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The New Republic Online
Thursday, April 6th, 2006


 

Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments

by Elizabeth Bishop

The Art of Losing

A review by Helen Vendler

This book should not have been issued with its present subtitle of "Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments." It should have been called "Repudiated Poems." For Elizabeth Bishop had years to publish the poems included here, had she wanted to publish them. They remained unpublished (not "uncollected") because, for the most part, they did not meet her fastidious standards (although a few, such as the completed love poem "It is marvellous to wake up together," may have been withheld out of prudence). 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. The eighty-odd poems that this famous perfectionist allowed to be printed over the years are "Elizabeth Bishop" as a poet. This book is not.

It will be argued that Bishop could have burned all these pieces of paper if she did not wish them to see publication. (I am told that poets now, fearing an Alice Quinn in their future, are incinerating their drafts.) But burning one's writings is painful, and Bishop kept her papers, as any of us might, because the past was precious to her. Bishop did not expect to die when she did, in 1979, at the age of sixty-eight; her death was sudden and unforeseen. (Even if she had left instructions not to publish her papers, she could not rely on their being obeyed: Max Brod disobeyed Kafka's explicit command to destroy his writings. But some poets have been obeyed: Hopkins asked his sisters to burn his spiritual journals, and they did.) Had Bishop been asked whether her repudiated poems, and some drafts and fragments, should be published after her death, she would have replied, I believe, with a horrified "No."

Robert Giroux, who (according to the book's acknowledgments) asked Alice Quinn "to assemble this book," may believe otherwise, or may think that a dead author's probable opinion should not matter. It is true that regardless of the wishes of the author, juvenilia and drafts and fragments are usually published in the long run, but they are not presented as "Uncollected Poems," and thereby given parity with "Collected Poems." (The Bishop archive at Vassar, more accurately and neutrally, calls this body of work "Unpublished Poetry.") It seems to me a betrayal of Elizabeth Bishop as a poet to print items from the archive in magazines and journals as if they were "real poems" and not attempts that were withheld by the poet from just such public appearances.

One of these, recently published in The New Yorker with no explanatory note, is "Washington as a Surveyor," taken from a notebook of 1934-1936, when Bishop was in her twenties. The poem is a rhythmically awkward and semantically inert Petrarchan sonnet; its tired end-words include "love," "of," "move," and "enough," and the rhymes, except for "enough" and "unlined," are all monosyllabic (the easiest kind for a novice to make). The poem is a forced allegory, with echoes of Hopkins: its premise is that to discover love is to discover a new continent (alas, uninhabited by the beloved):

Lord, I discovered when I discovered love
That day a continent within the mind,
Unstable on the sea, boundaries unlined
Which now I slowly take the measure of.

The elements of the new continent are then sedulously worked through: coast, mountains, harbors, springs, trees, flowers, animals, rivers, clouds:

The coast's determined; the
mountains do not move;
Natural harbours and clear springs
I find,
Shade trees and fruit trees,
everything of its kind--
Even for an empire more resources
than enough.
My favorite flowers, besides,
some of each,
Yes, and wild animals who stand
and stare;
Rivers that run beyond my present
reach
The other way, and clouds that glitter
in the air.

No poetic principle (except looking for a rhyme) seems to order this inventory, and one soon wearies of its predictability. (Compare the genius of the lists in Marvell's "The Garden.") The last two lines of Bishop's sonnet represent the speaker as conquistador:

Love's flag quickly I planted on the
beach
While I explored, but the one I love
is not there.

Nothing explains why Washington is in the title, since he planted no flags on New World beaches. And the poem is full of filler: "That day," "everything of its kind," "some of each," "Yes," and "in the air." (Where else would clouds glitter?)

Although there is nothing reprehensible about a young poet's attempting a Petrarchan sonnet, there is something reprehensible in printing this feeble item in The New Yorker without explanation and signing it "Elizabeth Bishop," especially when the poem is listed (in Quinn's "A Note on the Text") as one of the "Drafts Included That Were Entirely Crossed Out by Bishop in Her Notebooks and Papers." Maybe it should have been printed in The New Yorker entirely crossed out.

