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Bishop revisited

By Stephen Burt

When that big collection of Bishop’s drafts and scraps came out five years ago, I was unfavorably disposed towards it, though not as unfavorably as some: I didn’t like the omnium-gatherum feel, the every-scrap-of-paper-is-as-precious-as-any-other-because-the-Great-Poet-touched-it sense that its reception (not so much the edition as the reception) gave, and I was tired of reading poets younger than she, but older than me, who had spent most of the years since her death imitating and imitating and grinding all the life out of her style.

But now I’ve had occasion to take a long look at the Library of America version of Bishop, edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz, with all the poems she published in her lifetime, judicious culls from the posthumous haul, and most of her published prose– more than we got in the old blue-green collection– and you know what? none of the posthumously published verse is as good as “The Armadillo” or “Song for the Rainy Season” or “Poem” or “The End of March,” and none of the new-to-most-people, not-previously-collected prose is as good as the best letters or “The U.S.A. School of Writing,” but they can be amazing anyway.

For example, the indirect bitterness and the very cautious observations in “Suicide of a Moderate Dictator,” which looks finished to me (Bishop may have had political reasons never to print it); and “Keaton,” which is obviously unfinished as a poem but has plenty of complete and resonant lines, among them “I will be good; I will be good” (shades of Aiken’s Senlin!) and “If the machinery goes I will repair it./ If it goes again I will repair it again.”

And “Apartment in Leme,” whose opening is a rehearsal for “North Haven”; and “Brasil, 1959,” whose “fairy palace small, impractical” is the missing imaginative link between “Jeronimo’s House” and “Song for the Rainy Season.” And my favorite surprise this year (I mean that it surprised me), “Salem Willows,” whose rotating carousel inspires the girl who rides the animals, but not the animals themselves: “It was as if that music,/ coarse, mechanical, loud,/ discouraged them from trying.” The animals are like the maidens on Keats’s urn, but the child is like the maidens too; as long as they go round and round, they don’t have to grow up. (I was happy to see, as I composed this post, that Gillian White singled out the same few poems.)

You can see in these poems– some of which sound hesitant, “unfinished,” in just the way that Bishop’s most finished poems (“Filling Station,” say, or “Poem”) sound “unfinished”– what it is to seek lack of finish as an aesthetic effect: what it means, and how hard Bishop worked, to fashion the poem that sounds made-up on the spot (by a very careful speaker), the poem whose speaker revises in the direction of accuracy as you read or hear it. How different that is from a really unfinished poem.

And speaking of finish: when you read an assortment of drafts from a poet like Bishop, meticulous almost to a fault, you can not only see how good “not good enough” was; you can also see the difference between a finished line, sentence or stanzas, and a wholly finished poem. There are plenty of the former, if not many of the latter, in the unpublished/ posthumous/ Poe-Jukebox material selected for that Library of America book.

There’s also terrific, heretofore hard-to-find prose, some from short reviews some from a long essay about the then-less-than-half-built new city of Brasilia. There’s Bishop’s gift for bitterly terse irony, shown in just a few poems (“Pink Dog”) but audible in her treatment of Brasilia and its declaredly left-wing architect, Oscar Niemeyer, whose “solution to practical problems… seems to have been… put them underneath, or underground, like a lazy housewife shoving household gear out of sight.”

It’s audible too when she reviews a staid memoir by the translator and critic Wallace Fowlie, comparing his recollection of Boston’s swan boats in his youth to her own, from hers: “one of the live swans paddling around us bit my mother’s finger when she offered it a peanut. I remember the hole in the black kid glove and a drop of blood. I do not want to set myself up as a model of facing the sterner realities of swan boat rides in order to discredit Mr. Fowlie’s idealization– but there is remarkably little of blood, sweat, or tears in Mr. Fowlie’s book.”

There’s also more prose (not put in the blue-green book) about Bishop’s early model and mentor Marianne Moore, prose that says much about Bishop’s working methods, as well as about her taste: “how does Miss Moore reconcile pleasure with the fatigue and drudgery that must go into writing?” There are period bits, what must have been virtually house style for Bishop but could strike us as fastidiously odd: “I should like to add a few complaints about this Viking Reader, complaints that really amount to why isn’t there more of it?” And there is her note that “young students and poets” whom she has met in the 1970s don’t really know Auden; they “seem to know only a few of his anthology pieces… One reason for this may be that Auden… has been, or was, so much imitated that his style, his details and vocabulary, the whole atmosphere of his poetry, seems over-familiar, old hat.”

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen to the author of “The Bight.” By the time I got more than halfway through this volume I was almost pushed out of whatever else I wanted to do: why write, I felt, when I can read these? I feel that way more intensely about this book than about Bishop’s earlier collections, because this one puts the verse and the prose together, so that if you’re too tired to appreciate the former entirely, the latter waits for you right there.

I had thought tonight that I might write some sort of polite answer to Kenneth Goldsmith’s point about the endless proliferation, sometime in the near future, of procedurally generated, recombinant digital books. I had thought that I might; now I think I just have.


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, April 26th, 2011 by Stephen Burt.