Friday, October 02, 2009

`Dark, Salt, Clear, Moving, Utterly Free'

Elizabeth Bishop’s most autobiographical poem is about a bird (“he”) running along a beach as the surf rolls in and recedes:

“The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn't tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied…”

“The Sandpiper” is a portrait of the artist as fastidious (“finical”), obsessive observer – that is, as Elizabeth Bishop. The characteristic tone of her best poems is soft-spoken, natural-sounding and diffident, while bottomlessly curious and authoritative. Her poems teach us to trust that she possesses a mind on which nothing is lost. Hers is the voice one hopes to hear in an emergency. In “At the Fishhouses,” she writes of the taste of cold sea water:

“It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.”

Knowledge is cold and bracing and wakes us to the hard, cold world. Knowledge is a form of attentiveness. The perennially rediscovered Dawn Powell wrote 15 novels and has been described by Terry Teachout as “a fine and important writer adored by a handful of lucky readers in the know and ignored by everybody else.” Like Bishop, Powell was voracious for knowledge in the broadest sense, beyond mere facts. In her diary for June 22, 1965, five months before her death at age 68, Powell writes:

“Most important thing for novelists is curiosity and how curious that so many of them lack it. They seem self-absorbed, family-absorbed, success-absorbed....

“The new writers disdain human curiosity; they wish only to explore and describe their own psyches; they are too egotistical and snobbish to interest themselves in neighbors. The urge to write now is no longer the love of story-telling or even the love of applause for a neat turn or dramatic twist. It is the urge to show off, the author as hero is a big sex success and leaves them gasping. The book’s drive is only the desire to strip the writer’s remembered woes and wrongs and show his superiority to the reader – not to communicate with him or to entertain.”

Her words are a prophecy fulfilled. How often do we learn something from a contemporary novel or poem? When does fiction or poetry extend our knowledge of the world? When is a work of literature more than another act of solipsism? In “Efforts of Affection: A Memoir of Marianne Moore,” Bishop writes of her friend and mentor:

“Marianne was intensely interested in the techniques of things -- how camellias are grown; how the quartz prisms work in crystal clocks; how the pangolin can close up his ear, nose, and eye apertures and walk on the outside edges of his hands `and save the claws/for digging’; how to drive a car; how the best pitchers throw a baseball; how to make a figurehead for her nephew’s sailboat. The exact way in which anything was done, or made, or functioned, was poetry to her.”

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