Rummaging the Archives
Famously fastidious, Bishop worked on poems for years before releasing them for publication, her editors sometimes pleading for these hidden treasures - "The Moose" was begun on a bus trip Bishop took in 1946 and was not released until 1972. Alice Quinn, editor of this collection, might be accused of violating the poet's wishes by plundering Vassar College's trove of her papers - 3,500 pages - and publishing not only her poems-in-process but her juvenalia, memoirs and letters written to her doctor and her lover, among others.
To the cynical, Quinn might seem to be catering to the prurient interest in the secrets of a reserved poet - a closeted lesbian in the days when being gay was scandalous - or cashing in the growing market for Bishop's work. Peeking into the notebooks of a perfectionist does provide a voyeuristic kick, but more than that, encountering this material sheds so much light not only of the poet's life but her working methods that objections seem overly fastidious in themselves. "Pace" Ms. Vendler.
A few completed poems are certain to enter the Bishop canon: the deliciously hostile "Don't you call me that word, honey," the Key West poems intended for a never-finished series, a love-poem to her long-time Brazilian companion, "It is marvellous to wake up together," and the poem about an early betrayal, "We hadn't meant to spend so much time/in the cool shadow of the lime."
The Paris Review recently printed an early draft of "Hannah A.," a tribute to Bishop's Key West housekeeper and friend. The second stanza, unfinished by Bishop's standards and the conventions of the period - the 1940s - shows how she developed her lines. Astonishing today, when poetry-as-passing-thoughts occupies a privileged status, the stanza outdoes Jorie Graham for dilatory openness of form, lack of ordinary syntax, and subjectivity. It would be accepted as a finished post-modern poem anywhere:
(which although weathered
still is deeply feathered)
where the dry claws slithered
(on the shales) (slippery)
A Poet's Poet
John Ashbery - in the 1970s before she was widely read - called Elizabeth Bishop "a poet's poet's poet," and they still go to her work as to a master class in painstaking description, subtle music and emotional restraint. Poetry took directions her work presages: revisions that take place before the reader's eyes as the writer struggles for precision, recollections that eschew the confessional, avoidance of contrived closure.
At her death in 1979 she had published only eighty poems - some 300 pages. Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box - the title taken from one of her unpublished poems - brings dimension to our understanding of this reticent artist. Quinn, poetry editor of The New Yorker, organizes these samples from the archives in chronological order, from Bishop's childhood and adolescence to the years at Vassar, trips abroad, residencies in Nova Scotia, Key West, Brazil and Boston.
Particularly interesting are the photos of actual pages typewritten and corrected by Bishop herself, and the artist's drawings. But a loose quatrain, a metrical plan for a poem - "Dum ditty dum ditty dum dit" - a page of prose statements outlining a new poem, a beautiful phrase - "the moon burgled the house" - provide an intimacy with this elusive icon that for most of her readers will be welcome indeed.