Blesok no. 53, March-April, 2007
Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box
(Excerpts from the book reviews)
Edited and translated into Macedonian by Magdalena Horvat
… In the second half of the 20th century, no American artist in any medium was greater than Bishop (1911-79). That she worked in one of our country's least popular fields, poetry, doesn't matter. That she was a woman doesn't matter. That she was gay doesn't matter. That she was an alcoholic, an expatriate and essentially an orphan — none of this matters. What matters is that she left behind a body of work that teaches us, as Italo Calvino once said of literature generally, “a method subtle and flexible enough to be the same thing as an absence of any method whatever.” The publication of “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box,” which gathers for the first time Bishop's unpublished material, isn't just a significant event in our poetry; it's part of a continuing alteration in the scale of American life.
Just don't expect that change to be announced with a fanfare. In a tribute to Bishop, James Merrill famously noted her “lifelong impersonations of an ordinary woman,” and the observation applies to her writing as much as to comportment. From the beginning, Bishop's work was descriptive rather than assertive, conversational rather than rhetorical and discreet rather than confessional. (It was also hard to come by: in her lifetime, she published only around 90 poems.) This was surprising for two reasons. First, her approach was completely unlike the modes favored by her more flamboyant peers — Robert Lowell, John Berryman — as well as the guts-spilling styles they helped inspire. Second, if you believe art mirrors life, reticence is the opposite of what you'd anticipate from Bishop, whose biography contains enough torment to satisfy St. Sebastian. An abbreviated list: her father died when she was a baby; her mother vanished into an insane asylum when Bishop was 5; her college boyfriend committed suicide when she refused to marry him and sent her a parting postcard that said, “Go to hell, Elizabeth”; and the great love of her life, Lota de Macedo Soares, with whom she spent many years in Brazil, fatally overdosed in Bishop's apartment. From a writer with a history like that, we might expect announcements like Lowell's “I hear / my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell.” We don't expect to be told “I caught a tremendous fish.”
This curious restraint has been admired by many critics (Bishop won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award), but it also explains why she so often has been identified with words like “quiet,” “charming,” “scrupulous” and, above all, “modest” — all of them perfectly useful adjectives, but none that would tip the reader off to the harrowing nature of her life or (more important) the colossal ambition of her poems.
Elizabeth Bishop was asked in an interview in 1978 (the year before her death at age 68), “Do you start a lot of poems and finish very few?” To which Bishop answered, “Yes. Alas, yes. I begin lots of things and then I give up on them…” Bishop's claim might seem surprising, given the sheer vital clarity and imaginative precision of her work, typified by now-canonical poems such as “In the Waiting Room,” “Questions of Travel” and “One Art.”
But Bishop was not exaggerating. Though she published only 80 poems in books and journals during her five decades-long career (“The Complete Poems” clocks in at 116), her notebooks, journals and letters – 3,500 pages housed at the department of special collections at Vassar College, Bishop's alma mater – reveal a dazzling store of orphaned poems, whether in fragmented, outlined or completed form. It is these papers that Alice Quinn, poetry editor of the New Yorker and executive director of the Poetry Society of America, combed through to assemble the 108 poems and 11 prose or facsimile pieces here – “all of it,” as Quinn says, “work that for one reason or another she chose not to publish but did not destroy.”
This book should not have been issued with its present subtitle of “Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments.” It should have been called “Repudiated Poems.” For Elizabeth Bishop had years to publish the poems included here, had she wanted to publish them. They remained unpublished (not “uncollected”) because, for the most part, they did not meet her fastidious standards (although a few, such as the completed love poem “It is marvellous to wake up together,” may have been withheld out of prudence). Students eagerly wanting to buy “the new book by Elizabeth Bishop” should be told to go back and buy the old one, where the poet represents herself as she wished to be known. The eighty-odd poems that this famous perfectionist allowed to be printed over the years are “Elizabeth Bishop” as a poet. This book is not.
