Thursday, October 20, 2011

William Gass on Elizabeth Bishop

I wrote a guest post for the Grub Street blog about William Gass, Elizabeth Bishop, and the purpose of criticism:

Certain writers are simply unassailable – their renown is such that the quality of their writing is never questioned. If you don’t care for Shakespeare, you put it that way – you don’t say that Shakespeare is bad.
Elizabeth Bishop is one of these poets. While I’ve never cared for her (I hate sestinas, I hate description, and I hate her most famous line: “Write it”), I never questioned her talent, either – I assumed I hadn’t given it the proper chance. I did begin to feel a more certain distaste for her in recent years when I realized she was something of a misogynist ...

I highly recommend the Gass essay I refer to in the post, if you have access to Harper's.


  1. I don't think I agree that refusing to be included in anthologies of the "writing by members of my traditionally oppressed group" variety is self-hating unless self-hatred is to be defined broadly enough not to be pejorative. One might believe that such anthologies have no any business existing & therefore be unwilling to support them by contributing. (There are various kinds of politics that might lead one to this position. I don't happen to hold it re _women_ but might in some other cases; it's a judgment call anyway.)

    For what it's worth I did not read the first part of Gass's review as Gass criticizing E.B.'s writing, rather as Gass impersonating a well-intentioned NY'er editor reading "Waiting Room."

  2. I think it can be read that way, yes, but they are still there and are still legitimate criticisms. She really isn't a good poet at the level of the "line." I feel that the negative reading and positive reading are both valid.

  3. I guess I read "Bishop writes boring lines" more as point-missing (of a kind that I was certainly guilty of when I first read Bishop) than as valid criticism: if Bishop were better at the level of the line, her poems would be different and not obviously better. (Hard to imagine but I _think_ they'd sound like W.H. Auden in drag.) The emphases would be in different places, the texture wouldn't be the same at all... I like Gass's remark about (iirc) aunts not belonging in poetry; having a plausible poem with an aunt in it takes very careful writing and I think it's fair to say that this kind of writing is necessarily dull at the micro-level.

    When I read the piece the bit re punctuation was what committed me firmly to the "satiric voice" interpretation.

  4. I feel like we're talking at cross-purposes -- in the end, the essay is "saying" that criticizing Elizabeth Bishop along those lines is missing the point. But what I like most about the essay is that he doesn't explicitly write "These criticisms are missing the point." Also, the part where he "misses the point" is just as delightful as the part where he doesn't. And that allows for an expansive space where both interpretations are possible. In other words, FUCKING NEGATIVE CAPABILITY YO.

  5. P.S. I certainly don't want Elizabeth Bishop to be a different kind of poet; I just generally prefer to read different kinds of poets.

  6. I adore Bishop's poems, but agree that she is often not impressive at the line-level; for me it's impressive that so many of her poems which ought to not work as poems at-all somehow, ineffably, do embody poemness. "One Art" really is amazing at just about every level tho--to be that formally rigourous and also that flexible is amazing: the piece is so much less obviously rhetorical than Do Not Go gently but it is not an iota less dazzlingly formal tho there's the wonderful scrim of casualness.

    Like some of M Moore and J Ashbery, E B too excells at making poems which seem like they ought not to qualify.

    As for her qwomen antho position: in some of her letters she makes clear that she does understand the impulse, but that she ultimately dislikes any segregation in art.

  7. I think "segregation" is the wrong word here -- it implies women are being kept in separate quarters because they're not as good (back of the bus, separate drinking fountains, etc.). "Segregation" is closer to what happens in regular anthologies that skew heavily male and make no apologies or explanations for it.

