Awful but Cheerful

Gillian White

  • Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts and Fragments by Elizabeth Bishop, edited by Alice Quinn
    Farrar, Straus, 367 pp, £22.50, March 2006, ISBN 0 374 14645 4

In 1940, after she’d gained the admiration of Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, and had had nearly thirty of her poems published in literary journals or book collections, Elizabeth Bishop, then 28, admitted in a letter to Moore: ‘I scarcely know why I persist at all. It is really fantastic to place so much on the fact that I have written a half-dozen phrases that I can still bear to reread without too much embarrassment.’ Bishop persisted with such dramatic self-doubt even after winning the Houghton Mifflin poetry award for her first collection, North & South (1946), and a Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for her second, A Cold Spring. Writing to Robert Lowell in 1958, she confesses to feeling ‘green with envy’ over Lowell’s ‘kind of assurance’ in the poems of Life Studies, and adds that ‘it is hell to realise one has wasted half one’s talent through timidity.’

Bishop’s ‘timidity’ is part of the reason why, at the time of her death, she had assembled fewer than ninety poems from four collections in her Complete Poems. But Bishop’s way of writing also explains it: she could mull over a draft for more than a decade in wait for the right line or word, a point dwelled on by both ardent fans and detractors. Lowell’s sonnet of tribute to her asks:

Do
you still hang your words in air,
ten years unfinished, glued to your
noticeboard, with gaps
or empties for the unimaginable phrase … ?

Lowell’s sonnet reminds us that even Bishop’s finished work records a process of hesitation. Even with the ‘gaps or empties’ filled, the work very often makes a point of its epistemological uncertainties. ‘Santarém’ (1978) begins with a quasi-apology for what might not be accurate about the rest of the poem: ‘Of course I may be remembering it all wrong/after, after – how many years?’ After a rapt description of the confluence of the Tapajós and the Amazon rivers, Bishop glibly supposes that the beauty may be part fantasy:

Suddenly there’d been houses, people, and lots of mongrel
riverboats skittering back and forth
under a sky of gorgeous, under-lit clouds,
with everything gilded, burnished along one side,
and everything bright, cheerful, casual – or so it looked.
I liked the place; I liked the idea of the place.

At the high point of ‘At the Fishhouses’ (1947), repetitions and qualifications suggest that the sea ‘seen … over and over’ is not the same sea:

I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.

Things can become mere occasions for self-report, as if there only to be seen; and yet the desire to see things on their own terms leads, at best, to a constant re-visioning of them. ‘Swinging above the stones’, no; ‘icily free above the stones’, no: ‘above the stones and then the world’. Bishop’s poems convey the feel of the gap between perception and understanding, between the grand truths we may want and can almost feel coming into being, and the rush of often bewildering particulars we actually experience. The poems do not announce this teetering on the brink of epiphany, but dramatise it, which makes it hard to convey the complexity of a Bishop poem without quoting all of it. Finding the right tone and pace for such poems, not to mention engaging in the careful observation and thinking on which they depend, demanded rumination and much revision: writing poetry is ‘an unnatural act’, she once said.

Given the standards she set herself, Bishop’s reticence can seem less a matter of timidity and more of perfectionism, a trait by now synonymous with her name, and also one that orchestrates the chorus of alternating cheers and sighs over this long-awaited edition of her manuscript materials, edited by Alice Quinn. For nearly a decade, Quinn, who is the poetry editor of the New Yorker, pored over 118 boxes containing some 3,500 pages of Bishop’s papers in the Vassar College library, transcribing and editing them into 108 poem drafts and an appendix of eight fragments or drafts of prose. Quinn also wrote single-spaced, small-print notes on the poem drafts, drawing material from a variety of sources: Bishop’s notebooks, her correspondence (largely with Lowell, May Swenson and a friend, Margaret Miller), as well as biographies and a handful of critical studies. These notes amount almost to a second book in themselves, and are sometimes more interesting than the drafts they support.

While many have been thrilled to encounter ‘new’ Bishop material, others have regretted that the drafts, some of which had been entirely crossed out, have been printed without Bishop’s endorsement. The worry over the ethics of issuing this new material attests to both the strength and the fragility of Bishop’s reputation for perfection. It also reveals how many people believe that they know what she would have wanted. Enter the spectre of Bishop’s life, which, despite the many virtues of Quinn’s edition, overwhelms the work at various points. Consider even the wording of the blurb on the dust-jacket of this book, which describes Bishop as ‘one of the great, most beloved poets of the 20th century’. Most beloved? It is doubtful that such a tag would seem appropriate to describe any other poet of the 20th century. Why her?

