Musing on The Shampoo, by Elizabeth Bishop
The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.
And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you've been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.
The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
--Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.
I'm wondering what it is about this poem that makes it something worth preserving, something men will not willingly let die? Why this poem, and not the myriad of poems that pass through the workshop or others like ours? What makes this one special?
I actually think the opening might have something similar to the primacy effect or a "strong first impression" -- that image, containing both a mighty oxymoron ("still explosion") and derangement of the senses (explosions not often being gray, but bright affairs). It also provides a concrete quality to a metaphysical idea; I mean a "shock" -- a feeling or invisible force, generally -- is transformed to "concentric" and made visible. This is rather novel, inventive.
Someone more clever can say how the frequent "cks" sounds mimic the sounds of being shocked. "This is what being shocked feels like -- consonance!" Or mimics rolling thunder, a series of explosions -- that's cool.
There is the music that follows: "arranged to meet the rings around..."
Now, "rings around the moon" is where I believe most readers would get held up. There are no rings around the moon. She refers, I believe, to futurity, giving her permission to insert a surreal image (the rings that someday will be there -- distant future, when we're long gone).
--Side note: I believe in these sorts of instances, where a "great work" violates ideas of "good poetry," the word "Genius" is a sort of password, or form of amnesty. I really do. It helps brush aside or get past any cognitive dissonance. It also puts the genius work on a higher plane untouchable by critical thought, like G-d or mom; a form of worship. Thou art above me. This might be true, great art might be above us somehow; beyond our grasp.--
Now the final line of S1 gets to the theme of a short human lifespan relative to the geographic timeline or lifespans of other things i.e. space, lichen.
I really think S2 would have a hard time in our workshop. The opening kind of links the long, long game of space with that of lichen, doing their dance around us as we observe.
Following that, Bishop makes it personal -- space and the lichens are interacting as she does with you, the dear friend. This is sweet, this is sad; these are feelings even philistines know. Common humanity.
Where I get funny feelings is the final half of S2. On the one hand, I think the abundant use of polysyllabic abstractions would cause most readers to cry foul. I also think them not pleasing to the ear. The penultimate rhyme is not great. "I can't see time being amenable. I can't relate." I would've said early on, "Show, don't tell." It's not a "felt experience," but maybe it's her truth?
I'm not sure how to square the second half of S2 with common criteria for judgment?
S3 shows a non-commitment to line length, but consistency of rhyme scheme.
I see some interesting, memorable imagery at play. On the one hand, it seems the shooting stars are actual jets of blackness; I mean, she is aging and the color is fading in shooting stars.
So when you consider what the shooting stars represent - not some starry-eyed lover's view of the object of her affection -- but aging, you see many novel presentations. Aging is a relatively slow process, going gray is not something precipitate like a falling star. Falling stars are bright, not jet black. "Flocking" suggests bright white again, sheep, not jet black. She's playing with color but violating the rules of reality. This person is aging in a miraculous fashion.
Picasso says something about art being the lies which show us the truth -- well these blatant lies are bringing to mind the natural laws she's violating. The natural laws a child is aware of. Shooting stars are bright and fast, not black or slow. What part of this is pleasure?
With regard to "delight and instruct," I do think it instructs (in the strictest sense), because nature, by its nature, does not show us contradictions to its rules. And maybe as light shines on the rules, de-light shines on non-rules?
I can imagine a workshop criticism of this being -- "Well, since shooting stars are bright white and we are talking about the slow fading of color from hair, you might want to choose a black object as a metaphor. And a slow moving object as a metaphor." (I'd suggest erosion; something glacial.) To be more what exactly? Expected, I guess. That would be fair to say to Elizabeth here. Accurate or apt.
Elizabeth might want a better rhyme than formation / basin?
I think the "big tin basin" might be a poem, where things are brought outside of time, made memorable and immortal. I think "the shampoo" might be the poet's tool-work (imagination or techne) of handling the material they wish to preserve. "Battered and shiny" might be the poet's heart, which revolves around the things it loves; or the heart of poetry, which assumes the transient things men wish not to willingly let die, albeit in a slightly modified state?
I think what makes this poem special is not any message, or universal and relatable narrative; I don't think she put something in that was often thought but never so well expressed (the whole poem, no entire poem, is ever that!); I can't see where, in every part, the sound was an echo of the sense.
