The Whitney Humanities Center auditorium was packed last night as poets, critics, musicians and lovers of literature gathered to celebrate a new book within the Library of America series of the writings of Elizabeth Bishop.
Professor J.D. McClatchy, who edits the Yale Review, introduced the event, acknowledging that while the guests had all come to discuss Bishop’s work, their real motivation was to hear her voice.
“For the most part, we’re here to listen to it, to her,” he said.
McClatchy’s message came across literally at first, as a 1974 recording of Bishop’s voice filled the auditorium. She was famously reluctant to give public readings — Associate Dean of Yale College Penelope Laurans related that Bishop had once come all the way to Yale and tried to get away after a mere three poems — because she hated the sound of her own voice, McClatchy said.
But hearing her voice, even once, “permanently shapes the way you listen to the poems thereafter,” he added.
If Bishop’s relaxed, easy voice shaped the audience’s understanding of her work, so did the voices that followed. Professor Langdon Hammer, who read two of Bishop’s poems, praised their “beauty and good nature;” Mark O’Donnell, a playwright and former student of Bishop, cited her toughness and fair-mindedness; and Lloyd Schwartz, who co-edited the new Library of America edition of Bishop’s work and knew her personally, said that she had “one of the sanest, most humane and most original voices.”
Although Bishop is now the first woman poet to be included in the Library of America collection, she did not achieve wide celebrity in her lifetime.
“There was a cult for Sylvia Plath, who had killed herself, and Anne Sexton, who was going to kill herself, and then there was Elizabeth Bishop, who wore pearls,” O’Donnell joked.
The speakers shared this image of the pearl-wearing Bishop, who described herself as “excruciatingly shy” and wrote poetry in form when form had fallen out of fashion, but they also gave voice to the humorous side of her character. Stories from Laurans and O’Donnell described a woman who responded to the ideas of the deconstructionists the same way she responded to students who wrote sexually explicit poetry in her class at Harvard: the wry, simple, “Oh dear.”
Professor Anne Fadiman elaborated on this humorous vision when she read part of a memoir in which Bishop confessed to have been satisfied with the alphabet up to the letter G.
For Schwartz, expanding the view of Bishop’s work, including her comic range, was a big impetus behind the new edition of her works. The book, which contains poetry, prose and letters, really “adds to what we know,” he said.
“People are usually astonished to discover that Elizabeth Bishop wrote reviews,” Schwartz said.
She once wrote a review of e. e. cummings in which she called him “our great man of little letters.”
The book is also a “rescue” in Schwartz’s mind, as it restores her poems to the way they were originally presented. It includes Schwartz’s own personal rescue project, “Breakfast Song,” a poem that survives only because he copied it from Bishop’s notebook.
Schwartz said that he would be happy even if he had done nothing else in his life but save that poem.
At last night’s event, two student composers, Rex Isenberg ’09 and Daniel Schlosberg ’10 also presented their original settings of Bishop’s poems, offering yet another way to listen to her writing.
Schlosberg said he had to read through many poems before getting started, ultimately choosing to work with “Sleeping on the Ceiling” and “Sleeping Standing Up.”
“It was difficult,” he said. “A poem leaves you with a sense of ambiguity; things creep in that are unsettling. I wanted to bring that out.”
The attendees, most of whom were already lovers of Bishop, were glad to hear so many people read, speak and perform her works.
“As I listened, each reader became my favorite in turn. Doesn’t Bishop have at least that many voices, as significant, and as beautiful?” said Ben Kuritzkes ’08.
“Fresh as if Just Finished: Elizabeth Bishop” was co-sponsored by the English department, the Whitney Humanities Center and the Yale Review.