Thoughts On Humans #32 : Perfecting a Legacy

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

I was looking through my old journals from college the other day.  These are the journals where I first nurtured my poetry, where I first gave myself permission to express the things as they came out of my head.  I was particularly struck with how immature I was.  At times I just hated the guy who was writing those words, and at times I felt nostalgic for those days when my whole life stretched out in front of me, pure and not yet stained with the tragedies that define a person.  The journal that I’ve held closest in my mind was the one I started in 1998, and which contains the first drafts and notes for poems I would later polish and share with classes or publish on my website.  I always saw myself as one of those authors who self-published a large number of poems, similar to my friend Jeff Martin, and I had hopes that I would be “discovered” one day.  It isn’t just about how inconsistently I’ve kept up with my writing, but how time erodes my own thoughts on what I’ve written.  I wonder if other writers go through that, if early works make them roll their eyes.

Elizabeth Bishop is interesting.  She only published a small number of her poems in her lifetime.  She needed them first to be just right.  I can imagine her having trouble falling in love with her own work, releasing the pieces only when they seemed like they needed to be free, still not perfect.  To only focus on a small number of poems, highly polished verses, still doesn’t make sense to me.  I fall for my own work quickly.  I often rewrite only half a dozen times or so, sometimes replacing a word years after I’ve completed a poem.  But even when I hate the things I’ve written, they are still a reflection of a moment in my life and they are entirely what they are supposed to be.  I couldn’t justify changing them or hiding them away.

I don’t know how I will be remembered, or even if I will be remembered.  I’ve stopped worrying about that, which I assume is part of maturing.  I would love to think that something I write will touch the lives of people 200 years from now, that they will be analyzed and dissected.  I want to be misinterpreted and have my words given more import than I had meant them to have, but I cannot spend so much time finessing and perfecting.

I love that Elizabeth Bishop is remembered as so important.  Check out a few of her poems here.

Filling Station

Oh, but it is dirty!

—this little filling station,

oil-soaked, oil-permeated

to a disturbing, over-all

black translucency.

Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,

oil-soaked monkey suit

that cuts him under the arms,

and several quick and saucy

and greasy sons assist him

(it’s a family filling station),

all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?

It has a cement porch

behind the pumps, and on it

a set of crushed and grease-

impregnated wickerwork;

on the wicker sofa

a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide

the only note of color—

of certain color. They lie

upon a big dim doily

draping a taboret

(part of the set), beside

a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?

Why the taboret?

Why, oh why, the doily?

(Embroidered in daisy stitch

with marguerites, I think,

and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.

Somebody waters the plant,

or oils it, maybe. Somebody

arranges the rows of cans

so that they softly say:

esso—so—so—so

to high-strung automobiles.

Somebody loves us all.