It will be argued that Bishop could have burned all these pieces of paper if she did not wish them to see publication. (I am told that poets now, fearing an Alice Quinn in their future, are incinerating their drafts.) But burning one's writings is painful, and Bishop kept her papers, as any of us might, because the past was precious to her. Bishop did not expect to die when she did, in 1979, at the age of sixty-eight; her death was sudden and unforeseen. (Even if she had left instructions not to publish her papers, she could not rely on their being obeyed: Max Brod disobeyed Kafka's explicit command to destroy his writings. But some poets have been obeyed: Hopkins asked his sisters to burn his spiritual journals, and they did.) Had Bishop been asked whether her repudiated poems, and some drafts and fragments, should be published after her death, she would have replied, I believe, with a horrified “No.”
(…) It seems to me a betrayal of Elizabeth Bishop as a poet to print items from the archive in magazines and journals as if they were “real poems” and not attempts that were withheld by the poet from just such public appearances.
During her lifetime, Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was famous for her fastidiousness. John Ashbery once affectionately dubbed her “a writer's writer's writer,” and she curated her poems with exacting care, often letting nearly finished drafts sit for years at a time while she hunted for just the right word. One poem, “The Moose,” begun in the mid-forties, is legendary for waiting nearly thirty years to receive her seal of approval. Yet despite—or perhaps because of—this reticent perfectionism, Bishop's work invited the curiosity of her readers. In 1955, Katherine White, then poetry editor at The New Yorker, wrote her, “As usual, this letter is a plea to let us see some of the Elizabeth Bishop manuscripts that I feel certain are on your desk, all finished if only you could bring yourself to part with them.” Bishop couldn't bear to part very often. By the end of her life, she had approved only a relatively small body of work for publication—300 pages, slim in comparison to her friend Robert Lowell's behemoth 1,500-page “Collected Poems”.
(…) It is impossible to know what to make of the artifacts of any life, especially that of a writer as private as Bishop. Still, twenty-six years after Bishop's death, Alice Quinn, the current poetry editor of The New Yorker and a Bishop devotee, has gathered and ordered the fragments so that the world can try to enter the spaces Bishop leaves behind.
“I wish I had written a great deal more. Sometimes I think if I had been born a man, I probably would have written more. Dared more, or been able to spend more time at it. I’ve wasted a great deal of time,” Elizabeth Bishop commented in an interview with George Starbuck (Ploughshares, Spring 1977). Yet Bishop dared in her own way to capture an individual world within each poem; her poetry was generally exploratory, truth-seeking, different in the best sense of the word, non-repetitious, and underpinned by a controlled mastery of form. Bishop’s poetry may be grounded in everyday descriptive details, but she is also preoccupied with dreams, mysteries, and the strangeness of existence. All of those elements can be found in varying degrees—and in occasionally surprising ways—in “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box”, Alice Quinn’s well-edited collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s uncollected poems, drafts, and fragments. The volume may stop short of representing Elizabeth Bishop Unplugged, but it does provide a welcome opportunity to consider her creative process…
Although they do not map the stages of composition, these drafts show us the kinds of sketches and improvisations Bishop worked with. We learn she had a habit of jotting an alternative word or phrase in the righthand margin, and glimpse her reviewing her raw material from new angles. That Bishop would have hated to see her rough work in print is certainly possible, but the book's editor, Alice Quinn, does not pretend that the work is anything but rough. The poems are framed by commentary, almost as they are framed in real life by their boxes and shelves in the Vassar archive. If Bishop did not destroy her papers but gave them to a university library, she could not have seriously opposed a wider readership, provided we read, as Quinn encourages us to, as explorers of process rather than consumers of product.
The work in “Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box” doesn't live up to Bishop's famously perfectionist standards. Many of the poems remain unresolved. Others are embarrassingly slight or in such raw form as to be little more than seeds. (…) Quinn provided a brief introduction and copious endnotes to the material, but her words seem geared to the most devout Bishop scholars. For the book to be truly user-friendly, it would benefit from a more comprehensive introduction to the poet's life and work, rather than asides to other scholarship. (…) The most revealing part of the book for me is the series of facsimiles of 15 separate drafts that preceded the publication of Bishop's masterful “One Art.” Here you can see the transformation of a great poem from amorphous thoughts to sheer elegance of expression.
