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…



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