Iambic Imbroglio

Wrangling over the claims of readers--and dead poets

In 19 B.C., the Roman noblemen Varius and Tucca were given an extraordinary task: destroy the Aeneid. On his deathbed, Virgil asked his friends to burn the manuscript that he had spent the last 10 years of his life working on and that, to his mind, remained unfinished. Tradition recounts that their dilemma was soon resolved: the emperor Augustus, eager for the glory it would bring his reign, demanded publication of the manuscript. Within a few days, dozens of scribes were at work copying out the poem.

A more modern version of this dilemma occurred in 1924, when Franz Kafka, who had published very little during his lifetime, died of tuberculosis in Vienna. He left his unpublished work—novels, stories, parables, epigrams, and fragments—to his friend Max Brod with the instructions that Brod was welcome to read as much as he liked, but had to burn everything when he was done. Brod sat before a fire reading page after page of brilliant, heartrending prose. When at last he was finished, he saw no choice but to disobey his friend’s dying wishes.

Recently, the publication of Edgar Allen Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments by Elizabeth Bishop raised the perennial enigma of what to do with manuscripts a writer leaves behind. Alice Quinn, the New Yorker’s poetry editor, selected and annotated just over a hundred items from the more than 3,500 pages of Bishop’s papers preserved at Vassar College. Many Bishop admirers were delighted to gain access to such a large store of unknown poetry, more than the poet had published during her lifetime. “For those who love Elizabeth Bishop, there can never be enough of her writing,” proclaimed John Ashbery ’49, Litt.D. ’01, on the volume’s back cover. “The arrival of this trove of unknown manuscripts is therefore a stupendous event.”

Not all of the book’s readers shared Ashbery’s reasoning. Porter University Professor Helen Vendler was quick to point out, in the New Republic, that the volume’s publication involved more than one questionable decision, beginning with its very title. “Uncollected” suggested materials strewn about in various reviews, periodicals, and the like, whereas what Quinn included were items that Bishop (who taught poetry at Harvard from 1970 to 1977; see “Vita,” July-August 2005, page 34) had never published. “Had Bishop been asked whether her repudiated poems, and some drafts and fragments, should be published after her death,” Vendler speculated, “she would have replied, I believe, with a horrified ‘No.’”

Bishop was particularly sensitive to questions of completion and of publication. In contrast, her contemporary Frank O’Hara ’50 was famously unconcerned about such matters. His Lunch Poems (1964) seem charmingly dashed off, and the best of them have the happy effect of making poetry seem a natural extension of lunch. Friends and admirers gathered O’Hara’s disparate compositions (one claimed to have fished some out of his sock drawer) and late in the poet’s life, they were published to great acclaim.

In the title poem of the new collection, “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box,” Bishop reminds her readers that “Poe said that poetry was exact.” For her, too, poetry was a precise endeavor with exacting standards—so exacting that she decided against publishing the title poem itself. In one of her published poems, Bishop has a snail say, “I give the impression of mysterious ease.” And in a previously unpublished essay included in the new volume, she notes that “writing poetry is an unnatural act. It takes great skill to make it seem natural.” She frequently reworked drafts laid aside for months, years, or even decades. These unfinished fragments and drafts were in some cases kept as mementoes of the past, but just as often they were raw material for the future. What she left behind at her sudden death (of a cerebral aneurysm) in 1979 were many pieces that, given time, she might have revised to meet her standards, but that she had shown no inclination to see published as they were.

In such a case—as with Virgil and Kafka—two forces come into conflict: the wishes of the departed and the wishes of those who remain. Both Vendler and Quinn agree that Bishop would never have consented to the publication of these poems. (Lloyd Schwartz, Ph.D. ’76, Bishop’s friend and fellow poet, now professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and coeditor of the forthcoming Library of America edition of Bishop’s poems, suggests that Bishop might well have felt “flattered” by such attentions and shown considerable “understanding” for such a decision.) Quinn’s introduction stresses how, for Bishop, “meeting her own standards was almost impossible.” This is one of the reasons that Ashbery once called Bishop “a writer’s writer’s writer” and that editors like Katharine White, one of Quinn’s predecessors at the New Yorker, worked hard to coax poems from Bishop. Quinn offers this same “impossibility” as a rationale for the new collection.

Bishop’s mixture of privacy and perfectionism also lies behind the new book’s most surprising inclusion—a poem literally taken from the author. Lloyd Schwartz was in her hospital room in 1974 when she left for x-rays. During her absence, he looked into her notebook and found himself deeply moved by what he saw there—an erotic poem entitled “Breakfast Song.” He recounts, “I had to have a copy. I wanted to read it over and over. I also had the queasy suspicion that if I waited to see the poem in print, I might never see it again.” His suspicion proved well-founded; not only did Bishop never publish the poem, but it didn’t surface among her papers after her death. Schwartz kept silent about his copy for more than 20 years and then sent “Breakfast Song” to Bishop’s literary executrix, who passed it along to Quinn.

Bishop’s perfectionism begs the question of whether she really was too severe a critic of her own work. Vendler believes Bishop was not too harsh—that, with the exception of a few poems withheld because they are too personal, there are excellent reasons why Bishop chose never to publish the poems found in Edgar Allen Poe & the Juke-Box: they pale in comparison to her published work. For Vendler, the new volume not only betrays Bishop’s wishes, it betrays the standards of her poetry. Vendler predicted that “the real poems will outlast these, their maimed and stunted siblings,” and added, “I am told that poets now, fearing an Alice Quinn in their future, are incinerating their drafts.”

Other readers have found more in the collection that they deem just reflections of Bishop’s brilliance. Yet the question is not merely how many of these poems (two? three? 60?) are of the caliber of her published work; it is what the criteria should be for making such difficult decisions, once the poet herself is no longer there to make them. There can be no question that the new volume was published with care and intelligence, and in good faith—the question is only in what that faith was placed. We might invest our faith in Elizabeth Bishop’s own judgment, or in that of her literary executrix—or in the judgment of Alice Quinn or Lloyd Schwartz, or even of Bishop’s worldwide readership. Schwartz, for one, seems to favor the latter: he argues that the literary value of Bishop’s best poems is “indestructible,” and thus there is no reason not “to err on the side of generosity.”

Such generosity may extend, in a way, to future generations of poets. Earlier this year, Louise Glück, former poet laureate of the United States, told an audience at Harvard Hillel that reading the juvenile or unfinished works of great poets had helped encourage and embolden her as a young poet. One can imagine something similar happening for young readers of Bishop’s new collection. In its final form, however, her most celebrated poem, “One Art,” seems to send a different message. It begins: “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.” As Bishop made clear, the art of losing—knowing when to hold tight to things, and when to let them go—has much in common with the art of poetry.

Leland de la Durantaye is an assistant professor of English and American literature and language.

You might also like

Harvard Launches Center for LGBTQ Health

Addressing preventable causes of illness based in discrimination

Is Harvard Antisemitic?

Two reports investigate hatred and anti-Israel sentiment.

The Poetics of Homelessness

A Harvard graduate’s reflections on being unhoused

Most popular

Simple Headlines Are Better

Harvard analysis reveals that online readers tend to avoid complexity.

Is Harvard Antisemitic?

Two reports investigate hatred and anti-Israel sentiment.

John H. Finley Jr.

Brief life of a masterful House Master: 1904-1995

More to explore

American Citizenship Through Photography

How photographs promote social justice

Harvard Philosophy Professor Alison Simmons on "Being a Minded Thing"

A philosopher on perception, the canon, and being “a minded thing”