June 4, 2013
One of the great modern American literary friendships was between the poets Robert Lowell (1917-1977) and Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979). They met in the late 1940s and remained friends, despite some turmoil, until Lowell’s death in 1977. Bishop only survived him by two years, passing away suddenly on the day she was to give a rare public reading at Harvard University. Rare, because Bishop was very shy, especially when it came to crowds, unlike Lowell who was voluble, more than a little manic, and quite the great man of American letters.
Despite, or perhaps because of, their contrasting temperaments they bonded over poetry. It was a literary friendship in two senses: they were both fiercely committed to their craft and it was a relationship that was conducted almost entirely by mail. They were rarely in the same part of the world at the same time, not least because Bishop spent almost two decades in Brazil, living with her partner Lota de Macedo Soares. So the friends grew close by writing letters to bridge the physical distance between them.
Both Lowell and Bishop were extraordinary correspondents. Does anyone write letters anymore? But Lowell and Bishop were among the last of the generations that considered letter writing an art form. Composing experiences and thoughts in a way that was coherent and reflective, Lowell and Bishop viewed letters as minor works of art, as well as a way to keep the mind alert to writing poetry. In the lives of strong writers, one is always struck by the sheer quantity of writing that they do, and letters form the bulk of this writing. Both Lowell and Bishop were remarkable correspondents both with each other and with others. But their correspondence is sufficiently important that it has been collected in the 2008 volume Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Trevisano and Saskia Hamilton.
The title is taken from an affectionate poem that Lowell wrote (and rewrote. .. and then rewrote again!) for Bishop in which he characterized her methods of composing poems. And this is the other great thing about Bishop and Lowell: they wrote poems in response to each other. Their letters were private communications but the poems were a public dialogue carried out in counterpoint. For instance, from Brazil Bishop dedicated a poem to Lowell called it “The Armadillo.” It begins with a beautiful image of a popular religious celebration, a mingling of the secular and the sacred:
This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,
rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.
It’s impossible not to imagine that in that image of the paper filling with light, “like hearts,” Bishop was referring to letter-writing. But the fire balloons can be dangerous, and when they fall to earth they flare into brushfires that disturb the animals: “Hastily, all alone,/a glistening armadillo left the scene/rose flecked, head down. . . “ Are these fires a warning not to get too close? Bishop and Lowell had quarreled in their letters about Lowell’s use of quotations and personal details in his poems without having asked for permission. Exposed to the public, private correspondence could detonate, injuring innocent bystanders Bishop could be saying.
Lowell responded to Bishop’s armadillo with a poem called “Skunk Hour” set in Castine, Maine, where he summered. Society is all unstable: “The season’s ill—we’ve lost our summer millionaire. . .” Half way through Lowell turns on himself. Watching the cars in Lover’s Lane: “My mind’s not right. . . .I myself am hell;/nobody’s here—//only skunks, that search in the moonlight for a bite to eat.” Lowell was frequently hospitalized throughout his life with mental illness and you can hear the desperate sense of holding on as everything seems to be falling apart in this verse. “Skunk Hour” ends with an image of obdurate resistance that the poet fears he cannot share: the mother skunk, foraging in a garbage can, “drops her ostrich tail,/and will not scare.”
The title for their collected correspondence comes from Lowell’s poem for Bishop that includes the lines: “Do/you still hang your words in the air, ten years/unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps or empties for the unimaginable phrase—unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect?”
Unlike the voluble Lowell, Bishop was a very deliberate writer and Lowell is referring to her habit of pinning up the sheets of a work in progress and making it, essentially, part of the furniture of her life. She mulled over the work, considering and reworking the poem until she was finally satisfied with it; reportedly she worked on her well known poem “The Moose” for nearly two decades before publishing it.
Lowell was just the opposite, not least because he revised and rewrote poems even after he had published them, causing a great deal of trouble and confusion for his editors in establishing an accurate final text. Indeed, he fiddled continually with his poem to Bishop, turning it into something rather more formal and monumental in the final version.
Lowell never read Bishop’s response: it came in a memorial poem called “North Haven,” a poem like “Skunk Hour” about the seacoast. It’s a lovely tribute, full of rueful knowledge of Lowell’s character: “(‘Fun’—it always seemed leave you at a loss. . .)” and ends with
You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue. . .And now – you’ve left
for good. You can’t derange, or rearrange,
your poems again. (But the sparrows can their song.)
