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Friday, January 18, 2013

POETS | Eliz Bishop Homes Neglected in Key West, Brazil

I was interested in reading in the Sunday Times Book Review of December 9, 2012 (p. 10), that when Ian McEwan went to Brazil he was sad to see Elizabeth Bishop's old home surrounded by urban sprawl:
... in the sitting room of Elizabeth Bishop's old home in rural Brazil. ... The street outside was once an obscure thoroughfare for donkeys and peasants. ... That same street now is filled with thunderous traffic - it fairly shakes the house. 
In a similar way, I reacted negatively to the appearance of Bishop's home in Key West. I noted my feelings in a post on the website www.boissevain.us, under "Elizabeth Bishop in Key West, 1938-46." I visited Bishop's home on January 14, 2012 (and I posted photos of the disarray here - http://nyctimetraveler.blogspot.com/2012/01/elizabeth-bishop-in-key-west.html):
Yesterday morning my wife Alice and I went to the well-run (privately owned, with the revenue in part flowing to the benefit of Hemingway’s three sons and their families) Hemingway House. In the afternoon I went to pay my respects at the Elizabeth Bishop House, 624 White Street. Alice wisely instead went to the Butterfly Conservancy, which she loved. I was disappointed by the unkempt nature of the Bishop House. The door was wide open but no one was at home at 4 pm. The only thing I can say, hopefully, is that among the overgrown trees and plants and superannuated bikes were signs of equipment for repairs. Could someone be in the midst of making an improvement?
It's a disappointment because Bishop's reputation, like President Truman's, has soared as the years pass. The Key West Reader, edited by George Murphy, gives Elizabeth Bishop a lot of respect. He says that Bishop drew people to Key West just as John Dos Passos lured Hemingway to Key West after Dos Passos made a trip there on a whim in the 1920s after Flagler built his railway. “In the late 1930’s," says Murphy, "Elizabeth Bishop, on a fishing trip, found the island perfect for a new home and later, in turn, piqued the interest of other writers” (p. 18). The Reader includes Bishop’s poem “A Norther – Key West”, which was in her first collection of poems published in 1946.  The Reader’s editor says that the poem “is, in part, a tribute to Winslow Homer whose painting of the same name graces our cover.” Editor Murphy says Elizabeth Bishop “is considered the American poet’s poet, a genius, whose pure, inspired, and precise work has greatly influenced many other important contemporary poets. More, perhaps, than any other Key West writer, she fell in love with the tropics and, upon her departure from Key West, moved further out, to Brazil. 
Elizabeth Bishop at Vassar College [site maintained by Prof. Barbara Page] Elizabeth Bishop now stands as a major mid-twentieth century American poet, whose influence has been felt among several subsequent generations of poets. Highly regarded by critics such as Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, her rising reputation rests on the admiration of poets, including, among the Americans, James Merrill, John Ashbery and Jorie Graham, and, among world poets, Nobelists Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott. Her place in the canon of American poetry is secure. 
At her death in 1979, Bishop's place among poets was less certain. True, she had won many prizes: the Pulitzer, two Guggenheims, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and Brazil's Order of Rio Branco. ...  But the work came slowly. Bishop's first book of poems, North & South, appeared in 1946; the second,Poems (including North & South and A Cold Spring), in 1955; the third, Questions of Travel, in 1965, and the last, Geography III, in 1976. Although her poems appeared periodically in The New Yorker, in her lifetime Bishop was overshadowed by more prolific and public contemporaries, even though they held her in high esteem, as, in Ashbery's words, “a writer's writer's writer.” After a brief time in San Francisco, Bishop moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, invited by Robert Lowell to teach his courses at Harvard while he was on leave. 
[Robert Lowell was an honorary fellow of Quincy House at Harvard starting when it was created in 1959. I was at student residing at Quincy House during 1959-1962 and got to talk with Lowell over at least one meal in the Quincy House Dining Room, one of the luxuries of being an undergraduate there. Another poet I met in this way was W. H. Auden, the only person besides Edna St. Vincent Millay who made a living at poetry in the 20th Century, according to one source. Lowell, who was teaching at Boston University, where one of his students was Sylvia Plath, told me he was disappointed he hadn’t ever been offered a teaching position at Harvard, where he spent the first two years of his college career before going to Kenyon College. I told some faculty at Quincy House about this and maybe had a tiny part - doubtless he made the same complaint to other people - in the offer being made, to the benefit of Elizabeth Bishop! In 1967 Lowell was deemed by Time Magazine to be one of the greatest poets of his generation; Elizabeth Bishop was one of the few included in this designation. In 1972 Lowell married a Brit and moved to Britain. - JTM] 
