Thursday, January 17, 2008

Efforts of Affection

My favorite prose writer is Elizabeth Bishop, and my other favorite prose writer is Marianne Moore. Any day now, the Library of America will issue its long-awaited Bishop volume, which will have oodles of her magnificently courageous and lucid prose in it: stories, letters, essays, and odds and ends. Included is a piece which is already available in Bishop's once-accurately titled Collected Prose, "Efforts of Affection," an essay which I dearly love. The title comes from a poem included in Moore's 1951 Collected Poems, "Efforts and Affection;" in Bishop's copy of the book, Moore crossed out the "and" and wrote "of" above it, a change Bishop treasured.

It's no use summarizing this memoir of Moore, or trying to characterize its style, but here are just a few of the highlights.

Moore once asked Bishop would care to go with her to the circus, and so they went together. It turns out Moore, who always went to the circus, was on a mission this time: her brother had given her an elephant-hair bracelet made of a few strands held together with gold clasps. But one of the hairs had fallen out. Bishop writes that Moore arrived before she did, with two huge bags of stale brown bread:

"As I probably knew, elephant hairs grow only on the tops of the heads of very young elephants. In her bag, Marianne had a pair of strong nail scissors. I was to divert the adult elephants with the bread, and..." I'll let you find out what happens next yourself. Given the horrific recent event at a big city zoo, it's even more incredible to read, in Bishop's astonished prose, about Moore's "leaning forward over the rope on tiptoe, scissors in hand."

Later on, Bishop tells us of Moore that "On principle, she said, she disapproved of rhyme." In spite of that, she enjoyed rhymes very much, especially ones that she said had - Moore's favorite word of praise - gusto; she even consulted a large rhyming dictionary, finding it "indispensable." Bishop shows how rhyme waxed and waned in Moore's work over the years, culminating in her "ruthless cutting of some of her most beautiful poems" to prune it away. Bishop remarks that Moore "was possessed of a unique, involuntary sense of rhythm, therefore of meter, quite unlike anyone else's. She looked like no one else; she talked like no one else; her poems showed a mind like no one else's; and her notions of meter and rhyme were unlike all the conventional notions - so why not believe that the old English meters ... were not natural to her at all?"

Bishop famously declined to be classified as a woman poet. It's therefore fascinating to read her say: "I have seen several references critical of [Moore's] poetry by feminist writers... Have they really read 'Marriage,' a poem that says everything they are saying and everything Virginia Woolf has said? [...] Do they know that Marianne Moore was a feminist in her day? Or that she paraded with the suffragettes, led by Inez Milholland on her white horse, down Fifth Avenue? Once, Marianne told me, she 'climbed a lamppost' in a demonstration for votes for women. What she did up there, what speech she delivered, if any, I don't know, but climb she did in long skirt and petticoats and a large hat." Bishop's comment: "Now that everything can be said, and done, have we anyone who can compare with Marianne Moore, who was at her best when she made up her own rules and when they were strictest - the reverse of 'freedom'?"

One last highlight: Moore got her first driver's license when she was nearly seventy years old. She took, and passed, a driving test through the busy streets of downtown Boston. When she went back home (she was in town to care for a terminally ill friend), she proudly showed her new license to her brother, Warner, who said, "There must be some mistake. This must be sent back immediately."

Two remarkable poets and prose writers: two remarkable women. I can't wait for the new Bishop book, and I hope Moore will also be included in the series.


Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Don,

I can't say that I'm a big Elizabeth Bishop fan. Her work is very well-written, and her descriptions are vivid (I've used it in my poetry workshops as an example of conveying information through concrete detail), but it often seems well-written in the manner of good prose rather than of poetry, perhaps because the language usually seems a little too transparent and functional, without much intrinsic interest.

I am quite surprised that Elizabeth Bishop is getting a Library of America edition before Marianne Moore does.

Take good care, and stay warm.

all best,


Don Share said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Don Share said...

I agree with you about Bishop being enshrined before Moore in the LoA - I can only imagine that the recent and successful exhumation of Bishop's literary remains has created a spot in the marketplace for this new book. Then, too, the texts of Moore's work will be far more difficult to edit than Bishop's, so it will take some time to prepare...

I know what you mean about Bishop's poems - it's a familiar complaint. If anyone's poetry is at least as well-written as prose, it's hers, yet to me that's a virtue and source of wonder. One usually supposes that poets have great powers of observation; she (and Moore) really did. I hope that those who don't enjoy her poems will give her prose a chance - they might just get hooked on the verse after that.

Hang in there, Reginald!

All best, - Don