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Helen Vendler

Can a good poem be so intellectual that most readers don’t get it, and is not “getting it” an impediment to enjoying the poem? Hell, I sure hope not.One of my favorite poets is Wallace Stevens. I will admit I do not get Wally. As a young man, I fell in love with his verbal confidence. He “conjured” me (alluding here to a slightly better poet than Wally). I hate snobbery, but not if it can earn its lofty perch, and sneer at the masses because it is truly beautiful. The snobbery of gate keepers and young poets trying to make a name for themselves makes me ill. It is sad because it is fearful snobbery (I must own the gates) or premature snobbery (I have been published in the Paris Review; I am destined to be a professor who is tenured and on anti-depressants).

In terms of Stevens, I was smitten and terrified by the same thing the people seemed smitten and terrified by in regard to Jesus: “He speaks with authority.” That vatic voice, that voice which flows from a mind and aesthetic impersonality so vast that I can no longer care about sincerity, or insincerity—that is what thrilled me, and I no longer cared what he meant. I was enraptured by what the Irish critic, Dennis Donaghue called “the gibberish of the vulgate.”

Years later, I was able to see some of the mechanisms of thought and feeling in Stevens and I said to myself: “Joe, you can now sound out the idol, and make a more judicious appraisal on your hero. You can sit back and see his faults, and still admire him, albeit, without fear and trembling.” I was wrong.

Being wrong, I turned to Lacan. Why not? If you are wrong, it is best to turn to the French. They have been making correctives almost as long as they have been making wine. So I looked at Stevens in an extra poetic way.

Snob A: The one who, through his supreme talent, must find a rage to order, must ignore the rabble, must be an asshole in the service of heaven.

Snob B: The one who called Gwendolyn Brooks a “nigger,” who enjoyed every drab pleasure of old shoe Harvard; the one who could behave like a lesser Tom Buchanan out of The Great Gatsby: a man so larded with his self-regard, with his cigars, with his trips to Florida, with his success, that he made Hemingway a hero (supposedly Hemingway punched him out); the one who had no trouble living in an icy marriage, and resembled a sort of well done beef Wellington: a cliché snob, a snob fit only for graduate students who have pulled a Kafka and transformed the Beef Wellington of the first half of the 20th century into the couscous of this more “enlightened” age.

Snob C: The one who, like all of us, wants to be a rabbit as king of the ghosts, who wants the cat of death to be a mere bug in the grass; the one who is lofty because he knows at the end of the day, that he, too, must end—and never well. No one ends well. We lie. We die. Lord, have mercy on us!

I took all three of these snobs into consideration, tossed them into the blender, and realized that my aesthetic test for music when I was 13 still applied: if I play a song one hundred times in a row, and, on the last playing, it still has an effect, then it is part of my synaptic hit parade and can never be vanquished. It is the love Shakespeare speaks of when he says “No! It is an ever fixed mark!” This “fixed mark” only exists within instability. It is what the eye or ear or heart seeks and finds while everything else is wobbling. It is a lie, but such a beautiful lie that God (like the gods with Theseus) understands that our lie is wanton in the best sense, and “hath a spirit precluding law.” Such a lie allows us to retrieve what has been lost to the underworld. It is the necessary lie of rising from the dead:

just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.

Music is feeling, then, not sound:
And thus it is that what I feel,
here in this room, desiring you.

Thinking of your blue -shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna.

Helen Vendler made a whole book showing Wallace Stevens was not heatless. Of course he was heartless—all the better, because that meant his liver, and kidneys, and wonderful eyes, and faithfulness (almost) to the tropes of 19th century poetry (the best 19th century American poetry) brought him to a place where only snobbery A and snobbery C mattered. I hope after all these years, I still love Wallace Stevens.

Picture Credit.

‘Crusoe in England’ was first published in The New Yorker in 1971, then later collected in ‘Geography III,’ perhaps Bishop’s finest single volume of poems. (Only recently I discovered the title of which was suggested to her by John Ashbery. He had found a little geography textbook of the eponymous name, and sent it to her, thinking she’d rather enjoy it. Turns out, she did.)

