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Bishop Redux

New collections of poems, prose, and correspondence by Elizabeth Bishop

March-April 2011

Some writers have an uncanny way of becoming more prolific after their deaths than they ever were while living. Elizabeth Bishop, who was born 100 years ago and taught poetry at Harvard from 1970 to 1977, published only four slim collections of poems before she died in 1979. But love for those poems--which include twentieth-century American masterpieces like “The Fish,” “Questions of Travel,” and “One Art”--has made readers eager for everything from Bishop’s pen. Her fiction and essays, several volumes of her letters, even her watercolor paintings have all been posthumously collected in books. Most controversially, in 2006, a trove of Bishop’s unpublished and unfinished poems appeared in Edgar Allan Poe and the Jukebox, edited by Alice Quinn (see “Iambic Imbroglio,”  January-February 2007, page 20). Porter University Professor Helen Vendler, writing in the New Republic, voiced strong doubts about this fattening of Bishop’s carefully dieted body of work: “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.’”

Now, to mark Bishop’s centenary, Farrar, Straus and Giroux is adding three more titles to the list. Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence documents her decades-long relationship with the magazine that published much of her best work. And the standard collections of her poems and prose--long familiar to readers in their salmon-pink and pale-green covers--are being replaced by new, substantially expanded editions. Poems, edited by Saskia Hamilton, includes everything that was in The Complete Poems: 1927-1979, and adds a group of “selected unfinished manuscript poems” as an appendix. As Vendler predicted, most of these 28 items add little to Bishop’s stature, though “It is marvellous to wake up together” does offer a rare glimpse of her as an erotic poet:

It is marvellous to wake up together
At the same minute: marvellous to hear
The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,
To feel the air suddenly clear
As if electricity had passed through it
From a black mesh of wires in the sky.
All over the roof the rain hisses,
And below, the light falling of kisses.

On the other hand, the “unfinished” work in Poems does not detract from Bishop’s masterpieces, either. Really, its purpose is to offer a tantalizing glimpse into Bishop’s poetic workshop. This effect is heightened by the way Poems offers facsimiles of Bishop’s manuscripts--in one case, to comic effect. In 1971, Bishop inscribed some light verse on the title page of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, in which she pokes fun at Claude Levi-Strauss’s recent anthropological study, The Raw and the Cooked:

You won’t become a gourmet cook
By studying our Fannie’s book--
Her thoughts on Food & Keeping House
Are scarcely those of Levi-Strauss....

The Prose has grown even more than the Poems in this new edition. It incorporates the full text of a book on Brazil that Bishop wrote for a series published by Life, as well as a selection of her translations from Portuguese. (Both are fruits of the many years Bishop spent in Brazil with her partner Lota de Macedo Soares.) For Lloyd Schwartz, Ph.D. ’76, a poet, music critic, and professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, editing the Prose is the latest expression of a lifelong dedication to Bishop and her work. Schwartz was a graduate student in English in the 1970s, when Bishop was at Harvard (see Vita, July-August 2005, page 34), and he got to know her over one Christmas break when she was sick in Stillman Infirmary. 

“No one else she knew was in town,” Schwartz recalls, “and I came to see her every day, all day, bringing her mail, and just chatting about anything but poetry: movies, records, mutual acquaintances.” Later, Schwartz suggested that he write his Ph.D. thesis on Bishop’s work: “To my surprise, because she never talked about her work, even with friends, she not only agreed (I think it was her motherly instinct), but also offered to meet with me regularly and answer any questions I had about her poems!” 

Bishop was often more self-revealing in prose than in verse; her stories “blur the distinction between fiction and memoir,” as Schwartz writes in his editor’s note. “In the Village,” with its terse recollection of the way her childhood was shadowed by her mother’s mental illness, tells you more about the emotional origins of Bishop’s poetry than anything else she wrote. She makes the point herself in the most significant new material to appear in Prose: her exchange of letters with Anne Stevenson, the English poet who wrote the first book-length study of Bishop. Here, Bishop confirms that “‘In the Village’ is accurate--just compressed a bit”; when Stevenson mentions a “sense of loss” in her work, Bishop replies, “…it is probably obvious where it comes from.” These letters also include what is perhaps Bishop’s best statement of her poetic--and more than poetic--creed: “Lack of observation seems to me one of the cardinal sins, responsible for so much cruelty, ugliness, dullness, bad manners--and general unhappiness, too.” The three new volumes testify to Bishop’s lifelong obsession with seeing things clearly.

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