Sunday Salon: Elizabeth Bishop vs. Frank O’Hara and Several Other Projects I’m Rambling Through

Summer Evening by Edward Hopper

I’ve got a couple of daily reading projects going on lately. I’m working my way through Laozi’s Dao di Jing for the second time. Laozi was a philosopher who lived in China about the time of Confucious.  According to legend, Laozi was asked to write his philosophy down by a border gaurd who insisted on it as payment for allowing him to leave China. The text went on to become the foundational document for Taoism (Daoism in the west.)


For decades now, I’ve been using snippets of it in my history classes with both sixth and seventh grade students. Last year, I decided to read the entire book. I liked it, overall, thought much of it still very useful in the 21st century, and didn’t quite get quite a bit of it, too. So, I decided I’d give a different translation a go. I’d just recently joined Twitter so I thought it might be fun to tweet it as I read it each day, like a daily meditation.

It has been fun for me, though not many other people read those tweets. They get very few retweets.  The Dao is usefully broken down into two and three line segments.  Tyring to get sets of lines to fit the 240 character limit has forced me to figure out what is really important in each. It’s also made it very apparent how much a weight a single word carries.  Even removing a simple word like “and” can greatly change the meaning of the text.

And that’s when working with a text in translation.  What may have been lost in the journey from ancient Chinese to modern English?

I have been tweeting the Dao nearly every day for most of this year and I’m about half-way through at this point. I may get a third translation to work through when I’m done with this one.

I’ve also been working through two collections of poetry, trying to read one poem from each daily. I’m not nearly as faithful to this project as I am to tweeting the Dao. Neither Elizabeth Bishop nor Frank O’Hara lend themselves well to tweeting.

I’ve done just over a quarter of The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara and about one fifth of Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems.  Both are excellent and probably couldn’t be more different.  Bishop is mannered and constructed, everything one thinks of in more formal 20th century poetry. O’Hara is all over the place.  At times formal in structure. At other times as free flowing with structuresless energy as Walt Whitman or Arthur Rimbaud.

I like them both, but I’m finding myself more attracted to Elizabeth Bishop and losing patience with Frank O’Hara.

While Bishop is in love with images, O’Hara is in love with words.  I think he should probably be performed rather than read.  He falls head over heels into the thrall of langauge, goes off on a rift and doesn’t come down for pages, while she enters the zone of a single image or moment and works through all it can possbily offer in a very tight page of poetry.

I’m going to continue reading the Bishop, but the O’Hara is going back on the shelf for now.

I’ve read a few of the stories in a collection inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper called In Sunlight and Shadow.  Editor Lawrence Block assembled the volume featuring a wide cast of writers from Stephen King to Joyce Carol Oates, asking each to write a story based on one of Hopper’s paintings.  Sounds like a great idea, yes? So far the written word fails to live up to the expectation of the paintings.

I think this is in part due to the narrative nature of Edward Hopper’s work.  His paintings already are stories.  Most of the people who love his work look at his picture and constuct the story, or at least feel its effect. Look at the one I’ve included above. You knew what was going on as soon as you saw it right?  You even know how the story is going to end, though your ending is not my ending. Well, probably not. No writer could come up with our version so no writer could satisfy us.

And in a way, not knowing what is going on is more dramatic than knowing what is going on.

Still, I do think it’s a fun writing exercise, one that teachers should consider for creative writing classes.

I’m going to give the book a few more tries.  And it may be one I pull down from my shelf now and then.  It’s does have illustrations featuring the painting assigned to each author along with the stories they wrote in response.

Meanwhile, I did finish an actual book this week, The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle which I enjoyed, and I’m about halfway through John Waters memoir Role Models which I’m not quite sure about yet.

My local bookseller slipped me a copy of Solar Bones, though it’s not officially on sale in America yet, which is next on my reading list.

Then I’m off to Mansfield Park for the September edition of the Jane Austen Read All A-long.

Good thing tomorrow is a holiday.

2 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: Elizabeth Bishop vs. Frank O’Hara and Several Other Projects I’m Rambling Through

  1. I love that Alvaro Enrigue quote at the top of your blog! I should read more poetry and I do admire Elizabeth Bishop but I just can’t seem to tear myself away from novels.

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