Commentary Magazine


Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box by Elizabeth Bishop

Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box
by Elizabeth Bishop
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 367 pp. $30.00

Elizabeth Bishop’s complete published poetry fills one moderate volume. This goes some way toward explaining why she, who ought not need an introduction, unavoidably does. Bishop was reluctant to publish anything imperfect, and she could spend years shaping and reshaping a poem; such care exacts a price. Little of her work beyond the villanelle “One Art” enjoys the ubiquity that attends true fame.

But her reputation has only grown since her death in 1979, and so far she has also managed to avoid posthumous conversion either into a decadent reactionary, as was the case with James Merrill (a friend and admirer, and another poorly understood poet), or a bloodthirsty progressive, as was the case with Robert Lowell (a contemporary and aesthetic kin, and another great admirer and close friend). This is the sign of a sterling if highly idiosyncratic talent.

Bishop was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father died before her first birthday; her unstable mother was committed to an asylum when Bishop was five. She spent her early years with her mother’s parents in Nova Scotia (a region she would have much poetic recourse to), returning to the care of her father’s family in 1917. Bedridden and bookish, she began composing verse at the age of eight. Eventually she grew healthy enough to attend a private school outside Boston and then Vassar. After graduation in 1934, she divided her time among New York City, Massachusetts, Key West, and Brazil, where she spent eighteen years, beginning in 1951, mostly in the company of her lover Lota de Macedo Soares, the daughter of a newspaper publisher.

Bishop corresponded with Randall Jarrell, Lowell, and Marianne Moore, among others, and moved in exalted literary circles, enjoying recognition if not the acclaim accorded to some of her contemporaries. After Soares’s suicide, she returned permanently to the United States and continued to write and teach, becoming poet in residence at Harvard in 1969 and publishing her last collection, Geography III, in 1976, three years before her death.

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The mostly unremarkable circumstances of Bishop’s adult life, complete with professorial stints and literary articles in the New York Review of Books, belie the astonishing peculiarity of her vision. Her poems, emphatically, are poems of the physical world; the joys and horrors they record are of a piece with the nobility and sordidness of human residence on earth. Landscapes—rural, urban, foreign, domestic, real, painted, or imagined—fascinated Bishop, and proved a fertile source for her uncompromising images. “Filling Station,” one of her deservedly better-known poems, from Questions of Travel (1965), captures this:

Someone embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges rows of cans
so that they softly say:
ESSO—SO—SO—SO
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

The lines are plain, intense, concrete, metrically witty. But it is the final “Somebody”—an effortless leap from the seen evidence of a gas-station owner’s awkward solicitude to the sudden, suggested presence on earth of a mysterious, benevolent power—that demonstrates her moral seriousness. All of Bishop’s concern for strange details, for the wildly various scenic composition of our lives and memories, spring from her preoccupation with worldly, perceptible love, and with the question of its existence.

The same preoccupation is apparent in these stanzas from “North Haven,” a crushing elegy for Lowell, who predeceased her by two years:

The Goldfinches are back, or
   others like them
And the White-throated
   Sparrow’s five-note song
pleading and pleading, brings
   tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost
   does:
Repeat, repeat, repeat; revise,
revise, revise

. . .

You left North Haven,
   anchored in its rock,
Afloat in mystic blue . . . And
   now—you’ve left
for good. You can’t derange, or
   re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the
   Sparrows can their song.)
The words won’t change again.
   Sad friend, you cannot change.

The last two lines contain almost the whole of Bishop’s philosophy: the endless and at times beneficent possibilities of nature placed in sharp—here, tragic—contrast with our own great need, frailty, and finiteness.

_____________

 

But to mention Lowell in connection with Bishop risks obscuring her unique gifts, not least because of the deep affinities between their work. Lowell was one of the dominating public poets of his day. Bishop remained for years, as James Merrill said, a “poet’s poet’s poet.” But if she never wore the poetic-political laurels Lowell did, and if her poems notably lack the grandiloquence and visible nervous strain that sometimes seem a prerequisite of literary recognition, the lightness, clarity, and hardness of both her diction and her imagery have garnered her a devoted following. Which is why so much excitement attended the announcement of a forthcoming volume of her unpublished poems, now available as Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box.

