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Some smart ideas: Bishop and Longenbach

A passage from James Longenbach’s The Resistance to Poetry, the opening to a chapter entitled “Untidy Activity”:

Elizabeth Bishop: beautiful, and perhaps slighly haunted.

“What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it,” said Elizabeth Bishop, “is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” This sentence makes the hard work of art seem simultaneously rare and available to everyone. It suggests that the making of works of art is a way of being alive. Uselessness has been a distinguishing feature of a work of art since Kant, but anyone who dreams or falls in love has known the feeling Bishop identifies: a freedom to forget ourselves so that we might discover we are different from ourselves.

And a passage from the first chapter:

Poets fear wisdom. This is why great poems threaten to feel beside the point precisely when we want them to reflect our importance: language returns our attention not to confirm what we know but to suggest that we might be different from ourselves. We have only to write the next poem to discover its inadequacy. To employ figurative language is to hear its implications slip away from us. To write in lines is to feel their control of intonation and stress beginning to waver. To discover one’s true wildness is to feel the ghost of Callimachus bearing down. Still, these mechanisms of self-resistance are a gift, for without them we could not feel the wonder of poetry more than once. Nor could we rediscover out pleasure in the unintelligibility of the world. Imagine forgetting from second to second what we are for. Imagine a sense of vocation contingent on our need to remain unknown to ourselves. Rather than asking to be justified, poems ask us to exist.

For some reason that last passage haunts me and moves me, and makes me think of one’s entire life-process. You could replace the task of writing poetry with parenting, or tube-sock knitting, for example, and the beauty of his point still holds true. (“Parents fear wisdom. This is why great parents threaten to feel, beside the point….”)

By the way, James Longenbach was a professor of mine, many moons ago. He was a total badass. Still is. To wit: a recent poem in the New Yorker.

Professor Longenbach, back in the day. He was one of two professors to ever give me an A in a class.


3 comments on “Some smart ideas: Bishop and Longenbach

  1. Karen Carter
    December 10, 2009

    Thanks, Mike…looking forward to checking out The Resistance to Poetry. Just these two passages are pretty darn amazing. K.

  2. andreadupree
    December 10, 2009

    Not to bring down the conversation, but Longenbach’s kinda hot. 🙂 (He looks a little like you did, Mike, back in the day of hair and other unnecessary accessories…)

  3. Cara Lopez Lee
    December 10, 2009

    Thanks so much for posting this Mike. I’ve been feeling this way every time I sit down to work on my novel. But I’ve been resisting the feeling, thinking it was wrong somehow. What a relief to know that, as an artist, I should just dive into the sensation that I’ve become someone different from myself, and that the world really is unintelligible.. as is, occasionally, my writing. Hey, it’s a first draft. Maybe it will be intelligible later.

    hehe Andrea. My first thought at seeing Longenbach’s photo was the same: he IS kinda hot. I will refrain from commenting on Mike, as I’ve heard he is married.

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This entry was posted on December 9, 2009 by in The Write Idea.

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