them and to be able to talk to him about writing, etc.” She noted that both Lowell and Hardwick had already “given several talks,” and she and Lota “had them up for week-ends.” But her concern about the cooking that she had mentioned in passing in the May letter had come to pass. She noted that they had “no cook — she ran away again, for good this time.” One has to observe that it might not be so surprising that Maria would vanish, given the criticism that Bishop often expressed in her letters to her aunt — even as patient as Bishop perhaps tried to be, Maria would grasp the issue. That said, Maria was also married, yet the husband stayed, and Bishop noted that “the husband and I manage somehow!”

They had also taken the Lowells “to Cabo Frio for 4 days,” trying hard to find things to do because “the organization that invited them did absolutely nothing in the way of publicity, entertaining, arranging, etc.” As a result, “Lota and I had to do it all.” Amid this doing, Bishop tossed off: “plus a ‘revolution’ now over.” Just what she is referring to is unclear. Brazilian politics in early 1962 were nothing if not volatile. In July, the Prime Minister changed, but President Goulart remained in power. Whatever this event was, it registered only as a glancing reference for Bishop.

The element that made this extended visit the most problematic was not politics or too much cooking, it was “the fact that they brought their 5½ year old child with them.” In addition, there was “a college girl to look after” this child. Bishop scribbled: “(now left)” in the margin next to this line. Five extra people were rather a lot when all Lota and Bishop had for transportation was “a tiny Volkswagon [sic] car.”

At the time Bishop wrote this hurried letter, Lowell was “off now seeing a few places on his own.” Bishop so wished that she “could have gone with him, but couldn’t.” The reason for this confinement was “the wife alone at the hotel with the child.” Bishop felt she couldn’t leave them, partly because “the child [is] a horribly behaved little girl — poor thing.” Bishop readily asserted that her behavior was not “her fault.” She laid the blame at the feet of the parents: “they are just too ‘intellectual’ … to know how to treat a small child.” This “complicated” situation meant that “we suffer.”

Bishop had enough experience with other children to have some perspective on this little visitor. She noted that Monica, Mary Morse’s adopted child, “is such an angel and so happy compared to her [Harriet Lowell].” Further, “so are E’s little girls.” She noted that “Suzanne [was] the same age,” so she was “trying to get them together to play.” The problem with this plan was that “E has been up in “Terezopolis [sic] for 2 weeks,” because of “school holidays.” But they were returning that very day, so perhaps the plan could manifest.

Based on what happened during this visit, Bishop’s account is the barest outline. She offered a much more detailed explanation in her last extant letter to Grace in 1962, written near the end of September. For now, this hurried note continued with a “gossipy” paragraph about Elizabeth Naudin, particularly about her parenting skills, and then a concluding paragraph with a few updates and projections. The next post will tackle these bits and pieces.

Click here to see Post 123.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 123: Foreshadow

Bishop concluded her 31 May 1962 letter with a paragraph filled with updates and news. First, she noted that she had “been to see Elizabeth [Naudin] twice since she got home with Partricia.” This new member of the Naudin family “was 18 days old the last time” Bishop saw her. Bishop described her as “a lovely pink baby, trying to raise her head and eating like a little pig.” Patricia’s sisters, Suzanne and Diane, “naturally have rather mixed feelings — love and hate her at the same time!” How sibling-less Bishop comprehended the response of these two “little girls” is a question, but she was an active observer of children and Lota’s adopted son had a brood, so she had had a chance to watch sibling interaction up close.

In her previous letter to Grace, early in May, she had noted that Lota was sick with a cold. Now she reported that she had “a horrid cold this week.” Grace must have reported the same condition because Bishop quickly wrote, “I hope yours is better!” Bishop noted that she “rarely gets colds,” so she was “furious” because “they immediately turn to asthma.” In this instance. Bishop reported that she was “wheezing like a grampus.”

In response to something Grace, a career nurse, wrote, Bishop observed, “Yes, I don’t believe much in all those medicines, either.” She noted that she was “allergic to penicillin so that’s no help to me!”

With her characteristic “//” Bishop shifted gears to some interesting news, reporting that “my friend Robert Lowell, his wife [Elizabeth Hardwick], daughter [Harriet] — age 6 — and a Radcliffe girl to take care of the daughter, all are arriving the end of June.” She noted that this group would be staying “for a month,” though not with her and Lota. Lowell and Hardwick would be “lecturing” and “will be entertained.” Even so, Bishop anticipated that they would be “pretty busy too, having them up to the house, etc.”