But I can see in stanza 1 and stanza 3 where she invented some strange, impossible but plausible images that are hard to forget; I think the power of the effect is stronger in S1 than S3. I think those in particular are what give the poem its special-ness, its one-off-ness, its uniqueness, (sui generis-ness; voyage of discovery-ness) relative to anything we post here or that got published by last year's flash in the pan.
Some sentiment is in place in S2, but S2 is relatively weak and would not survive in its current form in our workshop. Unless her number of posts were very high or she has been a member since The Backstreet Boys were popular. (I'm kidding. But human nature, with its hierarchies and networks, are facts of life.)
I actually think it'd be fair to say S2 "took me out of the poem." Anyone else feel this way?
But when it comes to finding what separates this poem from what we do, I can only find these unexpected contrasts the memory has a hard time dislodging -- like "How can one person be three?!" -- the still explosions to open the poem, the rings around the moon; the slow process of aging and black fading to gray presented as a "shooting star."
Their unexpectedness comes from being impossible; the only impossibility allowed by most criticism is perfection.
Those seem like good and pertinent reflections. I guess my overall impression is that Bishop has marshaled her language and brought it to bear on us. There is a tone of command in great poetry that I find Bishop has effectively captured here, a compulsion of our allegiance. It takes us past the weirdnesses you rightly underline, making them inevitable, expanding our definition of what the mind sees - the rings around the moon, for instance.
You also make good points about S 2. But I do like pragmatical, instead of pragmatic, for its whiff of archaism, its faint mothballed odor. That leads us neatly into the rhyme on amenable, and gives the rhyme word weight it might otherwise lack. Bishop has the OED in hand, and mimics something of its tonal variety.
Thanks for the read.
When certain things get under the skin--as this poem has apparently gotten under yours--the energy of the subsequent scratching can spread it to others. I might never have been aware of this poem at all if you hadn't mentioned it, Jake.
(I've just given some less-than-stellar translations of Apollinaire's "Le Pont Mirabeau" a bit of a boost toward immortality, and every "Is this a poem?" or "What do people think of this poem/poet? I can't stand it/them" thread at Eratosphere does the same thing.)
It may offend our sense of justice that stuff and people we don't admire enjoy attention that we don't feel they deserve, while those we deem worthy of undying fame seem to languish in obscurity. But life's not fair.
Your side note mentions a Genius May Not Be Challenged attitude that I really don't see much around Eratosphere lately. (And in the past, when it was more frequent, it tended to be on a much pettier scale, by people who regarded themselves as geniuses, and who would respond to workshop criticism by waving their credentials around and dropping the names of bigshots who admired their work. Those strategies didn't tend to impress anyone, though.)
I did actually see you taking a deferential position toward Genius in another thread recently, and I thought at the time, "Really? What does someone's batting average have to do with whether a particular at-bat is a home run or a strike?" But it didn't register strongly enough for me to say anything.
I will now, if it helps you to get over any feeling that we must treat respected poets as if everything they wrote was perfect. To continue the baseball analogy, the best career batting average in history (Ty Cobb) was only .366, which means that he struck out more than half of the time. It is not disrespectful, and does not diminish his achievements, to say so.
In the poetry world, the more famous and revered a poet is, the more likely their strikeouts are to find a publisher, so that the magazine can forever brag about having published work by him or her. (The greater the poet, the more mediocre the poem itself can be before an editor turns down the opportunity for those bragging rights.)
Anyway, I'm glad you drew my attention to this Bishop poem, which I enjoyed very much. I like the notion of the concentric rings of the spreading gray lichen as a quiet ("still") explosion.
The reference to rings around the moon is not to rings like Saturn's, but to the different concentric shades of intensity in a lunar halo. It's a common phenomenon on cold nights, even in relatively temperate San Diego. I see it a lot, on winter nights. Now that you know about it, look for it. Sometimes I see the colors of the rainbow in the rings, and sometimes just one or two bands of brightness.
I imagine the shooting stars in the poem as individual white hairs making bright streaks against the beloved's mostly-black hair, like meteors in a dark sky. They seem to do so "in formation" because the hair is straight, so all of these thin, bright streaks are aligned in the same direction.
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