Saturday, April 15, 2006

An Unnatural Act

Elizabeth Bishop's Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box

"Writing poetry is an unnatural act. It takes great skill to make it seem natural. Most of the 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"

- Elizabeth Bishop [1]

As those of you who read my other blog know, I've had fairly mixed feelings about Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box, a collection of unpublished (and often unfinished) work by Elizabeth Bishop that was released this month. It seemed to me that Bishop should have the right to decide what among her writing she wanted to publish and what she wanted to suppress, and to try and second guess her now, more than a quarter century after her death, is not simply to invade her privacy, it is also to insult her astuteness as a judge of good poetry. This is especially true for Bishop (in a way that it would not be true, should the question ever arise, for someone like Bukowski) because the whole point of Bishop's oeuvre is that she writes slow but very, very fine. Intense, almost obsessive quality is a hallmark of Bishop's poems as it is of few other voices in our century. So that to publish, in her name, a collection of poems that she never got to polish to that kind of perfection would seem to be entirely contrary to her artistic principles.

Having managed to get my hands on the book [2], and read it through, I can't help feeling that I was right. There are some real gems in this collection, but they are few and far between. Most of the poems here are too crude, too raw to be properly considered Bishop's poems. Oh, there are sparks of brilliance a plenty, glimpses of the greatness that these poems could have achieved if Bishop had only found the time and patience to work on them ("crab-apples/ ripen to rubies / cranberries / to drops of blood"), but there are also lines that make you wince (' "Tweet". Loud and coarse / the equivalent of "Dry Up!"') and a lot of stuff that seems pleasant enough, but has that rough-edged artificiality of first drafts. Many of these poems would be really good poems if they were submitted to a college magazine, but as pieces by so careful and preeminent a poet as Bishop they are a disappointment.

Should you even bother reading this book then? Once you come to terms with the fact that you're not going to be getting truly Elizabeth Bishop quality, there are a number of reasons why the collection may still be worth it. First, while consistently great poems are rare here, there are a number of poems that have stanzas of incredible power, which the rest of the poem is unable to live up to. This, for instance:

"The walls went on for years & years.
The walls went on to meet more walls
& travelled through night & day.
Sometimes they went fast, sometimes slow;
sometimes the progress was oblique,
always they slid away."

(and later, in the same poem)

"the floorboards had a nice perspective.
They rose a little here, sagged there
but went off alas under the wall.
Did they flow smooth on or meet
in the next room in a crash of splinters."

- 'The walls went on for years and years...'

or this, from the poem that gives the collection it's title:

"As easily as the music falls,
the nickels fall into the slots,
the drinks like lonely water-falls
in night descend the seperate throats"

or this, from a poem called 'The moon burgled the house - ', a delicate vision of the world going out with a whimper instead of a bang:

"the whole world turned like a
fading violet, turned in its death
gently, curled up but didn't stink at
all but gave off a long sigh - sweet sigh -"

The other exciting thing about the collection, is the glimpse it gives you into another side of Bishop, into poems that sound accomplished, but strangely unlike her. I'd posted an example of one such poem on 2x3x7 earlier, but here are some others:

"Close close all night
the lovers keep.
They turn together
in their sleep,

close as two pages
in a book
that read each other
in the dark.

Each knows all
the other knows,
learned by heart
from head to toes."

and this:

"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.

I could take that to court, honey,
I could certainly take that to court,
But maybe I misunderstood you, and besides life is much too short."

and this:

"I see a postman everywhere
Vanishing in thin blue air,
A mammoth letter in his hand,
Postmarked from a foreign land.

The postman's uniform is blue.
The letter is of course from you
And I'd be able to read, I hope,
My own name on the envelope

But he has trouble with this letter
Which constantly grows bigger & bigger
And over and over with a stare,
He vanishes in blue, blue air."

Finally, Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke Box is worth reading for the insight it gives into the process by which Bishop wrote. Copious notes aside, the book includes images of a number of actual drafts, complete with scribbles in the margins, corrections, crossed out stanzas. It's a fascinating glimpse into the workings of the black-box of poetry. And while Alice Quinn tries to make as much sense of Bishop's scribbles as she can, she chooses (wisely enough) not to edit things that Bishop has not explicitly edited herself [3], so that every now and then, you can see Bishop trying out alternate phrasings. Consider this example:

"We all need the horizon, so it hardens
in its definition: the horizon,
(if it hadn't, as they say, we would imagine it;
rather, my dear, you, being practical, would have.)

Other things that you & I imagined
were not often so obliging.
Still the horizon is unbroken.

We needed the horizon, so it hardened
to horizon, into faultless definition.
(If it hadn't


Other spoken
were not often so obliging.
Still, the horizon is unbroken."

- 'Crossing the Equator'

It seems obvious to me that this fragment is really two alternate startings to the same poem (the verse itself, ironically enough, hardening into 'faultless definition') , even though Quinn includes it as the continuation of a single poem. It's watching this process of the poem being born that makes much of this book so fascinating. Though it's not clear to me that someone as fastidious as Bishop would have appreciated us all crowding around to watch.


[1] The source of this quotation is a delightful fragment of an essay on poetry which is one of the most pleasurable finds of the book. Bishop discusses (in a sort of verbal shorthand) her views on what makes a good poem, quoting (from memory) copious amounts of Herbert, Hopkins and Auden. Great stuff.

[2] A freak chance that. I was in the library and decided to check out the new arrivals section (a weekly habit) and found it just lying there. So maybe there's something to this Early Birds and Worms thing.

[3]As a matter of fact, Quinn seems to include words / phrases that Bishop has crossed out in her drafts, but not really replaced - Quinn puts these in square brackets


Blogger Cheshire Cat said...

A vexed issue, certainly, this. I'm sure Quinn asked Bishop very nicely; silence was taken for assent.

Should we judge writers by their own standards? If so, we would have close to nothing of Kafka. Remember that line of Auden about the passing of Yeats: "he became his admirers"? Bishop herself has chosen to publish her minor work, she is allowed a change of heart...

I do believe this kind of phenomenon is more homage than insult. The very fact that minor work is seen as worthy of being published testifies to the author's standing (while lying, but then poets always lie).
Of course, there is an element of cutting the poet down to size: "See, these are mediocre, she was human too!". She lived, she was human, how extraordinary.

The examples you cite do not seem all that uncharacteristic. Less than the customary polish, for sure. But if there a unifying formal theme to Bishop's work, it is accommodating her distinctive voice to an astonishing variety of conventional forms. And there was always an element of whimsy in Bishop's work, though the tone could be very dark as in the poem or the one about Lowell's incarceration.

BTW, which of the alternate phrasings did you think worked better?

8:25 PM  
Anonymous julien sorel said...

a similar thing happened with Philip Larkin few years back. in his case, his reputation was seriously damaged.

1:44 AM  
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