John Ashbery’s praise for Bishop as a ‘writer’s writer’s writer’, whose work ‘inspires in writers of every sort’ an ‘extraordinarily intense loyalty’, seems apt. And Ashbery knew that to say such a thing might be to pay ‘an ambiguous compliment’, one that implies that ‘her writing has sophistication – that somehow unfortunate state of felicity in whose toils most of us wallow from time to time even as we struggle to cast them off.’ Indeed, Quinn’s new edition compels us to go a step further, to realise that another problematic part of Bishop’s appeal involves the contrast between the work published in her lifetime – which seems so aware, as David Kalstone put it, ‘of the smallness and dignity of human observation and contrivance’ – and the pain and disorder of her often very messy life. Born in 1911, Bishop was effectively orphaned as a small child: her father died before she was one; in 1916, when Bishop was five, her mother was committed to a sanitorium in Nova Scotia, dying there in 1934, the year Bishop graduated from Vassar. Bishop was shuttled between family in Massachusetts and Nova Scotia, and finally settled with an aunt in Boston. She suffered from severe asthma and by her thirties from increasingly problematic alcoholism. In 1951 she fell in love with Lota de Macedo Soares, an aristocratic Brazilian who was the architect of Rio de Janeiro’s Flamengo Park. The two lived together until Macedo Soares’s suicide in 1967. Bishop lived in Brazil for much longer than any other one place; she was an itinerant for much of her life, and wrote to Lowell in the late 1940s: ‘When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.’

Yet Bishop worked against an inclination to self-pity. Her favourite lines from her poetry are from the end of ‘The Bight’ (1949): ‘All the untidy activity continues/awful but cheerful.’ The epigram represents more than a personal survival strategy – it’s something like a worldview. In a letter to Anne Stevenson in the 1960s (which Quinn quotes), Bishop writes: ‘My outlook is pessimistic. I think we are still barbarians, barbarians who commit a hundred indecencies and cruelties every day of our lives, as just possibly future ages may be able to see.’ She goes on to invoke George Herbert’s ‘Love Unknown’, translating his figure of the life touched by God into secular terms: ‘But I think we should be gay in spite of it, sometimes even giddy – to make life endurable and to keep ourselves “new, tender, quick”.’

Some of the drafts Quinn has chosen to print are, compared especially with Bishop’s known work, quite rawly emotional; a few are downright melodramatic. Lines such as ‘Have a martini. The great effort is yet to begin’ (from the possibly gin-soaked ‘GoodBye –’) render banal the pain of parting from a lover. We see Bishop’s unhappiness at losing things, an art she hasn’t mastered in ‘Inventory’, which Quinn lets us know is the inventory of things Bishop would leave behind in Rio in the late 1960s, as Macedo Soares began her emotional unwinding: ‘Bed, birdcage, and a chest of drawers/the biggest shell, the flat and foot-shaped/piece of granite I found myself/ … where can I take them next?’ Many of Bishop’s more personal efforts feel entirely personal; they lack the self-awareness and depth of intelligence and even feeling that make her best work worth returning to again and again. Perhaps this is why she left them as drafts. But, on the other hand, there’s ‘Keaton’, a compelling draft, which offers the fascinating possibility that Bishop’s inner Prufrock was the indomitable Buster Keaton, whose films, she wrote to Stevenson, ‘give one the sense of the tragedy of the human situation, the weirdness of it all, the pathos of man’s trying to do the right thing,– all in a twinkling, besides being fun … I think one can be cheerful and profound! – or, how to be grim without groaning.’ Here is some of ‘Keaton’:

I will be good; I will be good.
I have set my small jaw for the ages
and nothing can distract me from
solving the appointed emergencies
even with my small brain …

I will be correct; I know what it is to be a man.
I will be correct or bust.
I will love but not impose my feelings.
I will serve and serve
with lute or I will not say anything.

If the machinery goes, I will repair it.
If it goes again I will repair it again …

The rigid spine will break, they say –
Bend, bend.

I was made at right angles to the world
and I see it so. I can only see it so.
I do not find all this absurdity people talk about.
Perhaps a paradise, a serious paradise where lovers hold hands

and everything works.
I am not sentimental.