Working from materials housed in the Vassar College library, Alice Quinn, the poetry editor of the New Yorker, has produced a scrupulous book, complete with a brief section of juvenilia, facsimiles of Bishop’s typed and handwritten drafts, a copious appendix and end notes, and a whole chapter showing the evolution, in stages, of the poem “One Art.” Quinn has arranged Edgar Allan Poe in rough chronological order, dividing it into four unequal blocks of years: 1929-36, 1937-50, 1951-67, 1968-79. Individual poems within these blocks go undated—many of Bishop’s own drafts lack specific dates—but, thanks to Quinn’s editorial discrimination, the sections cohere.

The Bishop already well known to her readers is abundantly present here. Gleaming, lapidary poems, the hallmark of her published work, fill particularly the first two sections, covering the years in which she wrote most of the poems that make up North and South (1946) and A Cold Spring (1955). Indeed, Edgar Allan Poe contains poems that an artist less demanding than Bishop would have not merely published but brandished as triumphs.

As clearly as would a close reading of her complete works, the book also enables us to trace Bishop’s development, the rhetorical intensity of her earlier poems ripening into a painterly stillness. Thus, “Salem Willows,” from the book’s final section, is an invocation of genius loci as compressed and vivid as “Santarem,” “Under the Window: Ouro Preto,” or Bishop’s other late poems of Brazil. This seamlessness testifies to the fact that the succinctness of her body of work does not stem from a lifelong series of private false starts.

But the volume is also not without its problems, resident in the nature of the material from which it has been assembled. Helen Vendler, writing in the New Republic, suggests that these incomplete, sometimes greatly flawed, and occasionally banal works should never have been brought to light. That is taking things too far. The least of these “repudiated poems” ( in Vendler’s acid phrase) can aid in understanding of Bishop’s aims, and the best stand as worthy objects in their own right.

Still, Vendler’s point has undeniable weight. One of the most tantalizing entries in Edgar Allan Poe is “Aubade and Elegy,” a poem on Soares’s death that Bishop worked on for years without managing to complete:

No coffee can wake you no
   coffee can wake you no coffee
No revolution can catch your
   attention
You are bored with us all. It
   is true we were boring.

For perhaps the enth time the
   tenth time the tenth time today
and still early morning I go
   under the crashing wave
of your death . . .

The hypnotic, repetitive rhythm of these lines suggests at once the inescapable facticity of death and a mourner’s keening grief; the sporadic punctuation, the erasures and strikethroughs, the gaps and extra spaces evoke a kind of terror. But is it the lines as quoted, or their incompleteness, that accounts for their power? This is impossible to say.

“Aubade and Elegy” is an extreme example, but there are a number of other striking works here—“Rainy Day, Rio,” for example, and “Something I’ve Meant to Write About for 30 Years”—that present the same problem: we have no idea how close to being finished they were, and not even Quinn’s exhaustive notes can settle the question. Literary judgment, subjective enough at the best of times, becomes almost comically uncertain in the face of such incompleteness. If we were dealing with a lesser poet or a less sympathetic editor, that in itself might have been enough to vitiate the whole enterprise. Luckily, neither is the case here.

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When an author’s unpublished work comes to light, an expectation inevitably arises that roads never fully taken will reveal themselves. Quinn’s book suggests at least one. The spastic rhythms of “The Gentleman of Shalott,” a poem in the voice of a man bisected by a mirror, and a number of bizarre, miniaturist prose pieces on freakish animals, published but uncollected in her lifetime, hint at her fascination with harsh juxtapositions and surreal perspectives. The presence in Edgar Allan Poe of a number of similarly constructed poems, fragmentary though they are, confirm that these were not mere dalliances for Bishop but an essential part of her idea of poetry.

The book takes its title from a poem written in her late twenties or early thirties, a hellish meditation on the strife between mind and body: “the helpless earthward fall of love/descending from the hands and eye/down to the hands, and heart, and down. . . .” The theme is hardly atypical, but the poem’s driving, broken tetrameters (and the mephitic light and sound provided by the jukebox) are something of a departure. Since this poem, too, ends in an ellipsis, one has difficulty placing it, exactly. But, incomplete as it is, it speaks as powerfully for Bishop’s talent as do any of her canonical works.

Given the amount of energy devoted to the painstaking excavation of the works and lives of lesser American poets, any reader of Bishop, and any lover of American literature, has reason to be grateful for this book.

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About the Author

Sam Munson, who reviewed Elizabeth Bishop’s Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box in May 2006, is online editor of COMMENTARY.




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