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A Genius Ill-Served


by Elizabeth Bishop
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 35 pp., $16.00 (paper)


by Elizabeth Bishop, edited by Lloyd Schwartz
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 507 pp., $20.00 (paper)
Josef Breitenbach
Elizabeth Bishop, 1940s; photograph © The Josef and Yaye Breitenbach Charitable Foundation, New York/Josef Breitenbach Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona


One wishes only to celebrate the twin volumes of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems and prose, published this year to mark the centenary of her birth. Bishop was one of the great artists of the twentieth century; her poems now tower over the landscape alongside those of Eliot and Stevens. Before her death in 1979, her sex and her distinctive tones of modesty and good humor may have misled all but her best readers into thinking of her as a minor poet. But by the mid-1980s, when her longtime editor Robert Giroux published the first comprehensive volumes of her poetry and prose, the authority and scope of her work became fully apparent. Modesty and mastery went hand in hand; good humor was the useful conveyance of profound and often shattering wisdom. It is no exaggeration to say that her poems get larger and stranger and more overwhelming with every reading.

But there is a vexing problem that these new editions raise. One might call it the new biographical fallacy, born of this age of too much information. If the old biographical fallacy was the use of the life of the artist to interpret the work, the new biographical fallacy results from the impulse to lumber an artist’s work with the detritus, literary and otherwise, of the artist’s life. Correspondence, diaries, jottings, drafts, interviews—the stuff of a life in letters—are piled up for consideration, not just in the relatively circumscribed and well-understood havens of biography or critical study, but in published volumes of what is called the author’s work.

So-called “critical editions” of textbook classics for classroom use have been offering up a hodgepodge of material for some years, of course. But the practice appears to be creeping into mainstream publishing as well. One telling recent example was the 2006 collection of Bishop’s drafts and desk-scraps called Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments.* I was not a fan of this book—I felt that, despite the excellent editorial notes and the obvious scholarly and aesthetic interest of some of the material, the effect of the volume on the general reader was to offer these drafts as what the subtitle claims and what they decidedly were not: poems. In the particular case of Bishop, a well-known perfectionist, this seemed a profound offense against the sensibility of the artist herself. To a lesser extent—but also perhaps more insidiously, because less obviously—the offense continues in these two new volumes of poems and prose.

One need not be a dogmatist, a policeman of fallacies, to be troubled by this new tendency. Like everybody else, when it suits me I wallow in the old biographical fallacy, wondering along with my students about Shakespeare’s fair young patron, before then pulling myself up to scold the entire room, myself included, for veering too far away from the text. It is, as in so many matters, a question of balance. A volume of scraps and drafts from a poet other than Bishop—perhaps one from a previous century, whose body of work has been firmly established—surely would not have made me as queasy as did Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box. (But I would in any case have been bewildered by the inclusion of the more obvious throwaways.) To my considerable dismay, these drafts appeared again—this time without even the photostat reproductions of the manuscript pages to remind us of their provenance—in the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters in 2008. It was as if they had, by virtue of once being published, become a permanent part of the Bishop oeuvre, one that needed to be taken into account by all future editors, the blooper reel of a life in letters.

In the particular case of Bishop as well, we have a poet who inspired loyalty and affection among both those who knew her in life and those who have established a friendship with her, through her poems, after death. Bishop herself knew about such friendships; she claimed Herbert, Hopkins, and Baudelaire as her “favorite” poets, she said, “in the sense of one’s ‘best friends.’” Any reader, scholar, or editor of Bishop’s work is likely to find himself feeling like a friend, in part because of the warmth of her voice and the intimacy of her insights. The danger is that affection for and curiosity about the artist may turn to doting and defensiveness, both of which can overtake scrupulous editorial judgment about what can legitimately be called the artist’s work. Doting on the poet makes every single thing she ever wrote, from jokes to secondary school verses to business letters to blurbs, seem not only fascinating but “art.” Defensiveness about, for instance, Bishop’s love of women—along with a conviction that the only reason she did not publish many poems about it is that she was forced by the times into reticence—may make an editor more likely to celebrate as a “poem” some unfinished lines on that subject.

A cooler editorial head—deciding that for whatever combined reasons of reticence, manners, oppression, and repression, Bishop simply did not often write well when writing directly about sex and love (as opposed to loss, about which she wrote better than anyone)—would lead one to a different conclusion, one that would continue to support the judgment Bishop herself made, again and again, about what constituted a finished poem.


