• Email
  • Print

A Genius Ill-Served

Poems

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

Prose

by Elizabeth Bishop, edited by Lloyd Schwartz
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 507 pp., $20.00 (paper)
bernard_1-032411.jpg
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

1.

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.

2.

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.

The only other serious quarrel I have with the Prose volume has to do with the inclusion of one hundred pages of Bishop’s book on Brazil. Bishop, who lived in Brazil for fifteen years, wrote this for the Life World Library series, as one of those oversize reference slabs of photos and text. The book that was eventually published in 1962, a copy of which I own as a curiosity, was heavily edited and shaped into the publisher’s house style. Again, it is entirely understandable that an editor would want to redeem Bishop’s good name by bringing her text, painstakingly recreated from archival drafts, to light.

Unfortunately, even Bishop’s original version, although more nuanced, interesting, and politically insightful—and doubtless a text one happily would have read in the 1960s if one were about to travel to South America—is just not very good. Whatever Bishop’s other virtues, she did not have Mark Twain’s particular ability to transform the workaday business of travelogue into art. To be fair, it’s hard to imagine even Twain making anything fresh out of the deadly requirements of turning out encyclopedia prose. Reading Bishop’s dutiful, plodding pages about the Brazil she loved, one feels as though one were watching a slightly barbaric spectacle—something like a racehorse harnessed to blocks of concrete for the pony-pull at the fair.

The Poems volume is also padded out, mostly with translations. Bishop herself included some in her volumes of poetry; she took the task of translating very seriously, and in 1969 she coedited and wrote the introduction for an anthology of Brazilian poetry in which several of her translations appeared. I wish that the presentation in Poems had placed the translations in a group at the end, as an appendix; not because they are less than excellent, but because even the best of them—Octavio Paz’s “Objects and Apparitions” and one or two others—are nonetheless not at a level of art commensurate with Bishop’s own great poems. But this is a minor point.

What is not minor is this volume’s actual appendix. I regret to say that here, once again, we see a selection from the stuff first published in Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box. Fortunately, these selections are not enshrined in the main part of the text; moreover, their status as manuscripts is made clear, thank goodness. But to have to see them at all, some of them so utterly unworthy of inclusion—the intense rambling lines about a childhood memory that end with the writer confessing “I’m half-drunk now”; cute personal love notes such as the one that begins “Dear, my compass/still points north”; another that includes the cringe-making lines “My love, my saving grace,/your eyes are awfully blue”—is to worry, deeply, about the misdirection of readers.

3.

Of course it stands to reason that, as with so many other troubles besetting literary publishing, the electronic media are forcing changes in attitude and practice. However much one may admire the original democratic spirit animating the proliferation of texts on the Internet, it is hardly a new observation that some terribly important values, having to do with context and selectivity, are being lost. In an age when research libraries devote much of their resources to making everything, including manuscripts, readable online, it seems downright quaint to be complaining about what one impatient undergraduate recently referred to in my presence as “page poetry.” But I would argue that it is precisely on the pages, in the books still being made, where we have the ability and the obligation to select and to offer context; to say, this is the book of Bishop’s poems; this is a book of her letters; these are her first drafts and discards and used Kleenex, which the writer entrusted to her estate to place in a research library for the use of scholars.

To be accurate, on at least one occasion Bishop urged a friend, into whose hands she gave many of the papers from her years in Brazil, to hold on to them and “get a good price” for them. She who always worried about money was excited by the sums she had heard some writers were getting from the sale of their papers. But she could not possibly have conceived of, or guarded against, the eventuality of her drafts elbowing their way into the pages of her actual books. In her essay “Efforts of Affection,” about her friend and mentor, the poet Marianne Moore, Bishop memorably wrote of how the older poet inspired her:

I never left Cumberland Street without feeling happier: uplifted, even inspired, determined to be good, to work harder, not to worry about what other people thought, never to try to publish anything until I thought I’d done my best with it, no matter how many years it took—or never to publish at all.

Bishop registered dismay when in 1948 Moore, to accompany a piece in The Hudson Review, permitted some of her rough drafts and notebooks to be pictured. “I don’t think she should have let them use them like that,” she wrote in a letter.

I cannot abide this adulation of “work in progress” stuff, and that photograph of the “little worn old books” etc. seems to me a real tearjerker that should not have been allowed until after Marianne’s death.

