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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Number 80: Elizabeth Bishop "Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore"

Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore

From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemicals,
please come flying,
to the rapid rolling of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
please come flying.

Whistles, pennants and smoke are blowing. The ships
are signaling cordially with multitudes of flags
rising and falling like birds all over the harbor.
Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing
countless little pellucid jellies
in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains.
The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged.
The waves are running in verses this fine morning.
Please come flying.

Come with the pointed toe of each black shoe
trailing a sapphire highlight,
with a black capeful of butterfly wings and bon-mots,
with heaven knows how many angels all riding
on the broad black brim of your hat,
please come flying.

Bearing a musical inaudible abacus,
a slight censorious frown, and blue ribbons,
please come flying.
Facts and skyscrapers glint in the tide; Manhattan
is all awash with morals this fine morning,
so please come flying.

Mounting the sky with natural heroism,
above the accidents, above the malignant movies,
the taxicabs and injustices at large,
while horns are resounding in your beautiful ears
that simultaneously listen to
a soft uninvented music, fit for the musk deer,
please come flying.

For whom the grim museums will behave
like courteous male bower-birds,
for whom the agreeable lions lie in wait
on the steps of the Public Library,
eager to rise and follow through the doors
up into the reading rooms,
please come flying.
We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping,
or play at a game of constantly being wrong
with a priceless set of vocabularies,
or we can bravely deplore, but please
please come flying.

With dynasties of negative constructions
darkening and dying around you,
with grammar that suddenly turns and shines
like flocks of sandpipers flying,
please come flying.

Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,
come like a daytime comet
with a long unnebulous train of words,
from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.

--Elizabeth Bishop

Hap Notes: Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) and Moore (1887-1972) were friends and Moore served as a mentor for the young Bishop, being 24 years older. They met when Bishop was in her early 20s and Moore in her late 40s and Bishop often mentions the generational differences in the their lives. They maintained their friendship for more than 35 years, often corresponding in letters (you know, those old fashioned, hand-written missive sent through the post office. A dying art, the letter.) [Breaking off briefly to say that one hopes our correspondences will not be reduced to reproduced "tweets" on our phones. Was watching the ESPN coverage of the Carmelo Anthony (and the Knicks got Billups, too!) trade and they had graphics displaying the tweets. (!?)]

It's obvious from the poem that Bishop loved Moore and maybe even received a bit of motherly warmth from this, which she surely could have used since Bishop's own mother was in a mental institution the whole time she was growing up. Of course, Moore was a formal woman (one part of the generational differences) and Bishop never even called her "Marianne" for two years of the friendship, calling her "Miss Moore" until Moore invited the younger poet to use her first name.

Moore and Bishop's poetry have one vital thing in common in that they are both detailed observers of the things and life around them. Bishop called Moore "the world's greatest living observer" and carefully composed letters writing little observances and anecdotes to her. Moore was a good reader, a wise adviser and an honest critic and helper with Bishop's poetry.

Bishop met her through a librarian friend at Vassar. Moore and Bishop set up a time to talk. Here's Bishop describing the event.

"I was very frightened, but I put on my new spring suit and took the train to New York. I had never seen a picture of Miss Moore: all I knew was that she had red hair and usually wore a wide-brimmed hat. I expected the hair to be bright red and for her to be tall and intimidating. I was right on time, even a bit early, but she was there before me (no matter how early one arrived, Marianne was always there first) and, I saw at once, not very tall and not in the least bit intimidating. She was forty-seven, an age that seemed old to me then, and her hair was mixed with white to a faint rust pink, and her rust-pink eyebrows were frosted with white. The large black flat hat was as I’d expected it to be. She wore a blue tweed suit that day and, as she usually did then, a man’s “polo shirt,” as they were called, with a black bow at the neck. The effect was quaint, vaguely Bryn Mawr 1909, but stylish at the same time. I sat down and she began to talk."

and later in the meeting:

"Happily ignorant of the poor Vassar girls before me who hadn’t passed muster, I began to feel less nervous and even spoke some myself. I had what may have been an inspiration, I don’t know—at any rate, I attribute my great good fortune in having known Marianne as a friend in part to it. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was making a spring visit to New York and I asked Miss Moore (we called each other “Miss” for over two years) if she would care to go to the circus with me the Saturday after next. I didn’t know that she always went to the circus, wouldn’t have missed it for anything, and when she accepted, I went back to Poughkeepsie in the grimy day coach extremely happy."

I love the idea of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop at the circus together. Makes me feel as happy as the flying poet descriptions in the poem. The illustration is an epergne, if you didn't know what it was (and why should you?).

Moore, in her letters to Bishop, seems a bit cooler and less emotive than Bishop in her letters but the younger poet wisely understood that this was generational. Moore was raised in a time of more formal manners, where personal remarks were kept to a minimum and cordial relationships were not casual. Readers older than 40 may recall older teachers or relatives who were like this. Their every thought was not expressed, nor did they think it proper that it should be. Moore was anxious to help Bishop and wrote to her many times telling her this. Remember how I said yesterday that Moore spoke in complete sentences? That's how educated people generally spoke (and still speak sometimes.)

Bishop says, "She must have been one of the world’s greatest talkers: entertaining, enlightening, fascinating, and memorable; her talk, like her poetry, was quite different from anyone else’s in the world."

If you want to review what we've discussed about Bishop go here:

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