Saturday, September 20, 2008


The title of this post is a condition I have from time to time, but the post isn’t about sleep disorders. It’s the title of a very lovely lyric by the fantastic poet, Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop’s stock has always been pretty high in the poebiz world—even when that world was dead set against poets who were in some sense “formal,” Bishop was widely accepted & admired. It’s been said that she’s a “poet’s poet,” & there may be some truth to that. Perhaps you do need to have turned your hand to writing poems to fully appreciate what seems like her often effortless mastery of form, her precise eye for detail, & her understated but very real emotion. Like so many who are masters of a craft, Bishop can make it all seem much easier than it is.

Still, in my opinion at least, Bishop is one of those poets who really deserve a wider readership—not just within the hallowed & whacky walls of poebiz. Bishop strikes me as a poet who, like Frost, is accessible in the best sense of the word.

Bishop was born in Worchester (for you westerners: pronounced WUH-ster, or if you’re from there, WUH-stah) in 1911; she died in 1979 in Boston. In addition to publishing several volumes of poetry, Bishop was the US Poet Laureate from 1949-50, & won a Pulitzer in 1956. She was associated with the poets Marianne Moore (there are real affinities between these two poets’ works) & Robert Lowell (both were adept with form, but unlike Lowell, Bishop didn’t write “confessional poetry”). She also was a skilled & sensitive translator, & in particular worked on translations from Brazilean poetry—in fact, Bishop lived in Brazil with her lover Lota de Macedo Soares for a number of years.

A side note to the poem “Insomnia”: Eberle wrote a musical setting for this poem, & the Alice in Wonder Band performed it in 2002 with our singer at that time, Kati Sheldon. Eberle’s setting & arrangement were (in my opinion) lovely & haunting, & the band did a good job of putting it across. Sadly, & for complicated reasons, we never got a good recording of it. However, Eberle & I did a scaled down instrumental version of the setting as part of our score for Nell Shipman’s The Grub-Stake. Those who are interested can hear that here; it’s “Sample 4” on our Bijou Orchestrette sound samples page.

“Insomnia” was published in A Cold Spring (1956) & later in The Complete Poems (1969). Hope you enjoy this lovely & powerful poem.


The moon in the bureau mirror
looks out a million miles
(and perhaps with pride, at herself,
but she never, never smiles)
far and away beyond sleep, or
perhaps she's a daytime sleeper.

By the Universe deserted,
she'd tell it to go to hell,
and she'd find a body of water,
or a mirror, on which to dwell.
So wrap up care in a cobweb
and drop it down the well

into that world inverted
where left is always right,
where the shadows are really the body,
where we stay awake all night,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.

Elizabeth Bishop
© Elizabeth Bishop 1956

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