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Accuracy, spontaneity and mystery. Those are just a few of the qualities Worcester, Mass. native and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop found in the poetry she loved.
And Lloyd Schwartz, English professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, thinks those are excellent ways to describe Bishop’s own poems.
“The precision of her images, the precision of her language, the sense of someone talking to you and not just pontificating and then the undefinable, the ineffable, the uncanny, that quality of magic, really, that’s beyond calculation,” Schwartz said to Here & Now Tuesday — the 100th anniversary of Bishop’s birth.
Bishop was U.S. poet laureate from 1959 to 1960. She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1956 and a National Book Award for Poetry in 1970. And now, new volumes of her work are being published.
Schwartz, who edited “Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art,” joined the program Tuesday to discuss “Pink Dog,” one of the last poems Bishop wrote before her death. He feels it gives particular insight into the poet.
“It’s a kind of revelation of the way that she’s not always such a gentile and refined poet,” Schwartz said. “I mean, she could be that, too, but there was some deeper undercurrent in all of her work and this violent and upsetting undercurrent really comes to the surface in this work.”
He says the way in which Bishop depicts the dog in the poem could also be considered a personal reflection.
“This is what she thought of herself — as this ugly, ill creature, pink in a culture of sun tans and darker skin, sticking out, not fitting in,” Schwartz said. “She is kind of talking to herself in this poem.”
“Pink Dog” also explores rhythm and Bishop employs unique methods to keep the rhyme of her poem. Schwartz hears the popular 1960’s hit “Girl From Ipanema” in his head when he reads the poem right up until the final lines and feels that Bishop had it in mind as well.
“I love this first stanza … because it is the one in which she is almost imitating the samba or bossa nova rhythms and in order to keep the rhymes in the poem she actually hyphenates the word ‘an’ so that the ‘a’ comes at the end of the line and the ‘n’ comes at the beginning of the next line.”
[ Rio de Janeiro ]
The sun is blazing and the sky is blue.
Umbrellas clothe the beach in every hue.
Naked, you trot across the avenue.
Oh, never have I seen a dog so bare!
Naked and pink, without a single hair . . .
Startled, the passersby draw back and stare.
Of course they’re mortally afraid of rabies.
You are not mad; you have a case of scabies
but look intelligent. Where are your babies?
(A nursing mother, by those hanging teats.)
In what slum have you hidden them, poor bitch,
while you go begging, living by your wits?
Didn’t you know? It’s been in all the papers,
to solve this problem, how they deal with beggars?
They take and throw them in the tidal rivers.
Yes, idiots, paralytics, parasites
go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights
out in the suburbs, where there are no lights.
If they do this to anyone who begs,
drugged, drunk, or sober, with or without legs,
what would they do to sick, four- legged dogs?
In the cafés and on the sidewalk corners
the joke is going round that all the beggars
who can afford them now wear life preservers.
In your condition you would not be able
even to oat, much less to dog- paddle.
Now look, the practical, the sensible
solution is to wear a fantasía.*
Tonight you simply can’t afford to be a-
n eyesore. But no one will ever see a
dog in máscara this time of year.
Ash Wednesday’ll come but Carnival is here.
What sambas can you dance? What will you wear?
They say that Carnival’s degenerating
—radios, Americans, or something,
have ruined it completely. They’re just talking.
Carnival is always wonderful!
A depilated dog would not look well.
Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!
Excerpted from POEMS by Elizabeth Bishop, published in February 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by the Alice H. Methfessel Trust, publishers note and compilation copyright © 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.