Quinn’s notes feel now and again limited by the blunt lines they draw from Bishop’s life to her work: ‘It seems evident that this poem is about her relationship to Louise Crane’; ‘Did Bishop have Pauline Hemingway in mind when she began the poem on Sable Island the previous August?’ In an interview in the Atlantic, Quinn admits that one of her aims was to include material that seems connected with the life, and also says that ‘all this material gives us more of what was filtered’ through Bishop’s ‘brain and heart’. Despite their thoroughness, the notes sometimes miss the mark. In the five pages of material on a comic poem called ‘I Introduce Penelope Gwin’ (written, it seems, in secondary school), Quinn subtly implies the poem is an early declaration of Bishop’s lesbianism. So, while the ample information she provides on Bishop’s relationship to her aunts and her thoughts on marriage (two of Penelope’s great dislikes) is helpful, it is puzzling that Quinn does not mention Bishop’s poem ‘Exchanging Hats’, which features cross-dressing ‘unfunny uncles’ and ‘anandrous aunts’, who trade hats on the beach with a ‘transvestite twist’.

What we miss is more about what interested Bishop as a poet. Or rather, though such material is amply present, it appears unevenly. In the notes on the title poem, for instance, there are four fascinating pages of Bishop’s references to Poe (and to Baudelaire’s 1852 essay on Poe), but Quinn doesn’t include any material on Bishop’s interest in Blake when annotating ‘Foreign-Domestic’, a draft that ends with a line from ‘The Human Abstract’. The Vassar archives hold references to many other writers and critics – Henry James, Hart Crane, as well as notes on modern art and scattered thoughts on narrative – that don’t make it into Quinn’s edition, and it would have been good to know more about her selection criteria.

Small quarrels aside, Quinn’s notes constitute a significant resource for both scholars and general readers (though an index, in future editions, would help). In concert with the drafts, they provide a window into Bishop’s working process. Longer excerpts transcribed from notebooks, and drafts of alternate versions, show Bishop tinkering with lines and images we know from published work (‘Cirque D’Hiver’ and ‘At the Fishhouses’, for instance), but in quite different contexts. It’s lovely to see how often Bishop began with little more than rhymes to structure a poem; ‘meddle model paddle’ is jotted at the top of a fragment called ‘Swan-Boat Ride’. There is also evidence throughout the notes of her interest in capturing the sound of idiomatic speech. In an entry from the 1940s, Bishop wonders ‘what form of punctuation to use’ for her Aunt Maud’s conversation and tries out the following:

He was a man; he was a man; not a young man: along in years; well, like Uncle and me; along in years; well, along in years. He was a man; well, George, didn’t he say he was from Boston? Well, a nice man, you know; a nice type of man; I wish you could meet him; well there was something sort of refined; not a young man; I mean he was just a nice man; better than Mabel Raite and that crowd; and oh the things he said about her!

As Bishop says in one of her prose drafts here, ‘it takes great skill’ to make poetry ‘seem natural’. The notes and drafts give us glimpses of Bishop’s breadth of reading, including blues lyrics she collected in the late 1930s as background to her own attempt at the form: ‘Don’t you call me that word, honey,/Don’t you call me that word./ You know it ain’t very kind & it’s also/ undeserved.’ From her notes on Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead comes a draft called ‘Money’, an extended play with the conceit that ‘Money comes and goes like a bird.’ Her notes on William Empson reappear in a drafted review of Auden’s Look, Stranger!

What we gain from the idiosyncratic nature of the notes is access to a remarkably wide range of Bishop’s comments and concerns, and a cumulative impression of the odd, vibrant detail of her life. I am glad to be told, for instance, in a note on a poem about watching freighters in Brazil that, in her apartment on the Boston waterfront in the 1970s, Bishop kept a telescope and a nautical journal, so she could jot down ships’ names and types as they entered the bay. And because her eye for detail was so strong, even throwaway descriptions – of her cat in the yard, drops of rain on the sidewalk – are charming. A description of a storm in Rio feels like the beginning of a poem: ‘The sea came right up across the sidewalks, over the street and to the base of our apartment house – everything covered with sand after each high tide. The freighters going by rolled sickeningly.’ We learn that in the early 1940s, Bishop decided that Marianne Moore spoke and looked a little like Mickey Rooney. Her belief that ‘tact’ was ‘the most beautiful virtue going by a minor name because that is its nature’ comes in a note on a poem which has nothing to do with tact. Then there’s the following bizarre and compelling passage, which Quinn includes because it’s the facing page of a draft called ‘The Salesman’s Evening’: ‘The man living in the advertisement knew Embarrassment to the ends of his soul … Self-consciousness because of the product everyone took him for representing & which he did not represent.’

