Thursday, December 08, 2005

Washington as a Surveyor

So I'm reading the 5 Dec New Yorker, la di da, Hersh on Bush, Munro on wickedness, all the same stuff, flippity flippity, "Washington as a Surveyor", when I get kicked in the left kidney - it's by Elizabeth Bishop. Well, she's been dead for over a quarter century, but occasionally one sees a new poem pop up, what's the story on this one? Flip back to the front - nothing on the Contributors page (later I discover that Mark Strand's poem doesn't get him mentioned either). As far the New Yorker's concerned, it's just a poem by Elizabeth Bishop - they've published her before, why stop now? Ok, so it's listed at Vassar under "Notes and notebooks of drafts, dreams, and other observations".

Washington as a Surveyor

Lord, I discovered when I discovered love
That day a continent within the mind,
Unstable on the sea, boundaries unlined
Which now I slowly take the measure of.
The coast's determined, the mountains do not move;
Natural harbors and clear springs I find,
Shade trees and fruit trees, everything of its kind--
Even for an empire more resources than enough.
My favorite flowers, besides, some of each,
Yes, and wild animals who stand and stare;
Rivers that run beyond my present reach
The other way, and clouds that glitter in the air.
Love's flag quickly I planted on the beach
While I explored, but the one I love is not there.

Stream-of-consciousness comments:

Ok, so it's obviously by Bishop - the frank repetition of "discovered", the concern with geography and love, the use of form, the interest in history a la "Trollope's Journal", maybe some Herbert influence.

So it's a Petrarchan sonnet, well and good for a poem about love. If there's a turn though I don't get it, which is kind of a big minus - it makes the choice a bit arbitrary and artificial. On the other hand the form forces some interesting lines so fine.

This would be George Washington, who worked as a surveyor from his mid teens. Some of that work was in wilderness and counts as exploring. So the measured tone is apropos, the devotional opening too, and the interest in empire - but I'm not sure knowing the speaker adds that much. Maybe there's some illuminating historical detail about Washington's life I'm missing.

Am I missing echoes of Milton or Herbert? E.g., "everything of its kind" sounds like an allusion, and the sense of an innocent land with the unfrightened animals.

Nice going from "Unstable on the sea" to "favorite flowers" as the exploration is described. "The other way" is a strong cold note prefiguring the ending. "Besides", "Yes" seem like filler to satisfy the meter. The lines are in large part longer than ten syllables, which slows things down a tad. "That day" gets some odd emphasis. Why "quickly I planted"? This seems to make "Love's flag" a spondee and I guess avoids the plain iambs of "Love's flag I quickly planted on the beach". Regardless, it contrasts nicely with "slowly" earlier. I like "more resources than enough" - it gives the sense that one might expect "enough" but one's getting more than merited.

It's a lonely poem - a full continent to be explored in the name of love, and nobody's there to be found. The rivers run away out of reach for now, and after that the clouds glitter.

Back to "Lord" - is this Bishop speaking to God? "Why have I been given this rich, beautiful continent but no helpmeet?" Does the poem refer to a moment ("that day") of personal realization?

Ok, so some nice writing, strong beginning and end, no full control of the material or theme, some laxity in the middle, a better poem for the author's other poems - if I'd written this, I'd tell myself something "You rock, but this didn't quite gel, I couldn't stuff everything I wanted into the form or make it fully resonant." A good early Elizabeth Bishop poem, but not up to her extreme standards, hence its absence from The Complete Poems - still much more pleasurable than most poems in the New Yorker.

Update: via the comments, Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box : Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, coming out in March 2006.

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Blogger hilzoy said...

I would have thought that 'everything of its kind' was an echo of Genesis 1 24-5:

"24 And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.

25 And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good."

9/12/05 21:56  
Blogger rilkefan said...

Hmm, that could be. Though discovering Eden seems a bit odd. Of course I was thinking Eden with Milton so the orignal source is at least as likely.

9/12/05 22:17  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alice Quinn has edited a book based on the Bishop manuscripts at Vassar. It's called Edgar Allen Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments. This poem is mostly likely from that collection, which isn't out yet (or so I think). There is a long excerpt of it in the Nov/Dec American Poetry Review.
Thanks for posting the poem. I hadn't seen it when it originally appeared.

10/12/05 18:51  
Blogger rilkefan said...

Thanks for the heads-up!

10/12/05 19:20  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, if you're a Bishop fan, I hope you saw the version of Bishop's "One Art", rendered into words of one syllable, over on Nielsen-Hayden.

thread titled "monosyllabification"

Scroll down nearly to the end, to someone named "Oliviacw". There are lots of good poems in the thread (all about re-writing favorites using only monosyllables). But I thought (and said down-thread) that Oliviacw's rendition of Bishop was *really* cool.

best wishes, Tad Brennan

10/12/05 20:58  
Blogger Jackmormon said...

I instantly thought (almost) the same thing that Hilzoy did. To be fair: I guessed Noah before Adam.

My PoCo colleagues have made persuasive arguments to me that the New World was often figured as a second Eden, particularly in the more overtly political representations.

14/12/05 19:33  
Blogger rilkefan said...

I'm a big Bishop fan, and though I came to her via the playful May Swenson, I don't know that I want to mix the echt "One Art" in my head with a one-syllable version. Maybe if I could read it and forget it instantly...

PoCo = Po├ęsie Contemporaine?

14/12/05 21:59  
Blogger Jackmormon said...


5/1/06 08:16  
Blogger James Welsch said...

I think the "turn" could be no more complicated than the love not being in the love surveyed.

This crossed-out poem is discussed in the New York Times today:

Ms. Vendler writes of one such poem, "Washington as a Surveyor," that it is "a rhythmically awkward and semantically inert Petrarchan sonnet." Making its publication "reprehensible," Ms. Vendler says, is the fact that Bishop had crossed out the entire poem in her notebooks. "Maybe it should have been printed in The New Yorker entirely crossed out," she writes.

3/4/06 12:53  

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