Interviews January 2006

Paper Trail

How best to piece together the unfinished work of a consummate poet's poet? Alice Quinn reflects on the delicate task of vetting Elizabeth Bishop's notebooks

It's funny: you mention the lime tree connection, and I'm struck by how that phrase, "sad suburban fair" is reminiscent—or perhaps prescient!—of the work she'll do in "Just North of Boston," which we published in The Atlantic. Any writer might appreciate seeing how notes turn into fragments turn into poems. How did you choose what to put in and what to leave out?

draft excerpt
See an early draft (with scrawled
notes) of Bishop's "Just
North of Boston."

I didn't leave much out. There are only a handful of things—a quatrain here and there, or a draft whose basic outline isn't sufficiently settled—that didn't make it into the book. Many of the drafts had titles, so it's clear she intended them to be poems. Something like "I had a bad dream..." is lineated in her notebook. I assume that she had it in mind to convert this riveting but rather prosy entry into a poem. We can see from drafts of her villanelle, "One Art," that Bishop sometimes began with a page of prose statements that outlined directions a poem might take.

Some items in the book fall somewhere between a draft and a fragment. Something that is laid out in lines and coheres thematically might be an early draft or might just really be a journal entry—except that it exists on a single typed page and isn't in a journal. Some things might not be struggling to be poems at all. With some twenty untitled but fascinating or beautiful things, I've used the first line followed by an ellipsis as the title. One of these is: "The moon burgled the house..." It's an eerie composition that has the atmosphere of a post-atom-bomb piece.

The post-atom bomb air might very much inform it. It might also help you date it. You've also made an effort to establish a rough chronology for the work. How tricky was that?

It was often difficult. For instance journals Bishop kept in her thirties have several passages about the atom bomb—among them, "Think what the atom bomb must mean to painters. Art will have to be de-centralized just as much as heavy industries." She's clearly thinking about that topic early on. But the fragment I just mentioned, "The moon burgled the house..." dates from the 1960s, I believe.

Some of the manuscript material points in several directions. There's a fragment called "Miami" that's very arresting and has a lot of overlapping imagery with something I feel certain she wrote earlier, because it's embedded in her Key West notebooks of the thirties and forties. That draft is called "In a cheap hotel..." Both drafts mention an ice machine in a hotel and the telephone book in the room, and the description of the city in "Miami" echoes almost exactly the phrasing in a letter to Robert Lowell from February 1948: "the people really look very well, all clean & smelling of toilet waters—but the air smells of fried potatoes & orange-peel—"

But because the typeface of "Miami" resembles that of other drafts dated by various scholars or the Vassar archive as late-fifties or 1961-62 and because she alludes to working on a poem about Miami in another letter to Lowell, written in 1958, I placed the draft in the late fifties.

I often relied on typewriter typefaces and these passages from letters that chimed with the phrasing in drafts to help me arrange this material. You have to have an order, and I felt chronology was the most interesting: we watch her concerns develop and change, and see her change, too. In the fifties and sixties, she is a much happier person than before. But there's a considerable amount of guesswork involved, and I state this rather emphatically in the introduction.

As an editor, of course, I also had to make decisions about punctuation. "Miami," for instance, is almost totally unpunctuated. In cases where Bishop began to punctuate a draft, I felt comfortable following through with logical but minimal punctuation. If she closed a sentence with a period, I felt easy about capping the first letter of the next sentence. If she had no punctuation, I represented the draft as is. It's best to proceed cautiously when working with the manuscripts of a great artist. And I wrote what I hope is a comprehensive "Note on the Text" to address questions any reader might have about what I did and didn't do.

It must have been difficult at times. As you made these decisions, what factors guided you?

I tried not to get in the way of the pleasure a reader could take in this new material. I've gone over it all so many times that the arc of each draft is something I can revisit in my mind, but I wanted readers approaching these drafts for the first time not to be derailed so that they wouldn't be able to have a kindred experience. In nearly every case, I chose to reproduce the most coherent and intact draft, as opposed to settling for a choppier version that might have been more advanced but would have required more editorial decision-making on my part. Then, in the notes, I describe the other versions I encountered.

Isolated cases presented forks in the road. For instance, when The Paris Review recently printed the draft of "Hannah A.," which I quoted to you, we presented all the stanzas as they appear in an early draft. When the draft appeared in The Paris Review, I realized that the second stanza was so unfinished as to be a real stopper. Here's a bit of it.

[which although weathered
still is deeply feathered]
where the dry claws slithered
[on the        shales]             (slippery)

It's intriguing and beautiful, but Bishop hasn't figured out her syntax there yet. She has figured out a rhythm for the whole and chosen a splendid guiding metaphor. Her overall idea for the poem is clear, but the picture she's composing in this stanza is still highly embryonic. I felt that if I kept the second stanza there in the book, most readers would give up and exit an otherwise understandable and touching poem. So I moved the second stanza to my endnote on that poem and indicated (via a short horizontal line described in "A Note on the Text") that something in the typescript had been deleted.

I wanted any lover of her work to be able to revisit this draft in memory—to think about its shape and ideas—feeling confident that he or she knows generally what Bishop was aiming to convey even if this small part of the draft remains a mystery.

But in a way, some of the pleasure is in the mystery. This is a project that is about the pleasure of hearing, as you say, an unfinished rhythm-in-progress, in the way that we might go see the recent exhibit of Van Gogh sketches at the Met, or listen to bootleg recordings of riffs by a great musician.

The Van Gogh exhibit is deeply instructive in terms of seeing him become Van Gogh almost overnight. You can follow how the Impressionists affected his procedures—and watch how he quickly refined his goals for his own work. Similarly, with Bishop we can see how ongoing interests shaped her work—her early interest in surrealism, or her love of ballads and blues. There's one fragment that begins, "Don't you call me that word, honey."

