Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"North Haven" by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell
I have had a copy of Elizabeth Bishop's The Complete Poems for many years now, but I've never read it.  I've read a few poems from it, probably ten or so, but I refuse to read more than a couple a year.  Ms. Bishop didn't write many poems-- The Complete Poems has only five pages in its table of contents.  I won't read them all because I want to always have a few more left to read for the very first time.

This weekend "North Haven," her elegy for friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell, was mentioned by Casey N. Cep in a Paris Review article on poets elegizing poets.  I was taken with what he said about her poem, so I cracked open my copy of the The Complete Poems.

"North Haven" is terrific.  The poems brief six stanzas place the speaker on the Connecticut shoreline, looking at the bay and the islands in it.  She moves from looking at the shore, to thoughts of her departed friend and then back again to the nature around her.   Though its tempting to find solace in the natural world around her, Ms. Bishops finds none, resists the temptation to find it really.  She was not writing that sort of poem.  This is my favorite of the poem's six stanzas, pay attention to the words "or others like them" and "almost does."

The goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the White-throated Sparrow's five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.

There is so much to unpack here.  In "North Haven" Ms. Bishop returns to a location she and Mr. Lowell enjoyed for years where she celebrates the natural beauty both enjoyed.  But the solace a lesser poet would find in the repeated cycles of nature are not what she finds.  The song birds that have returned are not the songbirds the two enjoyed; they are "others like them."  Their song is not a celebratory own, but a plea.  Songbirds sing because they are lonely or at least because they are looking for a mate.  Things haven't gone on as they always do in some circle of life sort of way.  Things are not the same without Mr. Lowell.  Nature doesn't just repeat which might bring some comfort; it only seems to repeat, seems to go on as it did before.   Instead it changes-- "revise, revise, revise."

These are important words for a poet, repeat and revise, certainly for a poet like Ms. Bishop who was famous for working and reworking her writing try, one reason why she published so few finished poems.  The final lines of the poem take this idea about nature and brings it to the life and work of poets:

....You can't derange or re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the Sparrows can change their song.)
The words won't change again. Sad friend you cannot change.

Ms. Bishop has clearly linked poets with songbirds, nothing original there.  But Ms. Bishop is up to something more here.  Her songbird can change its song each time it sings, though it only has five notes.  The poet's words are his notes which he can change whenever he writes a new poem.  Until death, when he becomes outside of nature because he cannot change anymore.  Other poets, like other songbirds, will return to North Haven. The creation of poetry and songs continue, but they are not the songs the birds sang when Mr. Lowell was listening to them and writing his poetry.

Ms. Bishop cannot change any longer either.  Her poems are now fixed, once and for all, contained in The Complete Poems, a single volume of wonderful songs.

If I read them slowly, one or two a year, I'll have enough to last a life.

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