Over at the New York Times, there’s talk of controversy…well, controversy in the world of letters. Alice Quinn of the New Yorker has edited and published Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts and Fragments by Elizabeth Bishop. The irony—and the problem—is that Bishop published only 90-something poems in her life, and this book contains nearly 120 of these unfinished things.
Elizabeth Bishop was a well-known perfectionist. Poems sat around for years as she fiddled and fiddled, never appearing until she had decided they were right. And the results were right—by my estimation, and many others.
I’d never heard of Bishop until grad school, where one of my professors, the wonderful poet Gail Mazur, sat us down with her work. I was stunned. Those poems really are crystalline in their perfection. Not a word to be changed. And they taught me a lot about how wrong I can easily get my language—how wrong I still get it.
The tragedy is that, outside the rarified world of American letters, few people know Bishop’s name.
So now a new book, which essentially doubles the breadth of her output, has been released. Perhaps it’ll lead to a greater appreciation and understanding of this elusive poet. Or perhaps, as it has so far, it’ll just piss people off. People like Helen Vendler of the New Republic.
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.”
She also said, “I am told that poets now, fearing an Alice Quinn in their future, are incinerating their drafts.”
I don’t know if that second statement is true or not—though I know the first assessment is; that is, while she was alive, Bishop would have detested the idea of publishing this stuff. But once you’re dead, once your ouvre has been established, does the opinion remain the same? If so, why do all these pieces even exist?
Frank Bidart—a fine poet who I’ve met, who was also a good friend of Bishop’s—said,
Believe me, Elizabeth was perfectly capable of destroying things. If she had never wanted these to see the light of day, she would have destroyed them.
And as a Vassar student, she clearly knew what happens to great writers’ notes once they’ve passed on.
But it’s an interesting moral dilemma. And I think it has something to do with how writers see, or want to see, themselves.
Do you want to see yourself as someone who effortlessly reaches perfection with few intermediary drafts? Or do you want to be seen as a crafts(wo)man, slowly working the chaotic flow of language, honing it and sanding it down until it’s right?
My personal feeling is that this is no problem for Elizabeth Bishop’s reputation, nor for American poetry. It’s not an ego battle. We all know which poems Bishop wanted to represent her legacy, and those volumes will continue to do that. No amount of amateur drafts will water down her reputation, because all of us know—or we should know—that great poems (with rare “Kubla Khan” exceptions, if you believe the legends) don’t come out of the ether; they’re the result of hard, hard work.
And this kind of scholarship is also good for American poetry, a segment of culture that’s become increasingly walled-off from the rest of American culture. Show people the bones and drafts of truly great poetry, and they might not be so scared of it anymore. They might actually learn a little of how it’s done. They might, in fact, want to do it themselves, and do it well.
That, to me, is just plain good, for all of us.
And for those who don’t know, here’s one of her finest, “Visits to St. Elizabeth’s” (1950). Stuctured on a famous children’s song, it’s about Ezra Pound, who at the time was committed to this hospital while having treason charges hanging over his head for making pro-fascist and anti-Semetic radio programs in Italy during WWII. Check it out, as well as the others at the great Academy of American Poets site.