In this episode, Alan reads and discusses the poem "The Shampoo" by Elizabeth Bishop.

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Poetry to the Brim - Episode 12: “The Shampoo” by Elizabeth Bishop
In this episode, Alan reads and discusses the poem “The Shampoo” by Elizabeth Bishop. --- Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/poetrytothebrim/support

Transcript

Hello everyone. You're listening to Poetry to the Brim.

Today I'll be reading the poem "The Shampoo" by Elizabeth Bishop. While this one was originally published in her 1955 collection A Cold Spring, I'll be reading it from her collected Poems, published in 2011 [1].

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"The Shampoo" by Elizabeth Bishop

The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.

And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you've been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.

The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
—Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.

–-

So for me, this poem reads a lot like a love poem, an ode to the impermanence that is our lives. I feel almost as if, like the lichens, this poem is a "still explosion" shot out from Bishop's imagination. This poem is a lot less understated though I think than many of her other poems, in terms of how she is saying things: she seems more open here with not only the language but also her affection.

So in the first stanza, Bishop associates the lichens to "still explosions on the rocks." We usually think of lichens as these organisms that connote a sort of fading away. Growing on almost any surface in the woods, they are said to be among the oldest living things [2]. Bishop inverts this conception, describing them with the oxymoron "still explosions." Also, I love the resonance of image in the first sentence: usually the word "shocks" is used to describe a thick, unruly mass of hair, but here Bishop uses it to describe how the lichens grow. The lichens are not simply what they seem, even they are mysteriously pragmatic: the speaker imagines them as having "arranged to meet the rings around the moon." The lichens have a sort of consequence that we cannot see.

When the speaker addresses the "you," the "dear friend" in the second stanza of the poem, he or she is described as "precipitate and pragmatical." This phrase really stuck out to me: we are both outcome and beginning at the same time. Although "within our memories," we might take lichens to be these useless, decaying, unchanging things, they are living, they are alive in this moment. I like how Bishop, to describe Time, uses the phrase "nothing if not amenable" instead of "absolutely" or another word: Time is really nothing, nothing but a vantage from which our minds conceive experience, usually for practical purposes. In this poem, Bishop transfigures Time beyond the practical through her imagination, stopping the seeming flow of Time in a scene that seems to be nonetheless alive.

In the final stanza, the speaker asks of the friend's hair, where is it going—if Time is "nothing if not amenable." I love the welcoming imperative at the end of the poem: "Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin, / battered and shiny like the moon." Here we see the "battered and shiny" quality of the moon (and therefore the basin) as another oxymoron, similar to the "still explosions" of the lichens in the first stanza. Both passing away yet still poignant.

--

"The Shampoo" by Elizabeth Bishop

The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.

And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you've been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.

The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
—Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.

--

Thanks for listening to Poetry to the Brim. If you enjoyed the show, please share it with a friend or two who might also enjoy it. If you read the poem differently, would like to share your thoughts with me, or just have general suggestions about the show, you can email the show at poetrytothebrim@gmail.com.

Also, you can find a full transcript of the episode on the website at podcast.poetrytothebrim.com. There, you can also subscribe to stay up to date by email for when I release a new episode, as well as find ways to support the show.

Alright. Thanks again! Until next time.

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Citations

  1. Bishop, Elizabeth. “The Shampoo.” Poems, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011, p. 82.
  2. Brodo, Irwin M. and Duran Sharnoff, Sylvia. Lichens of North America, 2001.