Dealing with loss - Elizabeth Bishop 1911 – 1979 #
Poets tend to deal with loss through a form called “elegy”. Life consists of a series of gains and losses. How we grapple with them determines our destiny. Some poets master the art of expressing the personal pain of traumatic emotions with dignity and poise, while others attempt to deal with pain in a detached representative manner. Writers are advised to dig deep into their uncomfortable and painful experiences, because that is where their best writing can come from. Yet all good poetry moves from the personal to the general or universal, so that we can all relate to it.
Bishop’s poetry hard won surface composure glimmered with the depths of what she dared not say openly. Yet Bishop needs her poetry to survive. Some poems were 25 years in the making, and it is my considered contention that the rawness of bishop’s cumulated pain was the hurdle she had to overcome.
While Bishop admires Gerard Manly Hopkins, her outrage over the dominating School of Anguish, as she scornfully called the “confessional"poets who had learned from Robert Lowell’s example. (An even more telling term she used was “the self-pitiers.”) In an interview for a Time cover story on Lowell, in 1967, she was careful to implicate only his imitators when she said, “You just wish they’d keep some of these things to themselves.”
M.Mark of Vasser College writes that Bishop was so ambivalent about homes because of her traumatic childhood when she was made to move homes, passed from parents, to grandparents to various aunts many times before she was seven, making her virtually emotionally homeless. Sexual abuse by Uncle George was never dealt with. Various near fatal sicknesses also took their toll, creating a sense of loss, dread and anxiety in navigating a modern world without a stable centre. In her thirties, her psychiatrist tells her, she was lucky to survive her childhood.
However, Bishop refuses to dump her emotions on the page by wallowing in self-pity. She wrote many drafts in order to get the precise topography of silence using a colloquial voice to convey hard truths with a light touch of understated wisdom by generalising situations. We all suffer and who can tell which suffering is greater? Bishop’s elegant distillation of emotion is achieved by intimate conversations that shift and drift along effortlessly. Here is Bishop’s evaluation of the poem in a letter to Katherine White of the New Yorker:
“I am sending you a poem. It is very sad. It makes everyone weep, so it must be very good in its awful way. I hope you like it”.
You can hear M. Mark here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BSDfcGb9W9A
Adrienne Rich found many poems “impenetrable: intellectualized to the point of obliquity.”
Recent horrendous exposures of institutional child abuse have increased our understanding its life long effects as well as our sensitivity around the treatment of victims (survivors) especially in our courts. Peter McLellan has reset the system by assimilating past trauma into the national psyche, making it acceptable to listen to the victims and believe the hurt, anger and pain.
Strong evidence emerges that most victims initially blame themselves, by blocking or suppressing their emotions until much later in life. If not addressed, the symptoms manifest themselves in other ways – drug/alcohol abuse/depression… The average time for victims to express their anger and pain was 29 years. Elizabeth Bishop’s life through her letters illustrates the consequences of a failure to deal with her issues. Much of her poetry attempts to exorcise the demons that haunted her entire sorrowful life of accumulated losses.
Elizabeth Bishop’s life comprised of continual losses, from her father at 8 months, her mother, virtually at five, and a series of intense short term love affairs.
Her last loss, the young woman she was bound to lose, her attractive blond administrative assistant. It was widely recognised the two were lovers. When Alice announced she was leaving, Bishop’s distress became evident in a suicide attempt and increased alcohol abuse. For the first time she attempted release through an openly personal poem. Some consider it her best poem because she finally takes off her mask to expose her pain.
Listen to “One Art” on Utube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvT48dY0CsU
“One Art”: #
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
So many things seem filled with the intent
To be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent,
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! My last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went,
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
This is recognised as one of Bishop’s superior poems, perhaps because it is one of the late ones where she disposes of her private mask and doesn’t deliberate as much on it. Like Auden, Bishop experiments with a variety of forms; this one a Villanelle, a traditional, repetitive kind of poem of nineteen lines. It is a highly rigid and restricted form with complex, tricky rules to operate within or to innovate within. Dylan Thomas has written one of the few worth reading: *Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. * It needs a punchy subject that bears repeating. Rhyme is important as is the repetition of phrases. The attitude or tone appears controlled,confident and assuring. Despite the underlying seriousness of some of the losses - *her mother’s watch” * of greater sentimental value due to losing her as well, there is little evidence of self recrimination. Having to deal with such catastrophic losses early in life may help you cope with later losses; “brittle children don’t break, they just get stronger”.
This apparent capacity hides the fact that her shambolic private life is permeated with alcoholic self obliteration, multiple fractious relationships as well a litter of attempted suicides and actual ones of rejected lovers. Perhaps more therapy was needed to cure her.
The strict demands of the form are echoed in the implied imperatives of life - “you must (master)". The repeated regulated rhymes include: master, disaster, fluster, master, faster, vaster, disaster, master and disaster. There is also, intent, end, meant, went, continent, intend and evident. The form demands that you conform to life’s demands of letting go. It remains my impression that strict adherence to form can force the diction and therefore contrive or distort the meaning.
The climactic rise of things lost begin with the mundane, keys, hours, places, then to more significant - * mother’s watch, houses, cities, continent, then a series of lovers* and then to the climax - *losing you. * She appears to be talking to herself and convincing herself, by resignation, that all her sorrow and pain can be overcome because she has mastered it”.
Bishop has lost her father at 8 months, her mother (virtually at 6), caring aunts, a whole slew of lovers (two, who committed suicide), and due to a peripatetic career, moving around various homes, cities, jobs and continents.
Alice returned and remained with Bishop until she died, of a brain aneurysm, a year and a half later. Elizabeth Bishop’s Art of Losing By Claudia Roth Pierpont
Three of the five rivers of Hades deal with loss; Lethe of oblivion or forgetfulness, Acheron of Woe, and Cocytus of lamentation.
Nietzsche maintained: “To live is to suffer; to survive is to find meaning in your suffering”. A famous song goes: “Que sera sera/Whatever will be will be/The future’s not our to see”.
Rudyard Kipling’s view of stoicism reads:*“He met with triumph and disaster; / treati ng those two imposters much the same”.
Ted Huhges Private Letters express his reluctance of exposing his life with Sylvia Plath:
‘I’m not sure the effect of writing the poems isn’t just too raw’,
but at the end of the project acknowledges the therapeutic effect:
“It was so great, I was sorry I hadn’t done it before. Writing released a bizarre dream life, and I realised how much had been locked up inside me”.
“Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost, No birth, identity, form — no object of the world. Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing; appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere confuse thy brain. Ample are time and space — ample the fields of nature.”
After all, photography negatives exist.