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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Friday, August 19, 2016


I guess I don't like a willed, overwrought kind of poem. I hardly revise a poem at all. With my bad poems there is little point! If I hit on something good head on, on the first attempt, I'm not going to spoil it with second thoughts. This is probably a weakness of mine, because I can see how limiting it is. It almost sounds arrogant, but it is not.

I don't really like Elizabeth Bishop, I decided. She is very good, but I don't find much that appeals to my sensibility of careless ease. Everything she writes seems so effortful. There's one sestina she wrote that I do like, but I have a soft spot for sestinas.

There is nothing wrong with Bishop. She is not sentimental, or a bad writer. She never uses cliché language. I would never argue with someone for whom that aesthetic was the ideal, because she does embody it. Yeats argues that a line can take hours to perfect, but that if it does not seem "a moment's thought / all our stitching and unstitching is for nought." Revision is not bad, then, but the poem still has to sound as fresh as if it were not revised.


Bob Basil said...

A couple of summers ago I read Bishop's collected poems a couple of times; I hadn't read her work in more than 30 years (Gelpi's seminar at Stanford). I was surprised by how taken I was by her work this time around. As you say, there is very little "careless ease" in her poems, and that I think was one of her goals, to let you know that she needed to be careful with her reader. The tone of her poems reminded me of how certain friends and colleagues talk to me sometimes! Once I get over the embarrassment, it's kind of nice to know that the person addressing me had to spend a good deal of time figuring out how to say two sentences to me, even when they let me know it.

Andrew Shields said...

When I taught a Bishop seminar a couple years ago, I came to the conclusion that Bishop's small output was the result of a terrible combination: alcoholism and perfectionism. An alcoholic perfectionist will hardly ever get anything done to her satisfaction!

I wish she had drunk less and written more, for I love her work.