Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Bishop Book Controversy + Poem: Elizabeth Bishop

BishopA poetry post: A few days ago, the New York Times reported on the brouhaha surrounding Farrar Straus & Giroux's recent publication of a volume, ""Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts and Fragments," by the late Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979).

In her lifetime, Bishop, who is widely regarded as one of the major English-language poets of the 20th century, only published 90 poems total, across several collections, but these pieces are generally held by fellow poets and many scholars to achieve a linguistic precision and formal perfection that few other, far more prolific American poets ever match in their total output. A deliberate, meticulous stylist, Bishop did not issue volumes unduly, and in the case of some of the poems that appear in this volume, it appears she crossed them out completely in her notebooks, though she did not destroy them or, as writers such as Kafka did, order that her executors destroy them.

Alice Quinn
, the extremely powerful and influential poetry editor of the New Yorker, assembled the collection at former Bishop editor Robert Giroux's suggestion, and it has already provoked at least one harsh public critique, by the equally powerful and influential Harvard poetry scholar Helen Vendler. Her scathing review in a recent issue of the New Republic, "The Art of Losing," included the assertion that "in the long run, these newly published materials will be relegated to what Robert Lowell called "the back stacks," and this imperfect volume will be forgotten, except by scholars. The real poems will outlast these, their maimed and stunted siblings." As if that weren't acidic enough, she added: "I am told that poets now, fearing an Alice Quinn in their future, are incinerating their drafts." The Times could not get further commentary from her, but did note that because of Quinn's position few other poets, including people who've written extensively about Bishop, would dare go on the record criticizing the book, though the highly lauded poet Frank Bidart, who was a friend of Bishop's and a student and the editor of her close friend, Robert Lowell, did imply that Bishop would have not have minded, while Billy Collins, the former poet laureate, states that perhaps Bishop's Complete Poems, which came out in 1979, should have been her epitaph and added that he always deleted his earlier drafts. The newspaper also notes that New Yorker editor David Remnick has issued a mild mea culpa for featuring one of the poems, "Washington as a Surveyor," without a note that the work was previously unpublished, though anyone even vaguely familiar with Bishop's oeuvre would have been able to guess this.

I would like to look closely at this collection. I usually am in favor of the publication of posthumous texts, whether of completed or incomplete work, unless the author has explicitly asked that this not be done, though in all such texts the work should be thoroughly contextualized as unfinished or unpublished for one reason or another. Such texts are often very instructive for authors who read them carefully. Albert Camus's The First Man, Pier Paolo Pasolini's Petrolio, and Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth (which provoked some controversy itself) are three such novels that come to mind. It also made me think about my own drafts, which I usually keep but which I only periodically organize, a problem that has led to occasional (personal) confusion at times about which draft is the final one. Like some of the writers I most idolize, I am rarely convinced that my work is finished, unless it is published in a complete volume (which is to say, not a journal or anthology, but a book of which it is an integral part), at which point, I suppose, it belongs to the world.


Here is one of the briefest and most exquisite little poems in Bishop's The Complete Poems, 1927-1979, "Sonnet. It's one of the last poems she wrote, one of several in this form, and perhaps not as well-known as some of her truly famous poems like "One Art," "Sestina," "The Moose," "The Bight," "The Armadillo," "Crusoe in England," "The Man-Moth," and "At the Fishhouses," to name some of the most memorable ones. It's less expansive in many ways than any of these others, and yet captures central aspects of Bishop's life and art in its 14 lines.


Caught--the bubble
in the spirit-level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
Freed--the broken
thermometer's mercury
running away;
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
flying wherever
it feels like, gay!

Copyright © Estate of Elizabeth Bishop, from The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 (New York: FSG, 1979).

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