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

Monday, June 7, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XVII: Journeys, by Helen Cannon

Before I write of my first meaningful encounter with Elizabeth Bishop, let me tell of my less-than-meaningful exposure with Bishop’s oeuvres and the facts about her life. I’m a woman in her 70’s, having come up in my university literature studies in the 1960’s, when DWPM (Dead White Protestant Males) ruled and reigned. If we studied the token woman writer here and there, it certainly wasn’t Elizabeth Bishop. In fact, if the notion of Canadian literature was acknowledged at all, it was viewed askance as almost an oxymoron.

So, eventually in my literary studies, partly in defiance of that oversight of Canadian women’s letters, I chose to write my Master’s thesis on two Canadian Margarets—Atwood and Laurence. And when I then began teaching at Utah State University, my niche was the writing of prose, not poetry, and when I was allowed to teach literature classes, it was contemporary women’s prose writing that was my focus.

Another salient matter relating to my scant acquaintance with Bishop’s works might seem to be a left-field matter. Why would the fact that my husband and I have been avid subscribers to and comprehensive readers of The New Yorker magazine for going on 50 years now, and that when I taught Creative Non-Fiction (another unfortunate rubric—who wants to write in a “non” genre?) I used The New Yorker as text, be of relevance here? Anyone who knows the course of Bishop’s writings has to know that this magazine was her primary venue—for both her poetry and her prose writings. So I came to her writing, not through my undergraduate literature classes, but fortuitously and serendipitously, as I happened upon her lovely, provocative works in those illustrious pages. As these prose and poetry items appeared, I came to acknowledge this major talent, but I can’t really single one out—neither prose nor poetry—as being my pivotal “First Encounter.”

If there was one New Yorker piece that discursively taught me about Elizabeth Bishop in ways my formal education had not, it was Dana Gioia’s “Studying with Miss Bishop,” (September 15, 1986). I identified very much with that lovely essay, since teaching was of utmost importance to me then, and as Gioia described Miss Bishop as a teacher, I could fully align my teaching philosophy with hers, even though she was a recognized and established poet teaching at Harvard, and I was a nobody teaching at a university in the hinterlands of the West. Both of us stubbornly chose to be out-of-step with the current pedagogy. Both of us found a good dictionary the best teaching aid to recommend to our students—better than all the deconstructionist and postmodernist analysis that was newly in vogue. I can still quote from Gioia’s praiseful essay, word for word, and I still hold to Bishop’s against-the-grain pedagogy as it was described by one of her admiring students: “…One did not interpret poetry; one experienced it. …One did not need a sophisticated theory. One needed intelligence, intuition, and a good dictionary. There was no subtext, only the text.” Gioia had begun his tribute by telling of how “While Northrop Frye, who was visiting Harvard that year to deliver the Norton Lectures, drew audiences of nearly a thousand for his class on myth and literature, Miss Bishop, I was to learn, rarely attracted more than a dozen unenthusiastic undergraduates. Her manner was at odds with the academic glamour of Harvard, her conversation was not designed to impress…”

So my first encounters are random and diffuse and hard to pinpoint—that is until something happened in the most tangible of ways to bring about what now seems to me like the most remarkable of miracles. Let me explain.

My then colleague, Anne Shifrer, a poet and teacher of poetry at our university, understood and appreciated the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop in ways I was just beginning to discover. Anne had traveled to Nova Scotia in the interest of furthering her studies of Bishop’s works—had visited the Bulmer home and the gas station and other Bishop landmarks. Earlier, at a Bishop conference at Vassar, Anne had made a firm and fond connection with the independent scholar and poet, Sandra Barry. Out of that meeting grew a remarkable literary correspondence—a true correspondence course on Canadian letters in general and Bishop studies in particular. Those letters from Sandra to Anne were so informative and fine that we decided they would make a core resource for a class we were scheduled to teach—better than any text on Canadian literature that we could identify. So with Sandra’s permission, those letters became required reading for our course, along with primary materials—representative poems and prose works, as Bishop herself advised. Furthermore, Anne’s love for Bishop’s poetry was entirely contagious. I was already becoming a convert, but the momentum and imagination that Anne inspired made something wonderful come to pass.

