Review of Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century

Siobhan Phillips, Dickinson College

Review of Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century: Reading the New Editions. Eds. Angus Cleghorn, Bethany Hicok, Thomas Travisano. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2012. 310 pp. with index.

Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century gathers essays that consider three recently published volumes of Bishop work: Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box, the Library of America edition of Poems, Prose, & Letters, and Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. The collection therefore recognizes and solidifies changes in Bishop studies. No longer a sparse territory oriented by The Complete Poems, the field is now a various territory interconnecting expanding canons of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, letters, and fine art. With this, Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century puts to rest any lingering critical assumption that Bishop’s work is overlooked or under appreciated by scholars, other poets, or general readers; she is no longer the “writer’s writer’s writer” of John Ashbery’s famous phrase. This book can aim for a full consideration of Bishop as “a writer, a person and a cultural icon” without that final label seeming far fetched.

The label does, however, seem ironic, given the insights of this volume. There are few assumptions unifying Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century; even the four categorical groupings, labeled with “textual politics,” “place,” “the poet with her peers,” and “the new Elizabeth Bishop and her art,” seem tenuously linked. But the collection returns again and again to Bishop’s ambiguous relation to her culture (even if one were to settle, first, the ambiguous question of what culture was hers) and wary regard for representative status. An introduction by the editors, Angus Cleghorn, Bethany Hicok, and Thomas Travisano, rightly emphasizes the “deep ambivalence and reluctance with which Bishop confronted the public role of ‘major poet’ in mid century American society” (7).The essays that follow bear out this insight by suggesting the odd ways of being important that Bishop demonstrates: this poet is more central to American literature, not less, because of her very reluctance about definitive statements, first-person assertions, and bounded genres. Our central late-twentieth-century literary artist must be one who works in multiple or unrecognized forms, publishes with hesitation, revises and reconsiders obsessively, addresses politics obliquely, and crafts self-expression self-effacingly. Bishop could uncover the gaps in Freudian theories of relationality, for example, through unfinished drafts of a poem-letter about dreaming in color, as Heather Treseler’s essay in this collection explains. Bishop could make an argument about the political effects of address through her narration of children’s lessons in manners, as Gillian White’s analysis shows. Bishop could cloak the deviant traditionalism of a love poem under the straightforward subversion of a socialist critique, as Jacqueline Vaught Brogan argues.

How self-conscious was Bishop about such methods, and how deliberate was she about their legacy? Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century includes a fair amount of speculation on Bishop’s wishes for unpublished work. Charles Berger, in his consideration of “Bishop’s Buried Elegies,” suggests that Bishop “obscur[ed] some of the reasons that lay behind her resistance to finishing certain poems by publishing less vexed (but much less interesting) poems in their place,” even that she might have “withheld” interesting ones “for later placement…decades down the road” (50, 52), and Travisano picks up the speculation about later “decades” when he wonders “just how far…self-censorship might have extended in…more culturally accepting times” (237). These musings on Bishop’s plans are understandable in the light of the controversy surrounding Edgar Allan Poe, during which Helen Vendler, among other critics, excoriated the editor for printing Bishop’s “repudiated” poems. As Lloyd Schwartz explains in reply, Bishop “never really ‘repudiated’ most of her drafts” and indicated with the terms of her will that she was “quite prepared for their posthumous publication” (54). Lorrie Goldensohn agrees that Bishop “[m]ust have known” that her papers would be made available (112). Speculation and defense already seem beside the point, though, since the writing in Edgar Allan Poe, like that in Words in Air and the Library of America volume, is now an undeniable part of the available material. More important, then, is the critical sifting and setting—considering how a fuller range of work focuses Bishop’s themes, patterns, developments, methods of construction. As Schwartz puts it, we must fit the available material “into the larger context of Bishop’s achievement” (64).

Berger adds to this work, for example, in his apt focus on Bishop’s modes of mourning, as does Travisano with his related identification of “categories” (“losing” among them) in Bishop’s poetry. Cleghorn’s more specific analysis clarifies one category, Bishop’s “sexual-geographic poetics” (69), using writing from the “Bone Key” verse to call attention to the overlooked “Pleasure Seas.” (Cleghorn thus draws plausible connections between Bishop’s fine art and her verse, still too rare a strategy in Bishop criticism; Peggy Samuels’s essay in the present volume, though it presents material that has already been published in Samuels’s full-length study, illuminates related connections between Bishop and Alexander Calder.) Other essays work toward understanding not only by analyzing drafts and fragments in Edgar Allan Poe or the Library of America edition but also by attending to material still unpublished in book form. Jeffrey Gray’s explication of “Florida Revisited” uses the evolution of the poem to detail Bishop’s ambivalence as a travel writer. Francesco Rognoni’s richly informative essay points to Bishop’s revisions of “Visits to St. Elizabeths” as he describes her opinion of Ezra Pound. Treseler’s equally nuanced analysis presents Bishop’s unfinished letter-poems, particularly that beginning “Dear Dr.—,” to consider her predilection for correspondent intimacy in the light of Freudian recovery and Kleinian reparation. Treseler’s essay achieves the welcome outcome of linking Bishop’s attraction to epistolary writing and her interest in child psychology, two themes that deserve more attention either separately or together. All these critics suggest how “fatten[ing] the record,” in Goldensohn’s words (110), means deepening our reading.

