(Excerpts from the book reviews)
Edited and translated into Macedonian by Magdalena Horvat
Elizabeth Bishop’s unfinished poems in the new posthumous collection “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts and Fragments by Elizabeth Bishop” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006), edited by Alice Quinn, recently sparked a debate in literary circles – for some critics the publication of the book sheds light on Bishop’s creative process, whereas for others it is a betrayal.
David Orr, The New York Times
… In the second half of the 20th century, no American artist in any medium was greater than Bishop (1911-79). That she worked in one of our country’s least popular fields, poetry, doesn’t matter. That she was a woman doesn’t matter. That she was gay doesn’t matter. That she was an alcoholic, an expatriate and essentially an orphan — none of this matters. What matters is that she left behind a body of work that teaches us, as Italo Calvino once said of literature generally, “a method subtle and flexible enough to be the same thing as an absence of any method whatever.” The publication of “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box,” which gathers for the first time Bishop’s unpublished material, isn’t just a significant event in our poetry; it’s part of a continuing alteration in the scale of American life.
Just don’t expect that change to be announced with a fanfare. In a tribute to Bishop, James Merrill famously noted her “lifelong impersonations of an ordinary woman,” and the observation applies to her writing as much as to comportment. From the beginning, Bishop’s work was descriptive rather than assertive, conversational rather than rhetorical and discreet rather than confessional. (It was also hard to come by: in her lifetime, she published only around 90 poems.) This was surprising for two reasons. First, her approach was completely unlike the modes favored by her more flamboyant peers — Robert Lowell, John Berryman — as well as the guts-spilling styles they helped inspire. Second, if you believe art mirrors life, reticence is the opposite of what you’d anticipate from Bishop, whose biography contains enough torment to satisfy St. Sebastian. An abbreviated list: her father died when she was a baby; her mother vanished into an insane asylum when Bishop was 5; her college boyfriend committed suicide when she refused to marry him and sent her a parting postcard that said, “Go to hell, Elizabeth”; and the great love of her life, Lota de Macedo Soares, with whom she spent many years in Brazil, fatally overdosed in Bishop’s apartment. From a writer with a history like that, we might expect announcements like Lowell’s “I hear / my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell.” We don’t expect to be told “I caught a tremendous fish.”
This curious restraint has been admired by many critics (Bishop won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award), but it also explains why she so often has been identified with words like “quiet,” “charming,” “scrupulous” and, above all, “modest” — all of them perfectly useful adjectives, but none that would tip the reader off to the harrowing nature of her life or (more important) the colossal ambition of her poems.
Megan Harlan, The San Francisco Chronicle
Elizabeth Bishop was asked in an interview in 1978 (the year before her death at age 68), “Do you start a lot of poems and finish very few?” To which Bishop answered, “Yes. Alas, yes. I begin lots of things and then I give up on them…” Bishop’s claim might seem surprising, given the sheer vital clarity and imaginative precision of her work, typified by now-canonical poems such as “In the Waiting Room,” “Questions of Travel” and “One Art.”
But Bishop was not exaggerating. Though she published only 80 poems in books and journals during her five decades-long career (“The Complete Poems” clocks in at 116), her notebooks, journals and letters – 3,500 pages housed at the department of special collections at Vassar College, Bishop’s alma mater – reveal a dazzling store of orphaned poems, whether in fragmented, outlined or completed form. It is these papers that Alice Quinn, poetry editor of the New Yorker and executive director of the Poetry Society of America, combed through to assemble the 108 poems and 11 prose or facsimile pieces here – “all of it,” as Quinn says, “work that for one reason or another she chose not to publish but did not destroy.”
Helen Vendler, The New Republic
This book should not have been issued with its present subtitle of “Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments.” It should have been called “Repudiated Poems.” For Elizabeth Bishop had years to publish the poems included here, had she wanted to publish them. They remained unpublished (not “uncollected”) because, for the most part, they did not meet her fastidious standards (although a few, such as the completed love poem “It is marvellous to wake up together,” may have been withheld out of prudence). 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. The eighty-odd poems that this famous perfectionist allowed to be printed over the years are “Elizabeth Bishop” as a poet. This book is not.
It will be argued that Bishop could have burned all these pieces of paper if she did not wish them to see publication. (I am told that poets now, fearing an Alice Quinn in their future, are incinerating their drafts.) But burning one’s writings is painful, and Bishop kept her papers, as any of us might, because the past was precious to her. Bishop did not expect to die when she did, in 1979, at the age of sixty-eight; her death was sudden and unforeseen. (Even if she had left instructions not to publish her papers, she could not rely on their being obeyed: Max Brod disobeyed Kafka’s explicit command to destroy his writings. But some poets have been obeyed: Hopkins asked his sisters to burn his spiritual journals, and they did.) 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.”
(…) It seems to me a betrayal of Elizabeth Bishop as a poet to print items from the archive in magazines and journals as if they were “real poems” and not attempts that were withheld by the poet from just such public appearances.