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.

New Haven
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.

Elizabeth Bishop

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.


Michelle said...

Two days ago, I read an interview conducted with Elizabeth Bishop where she said:

"I've never written the things I'd like to write that I've admired all my life. Maybe one never does."

I'm so looking forward to hearing more about your collection. How exciting!

Michelle said...

PS. If Salt is planning a virtual book tour for A Season of Small Insanities, I'd be more than happy to host you on peony moon. You just let me know nearer the time.

George S said...

"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."

Just a quibble, Andrea. The argument about the more powerful side winning and the evolution of the gene pool is circular. It implies that evolution - ie the more powerful generally winning - is in a constant downward spiral in terms of compassion and morality. That is to say the more the powerful win, the less moral and compassionate we become. It also implies a Golden Age of morality and compassion befor evolution started.

I suspect there is a misunderstanding here. A scientific theory is based on observation and projection not on moral values. That is the nature of scientific observation. Is gravity compassionate or harsh? Is the freezing point of water good or bad? Can we rely on the suggestion that it will normally freeze at 0C?

Military superiority is, I suspect, always temporary.It does not rule out compassion and kindness because, miraculously, such things have survived in the world, and as long as the world exists, I expect to see them surviving. In fact, I rather suspect, morality and compassion, generally, have increased. We do not hang people for stealing sheep or anything else.

Writearound said...

Interesting points George that I havebe forced to consider.
That scientific theory based on observation and projection is devoid of any moral component is agreed, providing of course that the scientific method employed is precise and totally devoid of any built in bias. It begs the question as to what constitute a scientific theory. Various 'theories' claiming to be based on the scientific method have led to untold misery especially in the field of psychology, sociology and medicine. This, of course, has led to many denying that such theories were based on pure and current scientific methodology (some indeed would still claim that Darwin's theory of evolution is not totally substantiated by current scientific methodology). This suggests that how we view and form scientific methodolgy is not in itself neutral but effected by the era, culture and society the scientist lives in.
The dialogue between science and morality is, I know, and old chesnut usually answered by referral to the 'purity' of science and that morality only enters into the equation when considering the application of that science. Forgive me if I am a little dubious about this arguement as I have seen so called scientific theories apparently well substantiated by clear and precise scientific methodology lead to what we would now see as inhumane consequences. I wonder if the scientific methodolgy can ever be totally divorced from the time and culture ( and therefore mores) it is based in. Scientific fact, as you point out is totally neutral; gravity, the freezing point of water, two of hydrogen one of oxygen making water. These facts were arrived at by 'pure' scientific method. The fact that the operation of different moral principles has been investigated by scientific research via MRI scanning etc would seem to suggest that the scientific method can itself be applied to morality. A situation where science can tell us how morality is influenced by particular aspects of the brain's functioning doesn't reduce our capacity to make moral judgements it merely gives us more information to factor in when making them. How we arrive at a scientific fact may be open to morality or the prevailing mores but not the fact itself. Obviously we cannot 'unknow' those facts arrived at by what we regard now as immoral means but I am only wondering out loud if scientific fact and morality are so clearly divorced.
Re the survival of the fittest, I have perhaps simplistically regarded the fittest as the most powerful in terms of their ability to impose their will on others by what ever means. Those that adapt to a situation may, as you point out, not be those with military superiority or those with greater access to the means of survival ( food, heat, shelter etc) but may sometimes be those with greater levels of compassion and the the ability to apply moral principles. The principles of sharing, kindness,collaboration, putting the needs of the community before your own needs, may well prevail in the long run. However our capacity to try and annihilate and control others escalates through weapons of all kinds; rockets, suicide bombing using increasingly powerful devices, germ warfare, nuclear weapons, psychological manipulation seems to be far greater and more sophisticated today than yester year. This fact alone makes it difficult to compare pre-weaponary days with now. I do not for a minute think there was ever a golden age of morality, merely that our capacity to bring about destruction on a massive scale offers up a very different moral landscape. If the man in the next cave had the capacity to take over the man next door's cave by use of a gun would he have done so, maybe not, as he may know that co-operation and community was a necessary and fundamental factor in his own survival and that of his family... alienate your neighbour and how the hell are you going to hunt mammoth together or unite against other common enemies.
I firmly hope that right will always prevail over might, that compassion and morality will in the end win through. We have indeed progressed, we (the British) do not hang people for sheep stealing but some societies stone women to death for being raped, make children as young as five become soldiers.
It depends on whether 'we' is just our own back yard. Evolutionary theory by its very nature applies to all of human kind and it is dangerous ground to say that some version of 'we' is more morally advanced and compassionate than others, unless we measure ourselves and others by a belief that some moral truths are universal and that religious beliefs, cultural and social mores should defer to these universal moral principles. Personally I believe this, some moral principles can never be relative but morality in action is always a struggle, if it were easy I suspect we might be less than human and more programmed robots with integrated moral code software.