Lynn Keller

Lynn Keller: On "An Urban Convalescence"

["An Urban Convalescence"] is the first of Merrill’s lyrics to employ what was to become one of his most characteristic and effective patterns: A present experience recalls some past event(s) and the overlay of several temporal frames, like transparencies that build a single image, brings new insight as well as resolution of some internal conflict. …

… The primary model for his rendition of mental process seems to be Elizabeth Bishop, whose work he has so often praised, particularly for its refusal of oracular amplification. The informal talking to oneself and wondering aloud – "Was there a building at all?" "Wait. Yes" … – the questions, as well as the explanatory parentheses – "(my eyes are shut)" – are surely inspired by Bishop. The deliberate flattening and slackening, however, can be traced to Auden, from whom Bishop also learned: "I have lived on this same street for a decade," "It is not even as though the new / Buildings did very much for architecture." …

… [A]mong the developments signaled by "An Urban Convalescence" is the transformation it records in the speaker’s attitude. The poem portrays a conversion experience of sports; religious allusions – the crowd’s "meek attitudes," the old man like a vengeful God directing the crane’s demolition, the speaker’s posture of prayer with "head bowed, at the shrine of noise" – prepare for the speaker’s confrontation with his own failures, or, one might say, his sins. …

By the poem’s close, he no longer rationalizes his behavior with "that is what life does" and instead determines to care for whomever and whatever he encounters. Refusing to fantasize about a lost world of Jamesian elegance – "that honey-slow descent / Of the Champs- Elysees, her hand in his" – he focuses on another destination: "the dull need to make some kind of house / Out of the life lived, the love spent." Auden’s Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being, the work that (along with The Sea and the Mirror) so captivated Merrill in the forties, helped Merrill to identify that destination. Auden’s poem celebrates Mary and Joseph as people who might "Redeem for the dull the / Average way" and insists that moments of revelation have little to do with life’s real challenge: "In the meantime / There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair, / Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem / From insignificance."

Lynn Keller: On "An Octopus"

[Comparing Moore’s "An Octopus" and Elizabeth Bishop’s "Florida"]


Like journalists, the speakers of "Florida" and "An Octopus" do not reflect upon themselves or their relation to the landscape, but focus on providing information--not the comprehensive or "useful" knowledge one might acquire from an encyclopedia, but those remarkable facts likely to awaken in readers a sense of wonder. In both poems the narrator is present as a lively but impersonal reporting voice.


Nonetheless, the poems' opening lines also hint of significant differences between the two artists' sensibilities. In "Florida" Bishop immediately draws attention to the aesthetic character of her subject and suggests a personal attachment; it is "the state with the prettiest name." Moore's fascination with the glacier that is her subject in "An Octopus" derives from a more intellectual interest in its physical characteristics; in her opening lines she notes the remarkable thickness of the ice fields and the anomalous flexibility of that ice. As is her common practice, Moore emphasizes the prosaic character of her subject by employing scientific jargon and quoting from unlyrical "business documents and / / schoolbooks"--in this case, the "Department of Interior Rules and Regulations" and "The National Parks Portfolio." In "Florida" Bishop follows Moore's example of including facts or statistics, informing us that enormous turtles leave "large white skulls with round eye-sockets / twice the size of a man's" and that the alligator "has five distinct calls: / friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning." She thereby achieves a Moore-like impression of reportorial accuracy and specificity, but both the facts and the manner in which she presents them are more conventionally poetic and more emotionally suggestive than Moore's. Humans are ominously dwarfed in Bishop's fierce and death-littered landscape.


In order to impress upon us that they are reliable witnesses and guides, Bishop and Moore in their descriptive passages insist on careful discriminations. For example, the opening lines of "Florida" record the distinction between the appearance of mangrove roots when living and their appearance when dead:


The state with the prettiest name,

the state that floats in brackish water,

held together by mangrove roots

that bear while living oysters in clusters,

and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons,

dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks

like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass.


The technical result of such fastidiousness, in this passage as in much of Moore's work, is that descriptive phrases tend to accumulate at length until the thread of the syntax almost breaks under the stress of great extension. Like Moore's images, Bishop's surprising simile comparing hummocks and cannon-balls jars the reader while delighting with its visual exactitude. Moore, however, would be unlikely to use as vehicle a fantastic metaphor-within-a-metaphor such as cannonballs sprouting grass, and she probably would not describe a state as floating in brackish water unless it were literally afloat. Bishop is less committed to the "relentless accuracy" of "fact," more interested in the dreamier truths of the imagination.


