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

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.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

"Con Spirito": New film about Elizabeth Bishop's time at Vassar College

Actor and film-maker Alex Sarrigeorgiou will premiere her film “Con Spirito” about Elizabeth Bishop’s years at Vassar College during the Vassar Film Festival in Washington DC on 20 October 2019. You can find out more about Alex and her film by going to her Kickstarter campaign page (great to see she got some serious support so that the film could be finished). We hope she will find a way to screen this film somewhere in Canada – perhaps at the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax, N.S., where John Scott, Barbara Hammer and Lucy Baretto screened their films about Bishop. Indeed, John Scott’s film is close to completion and we’ll keep you informed of its progress.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 119: Eely Slickness (!?)

Bishop’s next letter to her aunt, dated Rio, 23 March [1962], just over a month after the previous epistle, is a short, hand-written scrawl that accompanied a clipping from the 9 March 1962 issue of Time. 
(This cover shows writer Tennessee Williams.) 
(Page one of the article in question. Click image to enlarge.)
The clipping was the article “Poetry in English 1945‒62,” in which Bishop was featured, along with a host of other contemporary poets, almost all male (Adrianne Rich gets a passing reference). Reading this piece now makes one cringe because of its sexist tone and tenor.
(Page two of the article in question.)
In this context, it is surprising that Bishop got a section of her own, especially since her work is described as having an “eely slickness” that is “sometimes repellent”! Her work has “little human warmth, no specific temperature.”*
(Page three of the article in question.)
Perhaps what the writer objected to was the fact that she did not have what he identified elsewhere as Rich’s “feminine charm … coupled with a feminine shrewdness.” Well, one must laugh out loud reading that observation, in light of what Rich became for the women’s movement. The critic did concede that Bishop had “a gift of imagery” and “a woman’s eye as keen as any since Virginia Woolf’s,” but how that makes her work “eely” and cold seems is puzzling and perhaps something of a contradiction. Even in 1962, Bishop was an enigma.

Bishop began her letter wondering “Maybe you didn’t see this …?” Sending it to her aunt wasn’t “very modest of me!” But considering the lukewarm, even negative critique of her, it is a wonder Bishop wanted to send it at all. Still, there she was in Time, about as mainstream as you could get in 1962. Perhaps she was included because of her work on the Time-Life Brazil book, the subject of which comprised most of the rest of the letter.

She noted first that she hadn’t “heard from you for a long time now.” Grace was in Florida with her sister-in-law and niece, so perhaps she was busy. Bishop thought “maybe a letter got lost?” She couldn’t remember the date of Grace’s last letter and she couldn’t “find it,” but remembered it was “some time ago.” In any case, she assured her aunt: “I answered it.” She had “heard from Mary last week,” who herself was “just leaving for Florida, too.” Clearly, a reunion between the sisters was in the works.
Then Bishop asked if Grace had “got the BRAZIL book?” This tiresome project was still plaguing Bishop and she was finding it hard to let go of the trauma. She observed again to Grace that “It is so full of LIFE.” And reiterated that there was “so little left of what I wrote.” Even though “I hate to look at it,” she still wanted her aunts to see it. She clarified that she was “NOT responsible for any titles, chapter-headings, what it says under the pictures, etc.” As a result, she said it was “full of mistakes, although I did my best.”

As she wound down this scribbled note, she finally explained that “my typewriter is being repaired again.” She concluded by asking Grace to give her “love to Aunt Mabel [and] Hazel” and declaring in a way that is familiar to all Bishop fans: “Write me!” (one can’t help but think of her late poem “One Art” in this emphasized admonition). Closing, “with lots of love.”

The last section of the Time article was about Robert Lowell. Below his photo (with its caption of “Vigor, not melody.”), Bishop wrote: “This is my old friend.” She noted that “he & his wife … are coming to visit me … the month of June.” (A fateful visit for them all, especially Lowell himself.)

Bishop’s next letter to Grace was barely two weeks later and announced the arrival of a new member of the family. The next post will convey this advent.

*Note: The image of Bishop used by Time in this photo was taken at Samambaia. She sent this same image to Grace, signed. Grace framed and hung it in her home. It ended up in Phyllis Sutherland's possession and is now at Acadia University Archives.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Penny Lighthall exhibit moves to Halifax

At the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia AGM on 22 June 2019, we opened an exhibit by Truro textile artist Penny Lighthall in our ECHOES OF EB gallery in St. James Church.
(Penny standing in front of her exhibit, 22 June 2019.
Photo by Susan Kerslake.)
“From Pen to Hook: Hand-Hooked Rugs Inspired by the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop” consists of eight delightful pieces focused on Bishop’s Nova Scotia poems.
(A few images of Penny's rugs. Photos by Sandra Barry.)
("Cape Breton")
("First Death in Nova Scotia")
In September, Penny will again exhibit these and a dozen more Bishop-inspired rugs at the Central Library in Halifax, N.S. This exhibit opens the evening of 9 September. All are welcome.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 118: Lots of water

The second half of Bishop’s 20 February 1962 letter was focused on water in various forms. Before getting to this subject, Bishop asked her aunt if she had “got my last note with the check in it?” That is, the cost of living bonus she’d got from The New Yorker, which she had signed over to Grace to help with her Florida trip. Bishop wondered if her aunt was “there” yet and, if so, how she got there, “by train?”