Elizabeth Bishop: The Poetry Foundation  During her lifetime, poet Elizabeth Bishop was a respected yet somewhat obscure figure in the world of American literature. Since her death in 1979, however, her reputation has grown. Her time at Vassar was very important. There she met Marianne Moore, Mary McCarthy and others. In 1938, she moved to Key West, where she wrote many of the poems that eventually were collected in her debut (1946) Pulitzer Prize-winning North and South. In 1944 she left Key West, and for fourteen years she lived in Brazil, where she and her lover, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares, became a curiosity in the town of P├ętropolis.  Larry Rohter in the New York Times, has referred to her as "one of the most important American poets" of the twentieth century. 
THE ALCHEMIST'S KITCHEN: Elizabeth Bishop in Key West. Feb 7, 2011 [100th anniversary of Bishop’s birthday - JTM] –  Elizabeth Bishop first came to Key West in the 1930s. She lived in [a] nineteenth-century clapboard eyebrow house at 624 White Street off and on from 1938 to 1946. In a letter to Marianne Moore she wrote: “It is very nice here; I wish so much that you and your mother could come here sometime, I am so sure you would like it. The sea is so beautiful– all spotted and striped, from dark black-blue to what my aunt calls ‘lettuce’ green.” Key West is the site of a wonderful writers' conference: Key West Literary Seminars each January. There was a session on Bishop at AWP. 
Wendy Call Comment: Visited house [that Bishop] bought in 1938. [She] lived there with her lover [Louisa Crane] for several years. She did not just live and write on this block of White Street, she observed it deeply. She painted the Old Armory that now houses TSKW. For the last two weeks, I've been Writer in Residence at The Studios of Key West (TSKW), [teaching] a two-day workshop to a half-dozen Key West writers [at] the lovely Mango Tree House [close to the Bishop house].Bishop left the island in 1944 and headed south to Brazil. In [a] poetry workshop I took, more than a decade ago, the brilliant and generous Mark Doty looked at my terrible poems and said, "Study Elizabeth Bishop." In the first writing class I ever taught, in the fall of 2006, we read and savored "The Fish" -- sans the final three lines. I asked my students to come up with their own final three lines, before we looked at the trio that Bishop had created. I was struck by how close my students' endings were to Bishop's. Half of them had Bishop tossing the fish back, as she actually did in the poem. The sign of perfect craftswomanship, I think. [M]any of my poet-friends worship "One Art." [Wendy Call site has links to the poems.]Elizabeth Bishop in Key West from "The Queerest Places" Mar 6, 2009 – Key West, Fla. Elizabeth Bishop home 624 White Street. Poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was born into a wealthy family from Worcester, Mass. After her graduation from Vassar, she used a family inheritance to live a nomadic life in New York City, Europe, Florida, and other places. In 1938, she and her lover at the time, Louise Crane, purchased a house in Key West. Bishop lived at this residence off and on for the next nine years, first with Crane, then with a subsequent lover, Marjorie Stevens. In letters to friends, Bishop described her island home this way: “It is very well made, with slightly arched beams so that it looks either like a ship’s cabin or a freight car.” The house was located right on the beach and was to Bishop “perfectly beautiful…inside and out.” Bishop’s first volume of poems, North and South, was published during the time she lived in Key West.  It may sound idyllic, but Bishop battled alcoholism throughout her adult life, and the relationship with Stevens did not last. After they broke up, Bishop sold the Key West house and returned to an itinerant life, eventually being hospitalized for both depression and alcohol-related problems. In 1951, with the help of her mentor, Marianne Moore, Bishop secured a fellowship from Bryn Mawr College that enabled her to travel around the world. 
But Bishop never got farther than Brazil, where she met the wealthy Lota de Macedo Soares, who became her lover and tried to nurture her away from alcoholism. Bishop kept postponing her return to the States, until her stay in Brazil had lengthened to 16 years. At her home, Lota built a studio for Bishop that was separate from the house and had a stream running beside it. In that peaceful setting, Bishop was very productive and composed some of her greatest poems. But Bishop eventually returned to the United States after Lota committed suicide in 1967 and her own alcoholism worsened. Elizabeth Bishop on Wikipedia Elizabeth Bishop House is an artists' retreat in Great Village, Nova Scotia. In 1938, Bishop purchased a house with Crane at 624 White Street in Key West, FL. 

