Encounters with Elizabeth Bishop

Acclaimed poet, Elizabeth Bishop, class of 1934

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This year, poets and those who love us around the world are celebrating the centenary of the birth of Elizabeth Bishop, who has become one of the most renowned American modern poets.

Like many, I’m sure the first Bishop poem I read was One Art, her devastatingly simple villanelle, the kind of poem people can usually engage with even if they are the kind of people who don’t “get” poetry. Something about that eloquent loss just slips under your skin before you know it, I think, and is impossible to shake.

But there’s another Bishop poem I’ll always remember too: Brazil, January 1, 1502. I first encountered this poem in that most horrifying of contexts: a job interview. I was trying to make the leap from adjuncting, teaching classes on fine arts and popular culture, to full-time teaching English, and I had scored an interview at a nearby progressive K-12 school. I was incredibly nervous already: I had never taught an actual “English” class before, nor had I taught high school students before, and neither of my degrees is in English, so what did I think I was doing, and what were they thinking?

Part of the day-long interview was that I would lead a discussion in a senior elective on poetry. The class text was A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry, which I didn’t own, so the class’s teacher brought me a copy and asked if I thought I’d be comfortable leading the discussion on Bishop’s poem, which the students would be reading for the first time. “Sure,” I bluffed, having never read the poem myself, and I hunkered down for hours, trying to figure out this poem and how I was going to navigate with these students, students I have never met, in a brief slice of time that might determine the rest of my career.

It’s a brilliant and beautiful jungly poem, rich and dense and vital, and while I sat in that classroom, with several adults watching and a small ring of students ready to engage, I was afraid, but I was also enthralled. I trusted the beauty of the poem and my own enchantment with it to carry me forward, and it did; I aced that portion of the interview. I know it because later, they told me, but I also just knew it, the way you do when you’ve made that connection with a new friend or a first date; I had fallen for that poem, but more importantly, I had succeeded in making the students see why I had succumbed.

I have felt that sensation many times since, but that was one of the first moments in this new adventure when I felt confident that I was going to make it, that I was trusting the right instincts and carving out the right new path.

If you want to read a truly evocative and personal piece on another encounter with Elizabeth Bishop, you couldn’t do better than clicking on that link, I promise.  I can only hope that I am lucky enough to be the teacher who assigns a student the piece of literature that resonates so deeply at the right moment, with the right person. The comments on that post are full of gems too.

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4 Comments

Filed under Poetry

4 responses to “Encounters with Elizabeth Bishop

  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Jackie!

    I’m so impressed that you could *teach* that poem (which is intense on so many levels) so quickly after reading it the first time. Your students are lucky to have you.

  2. Thanks for the shout-out, Jackie!

    I’m so impressed that you were able to teach that poem (intense on so many different levels) so quickly after your first reading of it. What an amazing skill to possess — your students are lucky to have you!

  3. A lovely post (both yours and Phantom Scribbler’s), and I’m also delighted to know that PS is blogging again. I love teaching Bishop; there are always students who respond passionately to her. My life would probably be better if I read “The Fish” every single day!

  4. @ Phantom: it was really one of those times when everything came together just right, but thank you for those kind words. It is indeed an intense and lovely poem.

    @WN: Oh, “until everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” I think you’re right about reading it every day– I wish I had that poem on a poster or something, so I could look at it every day in my classroom. I also used this website with some of my juniors who were going to take the AP: http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/virtualit/poetry/fish_elements.html to give them practice.

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