As is typical of Moore's poems (and of the feature article), the point of view in "Florida" could not realistically represent the experience of any single observer. Instead, it shifts freely between sweeping overviews and minute close-ups, noting intriguing pieces of information or describing picturesque sights. The time evoked is a generalized, seemingly eternal present (whether day or night), since the poem, like so many of Moore's, presents features and events that are characteristic and recurrent. Like "An Octopus," Bishop's poem follows an apparently random course, moving from descriptions of birds, to turtles, to trees and rain, to coastal shells, to swamp life. The poem shares the easy inclusiveness of Moore's work; there is room for information about weather, geology, plants, animals, and traditional lore. As in "An Octopus," no obvious transitions are provided; the poem's unity derives from the large subject within which all these phenomena exist.


In both poems general facts are scattered among particular poised moments or vignettes, and detailed descriptions of single objects are interspersed with more comprehensive lists. In these catalogues both Moore and Bishop demonstrate simultaneously the naturalist's delight in factual accuracy and the poet's pleasure in remarkable names. For example, Bishop lists "fading shells";


Job's Tear, the Chinese Alphabet, the scarce Junonia,

parti-colored pectins and Ladies' Ears,

arranged as on a gray rag of rotted calico,

the buried Indian Princess's skirt;


and Moore describes little spotted horses as


hard to discern among the birch-trees, ferns, and lily-pads,

avalanche lilies, Indian paint-brushes,

bear's ears and kittentails,

and miniature cavalcades of chlorophylless fungi

magnified in profile on the moss-beds like moonstones in the water;

the cavalcade of calico competing

with the original American menagerie of styles.


Both catalogues emphasize the poetic and metaphorical character of America's botanical names, but again, Bishop's more aestheticizing sensibility is evident in her avoidance of markedly technical terminology and her selection of more precious names.


While their shared methods of acute observation and painstaking reporting impress upon the reader their reliability as neutral witnesses, both Bishop and Moore in fact slide easily from detached observations into more subjective and fanciful interpretations. For example, Moore first presents an antelope by noting objectively its "black feet, eyes, nose, and horns" but then moves into more figurative description--"engraved on dazzling ice-fields, / the ermine body on the crystal peak; / the sun kindling its shoulders to maximum heat like acetylene, dyeing them white -- / upon this antique pedestal." Similarly, Bishop notes first the "S-shaped birds, blue and white" but then more imaginatively describes "unseen hysterical birds who rush up the scale / every time in a tantrum." Sometimes Bishop's imposition of her subjectivity is less subtle than Moore's, as when she attributes embarrassment and a desire for "fun" to her tanager and pelican. (I shall return to this distinction later.)


In the works of both poets, subjective interpretations and imaginative additions, whether obvious or not, are essential to poetic meaning; both women present nonhuman nature in ways inviting comparison with human situations and behavior. Thus, Bishop's cannon-ball simile assumes new significance when one reaches the conclusion of "Florida." There, after having presented the most ornamental characteristics of Florida seen by daylight, Bishop uncovers the corruption, the primeval energy of Florida "after dark." The simile provides a preparatory suggestion of violence in nature that is absent from Bishop's descriptions of clowning pelicans, mild turtles, and decorative shells. Moreover, as a reminder of human ferocity, the cannon-balls link the violence in the landscape to that in human nature. Similarly, the terms by which Moore conveys her approbation of the energy and intricate variety of all that the "deceptively reserved and flat" glacier encompasses prepare for the concluding section of "An Octopus." There the glacier becomes an implicit model for the kind of poetry Moore admires--"unegoistic" work characterized by "restraint," "a love of doing hard things," and an apparently limitless "capacity for fact." While the older poet's moral is more explicit, both poets employ the descriptive mode to move toward ethical evaluations that carry implications beyond their immediate subjects.


From Re-making it New: Contemporary American Poetry and the Modernist Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by Cambridge University Press.