TIME BOMBER | Robert Wack Writes about Willem van Stockum

Flying Captain Willem van Stockum (front, center) and crew,
at RAF bomber air base in Melbourne, Yorkshire..
My new friend Dr. Robert Wack is near completion of his new novel, Time Bomber, which I would describe as a science fiction-military history novel.

He called me in 2010 when I was working in Washington, DC, for the Joint Economic Committee. He has an interest in science fiction, especially the concept of time travel. He found out that my Uncle Willem van Stockum was a pioneer in applying science to the concept. Willem was the first to spell out - in a way that caught the imagination of other physicists - the implications of Einstein's special relativity equations for time travel. He pointed out that the equations lead to time-like curves.

William van Stockum. He was detailed to the RAF
from the RCAF. But he was a Dutch citizen. He is
also claimed by the USA and identified as Irish
(family) and Scottish (Ph.D. from Edinburgh).
Willem has first place post-Einstein in a recent book on Time Travel. His bio is on Wikipedia and under his name at www.boissevain.us.

May 17, 2014: Exciting news. The book can now be ordered via Amazon. My wife Alice has read it  and she shares my love of the book. The biographical aspect of the book is authentic and the science-fiction aspect raises interesting questions that support what Willem said in his widely quoted letter to his mother, "A Soldier's Creed."

Monday, January 14, 2013

GREEK NAVY | How Triremes Were Built and Paid For

January 14, 2013–During the last two weeks, after the sun went down here in Florida, I read Ancient Greek Warship by Nic Fields, with illustrations by Peter Bull (Osprey, 2007).

When I was a college freshman in 1958, with six years of Greek behind me dating from my student days in Britain, I took a course in Greek history with Professor Sterling Dow, who died in 1995. He encouraged me to research the Greek trireme and sent me to musty issues of the Mariner's Mirror in Widener Library.

At that time the conventional wisdom is that no one really understood how the Greek trireme worked. When a businessman-Hellenophile financed a model of it, the ship went straight down into the sea. What this proved, I think, is that the trireme did not have three levels like a building; it had to have had a middle level that was a half-level in some way, by staggering the oars.

The trireme must have worked because it was the warship of choice in the sea battle at Salamis between the Greeks and the Persians. Xerxes set out in the Second Persian Invasion in 480 BC with perhaps 1,200 triremes, and by the time he confronted the Greek allies at Salamis he had 600-800 triremes at his disposal, against fewer than 400 triremes among the allies. The Greeks, led by the Athenians under Themistocles, won a decisive victory that is viewed as the turning point in the invasion. Had the Persians not been routed, the flowering of Athenian literature and culture might never have happened.

Nic Fields's book shows how much more we understand the triremes today than we did in 1958. A working model of a trireme was built, the Olympias, based on evidence assembled by John Morrison, former President of Wolfson College, Cambridge. It was commissioned by the Greek Navy in 1987 and went through five sea trials. It floated.

Triremes were 120 feet long, with a 12-foot beam, with the outriggers extending another three feet on either side. The oarsmen were arrayed in three staggered banks, with about 25 on each side for the bottom two banks and 30 on the top bank. The trireme usually had a mast available for sailing in transit to the locus of battle, but it could be removed and their main power during battle was from the oarsmen.

Compared with modern rowing shells, the problem with the ancient triremes is that they are presumed to have had fixed benches, which made it very hard to use the legs for propulsion. The volunteer rowers (the Greeks did not use slaves for this function) were constrained in movement. They must have required a great deal of water on board since a rower requires a liter per hour. Salt may well have been added to the water. The lowest deck of the trireme is assumed to have used a leather casing to prevent water coming through the porthole.

The trireme had a battering ram at the front end, which was made of wood in the shape of a snout, with bronze sheathing. The usual goal of the warship was to put a hole in the opposing ship, which would make it impossible to steer or advance. To avoid being trapped in an embrace with the ship being rammed, the oarsmen would try to back away at the moment of impact. The trireme was not very seaworthy and was not meant for long distances. It was primarily a defensive navy although it was used to attack nearby ports.

Some heavier triremes were used to transport a greater number of hoplites (soldiers, marines), who would board the opposing ship.This was the tactic used by the ships from Chios. This approach became more common as time went on and then the decks were made suitable for carrying catapults, or more marines, or archers.

At Salamis the victory over the the Persians has been attributed to the Greeks maneuvering the Persian fleet into a situation where they could not utilize their greater numbers–much as a small number of Spartans at Thermopylae were able to hold off the Persian army by defending a pass where only a few Persian soldiers could pass at a time. By some accounts the Persian triremes were better built than the Greek ones and the crews were well trained, able to do the complex maneuvers that the triremes were capable of with the right helmsman.

Each city-state paid for the oarsmen and the rest of the crew and hoplites. The trireme itself was financed and outfitted by one of the wealthy people in the community. In Athens about 400 people qualified to pay for a trireme. It was a great honor, comparable today with breeding a prize-winning horse. The person so honored and sponsoring a ship served as a trierarch for one year. This great honor in time became a burden, and Athenian citizens would try to finance a single trireme jointly, the way two yachtsmen might buy a boat together.