She told her aunt that Lowell was “my best friend — he and Lota are.” Yet she stated with some force that she was “dreading … all the COOKING — since our cook can’t boil an egg.” (Maria had been spared comment for some time but couldn’t escape criticism in this state of anticipation.)

Bishop reminded Grace that she had “sent you the page from TIME with him, another poet friend, and me, on it — some time in March.” But since Grace had not responded, Bishop “guess[ed] you never got it.”

Then another “//” shift and a more positive observation: “I am loving the G V book [History of Great Village] and am working on a long story using a lot of information from it.” Bishop is undoubtedly talking about her memoir about Arthur Bulmer, “Memories of Uncle Neddy.” Though not published until 1977, this piece came together when she had received the portraits of her mother and Arthur as children. The Great Village history was an excellent source of the kinds of details for which she was looking.

Yet another “//” and a return to her cousin and her new baby, confirming to Grace that she had written to “you the day after E’s baby was born here — you asked about that — so do you suppose that’s still another one missing?” One solution to the poor mail service was to “mail everything from Petropolis from now on.”

She concluded her short letter by saying she hoped “you are better,” and that she didn’t “know where to send this — G V or N[ew] G[lasgow].” Grace was clearly back from Florida because Bishop commiserated with her: “your trip does sound uncomfortable,” and “I loathe flying, too,” noting, “I always take lots of sedatives!” This latter declaration was typed vertically on the left side of the page. She crammed in one more question: “Did Hazel forward my B[razil] book from Florida or did it come direct?” That wayward volume was a long time getting to her aunt. She signed off with a scribbled “much love, Elizabeth,” because there was no more room on the page to type it.

Bishop’s next letter was not written until the end of July, a two-month break, because that fateful visit by Lowell and Hardwick came off with a rather troubling conclusion. The next post will begin that story.

Click here to see Post 122.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

To Teach by Helen Cannon

In a 1972 letter to Dr. Anny Bowman, Miss Bishop, teaching then as an ad hoc instructor at Harvard, writes, “Now I must get ready for the 2 p.m. seminar — look up all the words in the dictionary so that I’ll know them when the students don’t, & they’ll think I’m awfully smart.” (One Art 575)

This small note says a good deal about Bishop’s teaching methods and attitudes — pedagogy and philosophy that likely were classes outmoded even then and certainly would be now, but that I, as a teacher, take as model and reinforcement. In fact, what I know about Elizabeth Bishop as a teacher has served me during twelve years of my own teaching. Dana Gioia’s 1986 New Yorker tribute to Miss Bishop as his teacher and her own letters about her teaching have presented me with validation for my own outmoded pedagogy. Utah State University, where I teach literature and writing, is obviously not the Harvard where Bishop taught in the seventies, and I’m a far cry from “Miss Bishop,” yet I identify with her as teacher ever so strongly.

It was 1975 when Gioia registered for Harvard’s 285: Studies in Modern Poetry: Miss Elizabeth Bishop, Instructor. Bishop was then 65 and something of a novice at university teaching, having resisted it for years. This year I turn 60. I boast no titles or rank; I’ve come late to my profession — yet I believe I know some true things about teaching and recognize my teaching philosophy in what I can learn of Bishop’s method.

When Miss Bishop did reluctantly enter the academic stream, she was swimming against the current. And Gioia himself was in a backwater in signing up for this class, when others were crowding into seminars taught by Robert Lowell and by Northrop Frye, who was a visiting professor at Harvard for a year and whose lectures “drew audiences of nearly a thousand.”
By contrast, Bishop’s course enrollment, according to Gioia, started with eleven undergraduates and himself, the only graduate student in the class — until the second session when the original twelve “dwindle down to five.” His remembered enrollment sparseness may be open to question. In a 1972 letter, Bishop indicates she was anything but wanting for students. “About 40 people or more,” she writes “[are] trying to get into the writing class (of ten) and I think about 60 showed up for the ‘Modern Poetry’ one yesterday.” (One Art 573) Never very secure about how she would be received at Harvard, she had written in 1970 to Frani Blough Muser, “I had an awful thought …. ‘What if no one signs up for my two courses?’ …. I needn’t have worried — all the usual nuts and freaks seem to want to take ‘Advanced Verse Writing’.”  Then she continues in her self-mocking vein, “I’m the kind of teacher — when one polite boy gave me a Lily cup to put ashes in, I immediately set it on fire.” (One Art 532)