Another such "Entirely Crossed Out" piece, a bar poem titled "Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box," gives the present volume its title. Although Bishop had hoped to use it to close her second volume, she did not finally include it, and one can see why. It transgresses her commitment to exactness. She says exaggeratedly in it, "The music pretends to laugh and weep/while it descends to drink and murder." And although Bishop found lifelong pleasure in music, drinking, and sex, the poem suppresses that fact, disallows gratification to these "falls":

As easily as the music falls,
the nickels fall into the slots,
the drinks like lonely water-falls
in night descend the separate throats,
and the hands fall on one another
[down] darker darkness under
tablecloths and all descends,
descends, falls,--

These well-described "falls" are followed by a lapse into moralizing:

descends, falls,--much as we envision
the helpless earthward fall of love
descending from the head and eye
down to the hands, and heart,
and down.

One can see Bishop wincing as she re-reads the flat "much as we envision" and the sentimental "helpless earthward fall of love" (with its debt to Frost's "To Earthward"). This poem, too, has recently seen publication in The New Yorker as a poem by "Elizabeth Bishop." But it is not! One asks--and one receives--more from a poem by the "real" Elizabeth Bishop.

"Writing poetry is an unnatural act. It takes great skill to make it seem natural." These are the opening sentences of an untitled and unpublished essay by Bishop included here. The poet continues with a statement of her own aesthetic: "Most of a poet's energies are really directed towards this goal: to convince himself (perhaps, with luck, eventually some readers) that what he's up to and what he's saying is really an inevitable, only natural way of behaving under the circumstances." It is precisely that naturalness that has failed in banal phrases such as "much as we envision" and in melodramatic phrases such as "drink and murder." What persuades the reader in a poem by Bishop (and what she admired in George Herbert) is the absence of such inexact extremes of flatness on the one hand and melodrama on the other. "The three qualities I admire in the poetry I like best," Bishop continues, "are: Accuracy, Spontaneity, Mystery." She wasn't always able to combine all three, and when she visibly could not combine them, she did not publish the poem.

Bishop's attraction to accuracy and spontaneity is certainly visible in the failed piece "Travelling, A Love Poem." It reproduces the banal conversation of a tourist couple: so far, so good, as an idea to start with. But what the poem lacks, in its exchange of leaden sentences, is the element of "mystery." As the couple leave their hotel room, seeing that the people across the hall have checked out, leaving the door to their room open, one of the travelers comments,

They've left, across the hall.
Let's get going.
Look, they've got the same
pictures
but their carpet ... that
aggressive blue ... Yucky.

After more of the same, the conversation ends, "All these towns have some nice old buildings." The reader is inclined to reply, "So what?" Although Bishop's accomplished "real" poem, "The Monument," is also built on the antiphonal speech of two travelers, mystery is allowed to enter, and the lines embodying it strike the heart:

The monument's an object,
yet those decorations,
carelessly nailed, looking like
nothing at all,
give it away as having life,
and wishing;
wanting to be a monument,
to cherish something.

If spontaneity and accuracy alone will not suffice to justify a poem's existence, mystery alone will not save it, either. In an early poem--again, recently published in the London Review of Books--Bishop and a companion go to the street corner to buy a newspaper, but the kiosk is bare. Instead, they find that "two white-faced angel-newsboys/With black mouths were there," prophesying war. The mystery continues:

Then we noticed a bright light
At the end of the street where
we stood,
And we saw that the street stretched
to Africa

The revealed street, and the poem, end up at the Roman Circus with "sad, sand-colored lions," and an echo of Yeats:

And in the middle of the Circus was
An ancient Roman fountain,
filled with blood.

The proper response to this bit is not "So what?" It is "You don't say!" Nobody would believe this heavy-handed mystery vision.

