By ROBERT BENSEN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – Randall Jarrell (a friend of Elizabeth Bishop) said that a poet is one who, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, manages to get struck by lightning six or seven times.
It doesn’t work that way. And don’t try it at home. And don’t let your kids try it either. But Jarrell’s outlandish savvy underscores one thing: We don’t know how poets and poems are made. Like all art, it’s a mystery we never stop
trying to solve.
We do know, however, that now and again, the universe plants among us a child whose way with words grows through trial and talent and long life, such that her compositions are read, spoken, cherished.
And now and again, the universe gives us a person whose apprehension of those writings grows commensurate with their greatness, whose vision helps us enter more fully the world, at once intimate and vast, that the poetry paints for us, helps us be more alive to the work that so moved him to dedicate his life to it.
I can just see one of Tom Travisano’s students, after a rapturous class on Bishop, ask, “Dr. Travisano, have you studied Elizabeth Bishop your whole life?” To which Tom replies (I imag-ine), “Not yet!”
I wonder what stirred in the young Tom Travisano 45 years ago, when the first Bishop poem lit up in him, lit the first steps on his life’s path to Nova Scotia, New York City, Cambridge, Mass., Rio de Janeiro, and the Amazon villages in Brazil, but always return to this small city in Upstate New York?
Her life’s work ended about when his began.
Was “The Imminent Will that stirs and urges everything” (in Hardy’s phrase) at the end of Bishop’s life passing the task of immortalizing her work into others’ hands?
What thread of fate led Travisano to seek out the whole canon of Bishop’s poetry, drafts, letters; to write his dissertation at the University of Virginia on a little known and less understood poet that would become his first book, “Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development.”
Then to place Bishop studies in the wider circle of Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and John Berryman, in his study, “Midcentury Quartet.” And then to widen his scope to all of American poetry in the three-volume “The New Anthology of American Poetry.”
Having scanned that transcontinental immensity, he returned to his first love, entirely textual I’m sure, to the other woman in Tom’s life (Elsa won’t mind), through the letters between Bishop and Robert Lowell, in his edition, “Words in Air.”
Then attending to Bishop’s future, a study of “Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century, Reading the New Editions.”
And now, the culmination of his lifelong (so far!) study, the book we are all privileged to be part of launching tonight, “Love Unknown.”
Through that whole career, the love and support of his family supported him in his addiction: his wife Elsa, son Michael and daughter Emily.
Professor of English at Hartwick College, English Department chair, endowed Babcock Professor of English, twice a Winifred Wandersee Scholar, Travisano won numerous teaching and research and trustee awards, as well external support from the Guggenheim Foundation and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, founded and still serves as president of the Elizabeth Bishop Society, wrote and delivered countless (I gave up) articles, chapters, reviews, lectures, interviews with the BBC, across the nation, across the Americas, across the ocean, maybe Mars someday – anymore and I’m going to need oxygen.
We don’t know how poems and poets are made, but we know that the best that can happen for a poet
is to have a reader as brilliant and articulate as Tom Travisano whose dedication carries her work forward, so we reap the reward of understanding. Please give a generous hand of applause to Dr. Tom Travisano.