I find myself wondering how Elizabeth Bishop would conduct her classes and seminars now and how she would be received by contemporary students and associates. In 1975, according to Gioia, “Her manner was at odds with the academic glamour of Harvard, her conversation not designed to impress.” (90)

We have reason to believe — even given Bishop’s openness, awareness, and flexibility — that she would not align herself with postmodern camps of criticism, seeing every text as concealing some ideology. Would she capitulate to ponderous jargon in her teaching and criticism? Would she be caught up in critical issues of race, gender, and class?

The very questions I pose here reveal my own teaching biases, of course. As Helen Vendler (a critic Bishop admired and quoted) observes, “Every critical set of questions precludes another set of questions. Therefore, every insight requires a kind of blindness to other possibilities …. Every insight, in other words, is blind.”

My deconstruction of Gioia’s tribute and of Bishop’s own pedagogical observations about herself reflect my own biases as much as they may accurately show Bishop’s teaching methods or predict what might have been her stance in the postmodern nineties. The Miss Bishop I hold as model is, I realize, partly my own wishful construction, but her methods — real or imagined — as I employ them are still viable even today, when the very nature of teaching and learning seems to have dramatically changed.

How did she teach? I can only suggest, based on a student’s tribute and on her own casual and epistolary comments, the likelihoods.

A teacher’s methods reveal much of personality. Bishop as teacher could not be other than her courteous, unaffected, intelligent self. James Merrill described Bishop’s poetry as “more unaffectedly intelligent than any written in our lifetime.” That refusal of affectation spilled over into her teaching. Neither in her lines nor in her association or her teaching could she countenance sham, pretension, or pomp. Gioia remembers her first day seminar comments: “I’m not a very good teacher. So, to make sure you learn something in this class I am going to ask each of you to memorize at least ten lines a week from one of the poets we are reading.”  Eyebrows raised; eyes rolled upward. How démodé! How decidedly uncool! But as Gioia indicates, how effective!

Miss Bishop claimed to have little use for literary criticism then, and I postulate, would like its predilection for obtuseness even less today. In 1950 she wrote for John Ciardi’s Mid-Century American Poets anthology:

The analysis of poetry is growing more and more pretentious and deadly. After a session with a few highbrow magazines, one doesn’t want to look at a poem for weeks, much less start writing one …. This does not mean that I am opposed to all close analysis and criticism. But I am opposed to making poetry monstrous or boring and proceeding to talk the very life out of it. (267)

Gioia asserts that her attitudes had only hardened on this subject by the time he took her seminar. (95)

Still, I believe, she would be taking her students to the lines rather than sending them to the critics or to the surround, bent on unmasking the hegemonic and oppressive in every reading. Deconstruction, in terms of acknowledging what people bring to a text, would not, though, be foreign to her method — just not central to it. “Use the dictionary,” she advised. “It’s better than the critics.” (Gioia 91) As Gioia sees it in retrospect, Bishop “had no system, and her practice of close reading had little in common with the disciples of New Criticism …. Nor did she see poems in any historical perspective. Good poems existed for her in a sort of eternal present.” (90‒1) That is not to say the poems under consideration yielded little beyond Formalist analysis. She provided what I call gloss, taking time with a word or line because it reminded her of so many things — “wildflowers, New Jersey, the medical profession, modern painting,” making the passage “come alive through a brilliant, unexpected observation.” (93) Yet silly, speculative, far-afield notes she found anathema. She wrote to John Frederic, who was using some of her poems in a college textbook he was editing. To his planned footnotes, Bishop took strong exception:

I don’t think there should be ANY footnotes. You say the book is for college students, and I think anyone who gets as far as college should be able to use a dictionary. If a poem catches a student’s interest at all, he or she should damned well be able to look up an unfamiliar word in the dictionary. (I know they don’t — or most of them don’t — but they should be made to somehow …) ….‘Isinglass’ is in the dictionary; so is ‘gunnel’…; so is ‘thwarts’.” (One Art 638)

Certainly, Bishop examined form — concerned herself and her students with matters of rhythm and images — the music of the lines — but again, this was not by way of secondary analysis. One would-be poet, who inquired and met qualifications for Bishop’s reply, elicited an articulate statement of her beliefs about the teaching and writing of poetry. It’s a long, very giving, letter, but among other things, she reaffirms:

