Sunday, October 04, 2009

One Art, Reflected

The second or third time a book falls into my hands, if I didn't want to read it before, I pay attention. So I'm reading my way through a stack of books purchased for almost nothing within the last month at various thrift stores, found here near home or while on the road. I collect very few mystery series by particular authors in hardcover, and I read more mystery and science fiction than I decide to keep. I have all of Raymond Chandler, who I reread every few years. In hardcover I have most of Tony HIllerman and Dana Stabenow. And now I find I have a taste for collecting Ellis Peters' meticulously-researched Medieval mystery series featuring Brother Cadfael, a former man-at-arms who served in the Crusades, now a Benedictine monk. The books are set for the most part during the turbulent civil war period of the middle 12th Century in England, a chaotic period that in some ways is a mirror for our own.

One of the functions of literature, of course, is to mirror back our times and ourselves. Literature provides us ways of thinking about ourselves, and our conditions. So literatures of particular historical eras, written in those times, can be a way into understanding how writers thought about life, and people, at those times.

I'm reading through—skimming at present, would be a more accurate phrase, due to its vast size—One Art: Letters by Elizabeth Bishop, selected and edited by her long-time publisher and friend, Robert Giroux. Bishop is experiencing a renaissance at this time, a rediscovery, as poets and readers are beginning to discover she was more complex, and a better poet, than they thought. I approached this volume with wariness, this second time a copy has fallen into my hands, not expecting to like Bishop much; and I haven't read enough to dispel my wariness, although I do find myself liking her, at times, far more than I suspected I might. This is a person that comes through these letters, despite many of them being performances rather than a self revealing itself openly, who at times I find a great deal in common with; and the roots of empathy lie in common, shared human experience.

We have no other official autobiography of Bishop—reticence could have been her middle name—and these letters—500 in number, mined from the thousands she wrote throughout her lifetime—provide the reader with both personal stories that give context to her life-history, and with abundant opinionating about literature, and the business of the arts.

In one sense it's perilous to read a volume of selected letters as a de facto autobiography, as we're encouraged to do here by the editor. We can discover via this reading only a series of individual snapshots, fragments of reflective broken glass (if one might continue the mirror analogy), quanta or packets of experience rather than a smooth narrative. On the other hand, constructing a smooth linear narrative is always a fiction, whether it's storytelling or memoir; life itself is lived much more, for most people, as a series of small story-arcs, or fragments, than as a smooth continuous narrative.

Self-reflective writers have noted this themselves, of course. Virginia Woolf, in an essay criticizing the way fiction is usually constructed, wrote: Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Ever since I first heard that, it's stayed with me; because it contains a profound insight into both how we tend to construct our myths, and why.

Bishop, for her part, was a master letter-writer. It was in fact her major literary output, counted by volume alone. She viewed the letter itself as a valid literary artform, and reading her own letters, it's hard to disagree. (And Bishop taught a seminar in literary letter-writing, late in life.) There are several different styles in play in her letters, from formal, carefully-composed letters, to hurried, breathless epistles in which the details of life are thrown at you like asides to a story of deeper significance. Bishop could be very self-conscious of what she was doing; but also deliberately casual, deliberately revealing. Sometimes it's up to the reader to figure out which mode she is using at any given moment. This is why I must warily view many of these letters as a performance of self, rather than purely revelatory.

Some of the most interesting letters here, to me, are those written to the two poets Bishop regarded as mentor-friends, Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. Two very different poets, with very different temperaments and attitudes towards poetry. Perhaps they represent, in some way, two aspects of Bishop's own unresolved inner conflicts as a poet: on the one hand, fiercely independent, cerebral, strongly interested in words themselves; on the other hand, more socially aware, more rooted in family and it complexities of relationship and drama. The paradox being of course that Moore was the more cerebral and reticent of the two, Lowell the more social and apparently emotional, even drama-addicted. A reversal of the usual stereotypes of gender performance.

It is fascinating to read, in One Art, of the story, told in segments and fragments, of Bishop's great love of her life, Lota (Maria Carlota Costellat de Macedo Soares). Bishop, always a bit rootless, made a home with Lota in Brazil for several years. The relationship ended only with Lota's deteriorating mental health, and eventual suicide. Bishop is characteristically reticent about certain aspects of their lives together, revealing of others. That Bishop was same-sex oriented is not news, but in these letters we hear her versions of the story; "versions," because they are multiple. As with every life there is a period of reflection and reassessment after the loved one has died, in which the writer discovers new insights, both positive and negative, upon going over the whole story after it's done.

