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A Guilty Pleasure: Reading the Reticence of Elizabeth Bishop

Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments by Elizabeth Bishop, edited and annotated by Alice Quinn. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 367 pp., $30.

As Reviewed By: Daniel Bosch

I. March 24, 2006

I have not read the new volume of writing by Elizabeth Bishop and notes by Alice Quinn, now published by Farrar Straus & Giroux as Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box. Nor have I suddenly been converted to the view that one can tell a book by its coverage. But I have read many of the pieces in the book as they appeared in journals such as The New Yorker, where Ms. Quinn is poetry editor, and The New York Review of Books. The appearance of this writing has occasioned in me much thought and many mixed feelings. It has raised concerns I would like to say-rather extraordinarily-ought only be expressed by someone who has not yet read the book; someone who cares a lot about Elizabeth Bishop, and poetry, and privacy; someone who can maintain his allegiance to Her Majesty Elizabeth I and yet still promise he will at no point try to convince anyone not to purchase Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box; someone who will, as soon as he finishes writing these pages, buy the book himself. That’s me.

[private]I have a specific professional interest in purchasing Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, as I am the Director of the Writing Studio at Walnut Hill, the high school from which Bishop was graduated in 1930. The publication of any book of her writing may show me, once again, and usefully, that I don’t know Elizabeth Bishop well enough. Yet being a poet, I am more interested in Queen Elizabeth’s realm than in the Queen herself or in the lands she sought but failed to conquer. Pedagogically, I support the thoughtful use of lesser works by great artists, especially alums-I have read Bishop’s “Behind Stowe” with students who live, currently, upstairs in Stowe hall. And even though I blushed when I saw the piece in The New Yorker, I’ve already dreamed of an assignment sequence involving something published as “In a Cheap Hotel . . .”, a sort black-sheep sister to Bishop’s beautifully realized short lyric “Casabianca.” It may be more interesting than the best object I will ever make, but “In a Cheap Hotel . . .” is clearly not up to the exacting standards for a poem set by Queen Elizabeth I, standards anyone can infer from a few years of reading her Complete Poems: 1927-1979. Even so, I am sure I can construct a way to juxtapose these lines with “Casabianca” in a way that will allow my students to imagine Bishop imagining. I’m sure I can find some way to use the obviously clunky aspects of “In a Cheap Hotel . . .” to celebrate Bishop’s accomplishment in her finished poem.

So even without having held it in my hands, I imagine I will find Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box instructive and useful. Yet I remain uncomfortable with the prospect of a book that proposes an expansion of Bishop’s meticulously crafted oeuvre. And though I can’t possibly have caught every piece about the new volume, I am surprised, each time I read an article about the book or an interview with Ms. Quinn about her efforts, that no one airs serious qualms about a book that exhumes work “crossed out entirely by Bishop” and drafts on which the poet noted, for example, “Tone all wrong.” The New Yorker published its share of Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box in precisely the same format it uses for poems about which there can be no question regarding impropriety of publication. A colleague of mine who has flipped through the book tells me that it presents the writing just as a new edition of Bishop’s finished, authorized works might appear: the notes are at the end, and the substantial editorial apparatus is kept backstage. In other words, I am told, one might mistake the book for a book of poems Bishop had wanted us to read.

I can’t be the only one torn about what to make of Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box (Newsday called the book “A Poet’s Newly Found Treasures,” but the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle called it “Unfinished Business.”) On the one hand, I admit that if a cache of Poe’s or Raleigh’s drafts were discovered and published, I’d expect such works to enter the bibliography, if not the canon-in part because for Poe and Raleigh I have no reason to think they would object. On the other hand, in the present case, I feel the need to ask: Am I, and are we, in any position to resist the publication of this writing as an expansion of the currency we call Ms. Bishop’s “work”? Can one register a dissident status within the readership this book would cater to, and yet find an ethical way to read and use the contents? Is there a way to read Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box that pays respect both to Ms. Bishop’s artistry and to her privacy-values that converge in what Anne Stevenson called Bishop’s “fastidious self-revision”? Clearly Bishop was well within her rights to be so picky about the work that would eventually constitute her oeuvre.

We all know that as ordinary human beings we are most of the time bad, unfinished, preparatory, fumbled works-in-progress, and that it would be worse than banal to present ourselves to the world as our failings and rough drafts. No matter how much time these “drafts” consume, and no matter how interesting they might be, they are not our preferred currency, and for good reason. To treat them as if they are is to do unto others as we would not have done to ourselves; it is also contrary to the premises of art. When one spends such matters, such “material,” one breaks an ethical code. We know that our failures and drafts are evident. We know that they get talked about. But there is nothing wrong with our desire-it’s certainly not a selfish desire, anyway-mainly, and explicitly, to aim high and be known, publicly, through the acts that proved it wasn’t vain to have such aspirations. Art and ethics converge when they articulate values greater than the self. (It’s a nice coincidence in this case that Walnut Hill’s motto, Non Nobis Solum, means “not for self alone.”)

