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

Friday, March 11, 2011

Our New York Correspondent Writes:

Elizabeth Bishop in New York

Bishop, by her own admission, had mixed feelings about New York, but the city is nevertheless extremely fond of her, as 800-plus people filed into the Great Hall at Cooper Union on February 8, 2011 to celebrate the poet’s 100th birthday. I was in the first or second wave, and managed to find a seat with an unobstructed view of the stage, which was set up in two levels, with three microphones in front of the rise and several tables surrounding a podium above. Each guest was given a beautiful program and a copy of a photo of Bishop, my favourite, of her sitting on the terrace at Ouro Preto in a mid-century modern lounger with a black and white cat on her lap. By the time the 23 poets — each to read one Bishop poem — filed onto the stage, the auditorium was standing-room only, and the star-studded lineup of readers were greeted by a heartfelt round of applause.

Sponsored by The New Yorker, FSG and the Poetry Society of America, the evening also marked the launch of a new book: Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence. New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon, actress Maria Tucci and PSA executive director Alice Quinn (seated at the three lower microphones) read selections from this new volume (which could be bought for a steal along with beautiful new navy blue and citrus yellow softcover editions of the complete poems and complete prose at the event) interspersed among the poems.

The poems! Frank Bidart started things off with “Roosters,” followed by Yusef Komunyakaa’s reading of “The Fish.” John Ashbery was on the lineup but sent his regrets, so on to Richard Howard and “The Bight.” Nova Scotia featured large in the selection, with Vijay Seshadri reading “At the Fishhouses,” Joelle Biele (who also edited the Complete Correspondence) reading “Sestina” and Mark Strand reading “First Death in Nova Scotia.” Elizabeth Alexander read “In the Waiting Room” (I have always included this in my informal group of “Nova Scotia Poems” despite the obvious Massachussetts references) and Robert Polito read “Poem.” (To balance things out, Brooklyn poet laureate Tina Chang read “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore,” who would have come flying from Fort Greene if she thought such things were proper.) Last to read, Marie Ponsot chose the rarely anthologized and stunning “Sonnet.” I couldn’t have chosen better poems myself, except for the obvious omission of “The Moose” and perhaps “One Art.”

Tucci, Quinn, and Muldoon chose fabulous selections from the Correspondence to place many of the poems in the context of their publication and get a few laughs from the crowd, typically at the expense of the New Yorker’s notoriously stringent copy-editing team. Bishop herself came across as self-effacing and funny in equal measure. Tucci was the voice of Bishop, Quinn was the voice of fellow long-time New Yorker fiction editor Katharine S. White and Muldoon played the roles of two earlier predecessors, William Maxwell and Howard Moss. The laughs were welcome, as somehow to my ears the poems chosen emphasized a certain sadness, in light of which perhaps “One Art” would have been too much for what was, minus a cake, a fabulous birthday party.

Dizzy from all the talent in the room and gleefully getting fingerprints all over the cover of a shiny new volume of the Poems, your faithful correspondent went out into the night. Happy Birthday, EB!

-- Carey Toane

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