Gleanings from the Cutting-Room Floor: Alfred Corn on 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: Alfred Corn

When the American Library edition of the poetry and prose of Wallace Stevens appeared in 1997, editors Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson took an inclusive approach and published beyond the accepted Stevens canon many poems that had never been printed. Stevens admirers didn’t object to the omnium-gatherum aspect of the volume, even though numbers of the poems making their debut were startlingly below his standard. Among the newly exposed poems was a 1900 sonnet inscribed in Stevens’s journal, and then crossed out, to which the novice appended a note saying, “Sorry I wrote it-sorry I crossed it out.” Kermode and Richardson apparently responded to the second sentiment and rescued the poem from oblivion.

[private]By contrast, this new volume of uncollected poems by Elizabeth Bishop has been sharply criticized for offering to public scrutiny poems she never intended to publish. You can’t help wondering, Why Bishop and not Stevens? It must be that those who love Bishop feel a certain participatory pride in her achievement and take personally any exposure of her failings. During her life, she managed to inspire protectiveness in those close to her, a circle of intimates always ready to run interference against bores and detractors. Because of her unreliable health and her alcoholism, she accepted the assistance of her swat team, which probably allowed her to get more work done than she otherwise might have.

Maybe it isn’t entirely vain to speculate how Bishop would have regarded those who reproach Alice Quinn for having produced this book. My guess is that she would have deplored the book, at the same time making ironic comments about her defenders. Very likely Stevens’s “Sorry I wrote it-and sorry I crossed it out” would exactly describe her feelings about most of these poems. Some of the inclusions in fact reproduce drafts written in a journal and then crossed out, but still legible. Anyone who writes knows that, if you can’t tear out and burn a notebook draft, you can still, with a sufficiently thick pen, obliterate the page and render the text unreadable. A single bar line doesn’t amount to annihilation. Stevens even so early as 1900 must have assumed he would have posthumous readers; otherwise, who is being addressed in his apology? A certain presumption, bordering on narcissism, goes into the psychological make-up of writers; they have to take for granted that private struggles and ecstasies, in the verbal form devised for each case, matter enough to be published and read by strangers. But narcissism isn’t uniform; it acts by degrees and involves repudiations at greater and lesser intensities. At the pinnacle of self-esteem is the Selected Poems, works embodying a standard of excellence the writer would like to be judged by. The totality of published volumes would include poems reckoned as less strong, though not altogether repudiated. Roughly the same applies to poems published in magazines and never put in hard covers during the author’s lifetime-unless of course the author makes some sort of public recantation, as Auden did with his poem “Spain.” Bishop’s earlier The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 contains several magazine appearances that went uncollected while she was alive, along with some poems (what’s called vers de société or “occasional verse”) that were only given to friends and never published anywhere. The decision not to publish doesn’t establish a zero value for them either in her eyes or ours; she knew they would be saved and read, eventually by readers outside her circle of friends.

The next degree of repudiation applies to a large number of the poems Alice Quinn has collected here, holograph drafts and journal entries probably never seen by anyone but the author before her death. Still, since she didn’t obliterate or destroy these texts, they cannot be classed as wholly repudiated, not even the poems crossed out in her journal with a single line and reconstituted here by Alice Quinn. Narcissism or self-regard even at the weakest degree prevented her from burning the draft or making it illegible. In fact, it’s not hard to sympathize with an author who, though she sees the insufficiency of a text she has produced, still wants to keep it available to herself or to readers coming after. Why does she? Because it is her own utterance and conveys some aspect of the truth about her. Also, it may assist scholarly critics to understand her and other more successful poems actually published.

The volume will certainly be valued, then, by professional literary critics, who will no longer have to travel to Vassar where the Bishop papers are kept to gain access to these drafts. And there’s more. Though I have been an assiduous reader of Bishop’s poems, prose, letters, and the biographical and critical works about her, Alice Quinn’s introduction and notes to this book bring forward some perspectives that seem new, though I suppose the newness most often derives from careful juxtaposition and marshaling of fact and critical comment rather than the discovery of information and contexts previously unavailable. Some of the poems included are printed as photo-reproduction facsimile of the original holographs, often because there would be no convenient way to reproduce in standard typography the labyrinth of deletions and insertions Bishop made on the page. Visual clues so provided may give access to Bishop’s intentions as well as insight into the compositional process. In one case, we get a sample of Bishop’s charming drawings, done in the margin of the poem “Dear, my compass . . .,” a love poem sent to a romantic friend in Ouro Prêto. As a poem, slight; but as a document that amplifies our understanding of Bishop’s life and her excursions outside the primary relationship with Lota de Macedo Soares, it’s valuable, not something to be sneered at.