In light of how Bishop jealously guarded what she did allow into print-she worked, off and on, for 26 years before publishing her triumphant poem, “The Moose”-our curiosity in her lesser work, even when framed by admiration, seems curious. And if the writing in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box is presented as if Bishop liked it, I am less curious than offended on the Queen’s behalf. Is there something in Bishop’s self-defined accomplishment that makes us want to take her down a notch, to humanize her? Is there something gratifying about exposing a Bishop who fumbled prosily along, as in some of these pieces Quinn calls “poems” when Bishop would not have done so? Bishop’s management of her aesthetic image may not always have accorded with a coherent vision, of course, and it may not always have been in her artistic best interest. Yet out of respect for the work, and the work she put into marshalling her “works,” I am uncomfortable about the prospect of hearing people say-based on the revelations in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box-that now we “know” Ms. Bishop better.

For that matter, I doubt even Alice Quinn thinks her book will help us to do so. Once, many years ago, I wrote (and posted!) a very cranky and stupid letter to the editor (a complaint about a poem Ms. Quinn had selected for publication in The New Yorker). In gracious response to my ill-mannered letter, Ms. Quinn sent me a pamphlet titled Poetry in The New Yorker (which happens to reprint, among a slew of wonderful poems that have appeared in the magazine, Bishop’s superb “At the Fishhouses.”) This marvelous pamphlet contains a brief essay by Ms. Quinn that closes directly after quoting a set of observations made by Robert Lowell concerning Bishop’s work. Lowell was someone who knew Bishop well, but of course he did not have the mixed blessing of access to a substantial gleaning from her archive. Quinn offers Lowell’s words about Bishop as way to think about what “all of us” want from poetry:

What cuts so deeply is that each poem is inspired by her own tone, a tone of large, grave tenderness and sorrowing amusement. She is too sure of herself for empty mastery and breezy plagiarism, too interested for confession and musical monotony, too powerful for mismanaged fire, and too civilized for idiosyncratic incoherence . . . Once her poems, each shining, were too few. Now they are many. When we read her, we enter the classical serenity of a new country.

Lowell and Quinn (quoting him) celebrate Bishop’s “many” poems-fewer than 130, before Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, including juvenilia-as a previously undiscovered land, its geography painstakingly mapped, poem by poem, by Bishop. His terms are emphatically exclusionary. It is no accident that Lowell has arrived at a way to describe Bishop’s achievement by naming kinds of work he might have assumed she drafted yet did not publish, even as her chosen, authorized poems, slowly, by accretion, grew in number and power. For Lowell, Bishop’s relatively tiny oeuvre is defined-almost paradoxically-by how far her strength exceeded and exposed the weaker strategies to which, if she were a lesser poet, she might have taken recourse. Lowell’s insistence on “too” records, even here, in his unstinting praise, an anxiety about the way he regarded Bishop as superior, more graceful with the intersection of craft and self. Lowell’s and Quinn’s Elizabeth is Queen, perhaps too imperiously, of her own tidy realm. By comparison Lowell is an ever-soliloquizing Hamlet, prince of a Collected Poems that runs to 1500 pages. Not only had Bishop dismissed Lowell’s awkward romantic notions about their future together; in his words, she seems to have attained-as an artist-the unattainable for Lowell, some aesthetic too “Cold, dark, deep and absolutely clear,” an oeuvre too well-culled.

Quinn is asked to comment, in an interview with The Atlantic, on how “the book of fragments asks us to connect the dots . . . to enjoy intervals and constellations.” Both question and Quinn’s response omit that it can only be Quinn, not Bishop, who created the distinct intervals within Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box. Nor does the comment acknowledge the substantial degree to which Bishop’s Complete Poems, 1927-1979 asks for just such a connective, interval-appreciating, constellation-defining engagement-that if such reading is what we want, we needn’t look for it in the new volume. To put it more baldly, if metaphorically, it might be that Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box offers Alice Quinn’s Epcot Center version, an experience we can have more authentically by going to the country Bishop ruled, her Complete Poems: 1927-1979. (Recall that Disney thinks it’s celebrating diversity in “It’s a Small World.”) Quinn says that when she was working with the Bishop archive at Vassar, she

never ceased to think of (Bishop’s) life as an immense victory because of the perfect poems and the beautiful prose she wrote and the arresting beauty and interest of all this material that has yet to be shared with the large, large number of readers who cherish her work.

Such a position is aesthetically viable when the writing is masterful-and some lines and images in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box must be. But it is balanced, ethically, on two questionable piers. One is that readers are qualified to judge whether an author “won” or “lost” the game of life. Yet no amount of reading Bishop’s jottings will justify such presumptions. The other pier is the notion that it is good to share, even to share things that are not yours, even to share things the maker wanted suppressed, ultimately to share things that may occlude assessment of the work that drew us toward the maker in the first place.

