I am the person who will destroy China. (madman101) wrote,
I am the person who will destroy China.

Flowers For Algebra

Elizabeth Bishop was a 20th Century poet who lived in Massachusetts, Nova Scotia, New York, France and Brazil. She wrote objective yet slightly oblique poetry. I am thinking that her style might have influenced The Shins, (see earlier post). She began life as an ill child, shuttled to live with strangers, since her father had died and her mother became mentally ill. However, she inherited an amount of money that left a her free to dawdle, and so to write and travel. An interesting life. She did not like writing about personal details.  From Wiki:

Bishop did not see herself as a "lesbian poet" or as a "female poet". Because she refused to have her work published in all-female poetry anthologies, other female poets involved with the women's movement thought she was hostile towards the movement. For instance, a student at Harvard who was close to Bishop in the 60s, Kathleen Spivack, wrote in her memoir, "I think Bishop internalized the misogyny of the time. How could she not? ... Bishop had a very ambivalent relation to being a woman plus poet—plus lesbian—in the Boston/Cambridge/Harvard nexus ... Extremely vulnerable, sensitive, she hid much of her private life. She wanted nothing to do with anything that seemed to involve the women's movement. She internalized many of the male attitudes of the day toward women, who were supposed to be attractive, appealing to men, and not ask for equal pay or a job with benefits."[28] However, this was not how Bishop necessarily viewed herself. In an interview with The Paris Review from 1978, she said that, despite her insistence on being excluded from female poetry anthologies, she still considered herself to be "a strong feminist" but that she only wanted to be judged based on the quality of her writing and not on her gender or sexual orientation.[4][29]

A recurring theme in her life was her difficulty with algebra.  Here are a few excerpts from a little biography...

The Bishop who emerges from these letters is often bored, unhappy, frustrated with family, with school, with her life. She was a mediocre student who didn’t see the point of education, though she could be furiously funny about it. That fall, she attended Saugus High School for ninth grade.

School has commenced and is just terrible! I do hate it so. The teacher raves at me and says I don’t pay attention. … I am fairely well acquainted with several of the girls in school now. They are awful as far as I know for they argue. I can stand a lot but argueing never.

With an admirable disdain for school rules, Bishop was already in trouble her first semester:

The Latin teacher sees me through and through, I fear. She sent me to the office but I lied so convincingly to the principal … that I’m not expelled—for a while anyway. I have a good mind but I will not use it—I am lazy and indifferent—I look out the window and dream—etc.

Despite her remark about possessing a good mind, Bishop usually had a low opinion of her intelligence (“I may be very sweet but I certainly am not very brainy”), no doubt made worse because at Saugus she faced, not for the last time, her nemesis, algebra: “Here I am, just a poor freshman and famous for nothing but a terrible dumbness in Algebra. Louise, I got C in deportment, for ‘inattention’!” At fourteen, she wrote plaintively, and a touch poetically, “This is a lovely, beautiful world in spite of school and algebra.” She even composed a poem titled “To Algebra,” on a page ripped from her camp notebook (“And still sometimes I think I see above the board / Where your names are placed in chalky, disordered rows, / The face of all order and all law”). She noted, “This was written when I received the remarkable mark of 37 in an algebra test!”

Things were little better when she transferred the next fall to North Shore Country Day School in Swampscott, about half-a-dozen miles from her home in Revere. Uncle Jack had attempted to enroll her at Walnut Hill, a boarding school in Natick, midway between Revere and Worcester, but her doctor refused to give her the necessary vaccination until she was in better health. She was forced to repeat the ninth grade.

You realize what a weak little thing I am! I’m now going to a private school down on the North Shore. It is a perfect Hades with modern improvements. However, I guess I can struggle along until camp time next year—its my one refuge and even its not so wonderful minus you.

Bishop might have been held back because of her grades, but some private schools, feeling that public school did not adequately prepare students for a more advanced curriculum, asked new students to repeat a grade. Algebra was again her enemy— and not just algebra: “Today I even forgot how to multiply and my mind hurts— really—when I try to figure it all out.” The next day, she wrote again: “So far my marks are—Latin 40—Algebra 20—French 75—English grammar 60—!!! However I head the class in English comp.”

