Wednesday, March 01, 2006


The two projects of the day were filing and reading essays. The former task arose because my “in box” had grown to two feet tall; the latter, because I’m helping out with the next edition of The Norton Reader, a composition textbook, and need to nominate some new essays.

It shouldn’t have surprised me, then, that, as I was flipping through a catalog, Kevin Kopelson’s new book, Neatness Counts: Essays on the Writer’s Desk caught my eye. When I tired of filing and straightening, when filing became procrastination from reading instead of a necessary step in restoring some order, I headed down to the New York Public Library, filled out a little slip and, twenty minutes later, Kopelson’s book was on the long library table before me. Done with filing, I could read about it.

I dipped in here and there, skimming, enjoying, feeling amused, and settled in to read, in earnest, the first essay, on Elizabeth Bishop.

Kopelson opens with Mary McCarthy’s wonderfully catty quip that she shouldn’t call Bishop a great writer so much as a neat one. How then, he asks, did such a precise writer tolerate such a messy desk?

The essay is smart and funny and full of odd little wayside observations. This is the one that made me laugh out loud: Bishop, who struggled against depression, once told a doctor that she tried to keep the last line of her poem “The Bight”—“awful but cheerful”—in mind. “Twenty years later,” Kopelson notes, “she taught a mynah bird to say ‘awful but cheerful.’ She also taught it ‘I, too, dislike it,’ a line of Moore’s poetry, and ‘Nobody knows,’ a line of her maternal grandmother’s” (9).

Here is the ending of “The Bight.” A bight, is, I take it, a wide bay and this one, like Bishop’s desk, like mine, is abundantly chaotic:
Some of the little white boats are still piled up
against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,
and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,
like torn-open, unanswered letters.
The bight is littered with old correspondences.
Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.

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