Article: Frances Leviston

Spectacle and Speculation

Reflecting on Elizabeth Bishop in the Twenty-First Century:
Reading the New Editions

When Elizabeth Bishop died in 1979 at the age of 68, she had published four
books containing seventy-seven poems between them (seventy-four if you
count ‘Four Poems’ as a single piece). Her last, Geography III (1976), had just
nine poems in it, among them two of her best (‘Crusoe in England’ and ‘The
Moose’) and the villanelle ‘One Art’, certainly her most well-known. The
Complete Poems
(1983) added another seventeen published but uncollected
works, as well as juvenilia and translation. So it is that Bishop’s considerable
reputation, encompassing both scholarly and popular renown, has until
recently rested on fewer than a hundred original poems.

After the early work done by Anne Stevenson and David Kalstone, a
second wave of critical interest was triggered by Vassar College’s acquisition
of Bishop’s papers in 1981, and by the publication of her Complete Poems and
Selected Prose in 1983 and 1984 respectively. Dozens of books and articles
appeared in the 1990s, and the crowd-sourced critical bibliography on the
centenary website lists a daunting 1,795 items, though admittedly some of
these make only passing reference to Bishop (‘Big-Time Football at Harvard,
1905: The Diary of Coach Bill Reid’ offers limited illumination). At the centre
of what amounts to a third wave of criticism is 2005’s Edgar Allen Poe and
the Juke-Box
, a volume of unpublished drafts and fragments edited by Alice
Quinn. Elizabeth Bishop in the Twenty-First Century: Reading the New Editions(1),
discusses extensively the impact of Edgar Allen Poe on Bishop’s reputation,
and also considers two further volumes of primary material that have
appeared since the millennium: Words in Air, the complete correspondence
between Bishop and Robert Lowell, and Poems, Prose and Letters (all Farrar,
Straus and Giroux).

The exponential increase in both critical interest and primary
materials is also the central problem with which Bishop studies currently
wrestles. Thomas Travisano, one of the editors of Elizabeth Bishop in the
Twenty-First Century
, writes that ‘[t]he Bishop canon is still expanding, at a rate
that often seems to exceed her rate of production while she lived.’ Questions
remain about whether this expanded canon is actually representative of
Bishop, or whether it does, in some fundamental and disconcerting way,
‘exceed’ her. The title helpfully embodies this anxiety. On the one hand,
Bishop remains a formative presence for many poets; on the other, she didn’t
survive into the twenty-first century, and so it seems to posit an alternate
dimension in which her lifespan is unnaturally prolonged. But how present,
and how malleable, is Bishop’s career to us still, and why should we want to
extend it?

The obvious reason is that Bishop studies has a vested interest in expanding
Bishop’s body of work: the academic mill has grown so large that new grist is
needed. The draft poems included in Edgar Allen Poe lie at the centre of these
debates. Their publication divided critics. While some welcomed wider access
to materials that had previously only been available in archives or scholarly
papers, others – notably Helen Vendler in the New Republic – were concerned
that publication of these imperfect drafts diluted Bishop’s notoriously
high editorial standards (despite their publication being in accordance with
Bishop’s will, since she gave her executors the power to decide). What had
been a carefully controlled canon doubled in size overnight, and much
of the newly-available work was markedly inferior: Vendler called the poems of
Edgar Allen Poe the ‘maimed and stunted siblings’ of Bishop’s published work.

Jonathan Ellis’s essay ‘Alice in Wonderland: The Authoring and Editing
of Elizabeth Bishop’s Uncollected Poems’, which opens the book, includes a
surprising confession: ‘Bishop is not always the best judge of her poetry. This
is not the easiest thing to write. It is perhaps one of the last taboos among
Bishop critics.’ This intimate tone of disclosure guides the reader’s attention
to the point at which critical propriety shades into the proprietorial: those
speculating on the Bishop estate, so to speak, are at risk of upsetting one self-
appointed guardian or another, but Ellis encourages their activities, stressing
the need for ‘other ways of reading her work’. Ellis’s own exploration of
Edgar Allen Poe rejects the usual complaints and instead demonstrates the
extent of Quinn’s critical interventions (for which he argues co-author status
ought to be conferred) and the essential instability of Bishop’s work and
persona: ‘I wonder whether Bishop ever considered any poem or poetic
statement complete.’

