I ended 2015 with a poem from Robert Lowell, “Water,” a tribute to the Platonic friendship he had with fellow poet, Elizabeth Bishop. I want to start 2016 with a complementary poem from Bishop to Lowell, only this is in commemoration to Lowell passing. Lowell’s poem was about their mutual appreciation for a “Maine Lobster town,” which Lowell used as a conceit for their relationship; the place where their “two souls” found mutual tenderness. As I said in the other post, Bishop was Lesbian. North Haven is just such a town in Maine, and could be the very one Lowell was referring to. As a biographical note, North Haven was a place where Bishop spent many of her summers, and apparently Lowell spent many of his summers in Maine, and, as suggested in Bishop’s poem, this same town.
I didn’t explicate Lowell’s poem in post on his poem, so let me point out a few things here. The poem presents a dichotomy between the hard realities of ocean shore and the dreamy imagination of Romance. Lowell uses the word “rock” five times and if you include “granite” in the third line, that’s six times he refers to a stone in the 32 line poem. Contrasted with that is what “seems” to be “the color of iris” (l. 15-6), the dream of being a mermaid in seventh stanza, and the wish for their “two souls” to return in the final stanza. Lowell’s theme here then is that hard reality prevents a true fulfillment of their relationship, and so they will have to settle for what they have. “In the end” the poem concludes, “the water was too cold for us” (l. 31-2).
The timeline between Lowell’s poem and Bishop’s poem is also interesting. According to this article by Colm Tóibín in the London Review of Books, Lowell first wrote a draft of the poem in 1948 and published it in his 1964 collection, For the Union Dead. He sent the draft to Bishop in 1962, whereby she suggested some changes, which I guess influenced the final version. So this poem of their relationship was fully acknowledged between the two of them. Lowell dies in in September of 1977, Bishop writes her commemorative poem in 1978, and Bishop herself dies in October of 1979. Here is Bishop’s poem.
In Memoriam: Robert Lowell
By Elizabeth Bishop
I can make out the rigging of a schooner
a mile off; I can count
the new cones on the spruce. It is so still
the pale bay wears a milky skin; the sky
no clouds except for one long, carded horse¹s tail.
The islands haven’t shifted since last summer,
even if I like to pretend they have—
drifting, in a dreamy sort of way,
a little north, a little south, or sidewise—
and that they¹re free within the blue frontiers of bay.
This month our favorite one is full of flowers:
buttercups, red clover, purple vetch,
hackweed still burning, daisies pied, eyebright,
the fragrant bedstraw’s incandescent stars,
and more, returned, to paint the meadows with delight.
The goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the white—throated sparrow’s five—note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.
Years ago, you told me it was here
(in 1932?) you first “discovered girls”
and learned to sail, and learned to kiss.
You had “such fun,” you said, that classic summer.
("Fun"—it always seemed to leave you at a loss...)
You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue... And now—you’ve left
for good. You can’t derange, or rearrange,
your poems again. (But the sparrows can their song.)
The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.
Interesting how Bishop connects the third and fifth lines with either an ending rhyme or consonance such as kiss/loss. But more interesting is that the poem seems to me to be in the Lowell style—confessional, simple free verse, short line lengths, casual tone—rather than Bishop’s more formal mode of expression. Compare the voice in this poem with Bishop’s masterpiece poem, “At the Fishhouses,” also a poem set at the shore.
Bishop in “North Haven” as in Lowell’s “Water” presents a dichotomy between a hard reality and the dreamy imagination of Romance. Bishop’s poem really alludes to Lowell’s. It’s the same setting with nearly the same action. The hard reality of the shore—“the islands haven’t shifted” (l. 6) and Lowell left New Haven “anchored in its rock” (l. 26)—is present. But while Lowell’s poem seems to rest its emphasis on the hard reality, Bishop rests her emphasis on the dreamy Romance. The ratio between rock and Romance seem to reverse in Bishop’s poem. The islands may not have shifted, but she likes “to pretend” they have, “drifting in a dreamy sort of way’ (l. 8); Lowell may have been “anchored,” but he was also “afloat in mystic blue” (l. 27); the goldfinches sing a mutable song, and Bishop brings up Lowell’s long, beloved memories on the Maine shore. In the end, though, the hard reality wins out: “Sad friend, you cannot change.”
Both “Water” and “North Haven” are very lovely poems by fine poets.