From what you say, I think perhaps you are actually trying too hard — or reading too much about and not enough poetry. Prosody — metrics — etc. are fascinating — but they all come afterwards, obviously. And I always ask my writing classes not to read criticism. (One Art 596)

What does she suggest to one who would write and understand? “Read a lot of poetry —all the time — and not [just] 20th-century poetry …. Then the great poets of our own century … — and not just 2 or 3 poems each… — read ALL of somebody. Then read his or her life and letters.” (596)

So, she suggests primary reading, thorough reading that transcends boundaries of our own time and place. She then adds that willpower and study alone can’t “do it.” A maverick in her time and at Harvard, she would be, I assert, a maverick teacher still,
at whatever learning institution.

She would take her teaching assignment very seriously, never becoming easeful or complacent at it — in fact seeing it as greater and greater responsibility. “I taught this last term and it seems to grow harder rather than easier.” (One Art 585) And in a postcard dated January 8, 1971, “I’ve been up to my neck in student papers, letters, etc. One boy has given me 280 poems, all apparently written within three months.” (One Art 539)

She obviously read these student efforts with the same care she would use in reading a Stevens poem, say, or Coleridge, or Auden; she took these novice works entirely seriously and commented on them much more than cursorily. Think of the time she must have taken with Gioia’s final paper (along with every other student essay that came in with it.) Gioia writes:

Flipping through my essay, I saw that every page had dozens of corrections, queries, deletions, and suggestions in Miss Bishop’s spidery hand. Some pages had obviously been worked over three times — once in blue ink, then in red, and finally in the proverbial blue pencil. In horror I began reading marginal comments like ‘Awful expression,’ ‘Unnecessary phrase,’ ‘A mouthful,’ ‘Not in the diction­ary’ — most of which were followed by and exclamation point, as was her ubiqui­tous and incontrovertible ‘No!’ An occasional ‘Better’ or ‘Yes’ (no excla­mation point) did little to revive my self-confidence. I had been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Only then did I turn to the covering letter, which began:
            Dear Mr. Gioia,
           You’ll see that I have made many, many small marks and suggestions on your
paper, but this is really because it is very good, very well-expressed, and I’d just
like it to be even better-expressed, and here and there to read more smoothly. (98)

It doesn’t take much deduction to see Miss Bishop, the teacher, to have been reasonable, courteous, self-effacing, well-prepared, giving, disarmingly human, and at the same time stringent and exacting. “I should be writing that exam — I think I’ll make it terribly hard. One boy — young man, actually, 25, I think — told Alice [Methfessel] that my course was the hardest he’d ever taken! I was amazed — it seemed too easy to me.” (One Art 553)

And, clearly, she would align herself with no camps that were rigidly defined and exclusive rather than inclusive. When Ann Stanford proposed a women’s poetry anthology, Bishop wanted nothing to do with it: “WHY ‘Women in Literature’? No — it’s The Women Poets in English, I see, but still, WHY? Why not Men Poets in English? Don’t you see how silly it is? (One Art 549)

But then she gently cautioned May Swenson, to whom she was confiding:

(But please don’t tell Ann Stanford just how silly & wrong I feel it to be — and always have.  I am writing her a gentle note.) Literature is literature no matter who produces it …. I don’t like things compartmentalized like that …. but I wouldn’t want to say very much [to Ann] & perhaps make her uncomfortable with her project — so you see I’m no crusader. (549)

I try to keep myself abreast of current pedagogical theory. I realize that I am seldom a practitioner of the “democratized” class or of “decentralized” teaching. I hold in my mind the image of Miss Bishop (who did it her way); I realize that she was the center. However much she respected her students — however much she rejected the notion of tabula rasa, she also refused to mythologize the student as preeminent. Even while she acknowledged the validity of their experience and accepted them for being their unpredictable, independent and beautiful selves, she maintained her role as teacher. I want no better model; I want no theorist to teach me further. And my view of dying with my boots on finds analogue and appeal in Bishop’s teaching dedication to the last. I cannot ever read her last instructions without weeping and wishing.

