Archive for the ‘Overrated Famous Poems’ Category

Overrated Famous Poems #2: “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

Friday, November 26th, 2010

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day.  Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel.  None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch.  And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones.  And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

For the first installment of my “Overrated Famous Poems” series, I picked a poem I hate by a poet I love.  I will begin the second by specifying that this is manifestly not the case this time: I don’t just hate “One Art,” but the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop generally.

If you are someone who is currently alive and bothering to read a blog about poetry (both of which can safely be assumed), this probably shocks you.  When I was in graduate school, Bishop’s name was one of those most often mentioned when my classmates listed their favorite poets.  I had no idea why this was then, and I still don’t.

My anathematic distaste for Bishop was thrown into relief by my admiration for Robert Lowell, a poet of the same generation often mentioned in the same breath, as critics have seen fit to arrange the two in a rivalry.  Fifty years ago people said Lowell was better than Bishop.  Thirty years ago people said they were equally good.  Now everyone says Bishop is awesome and Lowell sucks and that people only ever said Lowell was better because he was a man.

Guess what?  They were right the first time: Lowell really was better.


And not because he was a man.  I love tons of 20th-century women poets.  Sylvia Plath was better than Bishop.  Anne Sexton was better than Bishop.  You know what?  Fuck you, Edna St. Vincent Millay was better than Bishop.  You heard me.  Want me to say it again?  Edna St. Vincent Millay was better than Elizabeth Bishop.

My formula for this is not incredibly scientific.  It was devised by the greatest female writer of all time in any language or genre, Emily Dickinson.  Mistress Dickinson (and I call her that because she was a dominatrix, not a Puritan) said that a poem should “take the top of your head off.”  In modern parlance, that means “kick ass.”  And that is what Dickinson poems did.  Every single Emily Dickinson poem puts its foot so far up your ass that you can feel the little square heel of a 19th-century bottine digging into the bottom of your heart.

You know how many Elizabeth Bishop poems put their foot up your ass?  None.  You know how many Elizabeth Bishop poems put so much as one toe up your ass, even after warming you up for a long time and looking deep into your eyes and making a big speech about trust?  None.

It was the anarchic, vampiric, dirty pretty things Sexton and Plath who were Dickinson’s midcentury heirs.  Bishop’s meticulously itemized bestiary has little to do with the Amherst Amazon’s First Robin, and far less to do with her Narrow Fellow.  People just say Bishop is better because she was ugly, and academics don’t like teaching poems by hot women about fucking, because normal people actually like poems like that so it doesn’t feel smart enough.

I am not saying Elizabeth Bishop was not talented.  I understand why her poems are virtuoso affairs, and why they are good examples of all the stuff they are good examples of.  I am saying they are boring.  I am saying Elizabeth Bishop used her considerable talent to write boring poems.  Being extremely talented doesn’t mean you can’t be boring.  Billy Joel is extremely talented too.  I realize that most living poets prefer Bishop to the other 20th-century poets I have named so far.  And hey, that reminds me: most living poets?  ALSO BORING.

But to the poem.  The first stanza of “One Art” is fine.  I even like it.  The first line is not a great line in and of itself, but seems strongly like it could be if the rest of the poem can cash the check it writes.  And the following couplet is even better.  There’s an attractive pain to the things that “seem filled with the intent / to be lost,” and I love the trick of using the meter to accentuate the passivity (grammatically speaking and otherwise) of that be.  We’re off to a great start.

Unfortunately, the poem then hops the first moose to WTF-Land and never waves bye-bye.  I could see how the keys in the second stanza could work as a sort of warm-up, a suspense builder.  Losing keys is frustrating, and the “hour badly spent” could mimic the frustration of waiting for the poem to really get going.  If it ever did.  But it doesn’t.  It’s not suspense if nothing happens next.

“Places, and names, and where it was you meant / to travel.”  Seriously?  Are you going to tell us, or…?  This stanza accomplishes nothing.  In any poem—and this goes double for a poem in this demanding a form—every stanza needs to be doing as much work as the others, and this one does nothing.  Except for getting us to the next stanza.