Lynn Keller: On "The Descent of Winter"

[Keller is comparing Williams’ The Descent of Winter with Robert Creeley’s Pieces (1968)]

This series of lyrics [The Descent of Winter] written during the fall of 1927 uses dates rather than titles and, like Pieces, records a scattering of the poet's immediate impressions--descriptions of autumn weeds or the passing of a freight train, casual thoughts about his likes and dislikes, bits of others' speech. Yet Williams describes common sights and ordinary people with such detailed care that the very particularity of his attention implies the significance of these humble subjects. Williams' imagery as well as his use of simile and metaphor give grand resonance to "trivia." A canna becomes the "darkly crimson heart / of this poor yard"; the town idiot is a figure of all aging men; a label above the poet's berth and the two nails fastening it are "like stars / beside / the moon"; and a sunlit beech tree glows "with a soft stript light / of love / over the brittle / grass." Mundane sights call to Williams' mind the most sweeping human problems: A pile of rubbish burning in a field of dead weeds prompts him to comment upon the suffering of the aged; a poor organ grinder forcing his tunes on passersby brings to mind "the meanness of love." Williams often suggests psychological, sociological, and historical patterns within which bits of local color can be understood; even the tiniest actions and objects have a place in cosmic patterns of descent and ascent, destruction and rebirth. Beneath the unassuming and fragmented surfaces of these poems lies a moralistic exhortation to the reader to search out underlying coherence: Williams is more than half serious that "someone should summarize these things / in the interest of local government."

For Creeley the "trivial" takes on importance in a far more inward, and more abstractly philosophical way. He less frequently transforms its scale or generalizes its meaning, since his intention is not, like Williams', to proclaim the dignity of the poor and commonplace or to correct conventional misconceptions about the unimportance of what is small and familiar. Creeley's descriptions, like Ashbery's, do not give sharper definition to what appears blurred or drab in ordinary living. Instead, he immerses himself in domestic and linguistic banality--"our businesses of the / evening, eating supper, talking, / watching television, then / going to bed, making love" --because this is the stuff of his life in which he can locate his own here and now. The whole volume addresses--and attempts to redress--the problem that "'Here' as a habit is what we are lacking here." "Grease / on the hands - " is a complete poetic unit simply because in the moment of writing it, Creeley is present experiencing his own body; that is its significance. While Williams, securely located in the present, demonstrates for his readers acts of attention or social perspectives within which "trivia" can be recognized as untrivial, Creeley pushes anxiously moment by moment and syllable by syllable to make contact with his "now," the material and linguistic contents of which happen most often to be "trivial."

Individual poems in The Descent of Winter are often unified by a propositional declaration that appears in either the opening or closing lines--e.g., "The justice of poverty / its shame its dirt / are one with the meanness / of love"; "What an image in the face of Almighty God is she"; "That river will be clean / before ever you will be." The presence of such summary statements reveals a "will to closure" that Creeley regards as "the whole pattern of intention in the Moderns"--"the ability to see beyond the world as given to some not idealization . . . but [a] very hopeful sense of resolution and [a will to] bring it to a coherence." According to Creeley, the world now "has become immensely larger or immensely more diverse and immensely more present" so that contemporary artists honestly engaged with "the real" have had to abandon aspirations for coherence.

From Re-making It New: Contemporary American Poetry and the Modernist Tradition. Copyright © 1987 by Cambridge University Press

Lynn Keller: Bishop/Moore Correspondence on "The Fish"

… Bishop seems to have recognized that she, like Moore, was far more observant than most people. Once she even assumes a tone of smug complicity, implying "you and I see what others carelessly overlook," when commenting on the obtuseness of those who label museum exhibits: "Some of their inscriptions baffle me – a perfectly sensible crystal fish, for example, something like a perch, labelled ‘Porpoise.’ And a young man on a Greek vase who is obviously cutting the ends of his hair with his sword, called ‘Boy Washing Hair (?)’" (letter of 25 January 1935). Bishop seems also to have been always conscious that the women she was writing to was not only "the World’s Greatest Living Observer" (a title Bishop used in her contribution to the Marianne Moore issue of A Quarterly Review of Literature, 1948) but one of its greatest describers as well – and therefore the most qualified judge of Bishop’s own descriptive achievements. …

… As early as 1935 Bishop demonstrates the knack for narrative, the interest in colorful human characters, and the playful humor that are distinctly hers. … The following vignette … contains surprising images and an understated, half-serious moral that bring to mind Moore’s writing, but the casual, anecdotal manner could only be Bishop’s:

I must tell you about the beautiful tree down the street – covered with fine yellow blossoms and the most delicate, wire-like, of green leaves – it scarcely looks like a tree at all, but some sort of transcendental lighting fixture. An old Negro with white hair was sitting underneath it reading the ‘Congregational Record’ and I asked him the name – Jerusalem Thorn. I said isn’t it beautiful, and he answered me very severely, ‘It’s worth-while looking at.’" (letter of 5 March 1938)

Yet despite the obvious differences between their descriptive styles (and the temperaments determining them), Moore’s writing clearly provides Bishop’s standard for successful description, the standard against which she measures her own achievement.


