Poetry and Pain (thinking about Bishop, Ashbery, Schuyler and Padgett)

Lots of ideas this morning, so I wanted to take the time to record some of them and see where they take me.  

I’m not sure what sparked these ideas, although my hunch is that reading an oral biography of Elizabeth Bishop (haven’t finished it yet, but am plowing through it) forced me to rethink a few things.  Why and how?  I have loved Bishop’s poetry for years, cherishing (what an awful word) her idiosyncracies, the very difficult-to-put-into-words sensitivity and acumen and nerve and delight of her poems, their utterly charming wonderfulness, but I never knew (for I hadn’t read her bio, or of course this oral biography) some of the details of her life that were more sad.  So reading the oral biography, and learning more about the sad and happy aspects of BIshop’s life, has been a sort of slow but steady revelation, forcing me to think about her poetry in perhaps a more balanced way.  I say “balanced,” because it is very difficult (for me at least) to somehow extricate myself from the voice of a poet I love, and think about the poet more objectively, which is to say, to somehow integrate within the picture I have of the poet both the “good” and the “bad” sides.  All of which is to say, that reading Bishop has made me wonder more about – not just the miracle of her poems, her writing – but also the role that pain plays in her poetry, and subsequently/consequently the role that pain plays in the poetry of other poets I love.

Now let me start by adding that this is a delicate subject.  Because I think what draws me to BIshop – as well as to poets like Ashbery, Schuyler, and Padgettt, poets I’m contemplating writing about during my doctoral program – is in large part the way in which they handle pain, by which I mean that they, too, seem to have a rather admirably delicate or tactful or fruitful or honorable way of thinking about and expressing, communicating the role that pain plays in their lives.  (By pain I just mean sadness, all the stuff that makes us uncomfortable, etc.)  And we can certainly think about this stuff historically – I mean, just imagine the role that pain played in the work of the “Confessional” poets – Sexton, Plath, Lowell, Berryman, etc.  For them (and excuse this interpretation, for I haven’t read them nearly as much as the other poets mentioned above), pain is something shown, something revealed, something worth revealing, for perhaps it is a way of saying “this is what is underneath the surface, my own misery and unhappiness.”  Of course, I can’t imagine all the poems by the Confessionals as being about things like “misery” and “unhappiness,” but by and large I was always struck by the overriding sentiment from these poets that 1.) things were dour and bleak, and 2.) poetry was a way of expressing this bleakness, this devastating mad, maddening aloneness, etc.

But/and this is why I admire Bishop, Schuyler, Ashbery, Padgett.  They are more like Matisse, more buoyant, less willing to give in too much to their pain.  And reading Bishop’s oral biography, this unwillingness to give into pain in her poetry is all the more remarkable, considering the amounts of suffering she had to cope with, in terms of her alcoholism and (terrifying) loneliness.  So what I’m trying to say is, these poets, all sort of geniuses in their way, had and have temperaments that strike me as very different from the Confessional poets, temperaments that, along the axis of perception and invention, refuse to submit to feelings of misfortune, or anything like that.  These are poets who revel, who are sort of verbal pranksters, who take a note from the Surrealists and do a little dance in the banal.  They are poets who understand the important perspective of laughter.  They, like Matisse intended for his paintings, make you feel okay about things, they even make you feel better, because they do not kowtow to depression.  And in this sense (perhaps my argument for the blog today), I think I like these poets because their poems strike me as more realistic.

How do I mean?  

Life itself, these poets seem to argue, is not just bleakness without happiness, moments of wonder, etc.  And there isn’t such a firm divide between art and life, as if to say “life is this way, art is this way, and never the twain shall meet” (a rather depressing sentiment, in my book, anyways).  I think these poets, a la Mikhail Bakhtin, believe that life is actually a radically creative endeavor, even at the level of our most banal excursions and experiences.  (Perhaps the Confessionals, too, believe this – that is, that even the most painful experiences warrant investigation and creativity.)  I think this is why all four of these poets incorporate within their poems the demotic, the colloquial, the “low,” the everyday, the banal, the casual.  It’s because they are saying, “nothing, it seems, is not creative; therefore nothing can be (let’s try this for an experiment) excluded from the poem.”  This might explain why BIshop and Schuyler (so similar in lots of ways, temperamentally(?) and aesthetically) often begin with a view from the window, or why Ashbery and Padgett embed within their poems references to everything from Popeye to chocolate milk.  These poets are united in an interest in freedom and creativity – they do not feel (I feel) that life is deterministic, that it can be reduced and explained away by (feel like I”m getting on my soapbox right now) let’s say Marxism, or the unconscious, or anything that does not allow for, in its picture, freedom and creativity.  These poets, then, again a la Bakhtin, are against theoretisms of any kind.  But because I’m getting a bit too theoretical, let me return briefly to this notion of pain, and illustrate it with a poem.  

Here’s Ashbery, probably my favorite of the four, in “Alive at Every Passage,” from Wakefulness.

Roll up your sleeves,

                                   another day has ended.  I am not a part of the vine

that was going to put me through school

but instead got sidetracked and wandered over the brink of an abyss

while we were having a good time

in full view of the nearest mountains.   Mon tresor, she said, this is where I

disappear for a few moments, I want you to be brave.  

Notice and think about the way the poem begins, “Roll up your sleeves, / another day has ended.”  The sentence does not avoid calling attention to the way in which what happens during the day can be hard, trying, tiring, difficult, taxing – but it also does not avoid saying that getting through the day sometimes can be an achievement.  “Roll up your sleeves.”  At the same time, however, the sentence also suggests the somewhat amazing and bewildering variety of a day, how it happens with speed and slowness, and is filled with details both within and beyond our comprehension.  Then Ashbery writes, “I am not a part of the vine / that was going to put me through school,” which makes me think of an autobiographical tidibit you’d probably hear from most poets, i.e. “I’m not exactly the conventional type, part of the “vine” – I’m a bit outside the “vine,” as it were.”  And what happens to the speaker, who is outside the vine?  He got sidetracked, as we all do, and went on a winding digression, during which the speaker “wandered over the brink of an abyss.”  This is where I think things get interesting, because notice how the image suggests terror and fear, something suggesting an overwhelmingness, an anxiety even, but the poet does not give in to this terror, and in the next line we read, “while we were having a good time / in full view of the nearest mountains.”  Even if this scary experience happens after “we were having a good time,” the line “we were having a good time” comes after the image of the abyss, and in a way preempts the frightful connotations of falling endlessly into something somewhere.  The same dynamic is then repeated in the dialogue that follows: “I’m leaving you for a moment,” the voice says, yet “I want you to be brave.”             

In summary, then, Ashbery, Bishop, Schuyler and Padgett are united, it seems to me, by an aesthetic that tries to do everything except self-pity.  These are inclusive reticent poets who wish to extend, widen, enlarge, complexify the horizons by and through which we come to understand the world.  They do not say that pain isn’t real – they are not repressive in that sense – but they also don’t give in to their pain too much.  In that sense, to give a nod to Freud, these poets are master “sublimaters.”  They find ways of representing themselves and the world that are buoyant and somehow positive, even amidst the most debilitating experiences (as suggested by the oral bio of Bishop).  It is for that reason that I view these poets as sort of heroes, “fighting” for including creativity and freedom into our world-pictures, and showing how this is possible in poetry that is simultaneously funny, generous, sensitive, gorgeous, jaw-droppingly beautiful and alive.    



(painting above by Bishop, collage below by Ashbery)


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