…Which also does nothing.  Well, it does succeed in getting me pissed off at this bitch complaining about having had too many goddamn houses when I don’t even have a bed, but this is not the poem’s intent.  Then the next stanza specifies that the houses were in cities, which in turn were on continents, as if this were not already implied.

This poem has six stanzas, and three of them are completely useless.

You know how sometimes you realize you have some famous poem basically memorized even though you have never deliberately memorized it?  But with some other famous poems, even if you have read them just as many times, there are always parts you forget, unless you have expressly taken pains to sit down and memorize the poem?  Let me guess: with “One Art,” you remember the beginning and the end but always totally space on the middle, even though you have seen the poem a thousand times and probably even taught it.  Well, now you know why: it’s because the middle sucks.

To be fair, “One Art” is a villanelle, and good villanelles are nearly impossible to write.  How impossible?  The form has been around for centuries, and still there are only like four villanelles.  You could say that “One Art” is the second-best villanelle in English.  But the first best is “Do Not Go Gentle” by Dylan Thomas, so this is kind of like saying that the second-best song to mention Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band after “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is “Rocket” by Def Leppard.

The two poems are structurally similar beyond that, in that they both adopt similar strategies of overcoming the form (which is not to say that Bishop simply cribbed Thomas’s).  The rub with a villanelle is how to make the end feel satisfying when the reader has seen the last two lines three times each by that point.  Both “Do Not Go Gentle” and “One Art” introduce an addressee at the buzzer—a “you” in the first line of the last stanza—in Thomas’s case, his dying father, and in Bishop’s, a lost lover.  In both cases, the reader turns out to have been eavesdropping on a private conversation that up ’til then had seemed like a public lecture on a theme.  Dying fathers and lost lovers are both affecting, and we care about both endings.

But how much did we care before the end?  Thomas’s middle is about various disparate categories of people joined in their final moments by the realization that they had wasted their lives.  Bishop’s middle is about how she moved a lot.  That’s it.  Go read the poem again.  The whole middle is just about how she fucking moved a lot.  I mean, I know moving is a pain, but it’s not like Bishop even moved because she had to.  She moved because she felt like it.  And she was rich, so she didn’t even have to carry her boxes of books herself.  What is the big deal?

And the parenthetical “(Write it!)” in the last line is the single cheesiest thing ever to appear in a poem that was not originally published on LiveJournal.

The things I dislike about “One Art” are hardly exhaustive of the things I dislike about Elizabeth Bishop’s work generally.  Perhaps foremost among these is the fact that, for all the talk of her “precision,” Bishop is an abysmal rhymer.  Go look back over her greatest hits, and you will be hard-pressed to deny that fully half the rhymes in any given poem are cringeworthy.  Not all the worst offenders rhyme, of course.  There is that sestina about hanging out in the kitchen with your grandmother, which I sincerely wish I had also had the opportunity to make fun of.  Oh wait, I just did, merely by virtue of mentioning the fact that it is a sestina about hanging out in the kitchen with your grandmother.  For fuck’s sake.

Overrated Famous Poems #1: “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman

Friday, March 5th, 2010

The way I see it, most of contemporary poetry’s problems result from the fact that the vast majority of people — at least in America — never see a poem anywhere besides school.  For the vast majority of that vast majority, “school” means high school.  And the designers of high school curricula are notoriously — and, I must say, puzzlingly — bad at presenting the students with poems they might actually like.  Honestly, the goal is ostensibly to make kids like this stuff, so you give them “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud?”  Not, say, “Kubla Khan” or “Howl” or A Season in Hell or any of the thousands of poems that would make high school kids instantly realize that poetry is the most badass art form and love it forever, but instead the straight-up fruitiest fucking poem you could possibly find?  Oh, you wanted to teach them about meter and rhyme?  Well, okay then, because clearly “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is the only poem that has those things.  Plus it includes the line “a poet could not but be gay,” which is sure to be handled well by fifteen-year olds, especially in light of the fact that the poem is no-shit about shrieking with glee and breaking into a spontaneous dance because you saw some daffodils, and nothing else.  Kudos.  Sure, “Howl” talks explicitly about getting a train run on your ass by a motorcycle gang, but it’s how it talks about it that matters.  For starters, no daffodils are involved.