It's difficult not to draw parallels with other artists of the 20th C. who were also same-sex oriented. The writer that comes first to my own mind is May Sarton. Sarton was a turbulent, willful, passionate person, who was never really tamed by anyone; although some of her New Hampshire friends came close. Bishop was far more domestic, in a way, while simultaneously far more rootless. Both writers had great loves, and more than one female Muse, who inspired their work and fed their passion for life itself.

And in both Sarton's and Bishop's case, one of the chief heartaches of aging was witnessing the person(s) most loved age and die. Both Bishop and Sarton dealt with serious mental illness in their beloved, and the insanity such drama puts the survivors through. There are other parallels as well. Perhaps, as Sarton opined, the artist is just more sensitive to these hardships, and less stoic about them; I am not certain that Bishop would verbally agree, but in her life, her letters lead me to surmise she must have felt that way at least once or twice. Even though Bishop is, overall, I think more stoic in nature than Sarton.

How much more do I feel I know about Bishop, now, having read many of these letters (if not yet all)? Certainly I know more of her biography than before. But this biography remains detached from her poems, in my mind, which are lapidary and self-complete as always. Bishop was capable of spending literally years on a poem, to get it finished, just right, before releasing it. So her collected poems are small in number, especially set beside her collected letters. But poetry is an art of compression, of getting words to say as much as they can within the limits set by the small words of poetic form. Poetry also then is exalted, heightened language, because it does so much with so little.

It's another paradox that Bishop was so close to Lowell, who is so closely associated with the Confessional Lyric poem that has come to dominate a great deal of poetry's mainstream nowadays. Much speculation about this connection between the two poets has been inked already; I won't rehash the popular theories here. Nonetheless I find it interesting how Bishop's native reticence responded at times to Lowell's mining of family life and history to make his at time almost-exhibitionist poetry. There are letters from Bishop here that awkwardly try to find a balance between her reverence for one of her mentors, and her distaste for his project. Here she is, writing to Lowell in March of 1972 about his book The Dolphin:

In general, I deplore the "confessional"—however, when you wrote Life Studies perhaps it was a necessary movement, and it helped make poetry more real, fresh and immediate. But now—ye gods—anything goes, and I am so sick of poems about the students' mothes & fathers and sex lives and so on. All that can be done—but at the same time one surely should have a feeling that one can trust the writer—not to distort, tell lies, etc.

What Bishop is deploring is not Lowell's poems, which she is at pains in the same letter to repeat she likes very much, but rather Lowell's influence on poetry. And her criticism was prophetic, in turns out: many students and poets alike continue to write as if "anything goes" in the quest to use personal detail to both pull the reader into the poet's life, and (let's be honest about this) to shock them. Bishop, I have learned from reading these letters, was opposed to titillation for its own sake. So, what Bishop was most disliking about Lowell's poems, in this letter, was his tendency to fictionalize details to create heightened dramatic effects. She objected to his adding details to his source materials that made them seem more prurient, dramatic, and in a word dysfunctional. Bishop did not like the blend of memoir and fiction that Lowell's poetry sometimes was.

Bishop wanted her art to be the art, not a form of autobiography. It's clear to me, from reading the letters, that she compartmentalized her forms of writing—remember, she viewed letter-writing as an artistic literary form in its own right—and kept the personal details found in the letters largely out of her poems. At least in any obvious way, with one on one correspondence between art and life.

So, if I go back to read through Bishop's poems, say, Geography III, I perhaps might discern another layer of resonance within the poems, having read One Art: Letters—but not that much more, as the poems themselves are still their own complete world. It's tempting for literary readers and critics alike to try to connect every poem's generation to biographical moments; with Bishop, this just isn't going to work. One of the best aspects of her poetry is that it is distilled, refined, timeless. Bishop's poetry can be visceral, compelling, stunning, without being so personal that it prevents itself from being universal. She found a way to write from the guts and the head—Lowell and Moore in her simultaneously—while avoiding the topical and timebound. I believe one of the reasons Bishop's poems are experiencing a renaissance right now is that people have finally discovered how universal and enduring they truly are.

