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...where the usual publisher's list might be like the contents of a bookshop, Carcanet's was like the contents of a private library. More than that, over the years, the Carcanet list has grown without any dilution of seriousness, so that looking at it now is like being invited to read the contents of a poet's library.
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Review of 'Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts and Fragments'6 May 2006
Carol Rumens, the Guardian:Next review of 'Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box'... To the 'Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box' page...
Elizabeth Bishop's 1978 elegy for Robert Lowell, "New Haven", concludes: " ... You can't derange or rearrange / your poems again. (But the sparrows can their song.) / The words won't change again. Sad friend, you cannot change." This of course recalls Lowell's habit of intensive revision, a habit Bishop shared. Now that she has been dead some 16 years, that elegy might almost be her own. It's especially poignant in the context of this new book. The dead writer can't change a word: nevertheless the reputation can be rewritten, the manner of reading revised.
Most of the poems assembled are not drafts of finished poems - they are poems that did not get beyond draft stage. The critic Helen Vendler, writing in The New Republic, thought the book damaging and that it should have been called Repudiated Poems (that would have gone down well with the sales reps). It's easy enough to earmark the numerous poems that fall short of Bishop's exacting best. But, equally, there are few that completely fail to give fleeting glimpses of her quality. An evaluative reading probably isn't the right response to this book, which is essentially a story of creative process.
Although they do not map the stages of composition, these drafts show us the kinds of sketches and improvisations Bishop worked with. We learn she had a habit of jotting an alternative word or phrase in the righthand margin, and glimpse her reviewing her raw material from new angles. That Bishop would have hated to see her rough work in print is certainly possible, but the book's editor, Alice Quinn, does not pretend that the work is anything but rough. The poems are framed by commentary, almost as they are framed in real life by their boxes and shelves in the Vassar archive. If Bishop did not destroy her papers but gave them to a university library, she could not have seriously opposed a wider readership, provided we read, as Quinn encourages us to, as explorers of process rather than consumers of product.
One of the delights of the book for the general reader is that sense of access to the sanctum sanctorum usually reserved for the academy. Facsimiles give you the texture of the paper, the curvature and impress of the hand. There are scribbles and finished drawings, jotted thoughts in prose. Quinn's notes are divagatory, resembling Bishop's looser-knit travel poems: they take us on a kind of nature ramble around each poem's occasion. We hop over ponds and logs and suddenly find ourselves looking back at the poem from the top of a hill, or across several decades. Quinn has actually written us a poem-led literary biography, modestly disguised as end-notes. Not many of the poems are obscure but we turn to those notes repeatedly to discover, sometimes in Bishop's own words, the human events swirling around the writing.
There is one example of Bishop's draft-to-finished-poem process. The 15 drafts of "One Art" are included in the appendix (regrettably minus notes). It is a fascinating and - from the point of view of the creative writing market - clever addition to the book, though, as Vendler says, the handwritten pages are unclear and should have been transcribed.
Bishop composed the villanelle eight years after the suicide of Lota de Macedo Soares, its immediate occasion the threatened break-up with a new partner whom she had called her "saving grace". She had always been fascinated, but foxed, by the obsessively repetitive form. Now, she finds an innovative way to use its repetitions and build from an almost amused beginning, "The art of losing isn't hard to master," to an anguished finale, "Though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster."
Draft 1 explores the poem's originating conceit in shapeless, prose-like chunks. Yet in Draft 2 an embryonic villanelle appears, which can then be followed, in a hide-and-seek manner, to completion. The mystery is that jump from formless Draft 1 to disciplined Draft 2. It reminds us that significant drafting may happen only in the poet's mind. Perhaps, though, a clue lies in an earlier unfinished piece (part of a projected longer work), the raw, painfully untransformed lament for Lota, called "Aubade and Elegy":
No coffee can wake you no coffee
can wake you no coffee
No revolution can get your attention
You are bored with us all. It is true we were boring.
The poem has four tercets, and the opening line is repeated (twice-and-a-bit) at the end: "No coffee can wake you ... " It resembles a simplified villanelle, in fact. Could it have been the subconscious springboard into Draft 2 of "One Art"?
Overall, the book is a happy one, alive with quirky analogy, as the title suggests. Travel as always feeds Bishop's imagination and, besides the wonderful eye for detail and colours, we get fresh sensations of movement: "Gone again. And sudden / everywhere smudges / of rainbow and shafts / of soft sun backwards / rain over there now / crossing over / the dark blue line - the opposite bank - / and the river / erases it all / the world, all pink, / has dissolved at last / and is going somewhere / under a rainbow, too - " ("Up the Amazon").
In contrast to the compact early lyrics modelled on the English metaphysicals and Herbert, a casual, wholly un-literary voice, not unlike Frank O'Hara's, mutters and lilts through these pages, prefiguring the looser poetics of our own time. Nothing here could make us read Bishop's Complete Poemswith less admiration, but perhaps we gain a richer sense of its archaeology, including the complexities (and, sometimes, sacrifices) that are negotiated in revising to final version. Is Bishop's poetry "One Art"? Ultimately, yes - but it's all kinds of smaller arts on the way, for which this book must be cherished.
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