Thursday, March 24, 2011

Poetry Friday: Women's History Month Countdown #4

Have you been following our Countdown this month? What's that you say? You haven't? Well, my friend, you are in luck. Today we're bringing you our #4 poet in the countdown, Elizabeth Bishop, and if you want to get caught up on numbers 10 through 5, click here.

Elizabeth Bishop left behind a fairly small catalog of poems--she wrote just over 100 of them. But her attention to detail might have been unmatched among her 20th century counterparts. Some of her poems were made up of long, sprawling stanzas that are filled with intricate descriptions, vivid imagery, and beautiful language. Like, for example, "At The Fishhouses:"

Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses
an old man sits netting,
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
a dark purple-brown,
and his shuttle worn and polished.
The air smells so strong of codfish
it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.
The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls.

Read the rest of this wonderful poem here.

Choosing a favorite Bishop poem for me, I think, is an impossible task. I've blogged about "One Art" before. You can't resist a poem that starts like this...
The art of losing isn't hard to master
IF you don't know this poem, read it immediately. Your life may never be the same.

BUT...wait there's more. You know what my all time favorite poetic form is, right? If you said "sestina" you're correct! Elizabeth Bishop might have written the most amazing sestina of all time. On its own, it's brilliant. When you realize that it conforms to some very strict rules, it leaves you awestruck....

September rain falls on the house.
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

There's no way you can resist reading the rest, is there?

I have to confess--although I knew all along that I wanted Bishop included on this countdown, I was never really sure where to put her. For a time, I thought that maybe #4 was too low, that maybe she was more of an 8 or 9. Now, after reviewing the poems of hers I really like, I am wondering if #4 is too high. She just might be top-three material...take a look at this sampling and let us know what you think:

The Poetry Friday roundup is hosted by Mary Lee at A Year in Reading this week. Please stop by and check out all the blogosphere has to offer on this last Friday before the beginning of Poetry Month!


  1. You're right - I couldn't resist reading the rest. I'm awe-struck by the sestina.

  2. First of all, Bishop is a pure genius. Second of all, you made me smile. You make me want to walk up to people in the street and ask, "What is your favorite poetic form?" Some people (many) would think I was crazy. Some people (I wish many) would like to think of the answer.

    (I tried to write a sestina once. I ended up cheating: spectacles is not the same as spectacular.)

  3. I, too, ame awestruck by sestinas. I'll come back later and sample some of the others you chose for us today.

  4. Thanks for a great post on Elizabeth Bishop.

    There's a wonderful essay on Bishop, featuring some of her water colors, in the Gettysburg Review's last issue of 2010. Must reading for Bishop fans!

  5. Terrific post, thank you! Edgar Allen Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments is another source Elizabeth Bishop fans might wish to check out (Alice Quinn, editor).

  6. Thank you so much everyone for all the great comments. Hope you're enjoying reading the countdown as much as I am creating it.