The drafts and fragments presented here confirm, by contrast, how in her good poems Bishop steered between Scylla and Charybdis, avoiding not only the monster of exaggeration and the whirlpool of sentimentality but also all sorts of byway rocks and shoals on which she runs aground in many efforts here. One of her dangers is sheer grief. Frost's "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader" is true enough, but Bishop's tears, when they exceed her aesthetic discipline, can wreck a poem. In a draft tentatively titled "Florida Revisited" (after the model of Wordsworth's "Yarrow Revisited"), the burden of loss becomes too heavy to be borne in the lines that represent the staying power of Florida:

[And it] still goes on and on,
more or less the same.
It has, now apparently, for over
half my life-time--:
Gone on after, or over,
how many deaths,
how many deaths by now, [and]
love lost, lost forever.

To the right of the last two lines, Bishop adds, in the margin:

many deaths by cancer,
& suicides--
friendships & love
lost, lost forever--

Here we catch a glimpse of Bishop succumbing to a bleak inventory of autobiographical fact, unable to transmute it into a poem.

In the drafts and fragments we see characteristic Bishop elements gone wrong. For Bishop, as for George Herbert, a favorite strategy was an expert management of naïveté for purposes of pathos. (See Bishop's "First Death in Nova Scotia" and Herbert's "Love unknown.") But in Bishop's unpublished elegy for her toucan (whom she had inadvertently poisoned), the chosen naïveté of expression turns to bathos:

Sammy, my dear toucan ... I killed you! I didn't mean to,
of course; I cried & cried--
It was all my fault,
Sammy, dear Uncle Sam.

I feel cruel transcribing these lines. Of course, they will not make any difference to our idea of Bishop as a poet, except to increase our admiration for her judgment in withholding such a composition from print. Quinn, in her several pages of notes on Sammy, adds more lines from the drafts, among them this bit of detail:

I thought that he had fleas
The pharmacist assured me--
It was "inoffensive"
I didn't
read the finest print
I cried, I took to my bed--

In her published poems, Bishop is very careful about factual detail; she loves it, and it is indispensable to her as a descriptive poet, but she draws the line of inclusion with deliberate finesse. Her facts have an unstated symbolic presence; think of the stove and the almanac in "Sestina," her tender and wrung reminiscence of her grandmother's kitchen. It is hard to think how she could have conferred symbolic resonance on the fleas and the pharmacist.

Are there any poems worthy of anthologizing in this grab bag of repudiated poems, drafts, and fragments? There are, and here is one of them. It concerns Bishop's slow unremarkable life in Great Village, Nova Scotia, until, when she was four, her mother (her only surviving parent) went mad, and she was left, the title implies, life-less, her spirit quenched:

A Short, Slow Life

We lived in a pocket of Time.
It was close, it was warm.
Along the dark seam of the river
the houses, the barns, the two
churches,
hid like white crumbs
in a fluff of gray willows and elms,
till Time made one of his gestures;
his nails scratched the shingled roof.
Roughly his hand reached in,
and tumbled us out.

This is slight, but it is touching, in its unfolding of a long before and a catastrophic after. The "We" recalled at the beginning are among the sedate collective frequenters of "the houses, the barns, the two churches" of the village; but the plural narrows as one house, its roof assaulted, sees its inhabitants "tumbled out" by a diabolic Time ("Old Scratch," with nails). The formerly slow life ends in violence, is rendered unpardonably "short"; the poem is like a reticent tombstone set by Bishop over her four-year-old self.