Reviewers claim that Quinn’s notes are exemplary. But even the pre-publication press about Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box raises concerns about “new” facts it makes available and the kind of coin people will mint from this stuff. No one except the most extravagantly self-important critic reads the chisel marks on an unfinished Michelangelo marble for clues to what made him tick in the bedroom. But unfinished poems-alas!-are made of words, the names of things and places and people associated with memories we can never share, even if we are explicitly invited to do so. The fragments and notes in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, if the samplings I’ve seen are typical, are full of biographical items sure to act as chum for prurient biographical speculation. It’s not the book’s fault, but, to run with one example, the later suicide of a college boyfriend Bishop refused to marry will no doubt turn up in a future “critical” article, mustered as a causal link in the development of a lesbian.

Elizabeth Bishop is dead. (Long live Elizabeth Bishop!) Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box is here, and no one can put it back. I for one can hardly wait to spend some time looking closely at one of the treasures it contains: facsimile pages of the extant drafts of Bishop’s mock-villanelle, “One Art.” To see these drafts, and to think about what they might show me about how to make poems, is a privilege I won’t take lightly. I’ll find much of the rest fascinating, to be sure. But I won’t be surprised if her incomplete texts prove that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

II. June 21, 2006

Closing his review of Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box (The New York Review of Books, April 27), Charles Simic cites Octavio Paz: “The enormous power of reticence-that is the great lesson of the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.” How strange Simic’s conclusion is! For though he celebrates the book’s publication and the “immense labor” of its editor, and though he rejoices in finding in it “how much emotion there was in Bishop’s poems to start with, which her tinkering tended to obscure,” he knows Paz is entirely correct. Bishop’s work, compared with that of other writers, honors reticence. And though her reticence must have had many unknown sources, we may be certain it was in large part her choice to remain silent, a choice rooted in her steadfast consciousness that there is a better way to proceed, to write, to behave.

I want to close this commentary with a few notes on reticence:

1) I remain skeptical toward Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box. I was in earnest when I wrote that I was going to run right to the bookstore back in March, but the truth is that I can neither buy the book nor buy into the rationales that support its publication.

2) I have found all of the arguments supporting the book to be sad or specious or both: reading them, I miss Miss Bishop and her reticence. I’m sorry, for example, to learn that Simic had not been able, prior to the publication of Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box, to discover the tides of emotion in Bishop’s published work. But as one who has found terrifically powerful emotional experience in Bishop’s Complete Poems, I submit that Simic’s prior difficulty must have nothing to do with Bishop’s poems, and is of a kind that could not be addressed by any number of additional volumes of drafts and suppressed materials. Peter Campion writes in The Boston Globe that those who would object to the publication of Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box are “short-sighted.” But when does a long view about respecting an artist’s wishes take effect, exactly? Does such a perspective automatically correspond with the willingness of the estate to enter into the marketplace? Or does it arrive only at the expiration of copyright? I wonder if Campion would have cheered publication of Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box during Bishop’s lifetime? What, in the end, do any artist’s wishes amount to, if the end of everything is full disclosure? Meghan O’Rourke, writing for Slate, discloses that she had, as an editor at The Paris Review, published some of the writing in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box, and claims that readers who object to publication of Bishop’s drafts do so not on general grounds but in particular, because of “the mystery at the core of Bishop’s work.” O’Rourke says our “protective zeal” is too invested in a vision of Bishop as a poet of “powerful reserve.” Yet when she tries to establish that “Bishop did not, in fact, refuse to put her most passionate, unprocessed feelings on the page,” O’Rourke chooses “One Art” as an example of what she means by “unprocessed”! O’Rourke concludes: “Bishop might indeed be mortified by this book . . . but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to publish it,” because the “false starts” in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box “warn us that it takes more than a tragic life to make a poem.” But who needs such a reminder (at 30 dollars a pop)? Surely Bishop’s reticence was a much sterner warning.

3) I am determined, shamefacedly, to overcome my own reticence in writing reviews and comments. The opening paragraphs here-whatever their other faults-now seem to me gutless throat-clearing. How delighted I was, in March, to present my own muddling through of the incorrigible situation created by the publication of Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box. There I go, pottering about, careful to acknowledge, on the one hand, the potential usefulness of some of the writing in this volume, and yet careful to deplore the commodification of Bishop’s unpublished works and the contravention of so many years of her artistic practice.

I read Helen Vendler’s review of Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box in The New Republic of April 3 with self-recognition and a bit of horror. I am not Helen Vendler, nor was meant to be. Vendler writes from power:

Students eagerly wanting to buy ‘the new book by Elizabeth Bishop’ should be told to go back and buy the old one, where the poet represents herself as she wished to be known….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.

Unlike O’Rourke, or Campion, or even Simic, she need not make nice with an Alice Quinn or a Farrar Straus & Giroux. Vendler’s lack of reticence, her ability to step up and to stake her claim, clearly and vigorously, exposed for me the vapidity of my own earnestness. What exactly was my interest in presenting a persona who would promise not to follow through on the moral objections he was just about to raise? What else but the creation of some slack space in which to enjoy the prospect of a guilty pleasure. Not every reticence is powerful.[/private]

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Daniel Bosch is Director of the Writing Studio at Walnut Hill. His poems, reviews, and translations have appeared in Agni, Slate, Boston Review, Partisan Review, and other journals. His book Crucible appeared in 2002 from Handsel Books.

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