Miss Bishop is in [hospital] & is very sorry she will be unable to meet her classes this week. She will meet them on Oct. 7th and 8th.
1.      Will English 285 continue please continue studying all the [Theodore] Roethke poems in the Norton Anthology.
2.      The list of students for English 582 will be posted here by noon on October 7th. In the meantime, please try to finish a ballad (at least 8 stanzas). It can rhyme a-b-c-b or a-b-a-b. (One Art 637)

Works Cited
Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: Letters. Robert Giroux, ed. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994.
John Ciardi, Mid-Century American Poets. New York: Twayne, 1950.
Dana Gioia, “Studying with Miss Bishop,” The New Yorker (15 September 1986).
James Merrill, The New York Review of Books (6 December 1979), p. 6.
Helen Vendler, undated, unpublished taped interview, Anne Shifrer.
I met Helen Cannon in person the summer of 1997 when she visited Nova Scotia for the first time, though I had been in contact with her for some time before then. When we set up the EB100 blog for the centenary in 2011, Helen contributed a “First Encounter.” I am delighted to post her essay about how Bishop inspired her teaching, written many years ago, but shared with a wider audience only now. 

(Helen and Sandra on the steps of the EB House in 1997.
The house was then owned by Paul Tingley.
Photo by Anne Shifrer.)
Helen Cannon is an educator, reader, learner, and giver.  When she and Larry married, he was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. She took classes there to complete requirements to graduate in English from Utah State University. After they returned to Logan for her husband’s job, Helen worked at the USU Herbarium before beginning a graduate program in English. She started as a graduate instructor in 1987, thus beginning her love for teaching. After the completion of her M.S. she began teaching full time in the English Department. With encouragement from a USU colleague, Helen created a new course that used the New Yorker magazine as textbook. She required her students to respond to items in the magazine as part of their learning to read as writers. Helen firmly believes that reading and writing go hand-in-hand, and she was thrilled in the delight her students took in their assignments. Helen’s teaching experience even inspired her to write a book, “Teaching with the New Yorker.” Her class was a resounding success. Many former students keep in touch with Helen and say that her New Yorker class was something they will never forget. Helen and Larry have given generously to many areas of the university, and established Honors Scholarships in their names. Aside from their time at the university, Larry and Helen make time to enjoy life in Cache Valley, their “soul home,” including hiking, cross-country skiing, and canoeing. Their favorite at-home time involves reading, alone, and aloud together. “There are too many books and never enough time.”

Friday, August 16, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 122: Checks and balances

Bishop’s next letter to Grace, dated “Rio, May 31st, 1962” (the proper month this time) was a brief epistle that expressed a fair degree of frustration. The principle cause was late-arriving, aborted or lost letters — and problems with a gift Bishop had sent.

Bishop was responding to a letter she had received from her aunt, but she was late getting it because it had been sent to Petrópolis and Bishop was now in Rio most weeks. She began her letter saying she still had one “I wrote you last Friday,” one she had “never got a chance to mail.” When she and Lota returned to Samambaia on the weekend, she found “yours of the 12th.” She decided to forget “my old one” and “just write you another note.”

It was clear to Bishop that letters were getting lost, “oh dear!” Most importantly, Bishop reported that she “never got yours with the returned check in it.” This item was the cost of living bonus she had received from The New Yorker, which she had just signed over to Grace to help with her Florida visit. Grace’s letter from 12 May did not mention Bishop’s previous letter, so she assumed “apparently you never got mine with the page from TIME in it.” Grace did eventually get that letter, but space-time, Grace’s travels, and Bishop’s back and forth between homes were wreaking havoc with the ebb and flow of correspondence.
(After reading the last post, a friend found an actual copy
of the March 1962 TIME online, bought it and
sent it to me. This is the page with EB's photograh
and part of the review of her work.)
Bishop also assumed Grace had not received the letter “in which I tried to clear up what I’d meant about the child-psychologist here.” So important was this matter to Bishop that she wanted to “say it again: I’m sure you know I wouldn’t ‘interfere’ for the world.” She declared once again that “everything you’ve said about Miriam’s treatment since birth sounds absolutely up-to-date and right.” Still, in her defense, Bishop couldn’t help but add again, “it isn’t every day one gets a chance to talk to one of Melanie Klein’s few students.” She was quite sure Miriam’s doctor would “know who she was, too,” Bishop reiterating that Klein, “[who]died a few years ago; worked for years and years in England … and for nothing.” 
(This is a print of the original photo Bishop provided TIME
for this piece. This print was sent to Grace and is signed on the
lower left corner. Grace framed it. It was passed on to Phylli
 and now is part of the Bulmer family material at Acadia
University. This image was taken at Samambaia.
When I visited that amazing place in 1999, I and others went
looking for this spot and found it, near her studio.)
Bishop’s child-psychologist friend “gets about $50. an hour, even here.” All she thought was that “he might have some bright ideas about later education, possibilities, ways of helping her to keep up with the rest, etc.” Bishop had told Grace that this person was their neighbor in the country, but she noted this time that she hadn’t “run into him lately,” so a consultation was, in the end, “beside the point.” She asked Grace again to “tell P[hyllis] I’m sure she’s doing a fine job.” Bishop just felt that it couldn’t “do any harm, can it, to talk to someone whose speciality [sic] is such things?” She reported once again that this doctor had “just got back from lecturing in Europe on things just like Miriam’s case.”