Lately, the vogue of Bishop’s persona has threatened to eclipse her work. Some of the contents of Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box argue against the desire to track a poet’s work to its ‘real’ emotional roots; in a prose piece called ‘Writing poetry is an unnatural act …’, for instance, Bishop identifies ‘the problem of writing poetry’ as ‘the difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real; the natural with the unnatural; the curious effect a poem produces of being as normal as sight and yet as synthetic, as artificial, as a glass eye’. This is instructive, given that in some of the drafts Bishop (or her editors) chose not to pursue, ‘the real’ and ‘decidedly un-real’ seem out of balance. Quoting D.H. Lawrence in her abandoned review of Look, Stranger!, Bishop reiterates her interest in the poetic alchemy many Modernists sought, to make emotion more than personal: poetry ‘provides an emotional experience, and then, if we have the courage of our own feelings, it becomes a mine of practical truth’.

For those who doubt these poems should have been published, because of Bishop’s own tendency to reticence, it’s worth noting that she thought deeply about contingencies of literary reception and reputation in the late 1930s (the time of the Auden review), and came to realise that to want to manage the fate of one’s work, an impulse native to her, was to court a ‘dangerous purity’ (a phrase she uses to describe Marianne Moore’s work in the 1940s). ‘In Prison’ (1938) shows us a writer so keen to control her work’s reception and reputation that she has to incarcerate herself, narrowing her public sphere to her prison-cell walls and thus ensuring the terms of her influence. In another fable, ‘The Sea & Its Shore’ (1937), Bishop figures publication (which was so much on her mind at the time) as a loosing of one’s words into the air, and supposes that the possible fates of printed work are odd and many.

This may help us pitch our own responses to the drafts and poems in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box. Indeed, because Quinn has maintained the drafty look of the poems in transcribing them from notebooks or typescripts, they have a funny double character: they both do and don’t feel like archival material. One becomes keenly aware that certain drafts invite misreadings and projections. For instance, in ‘Young Man in the Park’, Bishop may be redrafting lines, or she may be after a particular effect:

Back. He put his legs through the back
of the park-bench, turning his back Back.
He put his legs through the back
of the park bench,
turning his back and turned his back
on the ships and the harbour.
He dropped his head down
and dropping his head
on the back
of his hands
The sun beat down
The sub-tropic sun beat down
on the head and his back
and the yellowing almond leaves leaves of
the false almond
fell around him fell all around him.

Many of the poems feel finished or close to finished, and though we can only speculate as to how many of them Quinn considers to be poems as opposed to drafts or fragments, her notes tell us about those Bishop sent to the New Yorker (she even gives snippets of rejection letters) and those Bishop revised extensively – ‘The Street by the Cemetery’, ‘Full Moon, Key West’, ‘For Grandfather’, ‘Gypsophilia’ and ‘St John’s Day’ among them. A beautiful poem, called ‘Salem Willows’, presents a ‘real’ ride on a mythic carousel, with Aunt Maud waiting, an unlikely Penelope:

Around and around and around.
Were we all touched by Midas?
Were we a ring of Saturn,
a dizzy, [turning] nimbus?
Or were we one of the crowns
the saints ‘cast down’ (but why?)
‘upon the glassy sea?’
The carousel slows down.
Really, beyond the willows,
glittered a glassy sea
and Aunt Maud sat and knitted
and knitted, waiting for me.

One of the best choices Quinn made was to reproduce all the extant drafts (16 facsimiles) of ‘One Art’, which shows us how far Bishop’s poems could go beyond an initially discursive, self-referential draft. In draft one, Bishop tries out titles – ‘How to Lose Things /?/ The Gift of Losing Things?’ She settles on ‘The Art of Losing Things’:

The thing to do is to begin by ‘mislaying’.
Mostly, one begins by ‘mislaying’:
keys, reading-glasses, fountain pens
– these are almost too easy to be mentioned,
and ‘mislaying’ means that they usually turn up
in the most obvious place, although when one
is making progress, the places grow more unlikely
– This is by way of introduction. I really
want to introduce myself

By draft two, Bishop has decided to make it a villanelle, but it takes her until the final draft to get the first three lines as they appeared when published:

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.

Somewhere between the wish that Bishop had been less of a perfectionist, and thus more prolific, and the wish to see only her perfect work (the cost of which would be the loss of this trove of new material), lies the ideally open-minded stance towards this collection. Such open-mindedness is what Alice Quinn’s remarkable archival and editorial feat deserves.