Tag Archives: reading

Boom, Boom: Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘View of the Capitol’

Elizabeth Bishop is (maybe) most famous for her poems of place: she spent much of her life living in South America and wrote collections called Questions of Travel and Geography III (there was no ‘I’ or ‘II’). ‘View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress’ was written while working at the Library of Congress in Washington, in an office which looked across to the vast white wedding-cake ‘Capitol’ building which houses the US House of Congress — the capitalised ‘Dome’ of the poem.

View of the Capitol’ sounds like an austere painting, but the poem gently mocks the seriousness of its surroundings. It does what it says on the tin: it is what she sees – and her experience of seeing it. 

Moving from left to left, the light
is heavy on the Dome, and coarse.
One small lunette turns it aside
and blankly stares off to the side
like a big white old wall-eyed horse.

We start with this description of sunlight moving across the dome. It’s a light airy poem. Bishop apparently called it ‘trivial’. I like it as much as any of her serious ones. There may be trivial or non-trivial American allusions I don’t pick up here too. There are some similarities with Louis MacNeice’s ‘Snow’: the use of ordinary, unpoetic language, the touch of the surreal in the imagery. The lunette, for instance, which I think is a kind of window, is compared to a horse.

Running through the entire poem, until the final stanza, there is a regular, unbroken metre of four beats to a line. But Bishop deliberately undermines that metre from the beginning. ‘A big white old wall-eyed horse’ feels a beat too long. I don’t think it is: but the vowels are long. Also, there are four adjectives where you expect three. The gap ‘old’ creates between the two ‘wh’ sounds slow you down too. It is slightly ugly, in a good way. Later in the poem, a brass band appears.  

On the east steps the Air Force Band
in uniforms of Air Force blue
is playing hard and loud, but – queer –
the music doesn’t quite come through.

The Air Force band is dressed in Air Force blue. The repetition is a kind of faux naivety: you’re not supposed to repeat words. Here, it contributes to the ease with which the poem moves forward. It helps that the word ‘Air Force’ is light and breezy, too. Air doesn’t sound like anything, but the word ‘air’ hardly exists either. There are no hard consonants in ‘force’.

But the music ‘doesn’t quite come through’: it comes in snatches, caught in the ‘giant trees’ like ‘gold dust’. The next stanza paints a pathetic picture: the leaves wave ‘limp stripes’ of sound into the air. The metaphor itself is a bit limp. It stretches too far. What’s in strips, the sound? Or is it still something to do with the trees? I think the idea is that the sound takes on the shape of the gaps in the trees.

Yet, in the final stanza, this set up – the indeterminacy – resolves itself:

Great shades, edge over,
give the music room.
The gathered brasses want to go
boom — boom.

Bishop asks the trees to ‘edge over’. The ‘gathered brasses’ of the band (gathered like a herd of animals) want to ‘boom — boom’. If you’re not supposed to repeat words, you’re definitely not supposed to just print out the sounds. These rules may just be a product of my id — I don’t believe in them, but I’m sure someone does. Even the brasses seem a bit pathetic: they ‘want’ to make an impressive sound but the stilted rhythm undermines them. The ‘boom’, in short, is deliberately childish. Bishop brings the military band down to size: the climax is an anti-climax. 

If the brasses are brought down to size, the ‘great shades’ are promoted. Bishop asks them, politely, if they could ‘edge over’. But the act of asking, like the notion that the brasses could ‘want’ to boom, isn’t just playful: this is how it looks and sounds. We are sitting at the window with Bishop. We can imagine, from here, willing the trees to just edge over a bit, see the sound of the brasses trapped in the leaves, feel the distance – the way the different senses overlap.

The American poet and novelist Ben Lerner has a theory that all poems are failures because they attempt to represent the ‘perfect’ poem which we all have in our head and this isn’t possible. I don’t agree. The experience here is the playfulness of seeing and you can’t fail at that. If you could, you wouldn’t be playing.    

Pandemic Poetry

Poets areoften thought of as more solitary than most, but a poem is never solitary: it’s a signal sent up into the sky, trusting someone will receive it. A poem is a highly concentrated moment of communication. Or rather a highly concentrated moment of attempted communication.

Perhaps that’s one reason why they are everywhere right now. Simon Armitage has already written his first Coronavirus poem. You can follow the hashtag ‘covidpoetry’ on Instagram. I’ve been thinking of writing a more regular blog for a while, but I do not want it to be me ‘explaining poems’. As if I could. Instead, this would be a regular thing – weekly, if I could keep it up (UPDATE: I have not kept it up) – where I will pick a poem and talk about what I like about it.

I wanted to do this for two reasons. First, for myself, to work out what I think. I am a big believer that saying and knowing are part of the same process. You don’t know you know something until you say it. It is an extension of the truth that you learn something better when you teach it.

But I also wanted to do it because it is one way of helping other people to get more out of poems. It is a Bad Thing, for poets and readers, if the only people who read poems are people who enjoy them already. E. M. Forster said that the only way to make a case for any kind of culture was to demonstrate your own enjoyment of it. There is no point telling people they will like something. They must see you having a good time, especially if it’s something which takes work to get into.

There is always a chance a blog will reach someone who doesn’t think they like poems, or, more likely, someone who likes some poems, and understands they have particular effects in particular moments – like weddings, or funerals – but who isn’t really sure what they’re supposed to get from them and so has little incentive to explore them further. I would hazard a guess that the last category includes most people who read for pleasure. Which should worry poets, and people who like poetry, even more than it already does.

But my main reason for actually doing this is that I don’t feel like writing anything new myself. That attention span again. But I do feel hopeful when I think about the poems I like. This crisis is making many of us think about what it is we’re grateful for. Among the things I am grateful for are good poems and the poets who wrote them.

I’ll start later this week with a blog about a poem called ‘Into My Own’, which is the first poem in the first book by the first individual poet who got me excited about poems, Robert Frost. Conveniently, it is about being alone. In the meantime, here is the poem.