The mystery of Elizabeth Bishop.

Examining culture and the arts.
June 13 2006 12:43 PM

Casual Perfection

Why did the publication of Elizabeth Bishop's drafts cause an uproar?

Elizabeth Bishop. Click image to expand.
Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop was a famously meticulous writer. In a poem Robert Lowell once wrote for her, he asked, "Do/ you still hang your words in air, ten years/ unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps/ or empties for the unimaginable phrase—/ unerring muse who makes the casual perfect?" It's no wonder, then, that the recent publication of Bishop's hitherto uncollected poems, drafts, and fragments in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, edited by Alice Quinn, encountered fierce resistance, and some debate about the value of making this work available to the public. In an outraged piece for The New Republic, Helen Vendler labeled the drafts "maimed and stunted" and rebuked Farrar, Straus and Giroux  for choosing to publish the volume. But the posthumous publication of drafts is hardly an uncommon practice. What exactly is it about publishing her drafts that seems so troubling to so many?

The answer, I think, has to do with the mystery at the core of Bishop's work: the way her poetry evokes powerful, intimate feelings without devolving into mere self-revelation. Bishop chose a path of aesthetic discretion at a time when many of her peers were pursuing, to great acclaim, confessional self-disclosure. Publishing her fragments seems a betrayal to those who believe that Bishop's genius is largely a product of this reticence—who fear that coming upon Bishop in naked moments of aesthetic undress would destroy the spell cast by her poems. Their protective zeal is understandable. Bishop, after all, is a poet whose small body of work is inflected by a powerful reserve. But the concern is, I think, ultimately misguided. It wasn't concealment that made Bishop the poet she is; it was her quest for exact expression.

A midcentury poet, Bishop wrote at a time when academic studiousness was one vogue (Allen Tate, Randall Jarrell) and self-revelation another (Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton). Following neither, she carved out an original niche, a poetics of subtle observation. Bishop writes aboutthings: filling stations, radio antennae, shampooing another person's hair, a moose in the road. Her work has, as Vendler has put it, a remarkable commitment to exactness, and her primary mode is description. Consider the opening to her poem "Arrival at Santos," the first poem in the prize-winning Questions of Travel:

Here is a coast; here is a harbor;
here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery,
impractically shaped and—who knows?—self-pitying mountains,
sad and harsh beneath their frivolous greenery,

with a little church on top of one. And warehouses,
some of them painted feeble pink, or blue,
and some tall, uncertain palms. Oh, tourist,
is this how this country is going to answer you

and your immodest demands for a different world
and a better life, and complete comprehension
of both at last, and immediately
after eighteen days of suspension?

Characteristically, this poem describes a landscape in the act of being perceived, rather than as the poet has decided (or recalls) it looks. What you first notice is the accumulation of adjectives: meager, self-pitying, sad, harsh, frivolous, little, feeble, tall, uncertain, immodest—precisely the type of pile-on you're taught in introductory writing classes to avoid. But the adjectives are transformative rather than redundant, because they are deployed with such unorthodox precision—as in "tall, uncertain palms," or "feeble pink." Bishop uses adjectives not only to describe, but to anthropomorphize what she's looking at, so that what we see and what is seen are inextricably fused. Her subject, as John Ashbery once memorably put it, is the way we are "part-thing and part-thought." Seeing becomes a form of feeling.

This fusing of expressive feeling and tangible reality is Bishop's signature poetic strategy. She is, as Harold Bloom once put it, a poet of deep subjectivity. In writing about what a gravestone looks like, she is writing about her perceptions of the world—which is another thing altogether than writing about her feelings. "The gravestones do not move; but in the blended motions/ of the oleander/ its white blossoms stir/ like pieces of paper in those dark accumulations/ floating in a cluster/ in the dirty harbor," she writes in "The Street by the Cemetery," a beautiful, slight poem from Edgar Allan Poe that blends images of flowers, graves, and neighbors on their porches; by the end of the poem the graveyard has become a moving sea, rather than a place of fixity. (In a lovely touch, too, the neighbors on their porches become ship-board passengers with deck chairs overlooking waves of oleander.) If the lyric poem was traditionally thought of as a monument, a crystallization of a moment in time, in Bishop's hands it becomes a tidal inlet—contained but always shifting.