I can’t help thinking ‘Crusoe in England’ is Bishop’s greatest poem, though Bishop is the type of figure who inspires worshippers, and therefore, nearly all of her poems are considered The Greatest, The Most Favorite, The Defining Classic: ‘The Fish,’ ‘At the Fishhouses,’ ‘One Art’ (which wears on me), ‘The Man-Moth,’ etc. Ashbery’s favorite is characteristically ‘Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.’ After reading it, he wrote Bishop his first and only fan letter and attached the poem he wrote in tribute ‘Soonest Mended.’ Ashbery also adores ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’ for the charm of a strict form like the sestina depicting a daily meal (one thinks of a Fairfield Porter interior in the Bonnard style, teacups and silverware placed around a family dinner table next to a copy of Wallace Stevens’ poems). Helen Vendler’s favorite is ‘Brazil, January 1, 1502’—or maybe it’s simply the poem of Bishop’s she has written most beautifully about. Harold Bloom’s favorite is a small gem from her first book, ‘The Unbeliever,’ which he finds to be a pure Romantic lyric in the Shelleyian vein. Christopher Ricks once told me how much he cherished ‘The Filling Station,’ though he has reservations about EB, and prefers her prose. Scott Cairns—like Mark Strand—thinks ‘The Monument’ a perfect poem because it is enacts what it describes, full of those tromp l’oeil effects where poems step off the page: “Look!” (Similar grand examples of this: Keats’ ‘This Living Hand,’ Ashbery’s ‘The Instruction Manual.’) And while I know Merrill considered her the greatest poet of his time (like many others: Randal Jarrell, Robert Lowell), I’m not sure which was his favorite poem. ‘Pink Dog’ is surely the most Merrillesque—for its astute powers of observation mixed with the reticence of its sophistication. It’s a mellow poem that reminds me how much both poets really learned from Auden.

Clearly, she was and is a well-loved poet. I’ve been using ‘the greatest’ and ‘favorite’ almost interchangeably, which is not quite right. ‘Crusoe in England’ might be both for me, though I admit to always having had a soft spot for ‘North Haven.’ Was a more intimate and moving elegy ever written by one poet for another? As Bishop said to Lowell in a letter: “I want to be heartbreaking.” ‘North Haven’ is compactest proof.

So what’s so amazing and appealing about ‘Crusoe in England’? For starters, it’s one of Bishop’s longest poems, if not the longest; it was written towards the end of her life, and in it, one finds an entire life—Crusoe’s (i.e. Bishop’s)—compressed soberly, hauntingly. Bishop was a wordsmith but in her poetry she is no less a painter: the array of detail is uncannily fresh, mostly for its accuracy, but no less for its originality. Steam rises in the distance from the volcanoed island like flies; the volcanoes themselves stand like mountains with their heads blown off. Every sense has been answered to, from the smell of guano to the touch and texture of the hissing lava, the rolling gulls and quaking turtles, the horrifying baby goats.

Still, previous poems of hers have shown the same brilliance and grace of description. In ‘Crusoe,’ that painterly hand is matched with a cadence of melancholy and surrender that comes from staring back at the unexpected—or was it expected?—course of a single life. “None of the books has ever got it right.” “Beautiful, yes, but not much company.” “I often gave way to self-pity.” These asides, seemingly dropped down in the poem carelessly, are the signs of her mastery. The voice of this poem, like its tone, betrays her inimitable dramatic understatement. It reminds me of the quietness of Auden’s love lyrics, or the intimacy of Coleridge’s Conversation Poems. And speaking of Coleridge, of whom Bishop was a lifelong devotee, ‘Crusoe’ is also a poem suffused with allusions to Romanticism—there’s the title character, of course, written in the vein of 19th century adventure travelogues; there’s also the Wordsworth quote from ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.’ I also hear in her hallucinated sunsets that mysterious ballad ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ And then in her play of Mont d’Espoir for Mount Despair—a telling trickery, that is so reserved, and sad—you also see a wink at Shelley and Wordsworth who found in the Alps something like a confrontation with existential reality—a sublime affirmation for one, a sublime negation for the other.

Bishop spent most of her adult life in Brazil, away from academia and the limelight she had received ever since Marianne Moore brought her to the attention of the general reading public. An orphan, an exile, a lesbian—all of these personal histories are entwined in ‘Crusoe in England’ that underscores how her life ended. Bishop would return to America, die in Cambridge, having survived the love of her life’s suicide. Her last days were as a professor at Harvard. As the title belies, the adventures have ended. Crusoe is back in England, Bishop in the States. Just as Crusoe’s imaginative paraphernalia have been incased in museum glass, so have Bishop’s manuscripts and poems been handed over to other people. What ultimately remains of any artist’s life but an attempt to make some lasting object? That’s the Ovidian monument against time, yes, but it’s also another momentum mori. Art may go on, we certainly don’t. Like Don Quixote waking from his reveries to find himself the published character in his mad odyssey, we—like Crusoe, like even the great poet Elizabeth Bishop—are defeated by reality.

You can read and hear her reciting “Crusoe in England” at Poetryarchive.org. Below, a recording of Bishop reading “In the Waiting Room.”

Elizabeth Bishop – In the Waiting Room .mp3