16 April 2014

15 April 2014

14 April 2014

Haiku 204/104

shadow bodies pass
floating over the sidewalk
a cloud blots them out

Poem of the Week 2014/16

For National Poetry Month, poets writing on poets: Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore

Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore

From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
     please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemicals,
     please come flying,
to the rapid rolling of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
     please come flying.

Whistles, pennants and smoke are blowing. The ships
are signalling cordially with multitudes of flags
rising and falling like birds all over the harbor.
Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing
countless little pellucid jellies
in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains.
The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged.
The waves are running in verses this fine morning.
     Please come flying.

Come with the pointed toe of each black shoe
trailing a sapphire highlight,
with a black capeful of butterfly wings and bon-mots,
with heaven knows how many angels all riding
on the broad black brim of your hat,
     please come flying.

Bearing a musical inaudible abacus,
a slight censorious frown, and blue ribbons,
     please come flying.
Facts and skyscrapers glint in the tide; Manhattan
is all awash with morals this fine morning,
     so please come flying.

Mounting the sky with natural heroism,
above the accidents, above the malignant movies,
the taxicabs and injustices at large,
while horns are resounding in your beautiful ears
that simultaneously listen to
a soft uninvented music, fit for the musk deer,
     please come flying.

For whom the grim museums will behave
like courteous male bower-birds,
for whom the agreeable lions lie in wait
on the steps of the Public Library,
eager to rise and follow through the doors
up into the reading rooms,
     please come flying.
We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping,
or play at a game of constantly being wrong
with a priceless set of vocabularies,
or we can bravely deplore, but please
     please come flying.

With dynasties of negative constructions
darkening and dying around you,
with grammar that suddenly turns and shines
like flocks of sandpipers flying,
     please come flying.

Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,
come like a daytime comet
with a long unnebulous train of words,
from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
     please come flying.

Elizabeth Bishop

Moore was in many ways a mentor to Bishop, and though like all such relationships theirs contained hidden tensions and anxieties as the one being mentored gradually became more independent, still the two poets maintained a deep long-term friendship (described by Bishop in her essay Efforts of Affection). This poem contains affectionate echoes of Moore's own poetry:

– the analytical but sensuous descriptions, so precise that they sometimes verge on the comically obscure: I take "to the rapid rolling of thousands of small blue drums" to refer to the wheels on the subway train that would carry Moore from her home in Brooklyn, and the "countless little pellucid jellies / in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains" to refer to the way the sunlight plays on the little scooping wavelets as the two rivers converge;

– the intense attraction to the natural world, particularly animals: the butterflies, the musk deer, the bower-bird, the sandpipers; even the sky is "a mackerel sky" and the flags rise and fall like birds, and the grammar of Moore's conversation "turns and shines / like flocks of sandpipers flying";

– the tendency to turn these descriptions into moral assessments of how one should behave (which includes how one should speak and write): the "grim museums" will be for her "like courteous male bower-birds"; it's mentioned as an appealing point (with some gentle underlying satire) that "Manhattan / is all awash with morals this fine morning"; moralizing is not always considered a praiseworthy activity, particularly for modernist poets, but here the "wash" in "awash" helps create the sense that the city is cleaner and better because of it; the emphasis on courtesy is part of this moral view of how one should live: even the ships "are signalling cordially," and notice the salutation to Miss Marianne Moore – the use of the title shows not only a certain formal courtesy (which perhaps to some extent precludes intimacy) but also signifies how well the younger poet understands what the older woman would consider a respectful approach;

– the use of negative constructions, which is part of the emphasis on precision (saying something is not unnecessary is a shade different from saying it's necessary); and

– the erudition lightly worn, in the broad range of references and vocabulary (and I take "heaven knows how many angels all riding" on the brim of Moore's hat to be a reference to the academic joke about medieval scholastics debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and also the two poets naturally head to the reading rooms of the New York Public Library, and the lions guarding the steps are eager to follow them inside – I think that's also a bit of an in-joke, since the arranged spot for their first meeting, when Bishop was still a Vassar student, was by the lions at the entrance to the New York Public Library).

Bishop describes Moore as slightly above the dirty workaday world; she repeatedly invites her to come flying, and you get the impression this doesn't just mean "travel with great speed," it actually means flying through the air, "mounting the sky with natural heroism." There is an aura of benevolent witchery around the air-borne poet; she is costumed almost like the witches of tradition, with pointed black shoes that magically trail sapphire highlights (there are several references in the poem to things that are blue; perhaps it was a favorite color of Moore's?), a black cape (from which she can release both butterfly wings and bon mots, both flashing, elusive, lovely things), and a hat with a broad black brim (on which perch her attendant spirits, the clustering angels). This is in fact also an accurate description of how Moore dressed, at least later in life, to judge from photos of her.

But beneath this world made beautiful by Moore's presence (without seeing through the eyes of her poems, would we notice among other things how gracefully the rivers carry their "little pellucid jellies"?) there is a sense of what she feels compelled to rise above: would Moore come with a "slight censorious frown" if there weren't plenty of things to frown at? And why would Bishop suggest they might "bravely deplore" things if they both weren't conscious of how much of the world is deplorable: the accidents, the malignant movies, "taxicabs and injustices at large" – a list of the specific and the general, jumbled together in a way that must connect with Bishop's knowledge of Moore's experiences.

And there is a deeper sadness – one of Bishop's first suggestions for activities during the visit is "to sit down and weep" (followed comically by the suggestion that as an alternative they might go shopping). Bishop emphasizes that "the flight is safe" as if Moore would feel residual fear and distrust of venturing outside her borough. Her poetic calling itself helps isolate her from the world around her: she hears "a soft uninvented music" which she is trying both to invent and to share with a largely indifferent world that often sees things otherwise. Poetry is a game (Moore is of course the poet who famously declared about poetry "I too dislike it"), but a game that involves an endless botching of the irreplaceably valuable: "a priceless set of vocabularies" with which they are "constantly being wrong" – you can never quite capture and convey what you're trying to capture and convey, no matter how precise you are (even assuming that someone is paying attention at all). Failure haunts even her best efforts. And though the poet's eccentricity is part of her charm, it also cuts her off from others and hides a deeper loneliness and alienation. The poem offers Moore the comfort of showing that her friend has studied and valued her lifetime's work.

There are now several editions of Bishop's work to choose from; the ones I have of The Complete Poems 1927 - 1979 and The Collected Prose are still available, though there are also more recent versions of both poetry and prose, as well a stout volume from the Library of America.

13 April 2014

Haiku 2014/103

the sun pinks my skin
the sun descends in pale gold
the moon smiles sweetly

12 April 2014

10 April 2014

09 April 2014

Haiku 2014/99

I woke up today.
I could breathe, and I could move.
I count my blessings.