The following guest post is by Anastasia Nikolis, a graduate student intern in the Poetry and Literature Center and a PhD candidate in the English department at the University of Rochester.
There’s a history of poems responding to particular events and specific dates—we call these occasional poems—but it is rare for a poem to include an actual month-day-year date in its lines. “In the Waiting Room,” an iconic poem by our 8th U.S. Consultant in Poetry Elizabeth Bishop, ends with a date that is 99 years ago this week:
Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.
This last stanza appears after Bishop comes “back” from the reverie in which the rest of the poem takes place. Bishop recounts the experience of being a seven-year-old in the waiting room of a dentist’s office, waiting for her aunt who is in an appointment on the other side of the wall. Bishop gets lost in her own thoughts while observing the people in the waiting room and getting absorbed by the covers of magazine. Throughout the poem, Bishop repeatedly draws attention to the particular moment in time that she is reflecting on, with her “eyes glued to the cover/ of the National Geographic,/ February, 1918” to her moment of self-examination when she recalls,
I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
Bishop clearly wants us to pay attention to the date. But why?
We make note of dates to acknowledge the passage of time and to mark the occasion when something changed in the historical record. We celebrate July 4th because on July 3, 1776, the United States did not exist; however, the very next day the historical record changed irrevocably.
Birthdays and anniversaries carry this same weight on a personal and private scale. Bishop’s poem advertises February 5 as an anniversary of sorts, commemorating the moment when she realizes she is a person among other people; she is an I and simultaneously part of them. It is a date that is significant to the world of the poem, and which acts as a stabilizing point for readers through the experience of disorientation—“the sensation of falling off/ the round, turning world”—that comes with any good rendering of existential crisis.
“In the Waiting Room” is part of the larger tradition of lyric poetry, which is often preoccupied with time. Poets are famously aware that great poems can have much longer lives than the people they are written about. Shakespeare’s sonnet 55 aims to preserve his beloved in the lines of the poem for as long as it takes for the lover to be resurrected on judgment day—whenever it arrives. W.H. Auden consoles readers in his seminal elegy for Yeats when he says, “the death of the poet was kept from his poems” and though the poet might be gone in body, “The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the guts of the living.”
In other words, the poet lives on in his poems, which are read by the living and live on in them in turn. Shakespeare’s and Auden’s poems belie a belief in poetry’s timelessness, and even an ability to escape the limits of mortality through poetry.
Bishop’s poem is interesting in the way it subverts the timelessness some poets attribute to literature and art. Her special date—February 5, 1918—happened and was gone. Her poem memorializes its happening, but does so by remarking on its fleetingness.
The tension between permanence and impermanence is enacted in the way we read the poem, too. Poems happen chronologically: There’s a definitive beginning and end to a poem, and you have to read one line before you can move on to the next one. In this way, poems are fleeting, similar to the ways we will read novels to the end and rarely reread them. However, despite their definitive endings, poems also ask readers to read them over and over again to parse their meaning.
Fortunately, Bishop left her readers a magnificent poem to return to again and again, even if the date mentioned in it is “historical, flowing, and flown.”
Happy anniversary to “In the Waiting Room”!
And HAPPY EARLY BIRTHDAY to Elizabeth Bishop, who would be 106 next Wednesday!