E. Bishop, J. Longenbach

A passage from James Longenbach’s The Resistance to Poetry, the opening to a chapter entitled “Untidy Activity”:

Ms. Bishop, looking beautful, and perhaps a bit haunted.

“What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it,” said Elizabeth Bishop, “is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” This sentence makes the hard work of art seem simultaneously rare and available to everyone. It suggests that the making of works of art is a way of being alive. Uselessness has been a distinguishing feature of a work of art since Kant, but anyone who dreams or falls in love has known the feeling Bishop identifies: a freedom to forget ourselves so that we might discover we are different from ourselves.

And a passage from the first chapter:

Poets fear wisdom. This is why great poems threaten to feel beside the point precisely when we want them to reflect our importance: language returns our attention not to confirm what we know but to suggest that we might be different from ourselves. We have only to write the next poem to discover its inadequacy. To employ figurative language is to hear its implications slip away from us. To write in lines is to feel their control of intonation and stress beginning to waver. To discover one’s true wildness is to feel the ghost of Callimachus bearing down. Still, these mechanisms of self-resistance are a gift, for without them we could not feel the wonder of poetry more than once. Nor could we rediscover out pleasure in the unintelligibility of the world. Imagine forgetting from second to second what we are for. Imagine a sense of vocation contingent on our need to remain unknown to ourselves. Rather than asking to be justified, poems ask us to exist.

For some reason that last passage haunts me and moves me, and makes me think of one’s entire life-process. You could replace the task of writing poetry with parenting, or tube-sock knitting, for example, and the beauty of his point still holds true. (“Parents fear wisdom. This is why great parents threaten to feel, beside the point….”)

By the way, James Longenbach was a professor of mine, many moons ago. He was a total badass. Still is. To wit: a recent poem in the New Yorker.

Professor Longenbach, back in the day. He was one of two professors to ever give me an A in an English Lit class.



One thought on “E. Bishop, J. Longenbach

  1. Definately B, the slightly brain damaged nice looking one. When I changed my name in Kings County, I changed it to his. We had nothing to do with each other, but a crush nevertheless, one of several tiny first ones. Everyone had said they had had him from one time or another. It never was my turn. Jeez. But I wore his scarf for years. And it smelled like him for the first weekend. I lost it in a theater somewhere. And what’s more, years later I returned to Wilson Commons and there he was taking a course at the college with the money from that car accident setllement and doing his homework under the geodessic windows there. We met, he knew I had loved him. I think all his hair had fallen out at that point. The bum slight of age. He had burned so brightly. I appologize, I am sorry your close friend Joe died. How awful. I hate it when people’s lives turn on a single strain-induced thought or a piece of ill logic. Hey, its snowing on this blog. We are all candidates for what happen. It seems so avoidable, but of course it’s often not. I met another phD candidate (abd) at a wedding last month. His topic was gender politics of depression era logging camps. He spoke like you and there was his wife beaming right beside him. He said that being single back then meant your wife didn’t live in the camp with you. Like the words really meant something completely different. And that sexual orientation was not part of one’s sexual identity. Just something you did on a Saturday night. Good luck with the job search, but have you considered making a history cell phone app and retiring early? I was certainly hungry for any details of my delightfully spent and hastilly forgotten youth. I could go into the sordid details, but the play really says it all. It was written in a foggy overlap between feeling chronically overrawed by another college-era crush, mixed with the 17-year-old star of my earlier play. The name of the that crush was the first words I typed into Google, years after google was well known world wide. See how I avoided it. Turns out every blooming detail of his life can be stitched together on the web. Boy were we the same. I didnt’ feel love for him really, but this feeling we were the same. It was actually more powerful. Well lets just say he thinks I’m a creep for saying so. I’m very pleased to hear from you, if you’re ever in Portland, I would certainly meet you, though I tend to work every weekday evening and the whole family plans to expatriate in the next 8-18 months. I need to go to Turkey, now, to get away from him. I may not write all that often and I’m going away soon. But happy to hear from you. See attached. Cool snow.

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