An obvious motivation for Bishop’s publisher to come out with new editions, besides her birth-year centenary, is the desire to create fuller, more inclusive collections. I for one will mourn the loss of the physical beauty of the earlier editions: for instance, The Complete Poems of 1984, designed by Cynthia Krupat with an extraordinary elegance of scale that allowed for considerable white space around the poems, a key detail for the work of a poet whose use of the strategic silence—“a space as musical as all the sound,” as she put it—was so important. (By no means are these new volumes unattractive; they are fine, and certainly better-looking than many other books being published today. But it seems important to note the passing of some particularly fine design.)

The choice in these books to add a lot of material not included earlier—numerous translations from the Spanish, French, and Portuguese, and a dubious appendix, to Poems; translations and assorted prose pieces, some published and some not, to Prose—suggests both editorial diligence and, one cannot help but feel, a holdover of that exasperation Bishop inspired during her lifetime, arising from the sense that she just never produced enough.

As is underscored in another new addition to the Bishop shelf, Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence, Bishop often drove her editors and friends nuts. She was slow; promised poems for magazines and book manuscripts could take years in the delivery. Everyone knew that her perfectionism was rarely satisfied by her efforts. Moods and booze and love affairs also slowed her down, to be sure, as did cooking, parties, friendships, travel, pets, and friends’ children in her sometimes sprawling households. And when she was not writing poems she wrote letters, thousands of amusing, charming letters. (Robert Giroux’s excellent selection from these letters, published in 1994, is called One Art.)

As for the new collection of exclusively New Yorker correspondence—I frankly have no idea what it’s supposed to be for. Although Bishop certainly felt friendship for both of her main editors at the magazine, Katharine White and Howard Moss, in these letters, dominated by trifling matters of lost mail, travel and housing plans, typos, money, and contracts, Bishop’s tone is understandably guarded and stiff. (Significantly, she and Moss refer to their “personal” letters as something that happens elsewhere—in his case, no doubt, on different stationery.)

Almost nothing that Bishop, White, or Moss has written from these files seems worth enshrining in print. There is, however, an inadvertent literary value—a tiny gift—that almost justifies the entire enterprise. On rare occasions, the writer and New Yorker editor William Maxwell corresponded with Bishop. His short, kind notes beam out of these pages like warming sunlight. In a letter of 1959, he writes that Bishop is lucky not to be in New York City during the holidays; that it is “lovely to be able to choose not to see Saks’ and Lord & Taylor’s celebration of the Nativity. I am always surprised that at Easter they don’t do the Crucifixion in papier-mâché.”

The prose of poets is the only kind that gives me intense pleasure,” he tells her; elsewhere, he writes:

We are happy to learn that there is a possibility of not only these stories but other things as well coming before long. As perhaps you forget to tell yourself when you wake up in the morning, you are the phoenix. Or if you aren’t, I don’t know who is.

It is also gratifying to learn that although, in the hilarious and terrifying passive construction of the editorial offices of The New Yorker at that time, “the vote was finally against” publication of Bishop’s great poem “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Compete Concordance,” Maxwell’s was a minority vote in favor.

Returning to the two important volumes under consideration, we can also speculate that if one were worried—as I am not—about Bishop’s ultimate place in the canon, one might be tempted to try to augment the size of her body of work with a certain amount of padding. The Prose volume in particular is burdened by material that is misplaced or simply not first-rate. That Bishop wrote a lot of informal prose has already been clear from the masses of letters, only a small portion of which were published in the more than six hundred pages of One Art.

The decision here to include all of Bishop’s 1963–1965 correspondence with the writer Anne Stevenson, a sort of biographical interview, is a case in point of this volume’s difficulties. No one would deny that some of it is interesting, nor that it would be an invaluable resource for any biographical study, but these nearly fifty pages scarcely qualify as a good example of Bishop’s finished, polished prose. Bishop was unhappy with the accuracy of what Stevenson eventually wrote, so it may be that the motivation to reprint it all here is at least in part to set the record straight. If so, that would be an example of editorial defensiveness that actually does a disservice. When a writer has produced such extraordinary, exquisite personal essays as “The U.S.A. School of Writing” and “Efforts of Affection,” and such stories as “In the Village,” why run the risk of losing sight of that prose achievement by swamping it amid essentially unrevised correspondence?

Happily, there are many wonderful pieces as well, and the editor, Lloyd Schwartz, is to be commended for rounding them up. Not only the already-familiar great pieces—in addition to those cited above, the stories “The Sea and Its Shore,” “The Country Mouse,” and “In Prison,” and the more autobiographical essays such as “Primer Class” and “Memories of Uncle Neddy”—but also essays from her college years, one of which, “Time’s Andromedas,” is an astonishing piece of poetic analysis. She did not write many reviews, but those she did are valuable and we are grateful to have them here.

  1. *

    Reviewed in these pages by Charles Simic, April 27, 2006. 

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