After her mid-thirties, she finished fewer than two poems a year; and her papers contain notebook after notebook and file after file of poems in fragmentary or unfinished form—some just dust heaps of phrases, others roughly glued into shape, some dragged through numerous frustrating drafts, and a few that seem to lack nothing but the poet’s approval. (…) Her vulnerability, her charming chaos (even when complete, the poems feel fragmentary, like her personality), were not overcome but succumbed to—she lacks that seriousness, that pretentiousness in the poet’s lingua franca, that in [Robert] Lowell, [Randall] Jarrell, and [John] Berryman now seems leaden, done by union rule for union wages. Bishop emerges from this book a more personal poet, the made surfaces of her poems concealing the disorder from which they were made.
One wonders what prevented Bishop from finishing what often appeared to be promising beginnings to poems. In a letter to [Marianne] Moore from Key West in 1937, she writes: “Once more I am overcome by my own amazing sloth and unmannerliness. Can you please forgive me and believe that it is really because I want to do something well that I don't do it at all?” (…) What these uncollected works lay bare for me is how much emotion there was in Bishop's poems to start with, which her endless tinkering tended to obscure in the end. It has made me read her published work differently, discovering intimate elegies and love poems where previously I heard only an anonymous voice. “The enormous power of reticence—that is the great lesson of the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop,” Octavio Paz said of her. He was right.
Indeed, “Edgar Allan Poe” contains poems that an artist less demanding than Bishop would have not merely published but brandished as triumphs. (…) But the volume is also not without its problems, resident in the nature of the material from which it has been assembled. Helen Vendler, writing in the New Republic, suggests that these incomplete, sometimes greatly flawed, and occasionally banal works should never have been brought to light. That is taking things too far. (…) Given the amount of energy devoted to the painstaking excavation of the works and lives of lesser American poets, any reader of Bishop, and any lover of American literature, has reason to be grateful for this book.
In several of these previously uncollected poems, Bishop broaches difficult subjects. In poems like “Key West” and “Something I've Meant to Write About for 30 Years,” she addresses the racial tensions of modern America. In “A Drunkard,” she writes of alcoholism. In poems like “To the Brook” and “Breakfast Song,” she writes, and gorgeously, of erotic love between two women. Such poems return us to Bishop's great “Collected Poems” with a renewed sense of the personal anxieties and reveries that inform that work. (…) Thanks to this new collection, Bishop will have the recognition she deserves, while her readers will gain a refreshed feeling for the beguiling, and often painful, tensions behind her genius.
Reading such poems, it is natural for us to wonder whether Bishop’s reticence about sex was really a reticence about homosexuality – whether, if she had been born a little later, she would have taken advantage of the frankness available to Adrienne Rich and James Merrill.
The drafts in “Edgar Allan Poe and the Jukebox” cannot conclusively answer that question, but they help to shed some light on it. In several of these unfinishable poems, Bishop associates sex with shame, but not the shame of social prejudice or taboo. Rather, it is the shame of weakness, exposure, submission – of surrendering control, Bishop’s most prized possession, to a bodily instinct, or, still more terrifying, to another person. Lust as compulsion is the subject of the title poem, which takes place in a dive bar:
As easily as the music falls,
the nickels fall into the slots,
the drinks like lonely water-falls
in night descend the separate throats,
and the hands fall on one another
[down] darker darkness under
tablecloths and all descends,
descends, falls …
Poe said that poetry was exact.
But pleasures are mechanical
and know beforehand what they want
and know exactly what they want.