The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.
It’s uneasy to cite sadness or depression as a cause of artistic creativity; most depressives aren’t great poets. Both Lowell and Bishop were sad in their various ways. Poetry, Robert Frost wrote, provides a “momentary stay against confusion.” But that’s not all it does. Indeed, in the case of Bishop and Lowell it could be argued that it was the letters that provided a structure of meaning and feeling for both poets that helped them make sense and order their experience. The poems themselves are something else entirely: expressions of feeling and self-knowledge that appear as art.
January 17, 2013
In this week of the Presidential Inauguration, it must be said that poetry serves another function when deployed in public: it is classy, it adds tone and the aura of high-minded literary prestige. This is where poetry gets into trouble: when it gets stuffy, pompous, and stiff.
All of these characteristics, the Inauguration has in spades. Inaugurations have gradually gotten bigger and more complicated over time. Certainly, we are far from the day when Jefferson walked over to the Capital from his boarding house, was sworn in, and then walked back to have lunch with his roommates at the communal table. My recollection is that the ceremonies used to be fairly simple, followed by a parade. Now the ceremony itself is lengthy and studded with musical interludes, prayers and invocations, and an inaugural poem—as well as the parade. It’s not clear that the elaborateness of the inaugural ceremony is an improvement over brisk efficiency. The inauguration, which is now an all-day event, tends to bring out the kind of stiff pomposity, both physical and rhetorical, that Americans mock in other areas; the solemn tones of the newscasters with their nuggets of “history.” Inaugural addresses are nearly always forgettable let-downs because the rhetoric is pitched too high as the speaker competes with some ideal notion of “posterity.” Who remembers President Clinton’s awkward rhetorical trope: “We must force the spring,” an admonition that puzzled analysts finally decided was horticultural not hydraulic. One suspects that presidents and their speechwriters are paralyzed by the example of Lincoln and his two majestic Inaugurals.
President Clinton brought back the inaugural poem perhaps seeking a connection with his youth as well as the ideals he hoped to embody since it was President Kennedy’s inaugural that saw perhaps the most famous example of public poetry in American history. Famously, the 86-year-old Robert Frost, a rock-ribbed Rebublican, agreed to read. A flinty, self-reliant New Englander, the poet had been beguiled by the attractive figure of the young Bostonian Democrat. Kennedy, shrewdly courted the old bard—undoubtedly America’s most famous poet—and convinced Frost, against his better judgment, to compose a poem to read at the swearing in. Frost, battening on to the Kennedy theme of a new generation coming to power, struggled to produce an enormous and bombastic piece on the “new Augustan age.” He was still writing the night before the ceremony.
Amazingly, Frost was unable to deliver the new work: facing east into the noon day, he was blinded by the glare off the snow that had fallen over night and could not read the manuscript of his newly completed ode. So Frost, from memory, recited “The Gift Outright” his paean to America’s foreordained triumphalism: “The land was ours before we were the land’s.”
If the speaking platform had faced west as it does now, all this drama and inadvertent symbolism would have been avoided as Frost could have delivered his giant pudding of a poem. Accidentally, “The Gift Outright” jibed perfectly with JFK’s call to arms and a call to service that troubled only some at the time. But Frost practically was forced to recite “The Gift Outright” once he lost his eyes. It is the only one of his poems that would suit the public needs of the occasion. Imagine the consternation if he had recited the ambiguous and frightening lines of “The Road Not Taken” or the premonition of death in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening”: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” Reading from “Fire and Ice” at that Cold War moment would have gotten the Kennedy Administration off on the wrong foot: “Some say the world will end in fire,/Some say in Ice./From what I’ve tasted of desire,/I hold with those who favor fire.” This could have caused panic if not incomprehension among political observers.
The Inaugural poet does not, then, have an easy task, balancing the public, the private—and above all else the political. President Clinton brought back the inaugural poet tradition with Maya Angelou, whose voice and presence redeemed a poem that is not very good. The others have been competent, nothing more. We will see what the newly announced poet Richard Blanco has to say. He is under tremendous pressure and the news that he is being asked to write three poems, from which the administration’s literary critics will pick one is not reassuring. Kennedy at least trusted his poet to rise to the occasion. Things are rather more carefully stage-managed these days. I wish Mr. Blanco well and remind him to bring sunglasses.