This is a very useful book, in the proud tradition of Osprey Publishing, which seems to have a book on every significant battle ever fought.

However, I missed seeing in the book any discussion of the the trihemiolia, the lighter triremes that were used to go after pirates in the post-Peloponnesian war era, when the enemy were privateers (filibusters) and faster ships were required with fewer soldiers aboard. From other sources, and from two visits I have made to Lindos on the island of Rhodes, the trihemiolia was lighter and used two rowers per oar to dispense with one of the banks of oarsmen. The idea was that as the needs changed from having two battle lines of hundreds of ships to pursuing isolated pirates, a different type of ship was needed.

That might be a metaphor for what the Department of Defense is facing as the world moves into a post-Cold-War, post-nuclear-weapons phase of hunting down irregular soldiers and rogue privateers.

FRENCH & INDIAN WAR | A Great Read

Borneman's "The French and Indian
War" places it in the context of the
struggles for power in Europe.
January 4, 2013–The past two weeks I have been enjoying the Florida sun and found a book to read when the sun went down that I recommend highly to anyone interested in the origins of the British Empire and the United States of America.

Walter Borneman's 2006 book, published by HarperCollins, shows above all how the British managed to drive the French out of North America – and along with them, eventually, the Spanish and the Native Americans whom they called Indians.

So long as the French were a threat, the American colonies were dependent on the British military to defend them. Ironically, by driving out the French, the British Government under the prime ministership of Pitt the Elder was making possible the independence of their colonies.

Pitt himself would not have minded this outcome of his efforts. He was a fierce devotee of the colonies and vigorously opposed the Stamp Act in 1766 ("The Americans are the sons, not the bastards of England.), argued for removing British troops from Boston and deplored the attitude toward the colonies of Lord North. (Both Pitt and North attended Trinity College, Oxford but they are judged very differently by history.) Although Pitt never set foot in America, he wished not long before his death that he were ten years younger so that he could
spend the remainder of my days in America, which has already given the most brilliant proofs of its independent spirit. (Borneman, p. 305, citing J. C. Long's 1940 book on Pitt.)
Borneman, who lives in Colorado, has previously written about the War of 1812. He shows that George II was wrapped up in keeping his "prized possession," Hanover. The king sent his "most treasured son", the duke of Cumberland, to defend Hanover, but the duke was surrounded by the French at Hastenbeck in Germany, and was forced to surrender Hanover to the French. Cumberland escaped with the help of Colonel Jeffrey Amherst, and on his return to Britain "resigned his military offices in disgrace".

Borneman provides highly readable summaries of the different battles in North American, showing how the outcome of battles hinged on the strategic sense of commanders, and the importance of small numbers of savvy soldiers. He portrays Pontiac as an able military commander but questions how important he was as a leader of the Iroquois or other tribes. At numerous points he suggests that the early allegiance of different tribes to the British was based on lavish gifts, and to the French was based on the comfortable laissez-faire relationship that the French had with their Indian allies.

What the British had going for them is that they brought their women with them and built families. They increased and multiplied. The French came as traders and went home. The imbalance of population meant that the British were favored in the contest between British and French.

In the end, the French and Indian wars - what the Europeans called the Seven Years War - left Europe pretty much the way it started. But it made Britain lord of North America, and along the way established the British Navy as preeminent, and created bases for the British - for example, in India - that became the cornerstones of the British Empire. Pitt, and not George II, understood what was going to be important in the decades ahead.

The problem for the British after the dust settled is that the wars were costly and had to paid for and, many thought, why not make the colonies pay for their own defense?  The Stamp Act imposed duties on imported goods. To which Benjamin Franklin suggested that the new fashion would be "to wear their old clothes over again." Pitt in 1766 succeeded in having it repealed. The Quartering Act billeted British soldiers on the homes of American colonists and the New York legislature voted to nullify it. The British were "aghast".

George III was "contemptuous" of the colonials. Pitt's chancellor of the exchequer, Charles Townsend, seeing Pitt ailing, moved ahead to do the king's bidding and imposed new taxes on imports into the colonies of glass, lead, paints, paper and... tea.

The last straw were the "Intolerable Acts", of which the Quebec Act of 1774 appears to Borneman as the most significant. It granted territory north of the Ohio river to the British colony at Quebec. George Washington had claimed these lands for Virginia in 1753 and in 1763 they were nominally marked as an Indian reserve, while several states had their eye on them for purposes of westward expansion.  The Acts also enacted reprisals for the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor.
All this came to a head on April 18, in 1775, when two lanterns were hung in the steeple of Boston's old North Church and their beams sent messengers riding toward Lexington and Concord.
This is a fascinating book and its 400 pages read like a thriller.