In the end Grace received both the previous letter, with Bishop’s lengthy explanation and clarification, and this addendum. So, in the end, Phyllis would have heard emphatically about her cousin’s good intentions.

The other matter Bishop wanted to address, which upset her considerably, was the “returned check.” She noted again that “letters and checks take so long,” and clearly were prone to “getting lost.” Grace had received that monetary gift from her niece but when she went to cash it, it bounced! Bishop’s explanation was as follows: the account on which the check had been drawn was one she set up “just for convenience while we were in N Y and for a month or so afterwards.” Because the check was likely delayed in getting to Grace (travelling around as she was), by the time it reached her, Bishop had closed the account without realizing there were still “two checks … outstanding — yours, and my telephone bill!” She had “straightened out the phone bill — but what to do about my ‘present’.” “Some present!” she said in exasperation. Her solution was to send “another check, un-bouncable [sic] this time — for the same amount.” Grace must have mentioned that the penalty for an NSF check was “%10,” as Bishop wrote it. Bishop hoped “surely you didn’t pay the percentage ahead of time?” She asked Grace to “let me know,” and she would “see what I can do.” The remaining money in the New York account had been “all transferred to Pittsfield, my regular account.”

Typed across the top of the page, like a masthead, was Bishop’s original intention that this “present” was “to help out in Florida,” but her aunt could just “use it on yourself, now!”

This brief letter wound down with one large paragraph containing a few updates and one interesting bit of news. The next blog will deal with this conclusion.

Click here to see Post 121.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 121: Health and well being

The next item Bishop mentions in her “April [sic: May] 3rd — 1962” letter was the old Time-Life-Brazil-book hobbyhorse. Grace’s letter conveying Phyllis’s upset around Bishop’s suggestions for Miriam did not contain any confirmation about this gift, prompting Bishop to write: “Have you got your Brazil book yet?” She had received word that “all the other U S copies seem to have arrived,” and even “[Aunt] Mary got hers 1st because they sent out ‘foreign’ copies earlier.” But Grace had been travelling, which likely explains the delay. Grace most definitely got a copy. It is now at the Acadia University Archives.

Once again, Bishop urged her aunt to “Please remember — the pictures weren’t my doing, nor the captions under them, nor the chapter-titles!” This book continued to plague and frustrate Bishop. Explaining it had become an obsession.

Then came an update about Aunt Florence, who Bishop had heard “was very far gone.” Her cousin Nancy “was even sent by Aunt F’s own doctor to make funeral arrangements” because he had been unable to “find her pulse and said she couldn’t possibly live through the afternoon.” Cranky old Florence had other ideas. Nancy reported that upon returning that evening “Aunt F opened her eyes and said ‘Where have you been? They forgot to give me my breakfast and I’m starving’.” Though amazed by “that vitality,” Bishop still “wish[ed] the poor thing would quietly die in her sleep now — she is too miserable.”