Bishop could not have imagined published volumes of her poems and essays accompanied by “work in progress” or, even worse, throwaway scraps.

4.

Let me not miss this chance to celebrate Bishop’s achievements in this her centenary year. I can think of no better way than by revisiting, and thinking for a moment about, what makes her poetry so great. There are not quite one hundred finished poems that represent her work; these seem to me more than enough to read and reread for a lifetime of instruction, heartbreak, and delight. The first poem on the first page of her first book—which can be seen by readers of the new Poems in the same appropriate place—is called “The Map.” Its first stanza reads:

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?

Here, at the outset, is the breathtaking surety of the voice that dares to offer apparent unsureness, inviting the reader to wonder along with it, in a kind of simulation of “real time,” as if the poem were being composed under our very eyes. Here is the understatement, the precise diction that looks deceptively casual; the verbal conflation of “shallow” with “shadow”; the noun “land,” given the verbs that would go naturally with its invisible rhyme “hand”—“lean down to lift,” “drawing,” “tugging.” Here is the characteristic modulation of English iambics, gently adapted to a speaking voice that holds the line without buckling into any awkward rigidity. Here are Bishop’s unobtrusive rhymes, including the hypnotic effect of words that rhyme with themselves. (She did not always rhyme in her poems, by any means; but when she did, the English language’s lack of rhyme resources never bothered her; she often rhymed on a slant, and never let the rhymes nail down the lines too tightly. She rhymed so playfully, so variably, it was as if she were adding little waving gestures to a dance.)

The poem goes on, for two more stanzas, to study and ponder the map, to speculate about the excitement of the map’s maker, to wonder about the colors chosen for different countries, finally subsiding to a characteristic close:

Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.
More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.

Almost imperceptibly, Bishop has opened our vision out from the close contemplation of an object to the greater vision of the world itself, in thrall to history and time and their implicit violence. We are to appreciate the delicacy of the map itself in light of the cruder world for which it stands as imperfect, because too beautiful, emblem.

As in so many of her poems, Bishop brings us to such a place of utter poise, balancing between the real and the ideal, which is artifice; between the dreamt-of and the impossible; between love and loss; between sleep and waking; between solitude and communion. The other poems to which I return most often are “Cirque d’Hiver,” “The Unbeliever,” “At the Fishhouses,” “The Bight,” “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” “Questions of Travel,” “Song for the Rainy Season,” “The Armadillo,” and virtually all the poems in the last collection she produced before her death, Geography III. She had made “questions” of travel and geography into her own subjects of poetic meditation; it should be no surprise that memory, the return to the geography of childhood itself, was also a central theme. In the poem from that last collection called “Poem,” Bishop makes the relationship between memory and the making of art explicit. The poem examines a “cramped, dim” painting by a relative that makes everything remembered both deeply familiar and utterly, permanently strange.

Here, as with “The Map” and many of her other poems, Bishop introduces the reader to an object and then invites him to explore it with her, as if they were sitting side by side:

It must be Nova Scotia; only there
does one see gabled wooden houses
painted that awful shade of brown.
The other houses, the bits that show, are white.
Elm trees, low hills, a thin church steeple
—that gray-blue wisp—or is it? In the foreground
a water meadow with some tiny cows,
two brushstrokes each, but confidently cows;
two minuscule white geese in the blue water,
back-to-back, feeding, and a slanting stick.
Up closer, a wild iris, white and yellow,
fresh-squiggled from the tube.

After peering at the painting and its paint, as if merely chatting, the speaker announces, in line 22: “The air is fresh and cold.” So completely are we in her thrall that we believe her; we have walked into the painting (just as we have already walked into the poem) and feel the air on our faces. For the rest of the poem, we will, along with the speaker, maintain this preposterous balancing act: between the surface of the painting and the sensual reality of grass and water and trees and sky; between the words that are the surface of the poem and the plunge into memory that it offers up. It becomes our memory; it stays her memory; it is a place; it is a painting; it is a poem.

No other poet has ever achieved quite this degree of alchemy, while gently insisting that of course alchemy is not possible. It is paint; it is paper; but it is life, too. It is “the little that we get for free,” and after all—miraculously, alchemically—it does not fade.

Letters

More From Elizabeth Bishop? May 26, 2011

  1. *

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

  • Email
  • Print