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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Twenty poets celebrate the 100th birthday of Elizabeth Bishop in New York City

Last night poetry lovers filled the 900-seat Great Hall at Cooper Union to hear twenty poets celebrate the 100th birthday of Elizabeth Bishop by each reading one of her poems. As organizer Alice Quinn noted in her interview with the Best American Poetry blog before the event, the readers reflected the far-ranging influence Bishop has had on several generations of poets:
There will be poets in their 30s like Gabriele Calvocoressi and Tracy K. Smith and mid-career poets like Elizabeth Alexander, Kimiko Hahn, and Vijay Seshadri and magisterial figures like John Ashbery, Richard Howard, Mark Strand, Jean Valentine, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Marie Ponsot. So many of these poets down the years have been and are teachers, and Bishop's reputation has grown in classrooms all over the world.
The event was presented by the Poetry Society of America and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, with the Academy of American Poets, the National Book Foundation, Poets House, and the Unterberg Poetry Center, 92nd Street Y. Joelle Biele, Frank Bidart, Tina Chang, James Fenton, Jonathan Galassi, David Lehman, Robert Polito, Katha Pollitt, and Tom Sleigh rounded out the stellar roster. (John Ashbery was not able to participate as planned.)

In an inventive bit of programming three additional readers took turns between poems giving voices to the correspondents responsible for the contents of the new collection, Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence, edited by Joelle Biele. Paul Muldoon read letters from William Maxwell and Howard Moss, Alice Quinn read those from Katharine S. White, and Maria Tucci read as Elizabeth Bishop.

The letters frequently related to the poem about to be read. For instance, Muldoon cited this letter of May 13, 1948, from William Maxwell about “The Bight”:
Our style expert says we can’t grant two of your requests on the proof of The Bight. The italic subtitle is against the style of the magazine, and the lower case “g” in the fourth line from the end is, he says, against English and would look monstrous. I don’t know what “against English” can possibly mean, and personally, I like things that look monstrous. But these two details would, it seems, rock the foundations of the magazine, and I hope you won’t mind our leaving them the way they are.
    Cordially yours,
        William Maxwell
When Bishop included the poem in A Cold Spring she kept the upper case “G” in the line “Click. Click. Goes the dredge.” But she restored the italics for the subtitle, which fittingly for last night’s reading was “On My Birthday.”

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters; William Maxwell: Later Novels and Stories

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