Sunday, 4 January 2009
Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Darwin and Gaza
I am reading the letters between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell and am finding much there to think about, both about the art of writing and about how life and art interact. Elizabeth Bishop took twenty-five years to finish her poem The Moose, she took her time, each word needing to be absolutely authentic and the right one. Robert Lowell on the other hand was notorious for revising and constantly changing already published poems, sometimes driven by his manic self, sometimes for other reasons. I have been going through the proofs of my collection to be published in April and I can feel Elizabeth and Robert staring over my shoulder. ‘That poem’s nowhere near ready’, says Elizabeth, ‘Give it more time a few more years and then you may see if it’s worth the ink, most poems aren’t’. Robert over the other shoulder mutters, ‘You could change it now, you could change it later, everything changes, poems that are published are not sacrosanct, next week, next month, next year, you may feel differently.’ Between the two of them I could just scream, ‘ So why bother at all’ And then of course there would be a sharp intake of breath and they would both shake their heads and they would tell me that if I didn’t know the answer to that then I would be best not writing at all.
Their letters are stuffed full of long descriptions, an obsession with collecting detail, of observing the minutiae of life. Both these poets seemed to be compulsive collectors of names of birds, names of fish and flowers, words for a sky, the look of the floor of a half built house. Below is Elizabeth Bishop’s memorial poem for Lowell. She always joked with him that he would write her epitaph as she was older than him but life will not be bidden. His habit of constantly changing and revising poems is threaded through the poem. Death is seen by Bishop as the last unchanging state, death seals all creativity.
In memoriam Robert Lowell
I can make out the rigging of a schooner
a mile off; I can count
the new cones on the spruce. It is so still
the pale bay wears a milky skin; the sky
no clouds except for one long, carded horse's tail.
The islands haven't shifted since last summer,
even if I like to pretend they have
--drifting, in a dreamy sort of way,
a little north, a little south, or sidewise,
and that they're free within the blue frontiers of bay.
This month, our favorite one is full of flowers:
Buttercups, Red Clover, Purple Vetch,
Hackweed still burning, Daisies pied, Eyebright,
the Fragrant Bedstraw's incandescent stars,
and more, returned, to paint the meadows with delight.
The Goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the White-throated Sparrow's five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.
Years ago, you told me it was here
(in 1932?) you first "discovered girls"
and learned to sail, and learned to kiss.
You had "such fun," you said, that classic summer.
("Fun"--it always seemed to leave you at a loss...)
You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue...And now--you've left
for good. You can't derange, or re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)
The words won't change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.
The fighting in Gaza continues to increase, in order to preserve life Israel says it is forced to take life ( or destroy strategic military targets which unfortumately necessitates the taking of life, sometimes of innocents). 2009 seems to have started badly. Two hundred years since Darwin was born, the man who painstakingly examined man’s evolution, how we emerged from the slime and became the dominant species. The prime objective of evolution is survival of the fittest, the demand that the weak, the defenseless, those unable to defend themselves will eventually perish for the greater good, the betterment of the gene pool. Darwin’s theory is still painfully true today. Whichever side has right on its side is immaterial, it will be the children, the old, the sick who will suffer. Infra structure such as power and water supplies destroyed, will inevitably lead to terrible hardship and disease. Evolutionary theory doesn’t make room for morality and compassion, if those with the guns, the tanks and the rockets have the greatest chance of survival I wonder what the gene pool will evolve into in the centuries to come, that it survives at all may be in question. Justification always exists or can be manufactured for all actions taken by individuals, groups, communities or governments. Using the words of Bishop's last line, the words won’t change and the sad friends, the dead, those innocents who suffer, can no longer change themselves, the situation or anything that might make life a little better, that opportunity has been denied them forever.