Other contributors are not so nuanced in their search for a novel
interpretation. As part of the continuing excavation of what Victoria
Harrison called Bishop’s ‘poetics of intimacy’, Angus Cleghorn alerts us
to the prevalence of electrical cables and power-lines in Bishop’s work,
and connects these to the new sexual energy in her Florida poems. This
is perceptive, but Cleghorn spoils it by claiming too much, and the essay
overbalances into absurdity. Tying himself in knots about technology, nature
and time, Cleghorn interprets the ‘intelligent green light in the harbor’ at
the end of the draft poem ‘Dear Dr. –’ as an ‘alien technological prophecy’,
whatever that might be. A later summary sentence attempts to orientate
the reader, with grotesque results: ‘The Complete Poems provides intricately
innovative poems that point out limited perspectives while expanding
ethical imaginations of the future, whereas Quinn’s book enables readers to
thoroughly explore the dream workings of a poet bursting from the libidinal
confines of her time, swinging by green vines through wires of sound and
light to transmit electricity for an erotically ample future.’ Cleghorn’s quest for
novelty results in the undignified and unconvincing spectacle of Bishop as a
neon erotic dream Tarzan.

Cleghorn does at least contrast the Complete Poems with the ‘dream
workings’ of Edgar Allen Poe. Other contributors, by using the same critical
vocabulary to discuss both volumes, fail to register (or even deliberately
occlude) the categorical difference between Bishop’s poems and drafts.
Charles Berger, Heather Treseler and Lloyd Schwartz are particularly guilty
of over-estimating unfinished poems that depend for their significance on
the published work. Berger subjects the tentative ‘Where are the dolls who
loved me so…’ to a detailed psychoanalytic reading, arguing that Bishop’s
dolls, with their ‘blank crotches’, offer a parodic revision of Freud’s ‘The
Uncanny’. This is potentially interesting, but the poem in question is so slight
that it cannot bear the weight of such scrutiny. Treseler’s essay on Bishop’s
epistolary poems makes a stronger case for a psychoanalytic reading, but fails
on the same terms as Berger when it treats the fragments ‘I see you far away,
unhappy’ and the aforementioned ‘Dear Dr–’ as exemplary works. Here is a
passage from the latter:

The past are from

memories

all those photographs waters
con
manufacture, their fluences

[indecipherable line]

with all the photographs & notes
manufacturing fluences every minute
rotogravure
with the photographs water
manufacturing fluences every minute –

Treseler writes: ‘The in-fluence of tears, the con-fluence of harbor waters,
and the black-magic force of false memories are all valences of meaning
in Bishop’s fragmentary verse.’ The give-away phrase is ‘fragmentary verse’,
which suggests that Bishop was deliberately constructing a fragmented
aesthetic. Lorrie Goldensohn more accurately diagnoses such reiterative
notation as Bishop testing how to cast her lines, a process Goldensohn calls
‘this little stutter of the poet’s mind at work’. The most troubling of the over-
readings is given by Lloyd Schwartz, who explains how he stole ‘Breakfast
Song’ from Bishop’s notebook when she was wheeled from her hospital room
for an X-ray in 1974. Schwartz makes big claims for ‘Breakfast Song’, saying
it possesses ‘poignant Shakespearian resonance’. It is of course manifestly in
his interests to cement the poem into the canon and thus place himself as far
beyond reproach as Lavinia Dickinson or Max Brod.

By giving such weight to the drafts, Elizabeth Bishop in the Twenty-First Century
seeks to expand our sense of Bishop into areas mapped by her unfinished
work, claiming her as a political poet, an explicitly lesbian poet, or a poet
of greater emotional vulnerability than the Complete Poems would suggest.
But Bishop’s unfinished poems do not represent her as a poet; rather, they
represent the kind of poet she attempted and failed to become. To take just
one of the drafts on which several scholars lean, ‘Vague Poem (Vaguely love
poem)’ does indeed possess an extraordinary sexual frankness, and its explicit
identification of geological structures with the female form strengthens
our understanding of the intimacy between landscape and love in Bishop’s
work; but the poem is not achieved, and it stands finally as a testament to
her failure to confront lesbianism directly in verse. There is beauty in the
poem, particularly in the concluding stanza, but it is a Lawrentian ecstasy of
repetition not distinctively hers:

Just now, when I saw you naked again,
I thought the same words: rose-rock, rock-rose…
Rose, trying, working, to show itself.
Forming, folding over,
unimaginable connections, unseen, shining edges.
Rose-rock, unformed, flesh beginning, crystal by crystal,
clear pink breasts and darker, crystalline nipples,
rose-rock, rose-quartz, roses, roses, roses,
exacting roses from the body,
and the even darker, accurate, rose of sex –

The vacillating syntax is not commensurate with Bishop’s brilliantly tenuous
sentences elsewhere: here, again, it is a compositional stutter. In ‘roses,
roses, roses’, we see the dimming of intensity hinted at by ‘unimaginable
connections, unseen’. The poet’s vision fails her in this new terrain.

