Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop

I just read a poem by Emily Dickinson and two poems by Elizabeth Bishop which I had never read before. Emily Dickinson’s poem is about a carriage ride with Death. Elizabeth Bishop’s poems have humour and sadness. I found them in a collection of poems where the poets are introduced by the adman Maurice Saatchi’s late wife, the writer Josephine Hart.

Both Dickinson and Bishop were born in Massachusetts. Neither married. Dickinson lived her life in Massachusetts and her poems were published only after her death. Bishop travelled widely, spent many years in Brazil where she had an affair with another woman, won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for her collection, Poems: North & South/A Cold Spring and the 1970 National Book Award for her Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969). It’s safe to say, though, Dickinson has become the more iconic figure, widely anthologized.

Here are the three poems I mentioned, Emily Dickinson followed by Songs for a Colored Singer and Filling Station by Elizabeth Bishop.

Because I Could Not Stop for Death
By Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886)

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

(Back to the top)

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop

The next two poems are by Elizabeth Bishop. She is colloquial, homely and informal. There is both humour and sadness in the following poem.

Songs for a Colored Singer
By Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911 – October 6, 1979)

A washing hangs upon the line,
but it’s not mine.
None of the things that I can see
belong to me.
The neighbors got a radio with an aerial;
we got a little portable.
They got a lot of closet space;
we got a suitcase.

I say, “Le Roy, just how much are we owing?
Something I can’t comprehend,
the more we got the more we spend….”
He only answers, “Let’s get going.”
Le Roy, you’re earning too much money now.

I sit and look at our backyard
and find it very hard.
What have we got for all his dollars and cents?
–A pile of bottles by the fence.
He’s faithful and he’s kind
but he sure has an inquiring mind.
He’s seen a lot; he’s bound to see the rest,
and if I protest

Le Roy answers with a frown,
“Darling, when I earns I spends.
The world is wide; it still extends….
I’m going to get a job in the next town.
Le Roy, you’re earning too much money now.


The time has come to call a halt;
and so it ends.
He’s gone off with his other friends.
He needn’t try to make amends,
this occasion’s all his fault.
Through rain and dark I see his face
across the street at Flossie’s place.
He’s drinking in the warm pink glow
to th’ accompaniment of the piccolo.

The time has come to call a halt.
I met him walking with Varella
and hit him twice with my umbrella.
Perhaps that occasion was my fault,
but the time has come to call a halt.

Go drink your wine and go get tight.
Let the piccolo play.
I’m sick of all your fussing anyway.
Now I’m pursuing my own way.
I’m leaving on the bus tonight.
Far down the highway wet and black
I’ll ride and ride and not come back.
I’m going to go and take the bus
and find someone monogamous.

The time has come to call a halt.
I’ve borrowed fifteen dollars fare
and it will take me anywhere.
For this occasion’s all his fault.
The time has come to call a halt.

(Back to the top)

The next poem by Elizabeth Bishop is more homely and affectionate.

Filling Station

By Elizabeth Bishop

Oh, but it is dirty!
—this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it’s a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color—
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

(Back to the top)

Josephine Hart

I came across these poems in a book called Life Saving: Why We Need Poetry, Introductions to Great Poets. It’s a collection of poems introduced by Josephine Hart and read by famous actors in London, New York and Dublin. Born in Ireland, Josephine Hart (March 1, 1942 – June 2, 2011) was a writer, theatrical producer and television presenter married to advertising magnate Maurice Saatchi. This book was put together by Saatchi after Hart died of cancer at the age of 69 in 2011.

Hart wrote the bestseller Damage, about passion and betrayal, which was made into a movie directed by Louis Malle and starring Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche.

TS Eliot was her favourite poet, the Guardian noted in her obituary, adding: “In the late 1980s, she founded the Gallery Poets group to read aloud the works of WH Auden, Sylvia Plath, WB Yeats, Philip Larkin, Emily Dickinson et al, and she wanted leading actors for her ‘dead poets’ society’. Actors, and other artists, came in droves, first to Gallery Poets, later to her Poetry Hour: Juliet Stephenson, Edward Fox, Roger Moore, Harriet Walter, Bob Geldof, Harold Pinter, Eileen Atkins, Bono and Dominic West, to name but a handful.”

In the introduction to Life Saving: Why We Need Poetry, Peter Stodhart, the former editor of The Times and The Times Literary Supplement, writes: “At each show, before any of her actors performed, before Bob Geldof growled out the lyrics of WB Yeats, or Harold Pinter intoned Philip Larkin, or Roger Moore played Kipling, the audience heard Josephine Hart’s introductions.”

This book contains the poems as well as the introductions. They are short profiles of the poets recalling their lives, characters and works. Short but interesting, they make good reading. For example, this is how Hart began her introduction to Auden, with a quote from him:

“One Sunday afternoon in March 1922 a school friend casually asked me if I wrote poetry. I, who had never written a line or even read one with pleasure, decided at that moment that poetry was my vocation.”

(This book has two poems by Auden: Musée des Beaux Arts and In Memory of WB Yeats.)

In her introduction to Emily Dickinson, Hart writes, “Was there an object of affection, of desire? If there was, his identity remains obscure.” Noting she wrote “passionate poems, full of longing, which gave way to poems of loss, Hart concludes her introduction with a quote: “Perhaps in Ted Hughes’ haunting phrase, Emily Dickinson realized that her ‘unusual endowment of love was not going to be asked for’. “

It’s a pleasure to read introductions like this. Many of the poems in this anthology can be found elsewhere, but it’s still worth reading because of its introductions to the poets. They add value to this book.

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