  8. I--and E B assuming I am using her word choice--mean the term in its most literal sense of separate forums. It's amazing how the civil-rights era inflection has become the norm (incidentally I wonder if there were any "non-white" women in the antho she turned down). I know that Bishop admired somepeople who were pro-women anthos: namely May Swenson. E B has certainly recieved a lot of flack for her position and it strikes me as a little odd--she clearly was writing to be canonical and that wld entail not positioning herself in any than the entire poetic field; and if ever one was not a team player it'd be Bishop. I think Bishop was resisting femaleness as a marketing tactic. One cld argue that's a brutally cynical view of corrective anthos.

    I wish Gass had not zeroed in on ITWR: it's surely her worst "major"poem.

    I am biased: Bishop's The Fish was the first poem which really grabbed me; when I first read it I yelped: she's written thyis poem for me!

  9. My impression has always been that she's been praised for it more than she's been given flak for it. And as I wrote in the guest post (I believe) it's not an either/or stance -- she didn't have to choose between appearing in all-women anthologies and appearing in "regular" anthologies. I've published poetry in women-only journals, it didn't get me black-listed from "regular" journals. It feels meaningless, to me, to have an "anti-segregation" stance when mainstream publishing venues so often segregate by default.

  10. Regarding the word "segregation" -- the reason that the "civil rights era inflection has become the norm" is that segration (based on, among other things, supposed racial and/or gender differences) has been a historical reality, whether by actual law or (at least as commonly) by standard practice or tradition or default. It's not just a philosphical concept floating in the ether.

    This is, maybe, a little bit of a tangent to the main thread of the discussion here, and I don't have much other context for Bishop's reasons for not wanting to appear in women-only anthologies. And such anthologies (or women-only literary magazines) were not widespread during much of the time Bishop was writing. The first women-only poetry anthologies I remembering seeing (there are four that come immediately to mind) were published in the 1970's in the United States.

    It's harder for me to say anything articulate about Bishop's poetry as such -- I've read very little of her work. I've likewise read relatively little of the work of a number of other poets of the same approximate "generation" or who moved somewhat in similar circles -- Lowell, Plath, Berryman, Sexton, Delmore Schwartz, Richard Eberhart, Marya Zaturenska, Karl Shapiro, etc.

  11. I agree it needn't be either/or. I'm not trying to claim E B as consciously feminist--tho in practice she cld merit the moniker. The only, to my knowedge, antho (antho period) (translations aside) which she appeared in in her lifetime is barely an antho but rather a little packet from New Directions; mm, that and Oscar Williams except tho if that was posthumous I'm not sure.

    She's praised for this? My take is feminist lenses raise eyebrows--Gilbert and Gubar etc.

    Oops--I think in her lifetime she may have been in a Norton antho; in a funny letter she mentions how wayyyyyy off the editors' footnotes are.

    I wonder if she'd have consented to a women antho if the guidelines were precise: if it wasn't just a general push for women, but had greater specificity. Was it coming out anxiety? As Frank Bidart has stated: ironically everyone in her millieu knew she's a lesbian, yet she herself wasn't comfortable as such.

    Bishop is a strange bird: she's inherently political, and even at times admirably so, but also not directlly/emphatically so.

    "Crusoe In England" is as splendid an elegy as I've ever read!

    And I love her early lesbian love poem with the moon and a bureau mirror! Well i write lesbian because it does not seem strayt tho exactly why I'm not totally sure: its sensualness but also obliquity I suppose, or rather not obliquity but its quality of cold sheen, analysis not passion, which may be much harder for non-heteros to discursively tap and please don't think I want to suggest this poem isn't deliciously tender/and/or erotically charged.

    Her letters are really wonderful!

  12. Lyle, Anne Sexton was the first poet really loved. Now I'm extremely partial to Berryman.

    EB's last published poem in The New Yorker, as quoted in the Gass essay, can easily be read as a coming-out poem of sorts.

  13. The one with the thermometer and the rainbow bird and is it a soapbubble?

  14. "Wobbling and wavering, undecided"?
    It's interesting how that poem rewrites/revises her early piece "The Weed," which is an awesome poem! "Neither sun nor moon to catch its young attention" etc.


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