A long time ago (25-ish years) in a Galaxy far, far away (a Boston suburb), my parents gave me The Golden Treasury of Poetry. I think it was for Hanukkah, but it might have been for my birthday. It may sound like hyperbole to say this book changed my life, but it really did. In particular, the poem that is featured above blew my little mind. Up until I read "The Fish" by Elizabeth Bishop, I had no idea that poems didn't have to rhyme. I didn't know poetry could be so visual and symbolic and still feel good as you pronounce the words. Up until then, the poetry I'd read was probably nothing more than doggerel. Lines like "backed and packed with tarnished tinfoil" delighted me endlessly. I should say "delight" instead of "delighted" because "The Fish" is still, to this day, my favorite poem.
It started a small, but definite, obsession with the works of Elizabeth Bishop. Take, for instance, her sestina:
September rain falls on the house.The rules of a sestina are set and painstakingly particular and exacting. It's using the same words over and over again in a very specific pattern, and is sometimes seen as an intellectual exercise, but Bishop makes the intellectual exercise sing.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.
She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,
It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac
on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.
It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.
But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.
Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.
Then there's her poem "Casabianca." It is an homage to another poem by the same name, written by Felicia Hemans. The Hemans poem is shmaltzy and the kind of thing people are made to memorize (or at least used to be made to memorize) for public speaking classes. It's a poem about a boy's loyalty and love for his father. But Bishop's homage takes that idea and story to another place and punches me in the gut with its eloquence:
Love's the boy stood on the burning deckI can pick up a collection of her works and open to any page and know I'm going to find something I love. Can't say that about any other poet, except maybe Shakespeare.
trying to recite `The boy stood on
the burning deck.' Love's the son
stood stammering elocution
while the poor ship in flames went down.
Love's the obstinate boy, the ship,
even the swimming sailors, who
would like a schoolroom platform, too,
or an excuse to stay
on deck. And love's the burning boy.
So how about you? Do you have a favorite poem? Poet? Please share!