As both a historian and poet himself, David Ward will contribute monthly musings on his favorite medium. His current show “Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets” is on view through April 28 at the National Portrait Gallery.
This is, fittingly, Ward’s inaugural post for Around the Mall. This blog, he writes: “has the modest goal—or at least this blogger has the modest intention—of discussing various aspects of American poetry, both contemporary and from past time. Poetry exists in a particularly salient place in the arts because if it is done well it combines opposites: form or structure with personal exuberance, for instance. Above all, it permits the most private feeling to be broadcast to the largest public. Poetry is one of the few ways that Americans permit themselves to show emotion in public, hence people resort to it at funerals – or weddings and other important occasions. Poetry is a way of getting to the nub of the matter; as Emily Dickinson wrote, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” There has been a tremendous boom in the number of people who read and write poetry precisely because we see it as a way of opening up ourselves to others in ways that are sanctioned by a tradition that goes back centuries. Among its other dualities, poetry always balances past and present.”
December 5, 2012
The curators and researchers spend a lot of time reading, everything from classic novels to the latest exhibition catalog. We asked some of them to lend us their reading lists to see which titles rose to the top and why.
For the Art Connoisseurs:
Leslie Umberger, from the American Art Museum, recommends:
“James Castle: Show and Store, an exhibition catalogue produced by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sophia in 2011 brilliantly navigates the complex depths of Idaho artist James Castle (1899-1977). Fresh, insightful, and deeply moving, the images and essays explore a truly, astonishing, poetic and enigmatic body of work–drawings of soot, paper constructions, and carefully rendered books and letters–entirely in its own terms. Perfectly magical.”
Lisa Hostetler, from the American Art Museum, recommends:
“Photography Changes Everything, edited by Marvin Heiferman (Aperture/Smithsonian Institution, 2012). It’s an interesting look at the wide variety of ways that photographs are used and how photography itself has affected contemporary culture. Two exhibition catalogues that I’ve been looking forward to reading are Cindy Sherman (MoMA, 2012) and Rineke Dijkstra (Guggenheim, 2012). Sherman and Dijkstra are two of today’s most compelling artists, and these retrospectives are important compendia of their careers.”
Maya Foo, from the Freer and Sackler, recommends:
“Rome by Robert Hughes. In college, I studied art history in Rome and I have wanted to return to Italy ever since. Robert Hughes’ Rome is a readable and rich history of the city told through art, architecture, literature and the author’s personal narrative.”
For the Wordsmiths:
David Ward, from the National Portrait Gallery, recommends:
“What with the opening of Poetic Likeness at the museum this fall and co-editing Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration, which includes 12 newly commissioned poems, my mind has been mostly on poetry the last year or so. I have been especially taken by the following titles: First, work by two of the great “voices” in modern American poetry, one still vital even at 85, John Ashbery, and the other sadly gone, Adrienne Rich, who passed away earlier this year after an amazingly powerful career. Adrienne Rich, Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971-2012 (WW Norton, 2012). John Ashbery, Quick Question: New Poems (Ecco, 2012).
The writer Eavan Boland is not only a first-rate poet but she is continually interesting on the subject of writing, literary history and social roles. Her latest book explores the sense of doubleness that she navigates in her career: A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet.
Two prize-winning books by two of America’s best poets are also of note: Jorie Graham’s Place (Ecco, 2012) and Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars (Greywolf, 2011), which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2012.
Also, a pitch for a book that was published a couple of years ago that I don’t think got as much attention as it should have, from Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, A New Literary History of America (Harvard University Press, 2009), which came out in paperback in 2012. It provides a really valuable, entertaining and incisive view of 500 years of American writing.”
For the Scientists:
John Grant, from the National Air and Space Museum, recommends:
Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity and the Exploration of the Red Planet by Steve Squyres is good for adults. Squyres writes about his work as the principal investigator on both the Spirit and Opportunity missions to Mars in 2004. A good read for people following the more recent Mars developments with the Curiosity mission.
And for the younger set: Fly Me to Mars by Catherine Weitz is a terrific kids book.
