Monday, 28 July 2008

After a long absence

Reading Elizabeth Bishop, I know that I am often missing the point.
Yesterday I read - among other poems of hers - a long ballad and derived little pleasure from it.

On the other hand, there is a poem called In the Waiting Room, where she describes a strange experience, a sense of merging with her aunt who had cried out in pain from the dentists' room next door, which was followed by the assertion of a sense of her own I:

...I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven days old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an
you are an
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was....


...Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities-
[ ... ] -
held us all together
or made us all just one?

(p. 160, Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems, 1927-1979, (1980) Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY)

I particularly liked the line ...Why should you be one, too?... the playfulness of it, and the shyness of ...I scarcely dared look...

Furthermore, this poem could be useful as an example of narrative poetry, no rhyming or form except for the rhythm of the words and the breaks from line to line. I am working on a poem entitled After a long absence which is narrative, and which would suit this style.

The main problem with After a long absence is that a second story is inserted into the story of the poem, with unfamiliar actors , which took place elsewhere, but which is connected by association of ideas to the events described. How to make the transition to and from the main story a smooth one for a reader, so that they may travel on this little journey without a sense of disruption?

Typographic indications might work - for instance at present the second story is framed by a line in italics After a long absence..., and the same sentence is repeated afterwards. But a past experience using italics taught me that they may appear cheap.

It might be better if a gap were left within the column of the main story, while the text of the second story was moved as in a side-step, into an adjacent column.

One might say that this is gimmickery.

It would be best if the connection was made clear or an enemy might say, two poems made out of the one. That would result in two poor little poems without much merit. They would simply wilt and die.

Too much time spent writing this today.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Elizabeth Bishop's letters

I spent yesterday reading Elizabeth Bishop's letters, got about a fifth of the way through the book (too big, heavy to hold, what was the publisher thinking of.)

On p. 54, in a letter to Marianne Moore, about the sestina: ...It seems to me that there are two ways possible for a sestina. One is to use unusual words as terminations, in which case they would have to be used differently as often as possible - as you say, "change of scale". That would make a very highly seasoned kind of poem. And the other way is to use as colorless words as possible - like Sidney, so that it becomes less of a trick and more of a natural theme and variations. I guess I have tried to do both at once [in her poem A Miracle for Breakfast].

I think Sidney is a town in Florida, where she was at the time. I have made notes of other things she says, but those are more in the nature of going off on tangents so shall not mention them here.

I was pleased to discover the source of the word 'mackerel' used to describe a sky in the poem Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore, the one with the Please come flying leitmotif mentioned in yesterday's post: she had a kitten named Minnow, but its colour was really mackerel, she writes, a certain kind of grey...

I shall be reading Marianne Moore next, once I have thoroughly examined EB.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Please come flying

It has been twelve days since I wrote. I was away for exactly a week, and it has taken me this long to settle down to routine again.

Since returning have read a couple of books (prose!) , the one worth mentioning here is Nigel Cox's Phone Home Berlin, a collection of essays with some poetry thrown in. The core of the writing is about his experiences in helping set up the Jewish Museum in Berlin. I was very interested in the interaction between the Kiwis and the Germans, and found some of what I expected, and other things that were more surprising and helpful in their clarity - for instance the value that is placed upon art and beauty in Germany (read Europe) versus NZ. When he got back, I think that NC found it hard being here... An impressive person, in his ability to deal with people and in the knowledge and skill he acquired despite his lack of formal education.

Am busy with Elizabeth Bishop - her poem 'Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore' is in my mind - the repeated call Please come flying. The pleading quality to that sentence comes in part from the contrast with the rest of the poem. Now I've read that poem twice and thought about it, and after a few days all that remains is the Please come flying and an image of a lady in black - hat, cape and shoes, flying up a NY street. Here EB has found someone she can trust who will come when she calls. The bits of biography I read, where she said that at her grandparents house, her status was on a par with the dog's - she was not yet ten years old. That cry Please come flying seems to come from a child, must date from that time, the aching loss of her mother.

Have written a poem about the little study, for the 'collection' about the house. (I don't like the word 'collection'). Actually not a poem yet. A poem aan het worden, 'in the becoming'. Incipient I think is the word.

Am making a list of 'projects'. Maybe commitments is a better word here. Reminds me what it is about.

Sunday, 13 July 2008


I leave for Nelson tomorrow, today was Shabbat, no reading except the newspaper, and now some more E Bishop before going to sleep. Back next Sunday, hopefully with more focus and peace after a week of Zen.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

A good day

Spent the morning on my House poems, gathering up what belongs together in one file, it's satisfying to see it grow, and makes one realize that more development is needed: 20 poems by the end of the year. Indulgently, counting even little ones, there are seven now. So the target is reachable. Ideally double that number would be good, to be able to choose the better ones.