That we need not resort to promoting unfinished works to canonical
status in order to find new ways of reading Bishop – not even as a politicised
poet – is demonstrated in fascinating essays by Peggy Samuels and Gillian
White. Samuels explores the impact of Alexander Calder’s sculptures on
Bishop’s poems. Bishop was particularly interested in Calder’s mobiles,
constellations of small objects in motion driven by motors or hand-cranks, a
couple of which were owned by Bishop’s Brazilian partner Lota de Macedo
Soares. In convincing readings of ‘The Armadillo’, ‘A Cold Spring’ and
‘Arrival at Santos’, as well as two draft poems, Samuels clearly outlines the
affinity Bishop felt for these lively works of art, and how they helped her
model the movements in her poems. In ‘Arrival at Santos’, we see Bishop
‘setting disparate levels of certainty and hesitation in the speaker’s mind in a
field of objects that move with varying degrees of certainty’. Calder’s mobiles
often had objects meet one another with a ‘robust bump’ in mid-trajectory,
an effect replicated by Bishop when the boat hook swings into view and
lifts Miss Breen into the air: ‘Like Calder, Bishop links suspense in time (the
always being poised in one’s own mental motion for the next event that will
enter the “scene”) with suspense in space (traveling on a trajectory that will
“hit” or “be hit”).’

Gillian White argues that Questions of Travel represents a midcentury
critique of American society. With her famous coolness and reticence, Bishop
has often been accused of a privileged withdrawal from the political sphere,
but White shows these qualities to be a politicised response to the immodesty
and vulgarity of 1960s advertising culture. Bishop felt that this vulgarity
had found its poetic equivalent in the willingness of poets like Sexton and
Snodgrass to commodify their personalities. In her own work, she created
an ‘interpretive space’ that would quietly protest this excess of emotion and
self-consciousness. Bishop’s ‘destabilization of the grounds of sympathy’
casts doubt on the sincerity of any speaking voice. Reading against familiar
interpretations of ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’ as a poem about childhood
trauma, White says, ‘the fantastic and symbolic images to which the child
resorts are less imaginative deflections of the difficulty of her cousin’s death,
than indices of how children inherit culture, including sentimental discourse.’

That both White and Samuels manage to draw illuminating readings from
Bishop’s published poems shows how much they still have to offer a resourceful
reader. Other critics have to circumvent academic propriety to generate a new
interpretation, allowing themselves to speculate on the significance of events
that never happened, on books that Bishop never wrote, or on a life she
did not lead. Discussing Bishop’s correspondence with Flannery O’Connor,
George S. Lensing writes: ‘Had they met, they would surely and quickly have
warmed to the utter unpretentiousness of the other.’ There is no way of
knowing this. The fact that Lowell and O’Connor got along, for example,
is no guarantee that Bishop would have had similar feelings: there were
plenty of poets about whose company they disagreed, including Ezra Pound.
Lensing’s venture is indulgent but harmless; Richard Flynn’s speculations are
more insidious. Writing about Words in Air, he concludes: ‘one can’t help
thinking that, had they lived longer, Bishop and Lowell undoubtedly would
have given us more poems concerning “the experience of life”, poems that
would further articulate heartbreak and loss without giving in to self-pity.’
The truism that Bishop and Lowell’s future poems would have concerned
‘the experience of life’ is used to smuggle through the assertion that their
writing lives would have culminated in precisely the poems of ‘heartbreak
and loss’ that Flynn’s argument requires. The speculative nature of Flynn’s
proposition makes it impossible to counter with anything except a further
speculation: given Bishop’s distaste for confessionalism, she may have
retreated ever further from it.

Equally problematic is Francesco Rognoni’s essay on ‘Visits to St.
Elizabeth’s’. Explaining that the poem was first published in a special issue of
an Italian journal dedicated to Pound, and that Bishop later changed ‘tragic’
to ‘wretched’, Rognoni writes, ‘One may speculate that Bishop decided
only in the nick of time [to submit the poem] and, perhaps pressed by [the
editor] Rizzardi, sent a version of the poem that was still unsatisfactory.’ The
alteration of one word is not sufficient evidence to support this disparaging
claim. Rognoni then dismisses without explanation another scholar’s
argument that ‘Visits’ was already finished by 1951, making his own guess
about its composition: ‘The self-generating form seems to require that the
poem was written in a hurry, almost unthinkingly: almost in the same way in
which Bishop must have walked the long and noisy corridor to Pound’s St
Elizabeth’s quarters.’ This is silly. Bishop’s processes admit of more variety
than we commonly believe, but no published poem of hers was ever ‘written
in a hurry, almost unthinkingly’, and formal ease cannot be taken as proof
of effortless creation. In any case, Rognoni soon contradicts himself by
showing that the poem took several shapes before settling on its published
incarnation. Later, he wonders whether Pound and Dorothy read ‘Visits’,
offering more speculation before he finally admits that ‘they may well have
disliked it, but no reaction is extant.’ Quite.