They also draw attention to the limitations of the record, still: the fact that Alice Quinn cites four copies of “Dear Dr.—” in Edgar Allan Poe, for example, rather than the seven Treseler adduces. Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century might well have directed more attention to what editorial theory says about Bishop editions, and what Bishop editions say about editorial theory—moving beyond the semi-psychological question of an author’s possible intention, that is, into the concretely material questions of an editor’s actual choices. This seems a missed chance especially given that two of Bishop’s editors are contributors to Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century. Ellis’s opening essay provides a start, as he rightly questions the biographical focus of Alice Quinn’s work in Edgar Allan Poe (23). But one must wait till the final essay for a link between such doubts and a clear theoretical position: here, Christina Pugh questions the obsession with manuscript versions, noting that such a focus seems to render a poet more experimental but serves to feed an anti-feminist “obsession with the gendered body” and “the writerly conditions of … production.” Pugh’s comparison of Bishop and Emily Dickinson with regard to these trends brings the Bishop editions into a conversation about feminist reading as well as lyric theory and editorial standards. The general questions that she raises, moreover, have particular application closer to Bishop’s era: how do the assumptions of these Bishop editions compare, for example, to those in posthumously published work by T. S. Eliot or facsimile presentation of Marianne Moore or correspondence collections of Saul Bellow? How does Bishop’s work further the recent critical attention—from George Bornstein, Robin Schulze, Heather Cass White, and others—to material conditions of modernist literature and editorial standards for critical and general editions?

Such inquiries might help to particularize Bishop’s place among predecessors and contemporaries—as the twenty-first-century editions do more concretely, too, when they provide new documentation of her reading, comment, and citation. Several essays capitalize on these links.Richard Flynn’s consideration of Bishop’s friendship with Lowell is the most familiar, arguing that they encouraged each other in discoveries of what Bishop calls “real feeling” (206); fresher analysis comes from Samuels, Rognoni, and George Lensing, who compares Bishop and Flannery O’Connor. Lensing’s essay could well go further,in fact, since his pairing suggests overlooked aspects of Bishop—her religious vision, her moralism, or her regionalism—and might connect these postures to Bishop’s and O’Connor’s position as female authors self-consciously following and revising their male modernist forebears. Elizabeth Bishop and the 21st Century pursues contextualization most, however, in the case of Bishop’s political vision, endorsing Goldensohn’s point that the “great gift of Edgar Allan Poe” is “poems on love and politics” (113). Brogan’s essay may be least indebted to that gift, as she explains how Bishop uses “poetic conventions and forms precisely for political and feminist ends” (239), since she does not rely on material from the new editions, but other writers assess freshly available evidence. Barbara Page and Carmen L. Oliveira detail the mixture of sustained strangeness and sympathetic acclimatization that marked Bishop’s time in South America, for example, and Hicok shows how Bishop’s attitudes toward Brazilian conditions extend her earlier investments in American politics. White’s essay, the finest in the book, uses Bishop’s letters to analyze her vision of America during her years in Brazil, showing how the poet’s conceptualization of aesthetic “space”—room for interpretation—resists the immodest insistence that she found equally lamentable in government oppression and individual protest. Bishop takes poems, White suggests, as a rhetorical theater in which we see the real-world effects of discourse at work—a contention that sets Bishop’s art into provocative relation with cold-war mass culture as well as post-war politics.

Like all of the best moments in this collection, then, White’s hints at more work to be done, which adds to the compounded excitement of the volume as a whole. Scholars will use these essays not only for the knowledge they offer but also for the provocations they pose, as we grapple with the material of the three editions under consideration here as well as the 2011 crop of Poems, Prose, and Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker. “When does one begin to write the real poems?” Bishop writes to Lowell in one of the letters from Words in Air (243).While no one can discount the genuine scholarly brilliance that Bishop has elicited already, there are some real questions just beginning to take shape.

Tibor de Nagy exhibition.

Visions Coinciding – An Elizabeth Bishop Centennial Conference


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