What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

March 6, 2017, Issue

Do we need to know about Elizabeth Bishop’s private life in order to appreciate her poetry? Claudia Roth Pierpont, in her absorbing “The Island Within,” a review of Megan Marshall’s new biography, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, in this week’s issue, appears to answer no. Discussing the lines “The name of seashore towns run out to sea, / the names of cities cross the neighboring / mountains / – the printer here experiencing the same / excitement / as when emotion too far exceeds its cause,” in Bishop’s “The Map,” she mentions that Bishop’s previous biographer, Brett C. Millier, linked them to thoughts that Bishop confided to her notebook (“Name it friendship if you want – like names of cities printed on maps, the word is much too big, it spreads all over the place, and tells nothing of the actual place it means to name”). But then Pierpont says, “Of course, any such biographical explanation is a cheat: the reader cannot be expected to supply these facts; the poem means what it means, on its own.” I agree. My sense of who Bishop was arises from her meticulous poetic details. Take, for example, her exquisite description of fog in “The Moose”:

The bus starts. The light
is deepening; the fog
shifting, salty, thin,
comes closing in.

Its cold, round crystals
form and slide and settle
in the white hens’ feathers,
in gray glazed cabbages,
on the cabbage roses
and lupins like apostles;

the sweet peas cling
to wet white string
on the whitewashed fences;
bumblebees creep
inside the foxgloves,
and evening commences.

Pierpont discusses “The Moose” in terms of its meaning. She says, “Despite the passengers’ lack of anything remotely resembling expressive language (“Sure are big creatures.” / “It’s awful plain”), they are overcome with joy, lifted from their narrow selves for a luminous moment, before the bus rolls on.” But, for me, the beauty of “The Moose” is in those “cold, round crystals” of fog, forming, sliding, and settling “in in the white hens’ feathers, / in gray glazed cabbages, / on the cabbage roses / and lupins like apostles.” Such ravishing description indicates who Bishop was more revealingly than any letter or notebook could possibly show.

In her piece, Pierpont calls Marshall’s biography “lively and engaging, charged with vindicating energy.” This sharply contrasts with Dwight Garner’s verdict in The New York Times: “Marshall’s biography is dull and dispiriting” ( 'Elizabeth Bishop' Details a Poet’s Life. An Author’s, Too,” January 31, 2017). Pierpont says,

Marshall, an aspiring poet in her youth, writes from a deep sense of identity with her subject: she studied with Bishop at Harvard, in 1976, and her biographical chapters are interspersed with pages of her own memoir, also centered on family, poetry, and loss. It’s an odd but compelling structure, as the reader watches the two women’s lives converge, and it allows for some closeup glimpses of Bishop as a teacher.

Garner differs:

Marshall’s attempts at memoir are painfully earnest. “I’d taken him a loaf of banana bread I baked one week, in lieu of a poem,” she reports about her interactions with one Harvard professor. Each of these reveries, some of which include samples of the biographer’s own verse (“Take flight, larks with a freedom earthbound creatures/Can’t know”), is about three slices short of a loaf and has no place here.

Who’s right – Pierpont (“odd but compelling structure”) or Garner (“thee slices short of a loaf”)? The only way to decide, I guess, is to read Marshall’s book.

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