Still, she did abandon these, whereas other drafts and lines tugged at her for years—even decades—until she successfully teased out their possibilities. Why did she keep working on some things but not others?

We can't know, but perhaps some of them didn't have an obdurate appeal for her in terms of their complexity. The poems she published have a definite magnificence, even the smaller lyrics. Also a lot of what is here is very personal. She was a reticent person, as we know. Often this work seems to be work that kept her practicing—kept her hand in, so to speak. Perhaps these pieces answered certain impulses to define a chapter in her life, such as a love affair. Many of them are rhymed. In her notebooks, a good number of entries are accompanied by rhyme schemes. She once wrote that rhyme was "mystical," and many of her great poems are rhymed internally even if the rhyme isn't obvious or emphatic throughout.

On the other hand, there's a passage in her notebook from a trip to Nova Scotia in 1946, the summer her first book was published: "My idea of 'knowledge' / thin cold stream, half-drawn half-flowing / from a great rocky breast..." It has the letters "GM" for "Geographical Mirror" attached to it—the title I mentioned she was considering for that unrealized sequence. And while that sequence was never realized, these lines obviously foreshadow the culminating lines of "At the Fishhouses." They stuck with her all the way from the notebook to the perfection of that great early masterwork. I think perhaps they did because they are so fascinating and mysterious, and yet she probably hit upon them in a flash and sensed that they accurately reflected her ideas. In one of the unfinished prose pieces in the appendix, "Writing Poetry is an Unnatural Act," she writes that the three qualities she admires most "in the poetry I like best" are "Accuracy, Spontaneity, Mystery."

You mention the issue of fascination, which is a way of describing why we might return to something again and again, or why it might compel us. It may be that Bishop just leaves behind what doesn't fascinate her. What are some other reasons she might abandon her poem, or perhaps self-censor it?

Bishop once said to Richard Howard that she believed "closets, closets, and more closets." A number of these drafts are about love and erotic love. Bishop eschewed the "confessional" in her work, although there is a deep available undercurrent of personal truth or vision in it. As Randall Jarrell said, "her poems have written underneath, I have seen it." According to those who knew her, such as the Boston poet Lloyd Schwartz, she was open with her friends, but she did not want to be identified as a "woman" poet, much less as a "lesbian" poet. She was famous for not allowing her work to be reprinted in anthologies devoted to "women poets."

When she did write what most of us consider an obvious love poem, she was initially rebuffed. Katharine White, a brilliant editor and a great champion of Bishop's at The New Yorker returned her poem "The Shampoo" saying that she didn't understand it, and the poem made the rounds for six years before it was eventually published in The Partisan Review.

Bishop traveled between North and South during the 1940s, where she saw segregation, and later to Brazil, where she saw a new kind of poverty. One of the poems we've published in The Atlantic, about a carnival in Key West, includes a line about "white feet along the beach" and later the line "while Negro children, who are not allowed,/ Look on solemnly from among the crowd." Another poem, called "Something I've Meant to Write About for 30 Years," describes the uneasy feeling of seeing a black shanty town from a train in the forties. Both seem more willing to make what might be called political commentary about what she sees. In the end she doesn't publish those. Do you think she censored those types of commentaries?

Both poems are documentary. She's setting down the scenes she witnessed. Even in her published poems, she exhibits a political streak. "Pink Dog" is a searing poem about poverty in Rio. And as for recording what she experienced of segregation in the American South, she lived in that world and felt herself a witness to it very profoundly.

In an interview conducted in Rio in 1956 after she won the Pulitzer Prize, the anonymous writer quoted her saying something I think most of her readers would find surprising coming from her:

"'Every good writer takes into account the social problems of his times,' she says emphatically at some point in our interview, 'and in one way or another, all good poetry reflects those problems.'" In her draft called "Brasil, 1959," she wrote of the new capital in a mood of outrage—calling it "a lovely bauble."

But Bishop didn't write much overtly political poetry. In the seventies, she told Elizabeth Spires (who conducted an interview with her that was eventually expanded and published in The Paris Review) that she wanted to finish a poem about whales that she'd begun years and years before but that whales were currently such a ballyhooed cause she might not publish it even if she were able to finish it.

There's a way in which the book—any book—of fragments asks us to connect the dots. We get to enjoy the intervals and constellations, or see how an early theme is revisited much later. What were some of the illuminations you had while spending so much time with her journals and notebooks? Tell me some about the joy of the archive.

While I was at Vassar and alone with all this material, I felt a strong sense of privilege and responsibility. The place has the quality of a sanctuary for me. The quiet in the library is very special, and you have the opportunity to focus exclusively on the papers before you. The writing in the notebooks is sometimes perfectly finished and complete and sometimes highly fragmented but always compelling. Sometimes phrases are partially blurred, waterlogged—perhaps by tears, one doesn't know.

In the book I tried to share my compound of reverence and exhilaration. The notes are almost all quotations from this material, or commentary or letters from those who knew her well. Reading her journals and letters brings us into her life in a very immediate way. I felt her youthfulness (and youthful genius) in the journal entries about traveling in Fascist Italy and Spain, and they shed a great deal of light on the drafts and unfinished poems from the thirties.

Her letters to her doctor, Anny Baumann, and to beloved, trusted friends when she was at her lowest throughout her life were humbling to read. But I never ceased to think of her life as an immense victory because of the perfect poems and the beautiful prose she wrote and the arresting beauty and interest of all this material that has yet to be shared with the large, large number of readers who cherish her work.

Presented by

Tess Taylor is the author of The Misremembered World, published by the Poetry Society of America in 2003. She is The Atlantic's assistant poetry editor.

The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it. They are repulsed by it."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In