Poets Remembering Poets

Andrew Sullivan —  Nov 25 2012 @ 9:21am

Casey N. Cep, spurred by the recent death of Jack Gilbert, considers the way poets eulogize one another. Cep turns to Elizabeth Bishop's remembrance of Robert Lowell as a classic of the form:

Take Elizabeth Bishop’s “North Haven,” written for Robert Lowell one year after his fatal heart attack. Although she is looking at one of Lowell’s most beloved seascapes in Maine, she resists the pathetic fallacy. Bishop does not believe that nature is shedding tears simply because she is. “The islands haven’t shifted since last summer,” she writes, and then acknowledges, “even if I like to pretend they have.”

She also recognizes that the constancy of nature is illusory: “the goldfinches are back, or others like them.” Not even nature resists change, although it does repeat itself year after year, bringing new finches and growing different flowers even though the seasons themselves seem unchanging. “Nature repeats herself,” Bishop concedes, “or almost does: / repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.”

The qualification is most chilling: “almost” is the way in which the dead are “almost” but not quite alive. That concession forces Bishop to acknowledge what she has denied until the poem’s final stanza: “You left North Haven, anchored in its rock, / afloat in mystic blue … And now—you’ve left / for good.”