Bishop had a direct connection to and interest in Florida, and in good Maritimer fashion, she then asked about the weather: “Are you having storms there the way we are?” Bishop had been writing to her aunt about the severe, at times record breaking, weather in Rio and the problems it had been causing; she wondered if Floridians were experiencing the same. She noted that she saw “by this morning’s paper that maybe Glenn will at last take off today so Florida must be clearing up, at least.”

The Glenn she refers to is, of course, astronaut John Glenn, who did indeed take off on that very day and became the first American to orbit the earth on the Friendship 7 mission.* 
The weather had definitely not cleared up in Rio where “the storms” were “terrific.” In her decade living there, Bishop had “never seen anything like them.” The bad weather, especially the rain, had been going on long enough that “we are awfully sick of being wet.” This kind of weather was more than uncomfortable for Bishop, it exacerbated her asthma, which she had “been having … all the time … because of the mildew.”

Not only was water falling in great quantity outside. Bishop continued her water tale with what was falling inside. She told Grace that she and Lota had returned “to Rio on Sunday late P M — broiling hot — and found the plumbers who are completely re-piping the place had left everything looking as though a bomb had hit us.” Bishop’s word for this discovery: “mess.” The only place they could “get cold showers” was in “the maid’s bathroom,” a facility that had been designed by some “devil” because it was basically a “little hole,” a feature that was common enough across the board, prompting Bishop to declare: “poor maids.” The maids had no choice but to use such cramped spaces, but Bishop reported that “yesterday we went to a friend’s down the street to bathe, make pee-pee, etc.” Not only was the plumbing disrupted, they had to do this external toilette “through howling storms all day, too!”

The plumbing inconvenience was but the start of a process to “overhaul” the apartment. Bishop noted, “Next comes the wiring.” One problem for them was timing, for they commenced this necessary work as “prices are soaring,” making her wonder “how we can ever finish it, even paint it, I don’t see.”

The apartment was not without running water, exactly. Bishop told her aunt that she “was awakened by the rain coming in on my face.” She explained that the apartment was on “the top floor and there are awful leaks.” She had complained about this issue before. The leaks were “the management’s responsibility, but they won’t do anything about it.” Scribbled vertically on the left side of the page, to reflect her observation, Bishop wrote: “The bedroom wall is running with water! All the paint peeled off.”

One thinks of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “water, water everywhere…”

Bishop dried off her face and hands and turned to a more interesting use of water. She reported, “Yesterday at the worst of the storm we saw the winning sail-boat — 80 feet — arrive from Buenos Aires.” This boat, Stromvogel,** won “the annual race from B.A. to Rio,” a 1200-mile route. Bishop declared this boat “beautiful” and noted “how I’d like to be on” it or one of the other boats in the regatta. The second-place boat “was the U S one from Annapolis.”
Wet and asthmatic as she was, Bishop closed her letter with “I must get to work.” Her final words were for and about her beloved aunt (“How are you”?), her hope that when she went “up next week-end” to the country, she would “get a letter” from Grace. In addition to Grace, Bishop sent her “love to Aunt Mabel and Hazel.”

I can’t help but observe here that while academic scholars and biographers focus on the “work” Bishop mentions at the end of this letter, very often Bishop was much more focused on daily life. And when she does report working to Grace, the focus is often about the practical and logistical side of it. It is not wise to ignore all this quotidian matter, which filled most of Bishop’s days, weeks, months, years. Her poetry and prose were conceived and created amid the press and push of tasks, travels and troubles. And Bishop often wasn’t able to write the formal stuff, blocked or busy or both at any given time; but she wrote a mind-boggling number of letters, and one can see in them all the poetic force that ended up in the poems and stories she did complete.

Bishop’s next letter to her aunt is a brief hand-written note accompanying an article that came out in Time, written and sent a little over a month later, the subject for the next post.

*Note: Mid-July 2019 marks the fiftith anniversary of the first person to set foot on the moon, astronaut Neil Armstrong (along with Buzz Aldrin). The moon landing was the culmination of years of efforts, which began with Glenn’s orbit.

**Note: Bishop did not know or report the name of this vessel, but the New York Times reported the win which happened on 19 February.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 117: History of Great Village

Bishop’s next letter to Grace is dated 20 February 1962, two weeks after her last. It was prompted by a gift Bishop received barely a week after she’d written on 6 February: “the book about G V,” that is the History of Great Village by the Women’s Institute. It was sort of hot off the press, being published in 1961. 
By the time she wrote, Bishop had read it from cover to cover and “enjoyed it very much … and I am finding it very useful …. you’ll be surprised!” To prove this assertion, she immediately noted that she was “writing a poem about the Mill Pond, among other things.” This pond belonged to the Peppard family and was located behind the Great Village School. It was large enough that over the decades it supplied both a lumber and grist mill with water. By Bishop’s time, those businesses were gone, but still vivid in the minds and memories of all the villagers.