The next update was about their recent Easter holiday, which was “very quiet … or not so quiet, I guess — people arrived unexpectedly one day and we had eight for dinner and I had to cook it all.” Surprisingly, Bishop didn’t go on about their poor cook Maria — another obsession. Instead, she reported that “Lota was in bed with flu, and still had a bad cough.” Not only had Bishop done the cooking but she had done the shopping, a special trip which she recounted for her aunt. One of their “American acquaintance[s] … whose husband works for the U S government here, took me to the Post Exchange,” this oddly named place was “the big store where government employees can buy things, cheap — U S goods.” Even though Bishop had “no right to go there, being a private citizen,” she relished the opportunity and had “fun for once and I laid in a supply of good flour and a lot of odds & ends.” One of the treats, “just for sentiment’s sake,” was “two boxes of frozen blueberries,” which meant “blueberry pancakes — with maple syrup.” Yes, the syrup Grace had sent them a while back. Bishop reported that she still had “almost a quart left,” which she was “hoarding like a miser.” The real treat was “a huge T-bone steak,” not available in Brazil because “they cut meat completely differently here.” This delicacy cost only “$1.60,” which Bishop observed was “cheap in either country!” She also bought “little pork sausages — they don’t make them here.”

Perhaps because Lota was sick and finding herself getting seriously embroiled in the politics of the big park project, Bishop told her aunt that they had “about decided when Lota gets fed up with this job — or gets kicked out,” they would “retire to Petropolis and start farming.” Bishop’s plan was to “raise pigs. I adore pigs — too much to have them killed, I’m afraid, but maybe I could toughen up.” Grace’s husband William Bowers had been a pig farmer and Bishop’s visit to Elmcroft in 1946 had triggered her poem “The Prodigal,” in which pigs figure prominently.

Bishop then informed Grace that she “must go to the dentist.” Bishop had ongoing issues with her teeth. She had “had a tooth out last week,” which resulted, “oh dear,” in “another awful gap,”

The final paragraph of this letter shifted focus to Grace. Bishop wondered again if her aunt had “got all my letters — silly question!” She knew that Grace was still in Florida so added, “Give my love to Aunt Mabel and Hazel.” This letter was the first of 1962 to be addressed directly to Hollywood, Florida. Bishop had finally caught up with Grace, who must have spent some time in “The state with the prettiest name.”

She urged her aunt again “please write me.” Then realized that “you probably have and I just haven’t got it yet.” She hoped that her beloved aunt was “well — how’s the leg? The heart? — All the organs?” Then she asked if Grace had “tried Metracal [sic: Metrecal] for keeping the weight down?” Bishop noted that she and Lota “use it for lunch here in Rio — to save time and cooking, and also to keep thin.” Her recommendation was lukewarm: “it isn’t bad, particularly flavored with coffee, I think.”

She concluded her letter with another “Please write soon,” and also a plea to “explain to Phyllis, won’t you?” She trailed off, reiterating, “I had no idea of being bossy or anything —” and her usual “Much love.”

The next letter from Bishop is also dated from Rio, 31 May 1962, probably the correct month this time, and will be the subject of the next post.

Click here to see Post 120.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 120: More babies

Bishop’s next letter to her aunt is dated from Rio, 3 April 1962, but the month is incorrect, based on something she wrote in the second paragraph. Bishop occasionally mixed up days, months or years (don’t we all!). She had received a letter from Grace, a significant enough prompt, but there was also family news to convey, which is where Bishop started — though in all likelihood, Grace had already heard the news (or would have by the time Bishop’s letter arrived).

Bishop reported that Ray Naudin “just called up to say that Elizabeth had had a successful Caesarian operation early this morning and had another little girl.” This child was their third and the name they chose “so far” was “Patricia Ray.” Bishop noted that “they may change the name,” but they didn’t. Bishop wasn’t too fond of the name Patricia, but she conceded that it sounded “nice with Naudin (better than the other little girls’ names do, I think!).” She then observed that in Brazil “there’s no such name as Ray,” noting that Brazilians would pronounce it “Rah-ee!” Her cousin “wants to spell it RAE,” though that would not change its Brazilian pronunciation. Fortunately, “Patricia is almost the same in both languages, which is useful for here.” Why the Brazilian “Ray” Naudin was so named, is unknown; but this third daughter was to be her father’s namesake.

Bishop reported that her cousin was “at the ‘Strangers’ Hospital’ — quite good one, run just like an American hospital,” and that she would “call on her” the next day. So typical was it of the era that even Bishop couldn’t help but say, “too bad she wasn’t a boy,” partly because “I think it’s to be E’s last.” All families wanted a son in those days, though Bishop noted that “Ray sounded very cheerful.”

Then Bishop turned to another family child: Miriam. The next paragraph is a lengthy explanation and clarification concerning something Bishop had written to Phyllis, whose response appears to have been defensive and expressed to Grace, who passed it on to Bishop in her most recent letter. Some letters to Phyllis exist, so perhaps the offending letter is extant, though I’ve never had these letters copied and sent to me (something I must rectify).

