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

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Poem: Reading “The Moose” – Part 2

From where does the idea, the inspiration, the intention come to write a poem? What are the factors and forces which decide a poem’s structure, sound; its subject? How long does it take to write a poem? To read one? Is there a true meaning in a poem, or is meaning a relative ─ even an irrelevant ─ aspect of a poem? Why is a poem great, or good, or bad? Any poet will tell you that the answers to these questions are complex ─ and often a mystery to the poet, too.

Exploring the inner workings of a poem can be exciting and intimidating. Some readers believe such exploration is unnecessary, that a poem is what it is and should be left alone, simply read again and again ─ enjoyed like listening to a favourite piece of music. Some readers prefer digging deep into the layers of a poem, uncovering a poem's bones, its secrets ─ as though a poem is an archaeological site. The following is my reading, my point of view, of this great poem.

After leaving Elmcroft, the bus would have passed through the heart of Great Village, seen here from the steeple of St. James Church, circa 1940s

“The Moose”

The title and dedication are, of course, the first entrées into this poem; but these elements will be explored at the conclusion of this reading, which commences with the first stanza.

From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,

Begin at the beginning, begin in fact with the very first word: “From.” A little word, a helping word; not a noun, verb, adjective or adverb. Only a preposition and only one syllable. Why would Elizabeth Bishop begin such a long poem with such a small word? For Bishop prepositions were vital words. So were first syllables.(* Note below) Her choice was no accident. As small as it is, from sets the tone for and orientation of the entire poem. Listen carefully to the poem to hear the soft hum of “m,” which runs along from beginning to end ─ like the murmur of wind or river, like muffled conversation. From is like the Buddhist Om ─ a gentle, visceral chant. It is a universal sound. In “The Moose,” as in many other Bishop poems, single notes of specific pitch fill the landscape and the mind, echo through space and time. From is the first of these notes.

Simple as it seems, from has many meanings. The Concise Oxford defines it in the following way:

A. expressing separation or origin, followed by: 1. a person, place, time, etc., that is the starting-point of motion or action, or of extent in place or time. 2. a place, object, etc., whose distance or remoteness is reckoned or stated. 3a. a source; b. a giver or sender. 4a. a thing or person avoided, escaped, lost, etc.; b. a person or thing deprived. 5. a reason, cause, or motive. 6. a thing distinguished or unlike. 7. a lower limit. 8. a state changed for another. 9. an adverb or preposition of time or place. 10. the position of a person who observes or considers. 11. a model

From is a poem in itself. In “The Moose” it is where we come from, where we leave from. We are from narrow provinces, we are from the home of the long tides, the place where the bay leaves and returns, where the tides take herrings for rides.

From triggers in the reader’s mind an expectation. It is a signal ─ like a semaphore ─ for the revealed and hidden seams in the poem: home, foam, coming, sometimes, mud, farmhouses, clamshells, metal, enamel. Each stanza echoes this hum of from: embraces, elms, form, bumblebees, commences, Economies, woman, Tantramar, trembles. On and on goes the hum: swims, solemn, climbs, amicably, moonlight, mist, lamb, dreamy, somewhere, names, mentioned, remarried, something, Amos, family, him. Keep going ─ finish the song yourself. This sound is the first chant and it begins with one tiny preposition. Bishop knew the power of words, whether it was a large, exotic one like “divagation” or “Eternity,” or a little one like from.

The first stanza of “The Moose” also establishes the meter, rhythm, cadence and rhyme of the poem. It establishes the poem’s movement, subtly preparing the reader for the fact that this poem is a journey. But the journey is not just from point A to point B, leaving never to come back. This journey is cyclical; it is a dialogue between going and staying, leaving and returning. The evocation of home (“fish and bread and tea”) is set beside travel (“the bay leaves the sea”; “the herrings long rides”). But this travel is migration. We leave home, but we also return. And we carry home with us. Come from a place; leave from a place ─ that place is home. Belonging and leaving ─ connection and separation ─ are natural forces in the world, the human and elemental world.

Bishop structured “The Moose” in dimeter and trimeter lines (two and three foot lines). This choice of short lines meant that the poem became long; it meanders along several pages. Bishop signalled this structure with “narrow provinces” (Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, her ancestral homes, are literally narrow) and “long tides.” The literal geography, we are told, was a factor in the final shape of this poem, which elsewhere she called “a very long one.”

The poem’s short lines alternate in a variety of punctuation: partial or full stops and enjambment. Line breaks and their punctuation integrally serve the rhythm of a poem. With them the poet can control the speed of language (enjambment, for example, pulls the reader along more quickly to the next line ─ no pause for breath as a comma or semi-colon allows, no complete stop to think of what has come before, as a period permits). In the first stanza Bishop uses punctuation sparingly. There are only two commas. Thus the flow of words is unimpeded like the rush of the tide. When the end of the stanza is reached, there is only the briefest pause at the comma before the next stanza is upon the reader.