It appears that Bishop didn’t get very far with her “Mill Pond” poem. Her papers at Vassar do not contain even a draft of such a piece, at least as far as I know.

Bishop thanked her aunt “very much,” and added, “you couldn’t have found a present I’d like better” (it being a birthday present).

What followed were some of her direct comments about items found in this quaint but informative account of the founding and prospering of the village. As she read through it, she found her maternal family name written mostly as “Boomer.” Bishop had definite views on this choice: “I do wish everyone would go back to spelling the name BULMER.” For Bishop, ever keen about proper nouns, this spelling bespoke “a good English name.” Her feelings about the more popular spelling were categorical: “I HATE BOOMER.” For her, this spelling “could be Dutch or German.” It is quite curious that she expressed such a negative view, thinking the common spelling “very ugly-looking,” when she had chosen this exact spelling for the character, Edwin Boomer, in her fable-like story “The Sea & Its Shore,” written in 1937.

Bishop really did read this local history closely and carefully because she found even the most passing references to her ancestors. First, her great-grandfather Robert Hutchinson, who was included in a list of “Master Mariners.” Bishop expressed disappointment that the name of his “bark or whatever it was” was not listed, but then she thought that perhaps it was because he was not a “ship-owner.” Indeed, Robert Hutchinson never owned a vessel, but he worked on a number of ships out of the Port of Londonderry, and probably reached the rank of captain. But rarely did captains own the vessels they sailed. 
The next ancestor was her great-grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Black Hutchinson (later Gourley), wife and widow of Robert Hutchinson, whose name she found mentioned in an item about the merchant (and fellow Yorkshire immigrant) L.C. Layton, paying said “ʻMrs Hutchinson’ to make ‘2 coats at 40₡ each.” Bishop “bet that was your grandmother, wasn’t it?”
She was fascinated by these “odds and ends,” which she kept listing. Grace would surely have known the contents perfectly, having likely supplied information directly to the compilers, so Bishop’s descriptions are perhaps to show Grace how delighted she was with this present.

Bishop noted that she had “found the list of relatives who became school teachers and nurses,” noting it was “quite impressive!”
Having just gone through her own kind of hell with the Time-Life book about Brazil, Bishop was aware of production matters and noted, “as you said — it’s too bad whoever did it couldn’t have done it just a little better.” The History of Great Village is typical of community histories of the era, an amateur production (or in Bishop’s parlance, “primitive,” which was not a pejorative term for her, but indicative of a “home-made” quality she admired). Still, the writing is ordinary, the scholarship haphazard, the layout/design rudimentary. All this said, such a history is extremely valuable now as the generation that knew first-hand much of what it contains is gone.*

Bishop thought she knew who might have been a key person in its creation: “did ELSEE write most of it, or who?” That is, Elsee Layton, daughter of L.C. Layton, the fellow who paid Mrs. Hutchinson for the coats. Elsee and Grace were good friends and one of those teachers on the list Bishop found.

One item, in particular, intrigued Bishop: “did you see the item about the old ‘Literary Club’.” The Christophian Literary Society was a fixture in the village for several decades just before and after the turn of the twentieth century. Bishop’s mother and aunts all belonged to it at one time or another. I have written about it and one of its best-known members, Alexander Louis Fraser, elsewhere on this blog. 
Reading about the society’s wide-ranging interests, Bishop wondered “how many people in G V ever read Browning or Tennyson these days.” Another section “about ‘ARTISTS’,” also caught her eye, because it included a note about Great-uncle George W. Hutchinson. Indeed, Great Village during her childhood (the 1910s) was a highly cultured place and helped seed Bishop’s love of poetry and painting. But she concluded, “as everyone says — and it happens everywhere — culture is dying out completely in small places.” This culture was being replaced by new technology, so that “no one knows anything any more except what they see on T V, alas.” One wonders what Bishop would think of today when the argument can be made that no one knows anything any more except what they see on the internet! 
Bishop knew she could not reverse this tide, but she did “wish they’d stick to the old spellings of things, and the old names, at least.” Besides hating “Boomer,” she also declared in a scribbled addendum at the end of this paragraph, a parenthetical afterthought, “(I do HATE ‘GLENHOLME’ — UGH!)” Glenholme was the current name of what was originally Folly Village, which even I agree is a much more interesting name.

Reading the History of Great Village made her yearn to return, “I’d love to get back for a trip,” but what with life so busy, she wondered “when and how on earth” she could. Then one final note, “I see your house,” that is, her grandparents’ home, “is insulated with birch bark — that’s nice!”**
Bishop’s final paragraph of this letter shifted to quite another matter, the woes of trying to upgrade the plumbing at the apartment in Rio, which will comprise the next post.


*Note: The Great Village Historical Society reprinted the History of Great Village some years ago and added supplementary information, including a brief biography about Elizabeth Bishop herself.

**Note: During some recent work at the EB House, some of this birch bark insulation was found.