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

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: The "Casabianca" Connections

It is to be expected that poets are inspired by, borrow from and even imitate each other, manifested not only in poetic apparatus such as epigraphs and dedications, but also in direct absorption of phrases, images and even whole passages (sometimes signaled by quotation marks, sometimes not). Elizabeth Bishop had a list of poets who directly influenced her (predecessors such as Herbert, Hopkins, Baudelaire; contemporaries such as Auden, Stevens, Lowell).

It is not surprising either that poets have been influenced by Bishop. Indeed, Lowell was one of the first to respond directly to and borrow from Bishop. Many poets since have done the same. So numerous are the poems dedicated to Bishop or inspired by her work that Brian Bartlett, poet and editor of the Elizabeth Bishop Society Newsletter, has been locating and printing these poems for the past half-dozen years or so.

All this “untidy activity” is natural, but because poetry is, generally speaking, a quiet corner of our culture, all this influence and admiration tends to be a circular phenomenon: poets talking to poets.

To take Bishop out of this insularity and connect her to a wider audience, one must perhaps move her into prose. I do not mean the prose of writing about her, such as biography or literary criticism (both of these are themselves corners in the culture), but creative writing, such as fiction or drama (and in our visually dominated world, the ultimate would be a film script and a feature film). This shift is logical because Bishop herself was a fine prose writer. The prose she wrote was, however, primarily non-fiction, that is memoir or reminiscence, with a few fable or parable-like stories.

I contend that Bishop’s prose has been woefully under-rated, a situation that has been changing as more and more of her letters are being published. It is now clear that the prose Bishop wrote most consistently was epistolary. But, again, such a form is not mainstream. Indeed, letter-writing is now virtually extinct.

Playwrights have been tackling Bishop for over a decade. Plays about her have been written by Canadian, American and Brazilian playwrights, and staged in all three countries. This process of creative re-imagining, dramatizing and performing has definitely brought Bishop to the attention of people who might not otherwise read poetry. To be the subject of a play confers a certain kind of stature and garners attention. Of course, as I already have noted, the pinnacle of this type of treatment would be a Hollywood movie. A few years ago Bishop did make it into a movie, called “In Her Shoes,” in which a young female character reads nearly the entire text of Bishop’s poem “One Art” to an elderly male character. I have lost count of the number of people who have told me about seeing this scene.

At the end of September a major announcement was made in Brazil about a feature film (a Brazilian-British co-production) to be made about Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares, “A Arte de Perder” (“The Art of Losing”). This film will certainly catapult both women into the mainstream.

Arguably, however, the most popular genre of creative writing, the genre with the widest appeal and readership, is fiction, particularly novels.

What does it mean when a real poet begins to turn up in novels (in fictional worlds). It probably means a number of things, and one of them might be that the poet is starting to infiltrate a wider cultural consciousness, becoming part of “popular” culture.

I am not a regular reader of fiction, but even I began to notice Bishop popping up in novels. The first example that crossed my path was Cathleen Schine’s 1995 novel The Love Letter, about the owner of a bookstore who is a Bishop fan. Schine quotes an entire Bishop poem in her book.

It is the most recent example I have encountered, however, that triggered the idea to write this post: Howard Norman’s new novel What Is Left The Daughter. I must stay immediately that I know Howard and readily admit that I am a big fan of his novels, as well as of his non-fiction (essay and memoir). I must also confess to being a subject of one of his essays, in a 2004 collection of essays called My Famous Evening. I am especially fond of this new novel in part because it is set in Halifax and Middle Economy, Nova Scotia, during World War II.

It is not my intention to review this book (you can read a National Post review), but when I read it a couple of months ago I was intrigued by Bishop’s cameo and the poem Howard chose to include, “Casabianca” (which, interestingly, and totally coincidentally I am sure, is the same one Schine chose).

“Casabianca” is an early and very curious Bishop poem. It is an example of exactly my point at the beginning about poets influencing and borrowing from each other. Bishop’s poem is a parody of one with the same title by the Victorian poet Felicia Hemans, a kind of indictment of the pathos and bombast of Hemans’s ideal of sacrifice. Both poems deal with shipwrecks and have the image of a boy standing on the deck of a burning, sinking ship.

I am not sure why Schine used it, but it makes perfect poetic and narrative sense in What Is Left The Daughter, with part of the plot hinging on the real-life disaster of the sinking of the passenger ferry Caribou – that ran between Cape Breton and Newfoundland – during the early years of WWII.

“Casabianca” has also intrigued the Newfoundland poet Agnes Walsh to such a degree that she committed one of those poetic absorptions and responses by writing “Placentia,” her own revision of the form, tenor and subject of the poem. It is published in her collection Going Around With Bachelors. On October 7, again coincidentally, the “Today’s Video” was Hector Munoz reciting “Casabianca.”

What Is Left The Daughter is set firmly in Bishop country: the short that run along Cobequid Bay and Minas Basin from Great Village to Parrsboro, N.S. This landscape also features in Devotion, Howard’s wonderful novella published a few years ago, which is set primarily in Parrsboro.

Howard’s connection to this part of Nova Scotia is long-standing. He has been coming to Nova Scotia for decades. He also has a fascinating and direct connection to Bishop through his wife, the poet Jane Shore, who was a student and colleague of Bishop at Harvard University in the 1970s.

Not only is Bishop appearing in cameo in novels (and I am sure there are others – if anyone has other examples, let me know), she is also starting to become the subject of entire novels. This summer the first novel about Bishop and her partner Lota de Macedo Soares was published: The More I Owe You, by Michael Sledge. I know of another novel about Bishop that is in progress and through the grapevine have heard about yet a third.

As the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary approaches, all this interest and use is perhaps not surprising, indicative of a steady expansion of her influence as more and more people encounter her in all sorts of ways, and their responses continue to generate all manner of connections.

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