And of course there is also the certainly finished but unpublished love poem, "It is marvellous to wake up together," a copy of which was shown by Bishop's friend Linda Nemer to the poet and critic Lorrie Goldensohn, in one of those lucky moments of literary preservation. In the poem, lovers are in bed, kissing, while an electric storm "is coming or moving away"; the poet imagines the house safely "caught in a bird-cage of lightning," the sensation "delightful rather than frightening." But the poem darkens in the last of its oddly rhymed (abcbdeff) stanzas, as love, it is conceded, is always endangered by potential storms of change:

And from the same simplified point
of view
Of night and lying flat on one's back
All things might change equally
easily,
Since always to warn us there must
be these black
Electrical wires dangling. Without
surprise
The world might change to something
quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning
comes without our blinking,
Change as our kisses are changing
without our thinking.

If we look back to Bishop's desired qualities for poetry, we can say that the threatening "black mesh of wires in the sky," turning malignly into "black/Electrical wires dangling," takes care of accuracy; the opening exclamation reproduces spontaneity ("It is marvellous to wake up together/At the same minute; marvellous to hear/The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,.../All over the roof the rain hisses,/And below, the light falling of kisses"); and mystery enters with the ever-present and inexplicable menace of change ("our kisses are changing without our thinking").

"It is marvellous to wake up together" has already been accepted informally into the Bishop canon, but this is unlikely to happen with most of the work reproduced in this volume. Quinn explains that she has picked and chosen among drafts (adding still more fragments in her notes, which are oddly uninterested in the forms Bishop elected for the pieces included here). Another editor might have chosen or edited differently. I do not doubt that Quinn reproduced what she thought were the most interesting papers. ("I have not reproduced all of Bishop's uncollected juvenilia or work that is restrictively fragmentary, that does not indicate to a certain degree something of her artistic ambition," writes Quinn, hedging her bets by "to a certain degree" and "something of.") And it is true that there are glints, especially in descriptive passages, of the Bishop talent. But most of the drafts peter out, as inspiration (or will, or sobriety) flags.

Quinn reproduces several of the drafts of poems in facsimile, but in an inconsistent way: sometimes the facsimile is accompanied by a transcription into print, sometimes not. Perhaps when Quinn thought the facsimile readable, as in the case of the typescript of "It is marvellous to wake up together," she thought a transcription unnecessary. But a printed page renders a poem in a way that a photocopy of a typescript does not; and in any case a consistent pattern of reproduction should have been followed. Maddeningly, the volume has no index; if you vaguely remember that there was a poem about a baby somewhere, you have to read through four pages of a table of contents to find the title, and God help you if the part of the poem you remember is not represented in the title.

It would have been enlightening to follow Bishop's many revisions in the sixteen pages, reproduced here, of drafts of the famous villanelle, which Bishop herself published, "One Art." The reader embarks on the venture very willingly, only to find that because the (mostly handwritten) drafts are not transcribed into print, the venture is impossible. The first draft is a long, mostly readable typescript written in a free verse that is very close to prose, revealing how linguistically uninspired a poem can be in its beginnings (although we understand that Bishop is after "spontaneity" again):

You may find it hard to believe,
but I have actually lost
I mean lost, and forever, two whole
houses,
one a very big one. A third house,
also big, is
at present, I think, "mislaid"--but
maybe it's lost, too. I won't know
for sure for some time.

By draft two, the poem has sprung into a messy version of a villanelle, but the reader is at a loss trying to decipher the tiny Bishop handwriting. Drafts three through eight, also handwritten, also untranscribed and unreadable, continue to frustrate. Drafts nine through sixteen are, to the reader's relief, in typescript. In draft nine, Bishop has not yet found a form for the ending, where the poet fears to lose her most precious possession, her lover:

All that I write is false, it's evident
The art of losing isn't hard to master.
oh no.
anything at all anything but one's
love. (Say it: disaster.)

Draft ten vacillates between "(Say it.) That's disaster" and "(Write it!)". We find more variants "(Oh, write it!)" and "(Oh, go on! Write it)" in draft twelve. By draft fifteen, the poem has almost devised its famous ending, with its stoic stutter on "like":

The art of losing's not too hard to
master
though it may look like (Write it!)
like disaster.

