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Bishop & Plath

Elizabeth Bishop

‘The word creative drives me crazy. I don’t like to regard it as therapy. I was in the hospital several years ago and somebody gave me Kenneth Koch’s book Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? And it’s true, children sometimes write wonderful things, paint wonderful pictures, but I think they should be discouraged. From everything I’ve read and heard, the number of students in English departments taking literature courses has been falling off enormously. But at the same time the number of people who want to get in the writing classes seems to get bigger and bigger.’ – Paris Review (1981)

‘I absolutely hate reading my work aloud under any circumstances. The first time I gave a reading [at Wellesley College, 19 October 1949] I stopped for twenty-six years. [ . . . ] The nicest audience I ever had was children (at the American school in Rio). They asked such good questions, like, Why did you choose this word instead of that. Simple, practical things, which is the way you write, of course.’ – Collected Prose

‘They all . . . have that sure feeling, as if you'd been in a stretch . . . when everything and anything suddenly seemed material for poetry - or not material, seemed to be poetry, and all the past was illuminated in long shafts here and there, like a long-waited for sunrise. If only one could see everything that way all the time! It seems to me it's the whole purpose of art, to the artist (not to the audience) - that rare feeling of control, illumination - life is all right, for the time being.’ – Bishop, on Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, from One Art (Bishop’s letters)

‘I have that uncomfortable feeling of “things” in the head, like icebergs or rocks or awkwardly placed pieces of furniture. It’s as if the nouns were there but the verbs were lacking . . . I can’t help having the theory that if they are joggled around hard enough and long enough some kind of electricity will arrange everything’ – from One Art (Bishop’s letters)

‘The attitudes in Bishop that I have dwelt on here--her sense of deformity, her cold capacity for detachment, her foreignness in human society, her suspicion that truth has something annihilating about it, her self-representation as observer of meaninglessly additive experience, her repugnance for social or political of religious association, her preference for mapping and abstraction--are those that are particularly well-sustained, thematically and formally, in the Complete Poems. Each of these attitudes had consequences. They led Bishop toward certain genres (landscape poetry, poetry about sky and ocean, travel poetry) and away from others (historical poetry, religious poetry, poetry of social enumeration) . . . they ensured Bishop’s avoidance of closure through certainty or through social solidarity, in favour of closure in questioning, loss, or inscrutability. Bishop made a new sort of lyric by adhering to a singular clarity of expression, simplicity of effect, and naïveté of tone while making the matter of her poetry the opacity and inexplicability of being. Without her sense of deformity, estrangement, and even murderousness (the poisoned toad, the dangerous iceberg) as central matters of art, she could not have felt the benign contrast of her apparitional moose. ‘ – Helen Vendler on Elizabeth Bishop

Sylvia Plath

‘I believe that man is born without purpose in a neutral universe. . . . I do not think that man has an inborn conscience or preconceived moral standards; he is really indoctrinated with the particular man-made laws and moral customs particular to his own area and environment.’ - Plath, ‘Religion as I See It’, Essay, May 3, 1952

‘The wind has blown a warm yellow moon up over the sea; a bulbous moon, which sprouts in the soiled sky, and spills bright winking petals of light on the quivering black water [ . . . ] I am my best in illogical, sensuous description. Witness the above. The wind could not possibly blow a moon up over the sea. Unconsciously, without words, the moon has been identified in my mind with a balloon, yellow, light, and bobbing about on the wind . . . the moon is “bulbous,” which is an adjective meaning fat, but suggesting “bulb,” since the visual image is a complex thing. The verb “sprouts” intensifies the first hint of a vegetable quality about the moon. A tension, capable of infinite variations with every combination of words, is created by the phrase “soiled indigo sky.” Instead of saying blatantly “in the soil of the night sky,” the adjective “soiled” has a double focus: as a description of the smudged dark blue sky and again as a phantom noun “soil,” which intensifies the metaphor of the moon being a bulb planted in the earth of the sky. Every word can be analyzed minutely—from the point of view of vowel and consonant shades, values, coolnesses, warmths, assonances and dissonances. Technically, I suppose the visual appearance and sound of words, taken alone, may be much like the mechanics of music . . . or the color and texture in a painting.’ – Plath, Journals

October 30, 1962, interview with Peter Orr: