In response to:
A Genius Ill-Served from the March 24, 2011 issue
To the Editors:
In her review of the new editions of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems and prose [NYR, March 24], April Bernard joins the small number of critics who want to uphold Bishop’s posthumous reputation by decrying the publication of material Bishop herself didn’t publish while she was alive. These critics assume that since Bishop was such a meticulous artist, and that since she published so few poems in her lifetime (about a hundred), she would have preferred to have her unpublished work buried with her; and that it’s an act of betrayal for subsequent editors to publish this material.
But what Bishop didn’t publish in her lifetime was not necessarily work she never wanted published, and actually includes poems and essays she herself submitted for publication. She certainly felt that some of her unpublished work had value. In her will, she explicitly gives her literary executors “the power to determine whether any of my unpublished manuscripts and papers shall be published, and if so, to see them through the press.”
The poet who worked so hard on all her drafts (and kept them), who could take decades to complete a poem—including acknowledged masterpieces like “The Moose,” “Crusoe in England,” and “Pink Dog”—and who couldn’t have known that she would die suddenly at the age of sixty-eight was thoroughly prepared to have her unpublished work find its way into print. Bishop is a major writer. Like Keats, like Wordsworth, like Shakespeare, she’s not damaged by our having access to work she attempted.
Co-editor, Elizabeth Bishop,
Poems, Prose, and Letters
(Library of America, 2008)
Editor, Elizabeth Bishop, Prose
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)
April Bernard replies:
I never said that Bishop’s unpublished (or published but less than first-rate) work should have been “buried with her,” only that better choices should have been made about what now is being published, and in what context. Permission is not a mandate. And more is not always more.