Musings + Essays

Do You Still Hang Your Words in Air?

By: Jen Shoop
"The exact way in which anything was done, or made, or functioned, was poetry to her."

In the excitement of my reunion with Elizabeth Bishop a week or two ago, I re-read some of her collected prose, including an endearing essay on poet Marianne Moore, Bishop’s mentor-turned-bosom-buddy. Bishop, sharp as nails herself, frames Moore as brilliant and meticulously considered in her writing, which spurred me to read some of Moore’s poetry.

A critic once described Moore as “a poet who controlled panic by presenting it as whimsy.” Bishop took this critic to task, replying: “Whimsy is sometimes there, of course, and so is humor (a gift these critics sadly seem to lack),” and then goes on: “Surely there is an element of mortal panic underlying all works of art?”

Still, my initial and admittedly ursine passes at Moore’s verse deposited me more in the critic’s camp. Her poetry presents as serious thought clouded by form and kitsch and archness. She is, sometimes, difficult to take seriously? Though even I can see just beneath the varnish, and across the poetic remove, her utter conviction. Still, I found myself hungering for the sleek heft of Bishop, the way she will draw us through delicately carved, and often ponderous, detail with the promise of one of her gorgeous clarities. I will swim for miles in search of those buoys. In the margins of one rather prolix essay of hers, my college self wrote: “Why am I bored here? Too much? As always with Bishop, all details must be important, but…” I was too reactive to literature at that time. My opinions took shape immediately, as though flash-frozen, and I found it difficult to mold them after, even if I learned how to mediate or suppress those emotions as a student, in my academic writing. If I found a passage overwrought, that was the end of it. Red ink: “Yawn.” I have learned over time to let my reactions to art congeal more slowly, over time, like pudding in the fridge. With Bishop, I am learning now that I am re-immersing myself, the long view is essential, especially given the fact that I know she was impressively exacting. At a posthumous reading of her poetry, poet and academic Lloyd Schwarz said: “Elizabeth worked fastidiously. Sometimes she’d spend years thinking about a phrase or word.” And celebrated poet Robert Lowell wrote of her:

“Do / you still hang your words in air, ten years / unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps / or empties for the unimaginable phrase– / unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect?”

Almost as a matter of respect for her artistic care, then, I am committed to open-mindedness (and if not open-mindedness, forbearance) for what occasionally passes as fustian. And it is always a passing, a costume, or at least a maneuver.

Anyhow, because I respect Bishop, I find myself craning my neck at Moore, squinting and pawing. What can we make of a poem like “Baseball and Writing“? The opening stanza is distressingly pithy or facile — I can’t tell which. It reminds me of the way Mr. Magpie and I often cringe and poke one another at the use of the words “coupon” and “ground round” in Craig Morgan’s country song “That’s What I Love about Sundays.” For context, we love country music, and, “ground round” notwithstanding, still love that song, so this is not a generalized angst against the genre. But these lyrics nettle:

It’s 35 cents off a ground round
Baby, cut that coupon out

Far be it for me to censor words from inclusion in any form of art, but ah! Ground round just doesn’t feel right in sung lyrics? I feel similarly about Moore’s line: “pitcher, catcher, fielder, batter.” It is too on-the-nose, too cluttered with jargon? I feel drawn into some kind of other-place between poetry and prose.

But Bishop had this to say:

“Marianne was intensely interested in the techniques of things — how camellias are grown; how the quartz prisms work in crystal clocks; how the pangolin can close up his hear, nose, and eye apertures and walk on the outside edges of his hands ‘and save the claws / for digging’; how to drive a car; how the best pitchers throw a baseball; how to make a figurehead for her nephew’s sailboat. The exact way in which anything was done, or made, or functioned, was poetry to her.

Here is the cipher; here are the poetics. Years ago, I would have resisted this furnishment of context. I was a textualist then, and both obstinate and jejune in that outlook — a dangerous pairing. Now, though, I welcome Bishop’s deputization. Is that laziness on my part or the kind of due respect we learn to bestow on the talented, the sage among us? Locum tenens.

But let me take, then, this observation — this invitation — to heart, today:

The exact way in which anything was done, or made, or functioned, was poetry to her.


*Image above taken yesterday, amidst the moody, low-lying morning fog. I took this picture using the panorama function on my iPhone and when I returned to my desk, I encountered those words from Lowell, “do you still hang your words in the air,” and the image felt symmetrical to, or suggestive of, the expression in some way. It is striking, how much of our day can color what we read, and how we remember it.

+A poem that surprised me recently.

+Long division.

+A playlist for chores at home.

Shopping Break.

+The silhouette of these jeans is just so fabulous.

+Fun pair of under-$15 fall sunglasses.

+The smocked cuffs on this velvet mini add so much interest. Pair with patterned tights.

+Sugar Paper x Target is back! Take my word for it and order now or you will end up scrounging the bottom of the barrel if you wait. I made that mistake last year. I should have ordered more earlier!

+So many great brands are offering early discounts (pre-cyber-week!), include Kule, which is offering $50 off orders of $250+; $125 off orders of $500+; and $300 off orders of $1000+ using code KULEYULE. Great time to snag this classic stripe sweater for $50 off, or to stock up on a bunch of striped tees and turtlenecks. You could even buy all your sisters/girlfriends a striped tee for Christmas and save on the bundle! How cute?

+Oh my goodness, these marbled crackers would be such a fun exclamation point on a Thanksgiving table!

+This inky blue dress is amazing.

+These $30 ballet flats come in the best colors! Perfect pairing with your Thanksgiving dress.

+30% off rugs and entertaining at Serena and Lily. This rug is still one of my absolute favorite pieces we own. It was in our primary bedroom but now we’ve moved it into our family room. While there, note that these happy euro shams (a Magpie favorite last week) are now under $30!

+Love this blazer. Perfect to layer over a turtleneck with high waist jeans and fun flats, or over a fair isle sweater for a horse country moment.

+Zara came out with a lamb sweater reminiscent of the SEA one — but a fraction of the price!

+Make bathtime a little more fun for your little one with these.

+These hand-smocked traditional Christmas nighties for littles — swoon!!!!

+Speaking of Christmas jammies, I am so sad I missed out on these $15 nutcracker jammies in mini’s size! (Upgrade pick: Lake’s nutcracker jammies!)

+Early stocking stuffer idea: cute $5 mini puzzles with different cities!

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