The care Bishop apparently took composing her early letters and the descriptions they contain reflects, then, not only her desire to share with Moore intriguing or delightful experiences, but also her awareness that this correspondence provided a unique opportunity for monitored practice in writing skills. After all, Moore was the ideal audience: well disposed and genuinely interested, possessing rigorous literary standards and reliable judgment; her praise, when earned, was significant. Without in any way diminishing the genuine affection binding these two women and the mutual rewards of their correspondence, it seems fair to regard Bishop’s letters of the ’30s as a format for literary exercise and experiment, as vehicles for locating her own voice and manner, for testing her audience’s response in preparation for more public forays. The activity of composing them seems to have been part of Bishop’s self-imposed training.

From Lynn Keller, "Words Worth a Thousand Postcards: The Bishop / Moore Correspondence," American Literature 55.3 (October 1983), 411, 413-414. 

Lynn Keller: On "The Armadillo"

… Humans lack control over even human inventions; a single lightning bolt obliterates the electrical power, lights and telephone upon which we depend. Similarly, in "The Armadillo." Winds suddenly transform lovely man-made lanterns into deadly apocalyptic flames. People’s homes are vulnerable as owls’ nests, humans as helpless as fleeing armadillos; our very hearts, like fire-balloons, beat, expire, or explode at nature’s whim. (That nature’ s power is murderous is similarly suggested in "Electrical Storm" by the appearance three times of the word "dead.") The armor that [Marianne] Moore so often admires seems in Bishop’s poem anachronistic; it effectively protects neither armadillos nor humans, who can only cry out and stand with "a weak mailed fist / clenched ignorant against the sky."

From Lynn Keller, "‘Reality, dissolved … in that watery, dazzling dialectic’: Bishop’s Divergence from Moore’s Modernism," Chapter 4 in Re-making It New: Contemporary American Poetry and the Modernist Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 111 

Lynn Keller: On "At the Fishhouses"

"At the Fishhouses" begins, as a poem by Moore might, with a description of a scene that seems eternally suspended. The verbs in the opening section are stative -- "the five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs," "all is silver," "the big fish tubs are completely lined," "on the slope . . . is an ancient wooden capstan," etc. Yet what Bishop chooses

to describe differs from what Moore would present. When Moore tells us, for instance, that "eight green bands are painted on the [plumet basilisk's] tail -- as piano keys are barred by five black stripes across the white," we know that both lizards and pianos have always looked like that and will continue to do so in the future. But Bishop's description insists that the scene she observes is the product of continual changes caused by both people and nature: The man's shuttle is "worn and polished," the ironwork on the capstan "has rusted," the buildings have "an emerald moss growing on their shoreward walls." Such details make us aware that a future visitor would find a different scene in which these processes of erosion, decay, and growth were further advanced.

The fixity of the scene at the fishhouses is further undercut as the speaker becomes an active participant, offering the old man a Lucky Strike and engaging him in conversation. Reminders of historical process now become more overt; "he was a friend of my grandfather" implies her grandfather's death, and "the decline of the population" tells of broader changes. Moreover, Bishop's enchantment with this place emerges as a fascination not so much with the visible world people inhabit as with the unknowable sea it borders. She is attracted to this silvered village because it bears so much evidence of the sea's touch, while her real desire -- like that of her "Riverman" or of Lucy in "The Baptism" is for "total immersion," though she admits that would be "bearable to no mortal." Drawing a message from the scene very different from any Moore would offer, Bishop presents the sea as a symbol of "what we imagine knowledge to be: . . . drawn from the cold hard mouth / of the world, derived from the rocky breasts / forever, flowing and drawn, and since / our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown." In suggesting that our knowing anything is itself imaginary, in adhering to a vision of unending process, in believing revelations in this harsh world fleeting and costly, Bishop stands firmly in the mainstream of contemporary art.


From Re-making it new: Contemporary American poetry and the modernist tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by Cambridge University Press.

The Wolf Interview: C.D. Wright

Lynn Keller: You were chosen to be a MacArthur Fellow in 2004. In receiving that marvellously generous ‘genius award’ that comes to its recipients out of the blue, you acquired a singular honour, perhaps some burdensome expectations, and a wonderful opportunity. What has that award meant to you, and what has it enabled?