Wednesday, November 3, 2010

New Poem of the Week that is three days late but still pretty good if you give it a chance!

Letter to N.Y. By Elizabeth Bishop

In your next letter I wish you'd say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays, and after the plays
what other pleasures you're pursuing:

taking cabs in the middle of the night,
driving as if to save your soul
where the road goes round and round the park
and the meter glares like a moral owl,

and the trees look so queer and green
standing alone in big black caves
and suddenly you're in a different place
where everything seems to happen in waves,

and most of the jokes you just can't catch,
like dirty words rubbed off a slate,
and the songs are loud but somehow dim
and it gets so terribly late,

and coming out of the brownstone house
to the gray sidewalk, the watered street,
one side of the buildings rises with the sun
like a glistening field of wheat.

-Wheat, not oats, dear. I'm afraid
if it's wheat it's none of your sowing,
nevertheless I'd like to know
what you are doing and where you are going.

Thanks everyone who commented on last week's post, all your first sentences were truly the most (notice the rhyme there?)

So to make up for being such a bad blogger, I picked one of my favorite poets for this week’s poem of the week. Although this poem isn’t really a typical example of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, what I consider to be her strongest qualities are definitely at work here.

What first catches my attention in Letter to N.Y. is the persona of the narrator, a mother writing to her daughter who is shockingly candid about what she means when she asks “where you are going and what you are doing.” She seems to have no misconceptions about what her daughter is really up to while away from home. “How are the plays,” she asks. “and after the plays what other pleasures are you pursuing.” Clearly the mother is not na├»vely asking for details of her daughter’s successes in the big city to share with the aunts and uncles at Thanksgiving.

As the letter goes on, the mother’s understanding of what life is like for an outsider in New York becomes even more penetrating. As she speculates about her daughter’s alienation, the language becomes characteristic of Bishop. With similes like the cab meter glaring like a moral owl in late night drives, and jokes as difficult to understand as dirty words rubbed off a slate, Bishop does more than convey these objects visually; she conveys them emotionally. We not only picture the glowing cab meter, we feel the sensation of watching the numbers on it spin with tired eyes returning home from a party.

The most stunningly effective image of the poem however is the morning sun on the buildings:

“and coming out of the brownstone house
to the gray sidewalk, the watered street,
one side of the buildings rises with the sun
like a glistening field of wheat.”

The poem shifts here from depicting a young woman seeking refuge from the dark, alien world of the city to describing the awe a person feels in a world of skyscrapers. The hurried tone of the descriptions of the alienation of nightlife in New York slows down and almost feels rural. Although the image of these buildings as a field of wheat is beautiful and majestic instead of intimidating like the cab meter or the trees in the park, it only further demonstrates the newcomer’s foreignness in the city. After all, like the mother says, “if it’s wheat it’s none of your sowing.”

1 comment:

  1. As I read this poem I could picture NYC in my mind just as I left it. I love it when I read something that causes my mind to paint a picture from memory.