In the printed version, Bishop deleted the italics on "it." Is it economy that forbids the necessary help of transcription? Quinn's uninformative statement preceding the reproduction of the drafts of "One Art" reads, "In a book devoted to unfinished work, it seemed a good idea to provide drafts of a finished poem." But why is it "a good idea" if the drafts are illegible? And did Quinn or her publishers think that they were doing Bishop a service by offering her in unreadable form?

There is, of course, biographical interest, if not much poetic interest, in some of these drafts. But there is distinct stylistic interest in the elegy that Bishop tried for a long time to write in memory of her Brazilian lover, Lota de Macedo Soares, who ended her life tragically by taking an overdose of pills during a visit to Bishop in New York. Bishop was never able to complete the elegy (which she envisaged as a book-length sequence, according to her application for a Guggenheim in 1977). Quinn prints a draft bearing the title "Aubade and Elegy" and three pages of notes for the elegy, the first a series of prose notations mostly about Lota's appearance and character, the second and third in poetic form but untitled. The draft entitled "Aubade and Elegy" shows Bishop inventing for the poem a manner duplicating in its unremitting and unpunctuated repetitions the crashing "black wave" to which she wakes in the days after Lota's death. The refrain for the envisaged elegy is "No coffee can wake you":

No coffee can wake you no coffee
can wake you no coffee
No revolution can catch your
attention
You are bored with us all. It is true
we were are boring.

For perhaps the tenth time the tenth
time the tenth time today
and still early morning I go under the
crashing wave of your death
I go under the wave the black wave
of your death

Your Not there! & not there! I see
only small hands in the dirt
transplanting sweet williams,
tamping them down
Dirt on your the hands on your the
rings, nothing more than that
but no more than that--

Lower on the page, Bishop has written an alternate tercet, which trails off in a desolation that only the sight of the facsimile reveals in full. (I reproduce with italics Bishop's tortured handwritten addition of the recurrent phrase, regularizing the draft slightly for intelligibility, as I have done above; I also retain Bishop's typing errors.)

The smell of the earth, the smell of
the dark roasted coffee
black as fine black as humus--
no coffee can wake you no coffee can
wake you no coffee can wake you!
No coffee
No coffee can wwake you no coffee
can wakeyou no coffee
can wake you
No coffee

Was it a hand shaking from drink or from weeping that could no longer type anything but its single obsessive phrase of loss, mistyping as it went along? The final page of the "Notes" for "Elegy" is unexpectedly moving, because on it we see Bishop trying to write part of the elegy in Spanish (not in Lota's native Portuguese, which Bishop despaired of speaking):

Yo quiero ser llorando el hortelano
de la tierra que ocupas y estercola
a las desalentadas amapolas
y siento mas tu muerte que mi

I want to be weeping the gardener
of the earth you occupy and the
fertilizer
of the discouraged poppies
and I mind your death more than my

The fragment breaks off there, with no noun to go with "mi." Nothing in English on the title page corresponds entirely to the Spanish.

I wish "Elegy"--with its potent imaginative fusion of coffee, humus, and dirt--had been finished. But there already exists an elegy for Lota in Bishop's classic late poem "Crusoe in England." Crusoe is back in England; the local museum wants his relics of the island, but now they are dust and ashes to him:

The knife there on the shelf--
it reeked of meaning, like a
crucifix....
Now it won't look at me at all.
The living soul has dribbled away.
My eyes rest on it and pass on.

The local museum's asked me to
leave everything to them:
the flute, the knife, the shrivelled
shoes....
How can anyone want such things?
--And Friday, my dear Friday,
died of measles
seventeen years ago come March.

Bishop embodies in Crusoe many aspects of herself: her love of new landscapes, her inventiveness, her humor, her desire for drink, her metaphoric whimsicality, her loneliness, and her devastation after Lota's death. Reading this collection of drafts and fragments, one is all the more grateful that Bishop, in spite of her disturbed and difficult life, was able to complete poems at the level of "Crusoe in England." 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.


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