Actually, we are given several poems that were written to lovers at different moments in Bishop’s history, and left unpublished probably because she knew they would be regarded as sentimental or else would somehow disclose the unacceptable gender of the beloved (even though the latter is always invoked with the ungendered “you,” never with “she”). One of the love lyrics, “It is marvellous to wake up together . . .” is a fully achieved poem and should have appeared in Bishop’s lifetime, though we can understand why it didn’t. Others are more sentimental, like “Breakfast Song,” which, because Poetry is a great and solemn undertaking, must be excluded from consideration in its hallowed, marble-modernist precincts. Reading these, however, you may decide that sentiment has its place in a full and generous life, a life that can sometimes make Poetry feel like a chore best suited for ascetics with set jaws and for whom friendly laughter is beneath dignity.

Because some of the poems or prose reflections use phrases or touch on themes successfully reconceived in later works belonging to the established canon, a careful scrutiny of this book won’t fail to change our reading, to some degree, of that canon. For example, a prose comment extracted from a notebook Bishop used in the 1930s:

Prose = land transportation

Music = sea transportation

Poetry = air transportation (in its present state)

It is hard to get heavy objects up into the air; a strong desire to do so is necessary; and a strong driving force to keep them aloft.

Some poets sit in airplanes on the ground, raising their arms, sure that they are flying.

Some poems ascend for a period of time, then come down again; we have a great many stranded poems.

This is both funny and astute. It may also affect how we read Bishop elsewhere-for example, the conclusion to “At the Fishhouses,” with its musical evocation of the sea, or her late poem “Five Flights Up,” in which she describes the strain of beginning a day, “a day I find almost impossible to lift.” A described day in the life is also the “day” of poetry, which will not levitate of its own accord. The late Bishop favored qualifying adverbs like this “almost” or the concluding “too” in “One Art”‘s “The art of losing’s not too hard to master.” So it makes sense to see the poems in this volume as “almosts,” near misses Bishop was insecure about and therefore unwilling to expose to public view during her life.

That isn’t to say we won’t find them fascinating and sometimes good enough to be added to the established canon. It would have been too bad if the poems had been “crossed out” forever. There’s even the possibility that a younger readership, habituated to a more hazarded, gestural poetry, may like some of the poems in this volume more than those in the canon, poems whose finical and letter-perfect quality have perhaps always seemed too chilly for them. All things considered, it’s surprising that we’ve seen so much controversy, played out in polemical reviews and even a New York Times article based on interviews with poets and critics polled on the subject. Some of the poets queried about their own early drafts and discarded poems said they burned them, so as to avoid the calamity that has posthumously overtaken Bishop. Which presumably means they are frightened of having some sort of authorial clumsiness exposed. I find that strange, especially considering the sensational nature of so much poetry now published. It’s as though we needn’t be embarrassed if we write about kinky sex, mental illness, or murder so long as the texts available for inspection appear impeccably composed. The implication is that poems, whether the subject matter is the formal topiary garden or child abuse, emerge fully formed at one go, like Athena springing as a stylishly tunic’ed adult from the brow of Zeus. But no experienced writer expects that. To burn early drafts suggests a train of thought on the order of: “If I destroy these things, people will never realize what a dolt, what a hapless scribbler I really am, one who can achieve respectable readability only by dint of enormous labor, a sweaty, TV-wrestler process of revision. I’m not willing to be known as ever having written a single bad line or stanza.” This is probably more of a defense-reaction to the mean-spiritedness of critics, present-day or posthumous, than a reasonable attitude toward the messy process of creation.

It may even be an attempt to lend credence to the theory that the poet is only a channel, taking dictation from the Muse. But who wants a dictator Muse? Much better a series of conversations with her, gradually homing in on what we realize we want to say. Once an acceptable form for the text is attained, we publish it, without being under any constraint to cover our tracks. Bishop seems to have an unembarrassed sense of the process, to judge by the draft of a poem here titled “Letter to Two Friends,” where she asks Marianne Moore to lend her a noun, and Robert Lowell to “cable a verb.” She says:

the poem I was trying to write
has turned into prepositions:
ins and aboves and upons
[overs and unders and ups]

what am I trying to do?
Change places in a canoe?
method of composition…

is anything but methodical, we’re tempted to conclude for her. There’s no harm in being allowed in the workshop to see all the untidy activity going on there, the same writerly process that more accomplished poems like “The Bight” and “12 O’Clock News” have rendered brilliantly. They and their co-masterpieces justify this new assemblage of texts Bishop chose neither to offer to the general public nor forever banish from inspection at some moment in the future. Besides, these gleanings from the cutting-room floor are often funny and perceptive on their own account; and I can’t imagine who’d want to forgo a lift in spirits when made as readily available as in this book.[/private]

About Alfred Corn

Alfred Corn is the author of nine books of poems, the most recent titled Contradictions, which appeared with Copper Canyon Press in 2002. He has published a collection of critical essays, titled The Metamorphoses of Metaphor and a novel, Part of His Story. In 2001 Abrams brought out Aaron Rose Photographs, for which he supplied the introduction. Fellowships and prizes awarded for his poetry include the Guggenheim, the NEA, an Award in Literature from the Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and one from the Academy of American Poets. For 2004-2005, he holds the Amy Clampitt residency in Lenox, Massachusetts.
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