Sometimes what poems are famous, and what poems are anthologized, just makes no sense.  And nowhere is this more evident than with the real “America’s Preacher,” Walt Whitman, who inaugurates my Overrated Famous Poems series.  Walt Whitman is the most influential American writer in any genre, and arguably one of the 10 greatest poets of all time in any language, and “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” is his most ubiquitous poem, the most frequently taught and most frequently anthologized.

It is also his only poem that sucks.

I cannot stress how baffling this is.  Leaves of Grass is 500 pages long.  There are like six thousand poems in the damn thing.  Know how you can find one better than “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer?”  Open it at random to any page.   Seriously, every other poem in the entire giant book is the most incredible poem you’ve ever seen, until you turn the page and there are five poems that are even better.  Alright, maybe you don’t want to give high-school kids the one about the hooker.  Fine, don’t.  Maybe there are a few others that you also think are inappropriate for high school.  Fine.  But you know what?  Even if half the book were inappropriate for high school—which it’s not—that would still leave you with two hundred and fifty fucking pages of poems that are not only not inappropriate, but are also mind-blowingly fantastic and the best representations of what poetry means and what constitutes its duties that you could possibly lay before a student or anyone.  Without having to give them “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and  ……… measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much ……… applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Unlike in every other Whitman poem, there is not much to “get.”  It is a variation on the Wordsworthian “Tables Turned” conceit that experiencing Nature is superior to dissecting it.  True enough, but Whitman here takes the idea one fatal step farther.  Wordsworth’s point had been that you want to get outside once in a while instead of reading all the time.  The point of “Learn’d Astronomer” is that knowing about stuff is for chumps, period.

Are you having trouble paying attention because I used “farther” instead of “further” three sentences back?  Well, the way I see it, “farther” is correct there.  The rule is that “farther” should be used for literal distance and “further” for metaphoric degree.  But I was talking about steps there, which are taken over distance.  No-one is literally taking steps, but within the metaphor distance is involved, so it becomes a question of whether you think the metaphor ends after the word “step,” or after the subsequent adverb.  If the subsequent adverb is part of the metaphor, which I think it is, then said adverb should be “farther .”

There, wasn’t that interesting?  More interesting than, say, looking in perfect silence at a dictionary?

People who love things are supposed to analyze them.  That’s how you get good at them, and preserve the means for subsequent generations to get good at them.  For lack of a better idea, the place where humanity conducts such business is school.  It was a bad idea for this poem to suggest that people should ignore what is presented to them in school.  Because you know what they present you with in school now?  THIS POEM.

Actually, maybe this is Whitman’s most ingenious poem of all and, knowing that it would one day become standard high-school fare, he wrote it in a secret plan to make the dumb kids’ heads explode:  “This poem says I shouldn’t pay attention to what they give me in school, so I won’t, but they gave me this poem in school, so I shouldn’t pay attention to this poem, which means I should pay attention to what they give me in school, which means I should pay attention to this poem, which means…”

Ka-BOOM!!  And that’s what you get for beating me up because I stare at other boys and wear a stupid hat and have a fake butterfly on my finger, dumb kids!

I wish that had been his plan.  But alas, it was not, and this poem just sucks.  There are worse famous poems, but “When I Heard the Learn’d Astonomer” gets to kick off the series for being not only a bad poem, but a bad poem that negatively affects every other poem in the world, including other poems by the same author, which are all great, by providing lazy people with a convenient excuse not to read poetry.  This poem is why the kids in your poetry classes today, when you ask them who they read, just lean back with douchey grins on their greasy little faces and say “I don’t read ANYBODY, man — I just do my OWN thing!”, as if that makes them awesome instead of giant assholes.  In other words, thanks to Walt Whitman, the people who would benefit most from reading Walt Whitman are able to use Walt Whitman as an excuse not to read Walt Whitman.

Nice going, Walt Whitman.



(In the unlikely event that you are unfamiliar with Walt Whitman but reading a poetry blog anyway for some reason, and would like to read a good poem by him, read any other poem by him besides the one I was just talking about.  If that is not specific enough, read “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”)