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

Monday, May 31, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XVI: A reminiscence of Elizabeth Bishop, by David Staines

Distinguished Canadian literary critic and scholar David Staines teaches at the University of Ottawa. He met Elizabeth Bishop in the 1970s when they were both teaching at Harvard University. Shortly after her death in 1979, Canadian Poetry published his tribute to Bishop (No. 7, Fall/Winter, 1980). David has very kindly given us permission to excerpt the following from that tribute.


I first met Elizabeth in the early seventies. Literature naturally formed the major topic of so many wonderful conversations, and she spoke often of her childhood, her Nova Scotia years, her explicitly Maritime writings, her recollection of the gentlemanly kindness of her grandfather in “Manners,” the haunting evocation of a young child’s first exposure to death in “First Death in Nova Scotia,” the majestic description of “Cape Breton,” the poignant veiled autobiography of “In the Village.”

Often Elizabeth took me to a large granite warehouse, Lewis Wharf, on the Boston waterfront. Here she had brought a fourth-floor apartment in the gutted 1830 building and was designing her new home. Following her example, I donned the required hardhat as she led me through the construction. With a balcony overlooking the harbour she had returned to the sea of her childhood. She reminded me, then and in subsequent years, that there had been regular boat service between Boston and Nova Scotia. For her and for so many Maritimers Nova Scotia and New England were part of the same long eastern coast. Distinctions between Canadian and American were superfluous.

When Northrup Frye was Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard, he told me of his eagerness to meet Elizabeth. And she too had mentioned her own desire to meet this visiting Canadian. Accordingly I arranged a small dinner for the Fryes and Elizabeth. The shyness of the guests made the initial conversation tentative and sparse, but when Elizabeth asked about the driving conditions during Frye’s childhood (“Which side of the road did they drive on in New Brunswick?”), the critic with memories of his Moncton upbringing and the poet with memories of her rural Nova Scotia formed an instant friendship. On other meetings we talked of Canadian literature, for Elizabeth was familiar with many writers and eager and willing to read more. She knew the work of many poets, among them E.J. Pratt, A.M. Klein, and P.K. Page, and even some of the younger writers, including Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje.

When I was teaching Canadian literature courses at Harvard, Elizabeth playfully threatened to audit some of my lectures. She never did attend, though we spoke often on the telephone and over lunch about Canadian writers. I gave her volumes of fiction and poetry, and she repaid me with the informed reflections on their quality. Her criticism was sometimes complimentary, more often harsh though kind, for she applied to all writing, whether it was Canadian, her own, or that of her young students, the same demand for perfect clarity of thought and expression....


DAVID STAINES is a professor of English at the University of Ottawa. Born in Toronto, he received his B.A. from the University of Toronto and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. He is a founding member of the Scotiabank Giller Prize Advisory Board and he also serves as General Editor of the New Canadian Library and Editor of The Journal of Canadian Poetry.

To learn more about David Staines see his website: www.davidstaines.com

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