What You Don’t See

[frame align=”right”][/frame]In 2006, Farrar Straus and Giroux published Edgar Allan Poe and the Jukebox, a medley of previously uncollected work by Elizabeth Bishop (edited by Alice Quinn, poetry editor of The New Yorker and executive director of the Poetry Society of America). Running to over three hundred pages, it’s a bigger book than any book of poetry Bishop published in her lifetime and includes all sorts of things: juvenilia, scraps of unfinished poetry, and prose pieces of many kinds, in varying degrees of completion. “For those who love Elizabeth Bishop, “ said John Ashbery (perhaps a tad disingenuously) in the back cover blurb, “there can never be enough of her writing. The arrival of this trove of unknown manuscripts is therefore a stupendous event.”

Not everyone agreed. Critic Helen Vendler, for example, writing for The New Republic, said, “This book should not have been issued with its present subtitle of ‘Uncollected Poems Drafts, and Fragments.’ It should have been called ‘Repudiated Poems.’ Students eagerly wanting to buy ‘the new book by Elizabeth Bishop’ should be told to go back and buy the old one, where the poet represents herself as she wished to be known.”

[frame align=”left”][/frame]Not all critics were as fierce as this, but nearly all the reviews I’ve been able to locate, agree that this is not a book Elizabeth Bishop herself would have published. A well-known perfectionist, Bishop was justly famous for the near perfection of what she put out for publication. Perfection in artistry, perfection in tone. The work presented in this last book includes things she had been holding without working on or showing to anyone for over ten years. In other words, the slush pile. It appears that if a writer is well-known enough, any work that hasn’t been expressly hidden from publication, is fair game. Would Bishop have cared?

Should we? Frankly, I wish nobody’s juvenilia ever got published, but that’s just me. As for Bishop’s reputation, well, any damage this book might have made is probably long over – unless, like the effects of radioactive spills, it’s doing quieter, more long term damage. Either way, I think the argument is effectively over. It’s out here – Bishop is still a very important poet – and there’s much to delight.

I say that not just because I agree with Carol Rumens, who wrote in The Guardian, “One of the delights of the book for the general reader is that sense of access to the sanctum sanctorum usually reserved for the academy. Facsimiles give you the texture of the paper, the curvature and impress of the hand. There are scribbles and finished drawings, jotted thoughts in prose.”

I concede that particular delight (who wouldn’t — except maybe Helen Vendler?) but the delight I’m talking about is a different one. And it’s also not just the pleasure of looking at the slush pile of someone whose talent was galactic, but whose unloved (but not discarded!) work cries out for remedy just as much as any of the failures the rest of us have sustained. Who can’t love that? But it’s something more. It’s about that magic which is in revision. This is not to define it (as if one could!) but just to point to the wonder of finding its possibilities lurking.

For example, in the title poem, “Edgar Allen Poe & the Jukebox, ” which, tsk, tsk, contains the weak simile, “blue as the pupil/of a blind man’s eye,” there are also these four wonderful lines:

Poe said that poetry was exact.
But pleasures are mechanical
and know beforehand what they want
and know exactly what they want.

Those lines, these harsh but uncanny lines, seem to me to speak with the clarity and precision for which Bishop is so justly famous and yet, there they are without a home. I wish she had figured out how to make the poem around them. She had the title all right. Where’s the rest of it? There is almost as much pleasure in suspecting that poem as there is in looking at her truly finished work. Or something akin to it anyway. “What you see is what you get,” is one of those great American sayings. But looking at the process of this still amazing poet, I would maintain that sometimes what you don’t see is also what you get. This book is worth looking at and it’s still available, if not at your local library, then at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, or your really discerning local book store.

Susan Shafarzek

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