Things grow. One poem mentions a door, and it turned into the threshold to that door, and then the clear image of feet going to and fro over it, wanting to describe that, to give the feeling of the passage of time. I shall look up other names for shoes - boots, galoshes, high-heeled shoes, - and the materials - satin, patent leather, suede.

Wrote a short biography for the leaflet to advertise our poetry reading at Paekakariki.

And a blurb to advertise Dora's film. A letter of thanks arrived from the Holocaust Centre, neat. It has also been a good day weather-wise, despite the cold. Blue and clear.

Was tired tonight, read some Yeats. I could do with more of him. I don't know who I have lent my Szymborska book to, and I miss her. Shall read more E Bishop before going to sleep.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Fishless lake

I managed to miss writing this blog yesterday. How did that happen?

Have read more May Sarton, more Nelly Sachs (painful). Finished a book (prose) someone lent me, which I should have refused, it was their desire to lend more than my desire to read... and then I feel obliged to read it and it takes up time when I should be reading verse. A reminder to myself.

Have spent the morning working on my kitchen poetry, the pig on the wall, the child with the cake. It is sweet, but how good is it? A bit of froth...Hallmark quality? I have no idea, can't judge. The poem about the bowl of fruit has turned into something better, gradually.

Have worked on the villanelle about Kristalnacht: it is losing its villanelle shape, which I regret, I found the repeated verses valuable for a lamentation, and I like the authority conferred by the form, the right to use that structure. In the process of fiddling with it irritably this morning I had an insight as to where I could go with it, like a door slightly ajar, what it is that is waiting to be said. That was good.

Sometimes I want to throw it all away. At times I feel arid, lacking. A writer once said to me, that's the work of the writer, to confront the obstacle and carry on. The torrent with the boulders in it, to be navigated with concentrated effort, the peaceful lake at the end of the journey.

Tramping a year ago in the South Island, we came over a ridge of mountains to find a beautiful isolated lake where no fish lived. SJ said so and he is a fisherman. It seemed a great waste.

This is a bit rambly, like my free-flowing stuff. Enough for today.

Monday, 7 July 2008


Monday morning, first day of the holidays. I've finished Right as Rain, a book by Maartje Quivooy, who emigrated here from Holland in the late forties. I found it deeply moving.

The description of leaving one's homeland and family behind, of meeting them again later and the acute knowledge that they are dear and irreplaceable, missing them at important moments in one's life... she portrays that very well.

Her writing is good, except for the odd Flemishness - "she howled", from the Dutch huilen, when "she sobbed" would have been better, even if she did cry out loud. A child may howl, but in this case the person was mature and in deep grief. I don't think she meant howling like a wolf either. She is - I believe - a Whitireia graduate.

I get too caught up with prose: I have decided to read poetry every day from now on, in the evening. An hour at a time, with discipline, con brio. I have not managed the free-flowing writing more than one day in three so far, so the habit has to be reinforced. I aim for daily, bar Shabbat. This month will be bad, as I will be away, and computer-deprived, for all of next week.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Lost day

Yesterday a total loss due to the urgent stuff, both time and energy consumed, little to show for it but a migraine at the end of the day.

This morning up early to write monthly report, peaceful. Read a lot of Elizabeth Bishop last night, going to sleep. Enjoyed how she wrote to her much-loved mentor in October 1917, ELIZABETH KNOWS BEST, refusing to accept any of the changes the mentor had wrought: the rhymes, the rhythm and the name of her poem The Roosters (to The Cock!). It is now one of her most famous poems, anti-war.

With regard to the vilanelle: a helpful suggestion received about the 'good name', a better line repeated, something like "My good name is all I've got to leave you", tying in with the first one, "Everything you own..., "

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Muddling along

Half-way through the day and nothing much achieved.

At the library yesterday took out Elizabeth Bishop and May Sarton instead of Robert Hass. I had forgotten about him. Memory failure, regrettably. Maybe I wanted to be among women again.

Read some May S before going to sleep. That was good. One of the books by EB is called One Art: Letters (R. Giroux ed., 1994, Farrar Straus Giroux, NY). A heavy book I am looking forward to. A writers' life, something to think about, maybe some further ideas about how to go about things. Sometimes an old idea can be expressed differently and it appears to stand up and command attention in a new way.

Celan is peering at me from the book cover as I write - I renewed him but they only give an extra week. At a dollar a time. I wish money did not matter so much for everything.

Was up early enough, walk and breakfast and then other 'urgent' matters took over.

Wrote two poems for my collection yesterday afternoon, in a window of time between one thing and another. The ballad is leaving me cold so far. I wrote something, but it was not ballad-like. I am going to attack it again now. At least I learnt more about Kate Bush, some respect.

Have just realised that I need to write a book review for Thursday and that I had wanted to write about Elizabeth Bishop. I'd better get on to that first. I won't have time to digest her writing well enough as it is. Also a blog review due, which is easier.

I had other plans for this evening. My afternoon is already earmarked for something else ('urgent') , and tomorrow afternoon too - seeing friends.