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Visits to St. Elizabeth's -- Elizabeth Bishop

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul:
(Poem #1563) Visits to St. Elizabeth's
 This is the house of Bedlam.

 This is the man
 that lies in the house of Bedlam.

 The is the time
 of the tragic man
 that lies in the house of Bedlam.

 This is a wristwatch
 telling the time
 of the talkative man
 that lies in the house of Bedlam.

 This is a sailor
 wearing the watch
 that tells the time
 of the honored man
 that lies in the house of Bedlam.

 This is the roadstead all of board
 reached by the sailor
 wearing the watch
 that tells the time
 of the old, brave man
 that lies in the house of Bedlam.

 These are the years and the walls of the ward,
 the winds and clouds of the sea of board
 sailed by the sailor
 wearing the watch
 that tells the time
 of the cranky man
 that lies in the house of Bedlam.

 This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
 that dances weeping down the ward
 over the creaking sea of board
 beyond the sailor
 winding his watch
 that tells the time
 of the cruel man
 that lies in the house of Bedlam.

 This is a world of books gone flat.
 This is a Jew in a newsapaper hat
 that dances weeping down the ward
 over the creaking sea of board
 of the batty sailor
 that winds his watch
 that tells the time
 of the busy man
 that lies in the house of Bedlam.

 This is a boy that pats the floor
 to see if the world is there, is flat,
 for the widowed Jew in the newspaper hat
 that dances weeping down the ward
 waltzing the length of a weaving board
 by the silent sailor
 that hears his watch
 that ticks the time
 of the tedious man
 that lies in the house of Bedlam.

 These are the years and the walls and the door
 that shut on a boy that pats the floor
 to feel if the world is there and flat.
 This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
 that dances joyfully down the ward
 into the parting seas of board
 past the starting sailor
 that shakes his watch
 that tells the time
 of the poet, the man
 that lies in the house of Bedlam.

 This is the soldier home from the war.
 These are the years and the walls and the door
 that shut on a boy that pats the floor
 to see if the world is round of flat.
 This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
 that dances carefully down the ward,
 walking the plank of a coffin board
 with the crazy sailor
 that shows his watch
 that tells the time
 of the wretched man
 that lies in the house of Bedlam.
-- Elizabeth Bishop
        1950.

I've never been a big fan of Bishop. She has an incredible eye for images
(describing a baby rabbit fleeing a fire as 'a handful of intangible ash /
with fixed, ignited eyes' -- "The Armadillo") and an almost unmatched
ability to sketch a scene or a sensation so that it's visible / tangible
(consider 'We stand as still as stones to watch / the leaves and ripples /
while light and nervous water hold / their interview' -- "Quai D'Orleans" or
'Hear nothing but a train that goes by, must go by, like tension' -- "Four
Poems") but for me her poems often fail to come together into a coherent
whole. They remain beautiful yet insubstantial, like a loose nosegay of
impressions that withers easily and is forgotten.

The only exceptions to this are poems where Bishop starts off with a conceit
or a clever idea (see for instance, the incredible Gentleman of Shallott or
The Man Moth, which features on Minstrels as Poem #1395). Here Bishop is at
her best - combining an easy playfulness with touches of exquisite yearning
to create poems that are so solipsistic you don't know how seriously to take
them. "Visits to St. Elizabeth's" is an excellent example of this - a poem
of ceaseless and inspired variation that combines some truly heartbreaking
images ('This is a boy that pats the floor / to see if the world is there,
is flat') with a structure that comes out of a children's rhyme. What makes
this poem stunning is the the deftness with which Bishop pulls off that
structure (just try running This is the house that Jack built upto twelve
lines and see how quickly it becomes tedious) making each new stanza more
exhilarating than the last. Minor variations in the lines from stanza to
stanza create the illusion of revelation - each repetition promises more
clues to the poems true meaning, but it is a meaning never quite grasped.
The overall effect is that of an exquisite piece of baroque music - some
Bach variation - that tempts and teases and leaves you gasping for more
while at the same time convinced that there's something you've missed.

Aseem.

39 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Fred Simon said...

Marvelous poem, virtuoso invention. And insightful commentary as well.

However, according to every version of the poem I've seen, the line
which is posted here as:

to see if the world is round of flat

should actually read:

to see if the world is round or flat

Surely "round of flat" is a typo.

John K. Taber said...

There is a political context to this poem, I can't say if intended or
not.
But the obvious reason for Bishop to visit St. Elizabeth's was to see
its
most famous or notorious "madman", Ezra Pound.

In my own words, the US saved itself the trouble of executing the
foremost
poet of the time for treason by declaring him insane instead, which in
my
opinion was a wise move. Archibald MacLeish, then Librarian of Congress,
rounded
up support among intellectuals for declaring Pound insane. Someplace on
the
internet is a letter from Hemingway to MacLeish expressing complete
approval.
It was a way to save the damn fool's life.

Anyhow, try to imagine Pound's surroundings at the time of Bishop's
visits as
a sort of ironic contrast with Pound's poetic leadership. Also note the
nursery
rhyme of the poem as ironic contrast to Pound's Cantos for example.

Note that Pound, if it is him, begins as the man in the house of Bedlam,
becomes
the honored man in the house of Bedlam, and ends as the wretched man in
the
house of Bedlam.

As a point of fact, he did not have it so bad at St. Elizabeth's. He was
free
to continue his work, correspond, and receive a steady stream of
visitors.

Anyhow, the poem makes far more sense with Pound looming in the
background.

John K. Taber

Kaul Aseem said...

Yes, the line should read "to see if the world is round or flat".

Mea culpa.

Aseem

Vivian said...

Does anyone know if this is a poem about Ezra Pound, who was indeed
incarcerated in St. Elizabeth's mental hospital in Washington, D.C.?

Thanks,
Vivian

A. P said...

I had to avoid reading through the entire poem for fear of losing my own
sanity. The repetition of the "bedlam" line was getting to me. : ) So
final... Powerful stuff.

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