This kind of sexual “falling” (an echo of the suicidally insistent repetition of “down” in “At the Fishhouses”) can be found in several of the drafts. More fearful still, however, is the kind of emotional subjection that Bishop associates with love. There are some happy love poems here – in “Close close all night”, lovers are “close as two pages / in a book / that read each other / in the dark” – but they are slighter and less memorable than the unhappy ones. When Bishop examines love most intensely, she cannot separate it from the threat of abandonment – a lesson brutally enforced by the tragedies of her own life…
Bishop lived in Brazil for much longer than any other one place; she was an itinerant for much of her life, and wrote to [Robert] Lowell in the late 1940s: ‘When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.’
Yet Bishop worked against an inclination to self-pity. Her favourite lines from her poetry are from the end of ‘The Bight’ (1949): ‘All the untidy activity continues/awful but cheerful.’ The epigram represents more than a personal survival strategy – it’s something like a worldview. In a letter to Anne Stevenson in the 1960s (which Quinn quotes), Bishop writes: ‘My outlook is pessimistic. I think we are still barbarians, barbarians who commit a hundred indecencies and cruelties every day of our lives, as just possibly future ages may be able to see.’ She goes on to invoke George Herbert’s ‘Love Unknown’, translating his figure of the life touched by God into secular terms: ‘But I think we should be gay in spite of it, sometimes even giddy – to make life endurable and to keep ourselves “new, tender, quick”.’
(…) Somewhere between the wish that Bishop had been less of a perfectionist, and thus more prolific, and the wish to see only her perfect work (the cost of which would be the loss of this trove of new material), lies the ideally open-minded stance towards this collection. Such open-mindedness is what Alice Quinn’s remarkable archival and editorial feat deserves.
Bishop herself, in an essay called “Writing Poetry is an Unnatural Act” (brought to light in the recently published “Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box”) defined three qualities she most admired in the poetry she loved: accuracy, spontaneity and mystery. (…)
I do not believe that Elizabeth Bishop always wrote ‘great’ poetry. Part of her attraction is that she frequently failed to find her true note, her absolutely right voice, even in some of her (mainly early) published poems. In this, she was a poet’s poet for whom the chief advantage of having her drafts and unfinished work available for consultation in Alice Quinn’s recent collection is recognizing just how often she stumbled and how difficult it was for her to get her poems right.
Hers was a high, almost unachievable aim, one that I hope will set standards for accuracy and spontaneity in poetry today beyond anything that is learned in creative writing courses or undertaken in pursuit of a university career. As for that unteachable, hardly achievable quality of mystery, that’s something the muse still reserves for a personal gift. I suppose what Elizabeth Bishop can best teach us today are the virtues of patience, wit, perspective, persistence and –dare I say it?– ambition not so much for fame or success as for a kind of interior sense of rightness and excellence.
Elizabeth Bishop was a famously meticulous writer. In a poem Robert Lowell once wrote for her, he asked, “Do/ you still hang your words in air, ten years/ unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps/ or empties for the unimaginable phrase—/ unerring muse who makes the casual perfect?” It's no wonder, then, that the recent publication of Bishop's hitherto uncollected poems, drafts, and fragments in “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box”, edited by Alice Quinn, encountered fierce resistance, and some debate about the value of making this work available to the public. (…)
A midcentury poet, Bishop wrote at a time when academic studiousness was one vogue (Allen Tate, Randall Jarrell) and self-revelation another (Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton). Following neither, she carved out an original niche, a poetics of subtle observation. Bishop writes about things: filling stations, radio antennae, shampooing another person's hair, a moose in the road. Her work has, as Vendler has put it, a remarkable commitment to exactness, and her primary mode is description. (…)
Vendler argues that the variety of work here will confuse fledgling poets and poetry readers, leading them to confuse mawkish drafts with perfected excellence like that of “Crusoe in England.” On the contrary, these false starts warn us that it takes more than a tragic life to make a poem—indeed, that some efforts just don't result in poems. And when they do, a tremendous amount of alchemy is required. Bishop might indeed be mortified by this book (what poet wouldn't be embarrassed by the prospect of their scraps showing up in print), but that doesn't mean it's wrong to publish it. “Edgar Allan Poe” is an extraordinary reminder that strong feelings and striking perceptions are not art until they have been transformed by our attention to them.