Anne and I had proposed to our department’s curriculum committee that we create and team-teach a class on contemporary Canadian women’s literature. I would teach the prose, and Anne would teach the poetry. So here we were, a couple of ingénues trying to introduce to students works that we had just barely discovered ourselves. But Anne had sufficient intrepidity in her vision, daring, and imagination that when she saw a Canadian embassy notice offering grants for study in Canada, she boldly suggested that we apply. Together then, we wrote a proposal to that embassy, and, unlikely as it had seemed to me, somehow we won the grant to study Canadian Women’s literature in situ—something I wouldn’t even have dared dream had it not been for Anne. In addition to our Canadian Embassy travel grant and matching monies from our university and from our own English Department, we also had been awarded a $1000 grant from the Women’s Studies Program for course enhancement. So, that summer of 1997, we readied ourselves for three weeks of study in Eastern Canada in ways no graduate study program anywhere could provide, and in ways I could never repay. Here, at last I found my first true encounter with the works of Elizabeth Bishop by way of first-hand time with one of the very best Bishop scholars, traveling with her in the country that Bishop loved and wrote of—even from Brazil and other far-flung places. This was Bishop’s heart’s home, no matter how far afield she traveled. The seminal importance of actually being there—in Bishop country—is hard to fully convey. James Merrill captures some of that necessity in his poem, “Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia Elizabeth: Bishop 1911-1979,” as it appeared in the October 23, 1989 New Yorker magazine:

Your village touched us by not knowing how.
Even as we outdrove its clear stormlight
A shower of self-belittling brilliants fell.
Miles later, hours away, here rooms are full
Of things you would have known: pump organ, hymnal,
Small-as-life desks, old farm tools, charter, deed,

—All circa 1915, like the manners
Of the fair, soft-spoken girl who shows us through.
Although till now she hasn’t heard of you
She knows things you would have known by heart
And we, by knowing you by heart, foreknew. …

Closer to both art and what we are
Than the gush of nothings one outpours to people
On the correspondence side of bay and steeple,
Whose dazzling whites we’ll never see again,
Or failed to see in the first place. Still, as the last
Suds glide, slow protozoa, down the pane
We’re off—Excuse our dust! With warm regards,—
Gathering phrases for tomorrow’s cards.

Not until I myself stood in the upstairs garret where the little Elizabeth heard her mother’s scream did I fully understand just how perfectly “In the Village” captured that place and those feelings. “She stood in the large front bedroom with sloping walls on either side, papered in wide white and dim gold stripes…” We stood there and the lines were made manifest… “Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!” Other lines can never again be merely abstract descriptions: “September rain falls on the house/ In the failing light, the old grandmother/ sits in the kitchen with the child/ beside the Little Marvel Stove,/ reading the jokes from the almanac/ laughing and talking to hide her tears…”

Sandra took us to that very house—a house little changed since Elizabeth had lived there as a child. At the time of our visit, the home was owned and lived in by Paul Tingley, a man who respected the provenance and history of his home and its village and who, most of all, caught something of Sandra’s vision and so was willing, because of Sandra, to allow her to bring inquiring folks into his home.

Our witnessing wasn’t limited to Great Village. We traveled the "Moose Route" and met Bishop’s cousin Phyllis (Sutherland). At Acadia University, we saw and even touched some of the fonds. I can still almost feel the fragile thinness of the pages of the Bulmer family bible on display there—“Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’…”

Those ands still suggest the endlessly generative nature of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, so that a “first encounter” cannot stop with first, but leads inevitably to what follows. “First” can never stand alone…


Helen Cannon is a retired English literature professor, who taught at Utah State University in Logan, Utah.

1 comment:

  1. I came to Bishop by way of Anne, then Helen, and then Sandra. I count myself triply imbued with all-things-Bishop. What good fortune.

    Thanks, you three, many times over.

    Star Coulbrooke