Just as critics of Seamus Heaney often adopt his ‘soundings’, ‘amplifications’
and other rhetorical quirks, the origins of the speculative trend in Bishop
studies may lie in Bishop’s own work, with its characteristically hazardous
and contingent tone: for example, ‘He appears to be – rather, to have been
– a unicyclist-courier, who may have met his end by falling from the height
of the escarpment’ (‘12 O’Clock News’), or ‘He’s still / asleep. Even awake,
he probably / remains in doubt’ (‘Twelfth Morning; or, What You Will’),
or the second half of ‘Questions of Travel’, which is cast almost entirely
in a conditional tense. However, Bishop’s playful description of how things
‘would have been’ is usually a way of showing how they are: the poems’
‘speculations’ are nothing of the sort. Scholars wondering how Bishop’s
career might have developed miss this subtler point.

Travisano is the main proponent of the speculative method. His essay
of ‘speculative bibliography’ opens with a daring proposition: ‘Imagine, if
you will… Elizabeth Bishop, at the age of sixty-eight, visits a brilliant Boston
cardiologist and receives timely medical treatment and advice, thereby
avoiding what might have been her sudden death…’ The essay goes on to
posit a hypothetical Geography IV, the book Bishop might have published had
she lived into the 1980s, which would show ‘a new directness, sometimes
even a certain rawness or indelicacy, emerging from the Vermeer-like surfaces
of a poet [reviewers] no longer refer to as Miss Bishop.’ Based on the four
new poems Bishop had finished by the time of her death and the drafts with
which she was engaged, Travisano delineates five possible thematic areas for
the book: Brazil Reconsidered, Childhood Memories Extended, The Further
Art of Losing, Abstract Self-Portraits, and Poems of Love and Sexuality.
Sympathetic as this taxonomy proves, it is undermined by Travisano’s
decision to favour a title of his own invention over the working titles Bishop
gave in her 1977 Guggenheim application: Grandmother’s Glass Eye and Aubade
& Elegy
.

The most persuasively speculative essay is the one that concludes the
book, in which Christina Pugh considers developments in Emily Dickinson
studies as an indicator of where Bishop studies might be heading next. Since
the publication of Dickinson’s manuscripts in facsimile format, Pugh argues,
she has been ‘co-opted’ by theorists of experimental poetry who seized
on the fascicles as ‘open texts’, ignoring the fact that they were written in
traditional metres, and instead fetishizing the ‘mark’ of her variant writings.
This serves the same ends as those more radically biographical critics who
insist one cannot read Dickinson’s letter-poems properly without reference
to the dead crickets and dried flowers by which they were accompanied:
Dickinson’s value is fastened to the materiality of her writing and domestic
circumstances. Pugh sees a similar, worrying trend in Bishop studies, whereby
the scholarship is becoming archival and manuscript-based rather than literary
and interpretive. She is also concerned about critics co-opting Bishop into a
postmodern aesthetic (Treseler’s ‘fragmented verse’) that makes little sense in
relation to the finished poems. The danger is that Bishop’s real achievements
will be circumscribed and obscured under the guise of widening her appeal.

The years to come promise many more avenues of access to Bishop;
indeed, Elizabeth Bishop in the Twenty-First Century has already been outpaced
by Joelle Biele’s Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker, which appeared too late to
be considered for the book. Travisano is writing a new literary biography; a
collection of essays from the Bishop centenary conference in Nova Scotia is
due to appear next year; a Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop is on the way;
and a film about Bishop’s time in Brazil, The Art of Losing, starring Miranda
Otto as Bishop and Glória Pires as Macedo Soares, is currently shooting
on location in Samambaia and Rio de Janeiro. Given such investment in
new presentations of Bishop and her poetry, the questions of how and why
we read her, and of how her literary afterlife should be managed, will only
become more urgent.

Note

1. Elizabeth Bishop in the Twenty-First Century: Reading the New Editions Eds. Angus
Cleghorn, Bethany Hicok and Thomas Travisano. University of Virginia Press, 2012.

Article first appeared in Edinburgh Review 136: No Shouting Out. Frances Leviston is a poet, critic and writing tutor.

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