If algebra was a horror, there was something perhaps even worse.

Have you ever had logarithms? And aren’t they terrible! I have a beautiful, slim brown book and on the inside [of] it are just rows and rows and rows of num- bers! I could weep—it looks almost like poetry from the outside.

Years later, in her poem “Manuelzinho,” Bishop wrote of a poor farmer who kept accounts in “old copybooks”:

Immediate confusion.
You’ve left out the decimal points.
Your columns stagger,
honeycombed with zeros.
You whisper conspiratorially;
the numbers mount to millions.
Account books? They are Dream Books.

Bishop couldn’t decide whether to buckle down and be miserable or enjoy herself while failing (but writing poetry, she said). “Every bit of my knowledge that makes me interesting or valuable,” she exclaimed in despair, “was learned out-side school.” As so often later, she was able to turn the most trivial disaster into screwball comedy:

Horrors!! I have just discovered six blots on the wall behind me—the largest almost an inch across! Pray for me! Auntie just talked to me yesterday because I got ink on my hair, blouse, rug, furniture—now the wall!! I shudder.

Bishop made things worse the following fall—and therefore perhaps more bearable—by being cheerfully delinquent when she was at last enrolled at Walnut Hill, where she faced algebra for the third time. She called herself a “dreamer and a useless rebel,” considered at school a “sort of intellectual monstrosity.” One semester her junior year, she was restricted to the grounds for all but a single weekend because of her behavior. Though she had almost been expelled, as she confided in Louise, most of her shenanigans showed little more than high spirits. Probably in her junior or senior year, she wrote,

I do such crazy things. I dressed up in an awful costume for fire-drill the other night, and I’m fire assistant, too, so you can imagine how it upset the drill. And I threw a snow-ball at a girl in study hall and I swore at another one in class, and oh I was in a disgusting affair last week. It was so funny—two teachers cried over me!

In an early letter to Louise (probably from 1926, when the poet was at North Shore—she mentions being placed in an advanced algebra class, but the handwriting and spelling seem more childish than in her Walnut Hill letters), she recorded her thoughts on a subject that roused her:
One Argument against “Higher Education”

I think I would not be so weak
If I knew more of books.
I would not mind your fingers then,
Nor yet your quiet looks.

My heart would quiet be within.
All beauty I could name.
But magic would be lost, I fear;
And you—not quite the same.

The fingers are presumable scolding fingers. Bishop had obviously been reading Emily Dickinson, having borrowed her meter, her rhyme scheme, the old-fashioned inversions (“would quiet be within,” “All beauty I could name”), and even the elided grammar after one of Dickinson’s characteristic dashes. More telling, Bishop has perfected the Amherst poet’s timid but slightly flirtatious voice (if there was ever a poet shyer than Dickinson, it was Elizabeth Bishop). In a letter to Anne Stevenson in 1964, the poet remarked, “I never really liked Emily Dickinson much, except a few nature poems, until that complete edition came out a few years ago. … This is snobbery—but I don’t like the humorless, Martha-Graham kind of person who does like Emily Dickinson.” Still, it’s hard to imagine where else Bishop could have found this manner. “Some more sophisticated girls” at camp, she recalled in an interview, already knew the poet in white. Dickinson began half-a-dozen poems with “I think.”


Here is the source, also an interesting read.

“For C.W.B.”, one of the poems Bishop published in the Walnut Hill Blue Pencil, closes with the lines:

Let us live where the twilight lives after the dark,
In the deep, drowsy blue, let us make us a home.
Let us meet in the cool evening grass, with a stork
And a whistle of willow, played by a gnome.

Half-asleep, half-awake, we shall hear, we shall know
The soft “Miserere” the wood-swallow tolls.
We will wander away where wild raspberries grow
And eat them for tea from two lily-white bowls.
Tags: amazing lives, great lesbians in history, mathematics, music - shins, poets - bishop - elizabeth bishop

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