March 28, 2007

'Suicide of a Moderate Dictator' by Elizabeth Bishop

For Carlos Lacerda

This is a day when truths will out, perhaps;
leak from the dangling telephone ear-phones
sapping the festooned switchboard’s strength;
fall from the windows, blow from off the sills,
—the vague, slight unremarkable contents
of emptying ash-trays; rub off on our fingers
like ink from un-proof-read newspapers,
crocking the way the unfocused photographs
of crooked faces do that soil our coats,
our tropical-weight coats, like slapped-at moths.

Today’s a day when those who work
are idling. Those who played must work
and hurry, too, to get it done,
with little dignity or none.
The newspapers are sold; the kiosk shutters
crash down. But anyway, in the night
the headlines wrote themselves, see, on the streets
and sidewalks everywhere; a sediment’s splashed
even to the first floor of apartment houses.

This is a day that’s beautiful as well,
and warm and clear. At seven o’ clock I saw
the dogs being walked along the famous beach
as usual, in a shiny gray-green dawn,
leaving their paw prints draining in the wet.
The line of breakers was steady and the pinkish,
segmented rainbow steadily hung above it.
At eight two little boys were flying kites.

- 4 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. I like the journalistic (in the sense of real ‘journal) voice to this. I presume there’s some sort of better word to describe writing which has a journalistic feel to it? I love the way she opens with a concrete statement, to then go and add ‘perhaps’! The way she maintains the idea of visual events being recounted, has ‘Today’s a day’ for a variation on the opening, yet linking, whilst then returning ‘This is a day…’, the direction through progression is something I can learn from. The sounds are great too – this has to be read aloud! One of the other things which really seemed vivid to me was her use of ‘as well’, then followed by the two ‘and’s for emphasis.. plus, I suppose the additional and kept the rhythm throughout.

    But I can’t comment much on the rhythm. I don’t know the words to describe things, so without knowing the actual language, it’s sort of difficult. Something to self-teach during the summer, perhaps.

    Zoe – I was also wondering – if submitting poems to magazines, if they don’t remark on how to include your contact details, what is generally the best way? (Written neatly on the back of each sheet in pencil? I have no idea!)

    I’m not sure whether you got my reply to your other comment (which was a reply to my original comment…) on your teaching blog, or not, but it seems you’ve not been writing on there that recently. Good thing I came on this one though, otherwise I wouldn’t’ve read that poem!

    28 Mar 2007, 20:57

  2. I like your comments about this poem Katy. The rhythm of the first line really emphasises the movement between certainty and uncertainty. The stresses fall on ‘This’, ‘day’, ‘truths’ and ‘out’ and although the metre is irregular (choriamb (tum-ti-ti-tum), iamb (ti-tum), iamb), it is emphatic and strong, yet it ends with an ellipsis before the ambivalent ‘perhaps’. It’s a little like the act of flying a kite that having been picked up by a strong gale suddenly falters before being caught by the wind again.

    If you want to know more about rhythm and metre I recommend a book by James Fenton called An Introduction to English Poetry. Maybe you have this already though. If not you can buy it here on Amazon:

    About submitting to magazines. Include a covering letter addressed to the editor simply saying, here are my poems for your consideration, and also include a paragraph titled ‘Biographical Details’ which will include places where you have been published, prizes won etc. On the poems themselves put your name and e-mail address in the header of every page so that if they were separated from the covering letter, it would be obvious whose they were and there would a means of contacting you. I hope that this is a help.

    I have replied to your comment on the teaching blog now. Sorry that I have taken so long but I am rather busy at the moment with my PhD work and more!

    29 Mar 2007, 18:41

  3. Yes, I like the apt kite analogy, which links to the final line. You know how she leaves the description so bare, how it is all verbs ‘out’, ‘leak’, ‘sapping’ and nouns… certainly, she describes some things more, such as the ‘dangling’ phones, and the ‘festooned’ (I don’t think I’ve heard this word in a poem before!) switchboard… it seems just enough. I’m always conscious of over describing; maybe it is because we are initially taught that adjectives and adverbs are ‘good’ and ‘score points’ early on—and we can get wrapped up in this rather than thinking about relevancy.

    Reading poetry reminds me of when I am playing music, how you can physically track the line as a sort of wave, if you like. The wave would naturally depend upon whose voice you imagine reading it, but a wave, with it’s curves and then shocks, seems to be in my mind with poems. I wonder if the irregularity in the rhythm relates to the freedom? If indeed, a dictator has suddenly vanished due to suicide, the people of whichever place would not really know what to do with their freedom. (I don’t know the history, but I’ll send this poem to my aunty and uncle – they travelled there and I’m sure would be intrigued.)

    This poem is so fantastically musical!— I was reading some Dylan Thomas last night, and it is so similar in the echoing of the sounds. Do you remember the exercise we did at Warwick with the Welsh form? I suppose it is like that. And by having the echoing sounds, you remember the words, the lines, and can make more links, sew more into it, so that reading a poem can never really be ‘complete’...

    I must read that book. So many people who read and write poetry have mentioned it to me, I really must. Thank you for reminding me, I shall, soon hopefully.

    Oh. I didn’t realise a letter was necessary! Yes, that does help, you’ve explained and clarified greatly!

    I hope your Easter break has been refreshing!

    10 Apr 2007, 14:11

  4. Nicely put comments about detail of description and the wave of the line.

    I wonder if the irregularity in the rhythm relates to the freedom? If indeed, a dictator has suddenly vanished due to suicide, the people of whichever place would not really know what to do with their freedom.

    Yes I think that you are exactly right.

    This poem is so fantastically musical!— I was reading some Dylan Thomas last night, and it is so similar in the echoing of the sounds. Do you remember the exercise we did at Warwick with the Welsh form?

    Yes, Dylan Thomas is fabulous. I might post one of his poems here today. The exercise that we did was on cynghanedd (spoken something like: cung – han – eth). You might like to read this poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins which also uses cyghanedd: And here is a detailed entry on cynghanedd and how it works:

    I can’t recommend Fenton’s book enough to you – it’s really great! Glad I could be of help with the letter advice and my Easter break has been fine thank you. Hope yours was good.

    13 Apr 2007, 14:38

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