And since Bishop's poems are their own complete world, what is the purpose of reading a huge volume of her letters? Beyond interest in the person herself, interest in the artist as a person, I'm not convinced there's any good purpose at all. In her letters she's not going to tell you how she made the poems; there is no guidance for imitators here. They're almost separate universes. So why bother? I remain divided on that question. I do find Bishop's life interesting, because it is a life, as presented in the letters, that was lived fully, passionately (no matter who reticent at times), and deeply. Especially in the letters where Lota is dying, and the aftermath, I feel strongly connected to Bishop as a fellow person; she went through many of the same horrifying isolations and emotional traumas, after the death of Lota, that I find myself going through in the wake of my own parents' deaths, and now my aunt and uncle's; there are many parallels therein that allow me to feel kinships with Bishop. So I like Bishop more, as a person, from this reading, than I had surmised I would. But my opinions about Bishop's poetry have not been dramatically altered by reading the letters; I could read, or not read, Bishop's letters, and feel little change in my high respect for her poems.

So I cannot recommend this volume of letters to those who would seek to know more about the poems than the poet. There's not much about poetry itself in here; although there is a great deal about the business of being an artist. This is not a literary autobiography in any conventional sense—except of course that it is a writer's de facto piecemeal autobiography, and is presented as such by her editor, her friend. The letter-writer remains almost a separate person from the poet: we can tell they're the same person, but the poems continue to stand on their own, on their own merit, making up their own complete world. Read these letters for the right reasons only: because Elizabeth Bishop was a person you might have liked knowing, and you want to learn about her for her own sake.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I may pun on your opening paragraph: a morbid taste for Brother Cadfael?
Just reread Book 2 of the series the other week. What has tired me in the series is the inevitable romance in (almost) each story plot, initially unlike to be consumed, but then resulting in a happy ending.


Thomas Simon

12:55 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Thomas—

Well, is should be remembered that the Brother Cadfael series is within the genre of the English "cozy" murder mystery style, in which the fundamental underlying assumption is that murder is an aberration, and that social order will be restored by the end of the story. That is the underlying assumption of most English mysteries, even if there are deviations from the normative plot, or exceptions that prove the rule (I'm thinking of the Inspector Lynley series, for example). The whole genre, in English hands, is often about social commentary and social criticism, as much as it is purely crime fiction.

So the plot expectations in a "cozy" are not far from what you say in many cases—although I have to say, in many of the Cadfael mysteries, the murderer is not given over to worldly justice, and arrested; some of them get away with it, with reserved judgment, while life goes on. Even though we and Brother Cadfael have solved the murder to our own satisfaction, an arrest is not always the conclusion. And that is a bit of a variance and deviation from the normative "cozy."

What makes Cadfael unique and interesting to me is the Medieval setting, and the different style of the language; it is definitely in an archaic style of English, more perhaps early Renaissance than purely Medieval, but different enough to set the ear on alert for unique turns of phrase and mannerisms archaic.

I don't expect a Brother Cadfael mystery to be anything other than what it is, and I don't expect to be a Chandler or Hammett type plot, either. Perhaps it's just a matter of taste, although I do appreciate that different styles of mystery have different kinds of plot expectations.

Ellis Peters is a bit of a romantic, though, I agree; and love often does win out. But that is also in keeping with the cultural and social expectations of the era in which Cadfael lives. Perhaps a bit of an anachronism, but not much of one.

1:18 PM  
Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for the reminder about Chandler, about whom I've read a lot, without ever having read him. I'll be sure to remedy that soon. And you have to love the used book market. I've noticed that in this tough economy, more venues are popping up all the time to purchase used books. Even at the big book chains, lots more room is available lately for remaindered and otherwise marked-down books. It's a good time to be a book lover.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I hadn't thought about it that way till you mentioned it, but you're right, it IS a good time to collect books. I keep being amazed by what turns up at Goodwill, that I find. It's been a good time for finding rare and unusual, and also filling in some gaps in my reading.

Chandler is one of my favorite writers, one of the great stylists of all time, IMHO. His prose is what everyone else imitated. (Well, his and Hammett's, really, but Chandler remains the master, in my book.)

I recommend these to start with: "Farewell, My Lovely" is just a great, great novel. "The Long Goodbye" remains a book I can reread any time; it's truly a mood-piece, a real meditation on life and death and friendship.

Chandler wasn't strong on plots—actually, his plots really aren't organized or tidy, the way some novelists think they ought to be—but in another way, that makes them all the more realistic for his character-driven fiction. Because real life isn't a neat, organized, linear-narrative plot, either; it's messy and full of coincidence. Which is much more like what Chandler gave us, in many ways.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

My knowledge of Brother Cadfael rests firmly on the television adaptations which I thoroughly enjoyed at the time and I don't recall too much romance. I have to say I would have liked to have seen more of Eco's William of Baskerville (from The Name of the Rose).