Bishop commenced by confessing that she had “mislaid your last letter, oh dear,” in which Phyllis’s offended sensibility was conveyed. She had “put it carefully with the others I meant to answer and left them all up in the country.” They had been at Samambaia for “a long week-end, over May Day” (hence, the month “April” being a mistake) and had returned to Rio the previous day. Even though she didn’t have Grace’s epistle at hand, she well enough “remember[ed] I did want to say something, though.” Her claim was that “I’m afraid Phyllis misunderstood what I meant about talking to the child analyst here about Miriam.”

Bishop had been eager for all news about this new family member, who was now nearly a year old, feeling concerned and hopeful about her development. Though childless, Bishop had had plenty of children in her daily life since moving to Brazil and she had strong opinions about parenting. Clearly, she wanted to be helpful and involved in some way in her Nova Scotia cousin’s life and had offered some advice or opinion. Yet, even the articulate letter-writer Bishop managed to offend. Though Phyllis was also likely quite sensitive about her new Downs Syndrome daughter, for which they had excellent care in place. In any case, Bishop noted the trouble by observing: “Letters are so dangerous that way!” This observation makes one think of today’s communications, the strange realm of email, texting and tweeting, which can cause all manner of misunderstanding.

Bishop pleaded with Grace to “tell her [Phyllis] for me,” that “everything she’s said about her doctor in New Glasgow sounds absolutely fine.” This doctor “sounds wonderful,” “right up to date,” and had “handled everything just as well as any doctor anywhere could.” Bishop assured Grace that she had “meant no criticism.”

Part of Bishop’s advice had been that Phyllis could consult with a friend of hers, someone who had once been “a practicing physician for a long time,” but who “got interested in psychiatry and went to England to study with this famous old lady, Dr. Klein.” She meant, of course, Melanie Klein, who was “now dead — who was recognized as the greatest child-psychologist in the world — honestly!” Bishop had had her own interest in Kleinian psychology in her 20s, when she was trying to figure out the impact of her childhood, and at a time when Klein was establishing herself. 
As for Bishop’s friend, his training with Klein was a rare matter, as “she didn’t take many student-doctors.” Now this friend taught “other child-doctors and psychiatrists — besides working with tiny children himself.” Bishop assured Grace that he was “probably one of the few such well-trained men around.” She felt that access to his expertise was “too good an opportunity” to miss; a mistake “NOT to talk to him.” Part of her argument was that consulting “anyone like him in Montreal or New York would cost thousands of $$$ probably.” Besides his impressive c.v., he was also “a neighbor of ours [on] week-ends and we’re friendly.”

Bishop reiterated that “Phyllis’s doctor is undoubtedly handling the baby just as well as anyone could,” and in the end “love is what really counts.” Even so, Bishop “thought Decio (my friend’s name) might have some ideas from the psychological side.” Perhaps he might “know some ways of teaching her how to learn more quickly, how she can be educated to get along as normally as possible.” This kind of thing was “exactly his line of work.”

Bishop paused at this point with a characteristic “Heavens.” And an assurance that she did not “want to be interfering!” To bolster her good intention further, she noted that her friend “has a huge room filled with wonderful miniature toys and all sorts of things for working with … sometimes very disturbed children.” Moreover, he “is such a nice, kind man — small children adore him — (or he wouldn’t be in that line of work, after all.)”

Not wanting to make matters worse, Bishop asked her aunt if she should write again to Phyllis, reiterating that her cousin had “misunderstood what I meant.” She conceded that it likely “sounded odd” to suggest that Sutherlands “consult a Brazilian doctor,” yet he had “studied in England for 6 years,” and recently had “come back from giving lectures all over Europe on this very thing.” This “odd chance” that such an expert “happen[ed] to be a friend & neighbor of mine,” compelled Bishop to present her suggestion of a consultation. But she left it at that, the place where she acknowledged “from everything” Grace had told her, Miriam “has been treated in the best possible way ever since she was born.”

Space and time were effective barriers in terms of the practical side of things in this instance, but Bishop felt close and interested enough in her aunt’s family to want to offer some sort of contribution to this challenging situation. Happily, Miriam grew to be a wonderful human being and Bishop got to meet her in the early 1970s and they hit it off just fine.

The next part of this letter offered a number of updates, which will comprise the next post.