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Review of 'Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts and Fragments'20 January 2007
Rosemary Goring, The Glasgow HeraldPrevious review of 'Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box'... To the 'Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box' page...
The burning question
Robert Frost, one of America's best-loved poets, once tried to explain what makes a good poem: 'Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.' Alice Quinn, poetry editor of the New Yorker, executive director of the Poetry Society of America and one of the most powerful figures in the world of Western poetry, laughs as she quotes this terrifying piece of writerly advice. In one sentence Frost captures the almost alchemical craft that goes into this diabolically difficult art. The best poems look as effortless as if they had been scribbled on the back of an envelope after a nanosecond's thought. As great writers will tell you, though, good writing reaches the page soaked in sweat rather than ink.
Nobody better exemplifies the effort poetry demands than Elizabeth Bishop, with whom Quinn's life has been entwined for several years, while editing a collection of her unpublished drafts. Regarded as one of the pre-eminent American poets of the 20th century, as influential as Frost or Robert Lowell or John Ashbery, Bishop published only four collections in her lifetime. Her Complete Poems, published posthumously after her death in 1979, came to a mere 300 pages. Bishop was so fastidious about releasing work before she felt it was ready that one poem, 'The Moose', now regarded as among her best, took almost 30 years to perfect.
Bishop's life was far from happy, yet her poetry was only elliptically autobiographical. She was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father died when she was an infant and her mother was committed to a mental asylum when Bishop was five. Thereafter she was brought up by relatives. After studying at Vassar College, Boston, she made friends with the poet Marianne Moore, and her future as a writer was sealed. A sporadic traveller, Bishop settled for 18 years in Brazil after falling in love with Lota de Macedo Soares, with whom she had a passionate lesbian relationship. After Lota committed suicide, Bishop, who struggled throughout her career with depression and alcoholism, returned regularly to America, where she was largely to live for the rest of her life.
Capable of wrestling with a word or line for months, Bishop once told her close friend Robert Lowell, 'I'm not interested in big-scale work as such. Something needn't be large to be good.' She had what she described as a 'passion for accuracy', which resulted in poems so precise and powerful they stab the heart.
Until recently it was thought that Bishop's slim output was all that her readers would ever know of her. Thus Quinn's collection of her unpublished material, entitled Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box, was likely to create a sensation. 'I feel so profoundly lucky,' says Quinn, talking from her New York home ahead of her lecture in Glasgow next week. 'I'm lucky to have worked with the material of a poet who's so loved.' Yet this popularity carried a downside, because Quinn's book was to spark a spectacular literary cat fight.
In most quarters it was enthusiastically received. However, Helen Vendler, a Harvard professor and one of the foremost authorities on American poetry, took umbrage to it. Her review in the New Republic was breathtakingly hostile. Under the headline 'Betraying Elizabeth Bishop', she decried Quinn for undermining Bishop's legacy and betraying the poet's 'sacred trust'. The book, she wrote, 'should have been called 'Repudiated Poems'. For Elizabeth Bishop had years to to publish poems included here, had she wanted to.' She described the fragments in the book as 'maimed, stunted siblings' to Bishop's completed works.
'If you make people promise to burn your manuscripts they should,' she said in an interview. Referring to two memorable cases of authors requesting a bonfire of their work, she said: 'I think the Aeneid should have been burned and Kafka's works should have been burned, because personal fidelity is more important than art.'
As Dante Gabriel Rossetti would confirm, however, writers' wishes can be fickle. Some months after burying his work along with his wife's corpse, Rossetti exhumed her so he could retrieve the poems. But even without such an example of second thoughts, Alice Quinn is untroubled by the accusation of betrayal. 'We have to understand that writers are perfectly capable of striking a match themselves. If they [make that stipulation], it's really an expression of ambivalence, of a desire to be rid of the decision on their own. And also, Bishop didn't request that this material be destroyed. She told her last companion of her life that she should place this material at a university or in an archive. So it isn't quite right to imply that Bishop requested that it be destroyed, because she didn't.'
From the start, Quinn knew the project could prove troublesome. 'I was asked to do this book by Bishop's lifelong editor Robert Giroux, and as he mentioned in an article in the New York Times, he told me right from the start it would be a fraught enterprise.' She explains: 'There's a poet here in America called William Logan and he wrote in the New Criterion that there is something about Elizabeth Bishop that makes readers feel proprietory. He said Shakespeare and Milton are everyone's property, but Hardy and Philip Larkin and Elizabeth Bishop seem to be each reader's alone. So I understood that there was a risk involved.'
With a reputation already as high, and seemingly unassailable, as Bishop's, what does Quinn think her collection of fragments will do for her legacy? In reply she quotes Anne Stevenson, who kept up a correspondence with Bishop for many years and posted her initial response to Quinn's book on a blogsite. She said, 'I suppose what Bishop can best teach us are the virtues of patience and wit and perspective and persistence; and ambition not for fame or success but for an inner sense of rightness and excellence.'
'So if you see somebody who's such a perfectionist abandoning poems which are really quite marvellous, many of them, it just reminds you of how high her standards were. It just contributes to a sense of how great she is. I think it's very reassuring to poets of high standards that she published a book a decade.'
Had Bishop submitted a first poem to Quinn, does she think she'd have recognised her genius? 'The New Yorker was very encouraging of Elizabeth Bishop from the early 1930s on. She published her first poem in the New Yorker in 1940, but she'd been corresponding with Katherine White [the New Yorker's poetry editor] for many years before that.
'I hope I would have recognised how good it was. Sometimes it takes a while to catch up with somebody's enterprise. And it's also important to have the right debut in the New Yorker. If you publish somebody and the poem is not that strong, people might say, oh well, she met that person at a literary conference! The debut in the New Yorker must be strong. Sometimes I've 15 batches of poems from someone before we publish a poem. The important thing is to be encouraging, if you feel somebody has a lot of talent.'
Despite the ferocity of the attacks, Quinn is delighted about the feisty climate of poetry criticism in America. 'There were many years in which people felt the conversation about poetry really wasn't committed or passionate enough. Now I feel it's livelier than it's been in a long long time... The generation of younger writers all seem to be interested in being both poets and critics... So I see the scene now as a little freer, a little more interestingly critical.'
Not everyone would be so gracious in the face of such a firestorm. Perhaps, though, in the years she spent in Bishop's company compiling this book, some of that gentle, perceptive poet's patience and perspective have come to rest upon her as an invisible but powerful mantle.
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