Bishop further signals the journey ─ in time, space, language ─ by making the initial evocation of the Nova Scotia landscape one long sentence. The first six stanzas is just one sentence. The little word from anchors an incredible grammatical flow of 36 lines. Each stanza is six lines long. Why six? When Bishop was asked why she called her last book Geography III, “And that III?” She simply replied, “I like threes” (Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, 66). Perhaps that would have been her reply to “Why six?” As Bishop wrote in “Primer Class,” numbers are “mysterious.”

Bishop loved rhyme. Language was for her a kind of music. Sounds mattered as much as sense. The first stanza of “The Moose” sets up a complex interplay of sound. The perfect end rhymes of tea/sea and tides/rides (sounding much like a childhood nursery rhyme) lace perfect and imperfect internal rhymes (bay/day, from/home). She continues this kind of variation throughout the poem. Bishop also establishes the practice of word repetition (long tides/long rides), a technique she uses frequently throughout the poem (indeed, in many of her poems) ─ another chant-like quality. The establishment of the resonance of “from” ─ its murmur ─ also points to another sound technique, which is only hinted at in the first stanza: alliteration (a play of words Bishop loved). The closest Bishop comes to alliteration in this stanza is “twice a day and takes.” But the hint is enough to set up the expectation.

This first stanza also sets up another kind of interplay. Most words in the stanza are monosyllabic – simple, concrete words. Indeed, they are all single syllables except for three: “narrow provinces” and “herrings.” It is provinces that is key here. Provinces is not only literally geo-political place/space (that is, the unnamed Nova Scotia, New Brunswick – that is, the Maritimes), but more generally “province” is a “sphere of action” or a “branch of learning.” There is also the connotation of “provincial,” (that is “unsophisticated”), a concept Bishop thought about a lot during her life. Provinces is also an interesting sounding word, and really noticeable in the stanza surrounded by all the lingual directness and simplicity of the rest of the words. Bishop repeats this kind of semantic balancing (that is, a poem of simple monosyllabic words interspersed with hefty, complex polysyllabic words – this strategy allows both kinds of words to throw light and shadow on the others), throughout the poem. What we experience (at this point only subliminally) is the sensation that what we understand as concrete and certain is mixed with mystery. Bishop called this existential state “knowledge” in “At the Fishhouses,” a poem she also started to write in 1946.

Structure and sound establish the foundation of “The Moose” ─ a solid, complex framework for Bishop's ideas and images. This first stanza sets out a number of ideas and images which are central to the whole poem and to Bishop’s entire oeuvre: geography & landscape, home & journey. Other ideas are also established: “fish and bread and tea” set up a sense of a way of life, a tradition, which has been shaped in many ways by the natural world. Bishop was fond of figurative devices such as simile, metaphor and personification. While the bay, the tide, the herring remain just what they are, juxtaposing them with the word “home” ─ a human invention ─ brings a quality of personification to them. Thus the human and natural worlds are brought together immediately ─ not merged but somehow connected. Linking these realms becomes a central issue at the end of the poem.

With this first stanza Bishop laid the foundation for her long poem about Nova Scotia. Why is this poem great? Partly because Bishop so meticulously crafted each word, line and stanza. Was Bishop conscious of all her choices and decisions? She thought about this poem for twenty-five years, so her level of consciousness about its inner workings was undoubtedly high. Yet she always acknowledged the complex forces at work in any creative act. In 1975 Bishop wrote a letter to an aspiring poet who had asked her for advice. She concluded by observing that writing a poem “can’t be done, apparently, by will power and study alone ─ or by being ‘with it’ ─ but I really don’t know how poetry gets to be written. There is a mystery & a surprise, and after that a great deal of hard work” (One Art: Letters, 596).

In the first stanza of “The Moose” the deep compulsions of Bishop=s memory, creativity and skill combined to establish a structure which sustains one of the most evocative poems of the twentieth century. The reader pauses for a brief moment at that concluding comma, then moves deeper into the poem.

The road from Great Village to Parrsboro, circa 1940s

Note * In Bishop’s papers at Vassar College there are two unfinished poems which point to her awareness of both prepositions and first syllables in her art. In a poem tentatively entitled “Letter to Two Friends” (her poet colleagues Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell), Bishop ponders the preponderance of prepositions in her poems:

Heavens! It’s raining again
and the “view”
is now two weeks overdue
and the road is impassable
and after shaking his paws
the cat retires in disgust
to the highest closet shelf,
and the dogs smell awfully like dogs,
and I am sick of myself,
and sometime during the night
the poem I was trying to write
has turned into prepositions:
ins and aboves and upons ─
what am I trying to do?
Change places in a canoe?
method of composition.
(Elizabeth Bishop: Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box, 113)

The other unfinished poem begins, “Whatever there was, or is, of love let it be obeyed.” This fragment of a poem, which never advanced very far, was to be “autobiography,” as Bishop wrote on one draft. It was to be about her maternal grandparents and Great Village. And she thought about giving it the title “First Syllables.” (Edgar Allan Poe, 101). First syllables were electric for Bishop. The only typed draft of this poem concludes, “That steeple ─ I can’t remember ─ wasn’t it struck by lightning?” The first syllable Bishop connected with “that steeple” was her mother’s scream, written in “In the Village.”

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