As for the book of letters, the first thing that jumps to my mind is that that would be like hearing one side of a telephone conversation and trying to fill in the blanks. People reflect us back at ourselves and I suspect that aspect would be missing from a book of letters.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Fortunately, the Brother Cadfael BBC series was excellently done, and quite true to the books in terms of plot and dialogue. (It had the author's approval, too.) And Derek Jacobi, well, who could have done the role better than he?

I've read most of Eco now (as I've read most of Joyce and Beckett), and actually William of Baskerville was not a very good sleuth—which was sort of Eco's point, in the novel; a stumbler rather than a Poirot, albeit a likable one. I like Eco, but you have to always remember with him that he is subverting what's he doing at the same time he's doing it, and always having fun with the reader and the genre's expectations.

Books of letters are one-sided, unless they're books like the combined correspondence of Ginsberg and Snyder, published a year or so ago. But you can still get a lot from reading a writer's letters, in that they're often in a more casual, revealing mode. Bishop's letters I've already given my impression of, but I don't really disagree with you in general. I just think can be more complicated, depending on the artist in question.

12:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Arthur,

social evaluation, observation and obeyance is central to the British / English lifestyle, and this probably is still true 20 years after the Thatcher government tried their upheaval of the British class traditions. A book like Kate Fox' "Watching the English" is recommended reading before visiting the country (and despite some repetitivenes outrageously funny if one has lived there for some time).

I can follow your arguments about the "cozy" style, so probably the PD James' books are more standard cozy the Ellis Peters'.

In the newer British crime fiction there is a trend to disfuntional and hence interesting inspectors/coppers/"heroes", which I think mirrors what writers in other countries are doing. What I have greatly enjoyed are
- Ian Rankin's series of the John Rebus mysteries, a gloriously disfunctional Scottish inspector if there ever was one (Rankin's non-Rebus books are good as well)
- Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse series, on the background of "that other place" and Morse's (by academic standards) "failed" education in the classics and humanities ("that other place" is how Oxford and Cambridge refer to each other, and I was post-doc in Cambridge, go figure!).

I would be reluctant to call the Elizabeth George Lynley/Havers series authentically British. It is done very well in it's way to out-Brit the Brits, but still. Similarly, Martha Grimes is an American writer and uses the English setting for her Inspector Jury books with a sometimes bizarre universe of characters, but there is a particular "old-wordly" feel to the stories and the characters who are stuck in their ways. By the way, her non-Jury books "Hotel Raradise" and "Cold Flat Junction" are glorious (IMHO + YMMV)!

In any case, best wishes, also for your work on "Weavers of Light"

Thomas Simon

PS: on a lighter note - if you need some distraction try googling "eigenharp", isn't the ergonomics very Stick-inspired?

6:25 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Lots of things to think about there, Thomas.

I think you're correct about the move towards dysfunction, as being more dramatic, and in this day and age, more realistic. And I agree about the English class system, it's theoretically not in place anymore but in fact is very much still in place, if not always overtly. It can a few generations before such things change.

The classic cozies are of course Agatha Christie, and other writers of her generation. The archetypal cozy gathers all the players in one room at the end of the story, so that the brilliant detective can reveal whodunit. Conan Doyle is really the originator of the style, in many ways. This style includes to some extent Margery Allingham, PD James, as you mention, and similar writers. Ellis Peters does move outside the cozy genre, while also often staying within those same assumptions and expectations about the social order; Peters is very good at depicting the atmosphere of a Medieval Christian milieu, both inside the monastic pale, and without, by Cadfael's unique position of being able to move easily between those worlds.

Of course you're right about Elizabeth George being American, although her British characters are considered quite authentic by many other writers.

if one seeks the ultimate dysfunctional protagonist in British crime fiction, one might do worse than review the BBC Jane Tennison "Prime Suspect" mysteries, written for the screen and not first as novels, and ably played by Helen Mirren.

9:13 PM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

Dear Mr. Durkee,

Thanks for this! I have been thinking a great deal recently about confessional and autobiographical poetry, and whether it is possible to write autobiography with the "splinter of glass in the heart" that Graham Greene requires. "One Art," the poem, was one that came to mind as being, it seemed to me, autobiographically universal. Do you think those two are a contradiction in terms?


12:51 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I don't think it's a contradiction in terms, no, because the universal both includes the particular and is generated from it. There would be no universal human art if that were not true.

I agree about Bishop. Yet I do want to point out that much of the failing of lesser confessional poetry is precisely because the personal never becomes universal. It never "takes off" to become something more than just a personal poem. To become universal, the poem has to go beyond just being a personal poem.

12:42 AM  

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