For all Bishop's modesty, her voice has an unmistakable moral clarity—paradoxically derived from her ability to evoke uncertainty. "Now can you see the monument?" she asks at the opening of "The Monument." "It is of wood/ built somewhat like a box. No. Built / like several boxes in descending sizes/ one above the other." (Perhaps the most crucial word in Bishop's vocabulary is "or," which she uses to turn self-revision into an aesthetic ideal.) Her poems are best understood as a cartography of the individual's efforts to navigate her own consciousness, a map of the effort of advancing into the exterior world while dogged by an interior life we cannot make fully legible. If Bishop believed above all in what could be seen, she also appears to have believed that if she looked hard enough, she would see more, and her poems have currents of deep feeling that are hard to pin down.

Those currents are evident throughout Edgar Allan Poe, including the drafts gathered here of "One Art," one of Bishop's most famous poems. (It even had a recent cameo in the Hollywood film, In Her Shoes.) The poem was at least partly about an estrangement from Alice Methfessel, a lover of Bishop's, and about the suicide of Bishop's longtime lover, Lota de Macedo Soares, whom Bishop had met during what she thought would be a brief trip to Brazil but became, instead, a more than 15-year stay Bishop later referred to as the happiest time in her life. Under increasing pressure at work, Lota killed herself, in New York, while staying with Bishop. Lota's family blamed Bishop for the death, and in many ways Bishop never recovered from it, though she met and fell in love with Methfessel in the years afterward. *

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

…..

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

This poem is a powerful example of reticence at work. If "One Art" were a Robert Lowell poem, it would be clear that this was a poem about a deceased lover. Instead, it conveys the situation only though a gradually worsening catalogue of lost things, until we know the terrible truth here: that the loss involves a beloved, and that it is a disaster. To make sure that the underlying mendacity of the poem is evident (without being banal), Bishop writes into the poem the struggle of the poet to say what is, to her, unsayable, expressed in the stutter of that comparative word "like": "though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster."

Bishop worked on this poem for several months *, and it wasn't until she came up with that little moment of self-consciousness that she considered the poem finished. Seeing all these drafts together drive home an evident truth about poetry: that powerful feelings do not always translate into powerful poetry. But these drafts also draw our attention to an element of Bishop's work that is often overlooked or underemphasized: Bishop did not, in fact, refuse to put her most passionate, unprocessed feelings to the page. Instead, she used reticence as a tool to lay bare deep feelings. If she knew that her gift lay more in description that in disclosure, and often found other ways of investing the poems with a sense of great pain, she also published powerfully personal—or intimate—poems when she chose to.

Yet reading Edgar Allan Poe, it's impossible not to recognize just how hard Bishop worked at rejecting imprecision—both the imprecision of unprocessed, bewildering feelings, and the imprecision of impersonal observations badly expressed. Even Bishop's more intimate poems don't count testimony—or witness—as their primary virtue. Instead, she was a powerful exemplar of a truth-telling that involved the reader in the artist's own experience of coming to understand that all truth is slippery and constantly in the process of revising itself. Vendler argues that the variety of work here will confuse fledgling poets and poetry readers, leading them to confuse mawkish drafts with perfected excellence like that of "Crusoe in England." On the contrary, these false starts warn us that it takes more than a tragic life to make a poem—indeed, that some efforts just don't result in poems. And when they do, a tremendous amount of alchemy is required. Bishop might indeed be mortified by this book (what poet wouldn't be embarrassed by the prospect of their scraps showing up in print), but that doesn't mean it's wrong to publish it. Edgar Allan Poe is an extraordinary reminder that strong feelings and striking perceptions are not art until they have been transformed by our attention to them. Mastery, the work here testifies, is the real mystery.

Full disclosure: Alice Quinn and I were formerly colleagues at The New Yorker. As a poetry editor at the Paris Review, I published some of the drafts collected in this book.

Correction, June 13, 2006: This article mistakenly said that Bishop had worked on "One Art" for many years. In fact, it was written over several months. It also suggested that "One Art" was occasioned solely by the death of Lota de Macedo Soares; in fact it is also thought to have been occasioned by Bishop's estrangement from Alice Methfessel.( Return to the corrected sentences.)

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