Follow Harriet on Twitter
Journal, Day One
I’m not one for conflict, but I was pleased to see the rumpus in the US that ensued over Alice Quinn’s Elizabeth Bishop book (Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments), back in March. Poetry isn’t often in the news, being seen as irrelevant to our more pressing, quotidian concerns, and perhaps this is right: conflict within the poetry world is often over the most arcane issues. But when an argument over whether or not it was right to publish early versions of a poet’s work enters the mainstream it shows, at least, that poetry is alive and kicking, and that its issues can resonate beyond its own limited constituency. Quinn’s collection has just been released by Carcanet Press (based in my adopted home town of Manchester, England), so it seems like a good time to revisit some of the issues raised by the fuss.
Just last Thursday, I attended a wonderful “Elizabeth Bishop Celebration” at Manchester’s magnificent mock-Roman Central Library. (The library was only built in 1934, and was at that time the largest public library building in the UK, but you’d swear it had been there forever.) The event was certainly about marking the UK publication of the Quinn volume, but this was just the excuse needed to gather together enough people who would happily spend a lunch hour hearing Bishop’s finely crafted lines. About one hundred people crammed into a small committee room to hear Michael Schmidt, Carcanet’s chief and a fine poet in his own right, give a brief personal introduction to Bishop (he had corresponded with, but never met, the writer) and read the first, and rather clumsy draft of “One Art” (“How to Lose Things,” “The Gift of Losing Things,” and “The Art of Losing Things” are each tested as titles in this early incarnation). Then, ten or so readers, myself included, read fourteen or fifteen of Bishop’s finished poems and the event closed with a recording of Bishop herself reading “Crusoe in England.”
You will recall, early in the year, with the US publication of the book, that the redoubtable Helen Vendler (the last living embodiment of a still-relevant New Critic?) was more than a little vexed with Quinn for having the temerity and impertinence (the impropriety, one suspects Vendler thinks) to return from the Department of Special Collections at Vassar College with Bishop’s “drafts and fragments” and expose them to the light of day. With the publication of Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box, non-academic lovers of Bishop’s poetry could now get a precious insight into the mechanics of how Bishop actually made her verse: how she crafted it, how she worked tirelessly at her prosody, at how to achieve the unity of form and content that she was seeking and that best fitted what she wanted to communicate and explore. The altercation was instructive, however, and Vendler’s argument, which I reject, was not entirely absurd. Bishop only published “some eighty poems and thirty translations” in her lifetime, was never one to rush into print, and she didn’t want these drafts and early attempts published. Her poetry was polished, her art fully formed, these are mere sketches and not for public consumption. They do not represent new, finished poems. They do not represent her art. But Quinn has never claimed that they did represent new, completed poems: if she—or her publisher—had claimed such then there would, indeed, be an issue, but that was not the case.
Why do we need to see these drafts? (One might very well ask, why do we need poetry? For now, I’ll answer that by misquoting Bertolt Brecht’s Motto: in the dark times, there needs to be poetry about the dark times.) Why—and in what way—are these fragments and unformed, unfinished scraps helpful to the reader? What can we get from them that we can’t get from the finished poems themselves? They are instructive precisely because they remind us of the work of poetry, of the fact that poems are always a work in progress. And they show us that discovering what conjunctions of words, in which form, best express, test and stretch meaning is precisely the job of the poet. Hearing Schmidt read the clumsy first outline of “One Art” and then, later, hearing the finished piece, one appreciated very clearly that the attempt in a poem to say what one wants to say is, certainly, partially inspiration (there is to all art an irreducible element, something miraculous), but beyond that there is craft. To see Bishop stuttering, misfiring and failing is to begin to understand her poetry. And, from there, to begin to understand her art.