Saturday, 12 February 2011

I Lost Two Cities

I have posted before about the pleasant surprise of uncovering yet another corner of my boundless ignorance. It is one of the deeper pleasures of life, I think, to be reminded of what an inexhaustible cabinet of curiosities we live in. This time, I have to admit I have only very recently read the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop (I realise that, to an American poetry enthusiast, this is a bit like saying "I have only very recently listened to the music of Joni Mitchell").

In a scene dominated by the histrionic shouting of self-obsessed men, hers is a cool, ironic, yet intense voice. I suspect she would have been a lot more fun to talk to than her friend Robert Lowell. I particularly like the way there always seems to be one simple word in each poem that makes you think, "What? Is this a misprint?"

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79)

In this poem, the arresting word is "lied", of course.


Struan said...

Sandpiper is worth some attention.

Mike C. said...

Hi Struan,

Oh yes, "the beach hisses like fat"...

I like, but am not sure about "a student of Blake", though. Yes, "a world in a grain of sand" is apt, but does the allusion to Blake do any more work than that? I'll have to think about that one.


struan said...

I think she's writing poetry about writing poetry.

Why Blake in particular I couldn't say.

The fat grabbed me too. I've heard it said that the analogy jars and is a 'wrong note'. For me it makes the poem - hinting at ignored dangers and very real realities.

Poems about poetry gets a bad press. I find them a good way to think about photography, and creativity in general.

Mike C. said...


Yes, I think the consensus is that most modern(ist) writers are *really* writing about writing (whereas post-modern ones are actually doing so). It's the same perspective as the one that says Velazquez and Turner, like Rothko and Pollock, are at the deepest level painting about painting.

It's useful, but in the end, it always seems to lead to an obsession with the flatness of paint, and novels that can't help saying "Stop! Haven't you realised this is only a novel!" (Well, I did when I picked it up, but I'd hoped for more...)


struan said...

I think it's a bit like reading a biography of an author or artist. At its best a biography can deepen both understanding and appreciation - even if the life turns out to be largely irrelevant to the work. At worst, experiencing art becomes just another category of celebrity fluff.

Eliots Little Gidding is another poem about poems that has survived my personal winnowing process. Otherwise, I tend to gabble through poems too fast to really read them.

Mike C. said...


I think most of us are like the sandpiper, looking for tasty bits in an incomprehensible, inedible whole...

It's one reason I wasn't cut out for the scholarly life -- I'm only interested in the bits of poems, novels, music that speak to whatever I happen to be interested in this week, I can't sustain an interest in the whole or the filler of someone else's achievement. Like my daughter's choice of snack, my loyalties rarely last more than a month...