For the History Buffs:
Cory Bernat, co-curator of FOOD: Transforming the American Table at American History, recommends:
Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America by Harvey Levestein, which covers America’s eating habits from the 1930s to present day.
John Edward Hasse, at the American History Museum, likes:
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood and How It Changed America, by John M. Barry, because it’s a “fascinating story told so compellingly that it reads almost like a novel.”
Nancy Bercaw, of the American History Museum, suggests:
Tiya Miles’ Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom, first published in 2006, but an interesting read for readers looking for something different in the Civil War sesquicentennial.
November 28, 2011
Monday, November 28 Postal Museum Tours
Only have a limited time to see the sights at the Postal Museum and don’t know where to start? Take a docent-led tour of the museum’s collections to make sure you see a little of everything, and gain insight into the collection’s significance. DIY-ers can download this self-guide brochure. Tours are generally held at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily; call 202-633-5534 to confirm the day’s times. Free. National Postal Museum.
Tuesday, November 29 Viva Verdi
Come explore the remarkable life and career of Giuseppe Verdi, Italy’s great 19th-century opera composer. Coleen Fay, arts editor at WAMU, will lead a seminar that traces the evolution of Verdi’s works through multimedia recordings. Learn how Verdi overcame personal misfortune to compose some of opera’s most renowned masterpieces. This Residents Associates Program is $30 for members, $27 for senior members, and $40 for the general public. 6:45 to 9 p.m. Ripley Center.
Wednesday, November 30 Celebrating Roots, Creating Community
The Smithsonian Latino Center invites everyone to a bilingual night of music and spoken word performances. This program will feature local poets Quique Avilés, Naomi Ayala and Consuelo Hernández, as well as music by singer/songwriter Patricio Zamorano and his band. The event is part of the Latino D.C. History Project series, which documents the historical presence of Latino culture in the nation’s capital. Free. 6:30 p.m. American Indian Museum, Rasumson Theater.
Thursday, December 1 The Bright Beneath
Inspired by bioluminescent organisms from deep beneath the sea, installation artist Shih Chieh Huang has created an unearthly world of glowing creatures in the Natural History Museum. At this “Mingle at the Museum” event, enjoy a specialty cocktail and themed hors d’oeuvres as Huang and curator of fishes Lynne Parenti chat about the exhibition. Demonstrations of bioluminescent deep-sea creatures and real specimens will be on hand. This Residents Associates Program is $30 for members and $35 for the general public. 7:30 to 10 p.m. Natural History Museum, Sant Ocean Hall.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.
October 20, 2011
Friday, October 21 Craft2Wear Advance Chance Party
Craft2Wear is a unique collection of American-made wearable art by forty artists featured in previous Smithsonian shows, including Alabama-based artist Kathleen Nowak Tucci, recently featured in a Q&A. Come to the advance opening party to get an early shot at these remarkable pieces of jewelry, clothing and other accessories. David Muir, of ABC World News, will emcee this event, which features wine, hors d’oeuvres, music and modeling. Craft2Wear is organized by the Smithsonian’s Women’s Committee and a portion of the sales will benefit the committee’s mission of supporting education, outreach and research projects within the Institution. Tickets to the party are $50; tickets to attend the exhibition Saturday or Sunday are $5 and available at the door. 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. National Building Museum, 401 F St., NW
Saturday, October 22 MATCH + WOOD
Experience the interplay between poetry and visual art at this evening event. Poets Ernesto Mercer and Sami Miranda invite the art collective Tres Raices and others to engage with the collaborative works of Sandile Zulu and Henrique Oliviera, whose paintings and installations are featured in “Artists in Dialogue 2.” The event continues the show’s exploration of the dynamic connections between Latino, African and American cultures. Free. 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. African Art Museum
Sunday, October 23 Call and Response Drumming Workshop
Melvin Deal of African Heritage Dancers & Drummers leads this interactive workshop. Learn about the drumming history of Go-Go, a DC-based blend of funk and R&B with call-and-response vocals. Bring an instrument—a bucket, bottle, wooden box, whistle or anything else you can jam with—to join in. Free, reservations encouraged at 202-633-4844. 2 to 4 p.m. Anacostia Community Museum
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Online Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.