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
Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box : Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments
[Click the title
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edited by Alice Quinn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
During her lifetime, Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was famous for her fastidiousness. John Ashbery once affectionately dubbed her "a writer's writer's writer," and she curated her poems with exacting care, often letting nearly finished drafts sit for years at a time while she hunted for just the right word. One poem, "The Moose," begun in the mid-forties, is legendary for waiting nearly thirty years to receive her seal of approval. Yet despite—or perhaps because of—this reticent perfectionism, Bishop's work invited the curiosity of her readers. In 1955, Katherine White, then poetry editor at The New Yorker, wrote her, "As usual, this letter is a plea to let us see some of the Elizabeth Bishop manuscripts that I feel certain are on your desk, all finished if only you could bring yourself to part with them." Bishop couldn't bear to part very often. By the end of her life, she had approved only a relatively small body of work for publication—300 pages, slim in comparison to her friend Robert Lowell's behemoth 1,500-page Collected Poems.
Yet if Bishop held up her friend Lowell as a stern example of productive discipline, she often seemed to revel in her own scrupulous—if sometimes fragmentary—writing process. At times, she represented her small output as evidence of a kind of daydreaming waywardness. She once wrote to James Merrill: "When I think about it, it seems to me I've rarely written anything of value at the desk or in the room where I was supposed to be doing it—it's always in someone else's house, or in a bar, or standing up in the kitchen in the middle of the night..." An article documenting her tenure as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress pictures her patching together scraps of paper on which she'd written fragments of text: "There's nothing complicated about it," she's recorded as saying. "It's like making a map."
However complex the mapmaking really was, Bishop left a great deal of unpublished ephemera to tantalize this era's Katherine Whites. In the library at Vassar College, (Bishop's alma mater, which now owns the majority of her papers), 118 boxes hold numbered and catalogued Bishop landmarks—the notes and scraps she left, now reassembled into archival order. The 3,500-page holdings include correspondence with Marianne Moore, Lowell, and Merrill; musings on everything from musical composition, to cartography, and Charles Darwin; high-school notebooks, clipping-filled scrapbooks, and fine, occasional watercolor paintings. A small trove of folders contains drafts of poems Bishop never finished—material she never approved for publication, but also never destroyed.
Bishop's reputation, readership, and popularity have grown since her death, and her archive now invites new curiosity from a generation of readers who want to see what lies beyond her small but memorable corpus. The notes, drafts, and letters offer glimpses of thought in motion and seem to promise a chance to assemble (and reassemble) an unfinishable map of the terrain Bishop left behind.
"North and South" (January/February 2006)
Selections from the notebooks of Elizabeth Bishop.
From Atlantic Unbound:
"Soundings: Elizabeth Bishop, 'Sonnet'" (March 29, 2000)
Read aloud by Gail Mazur, Robert Pinsky, Lloyd Schwartz, and Mark Strand. Introduction by Lloyd Schwartz.
The fragments allow the reader to flip back and forth, developing possible architectures of connection between the intriguing, sometimes mystifying marginalia of the poet's life. Some notes point to other notes: A title for unrealized poem—"The Citrus Fruit (—love and friendship)"—might resonate with a later, also unfinished poem about lime trees and love. A draft of "The Fishhouses," a widely anthologized poem Bishop published in her second book, A Cold Spring, turns out to have been earmarked for Geographical Mirror, a sequence of poems that never materialized. Other pages are simply the artifacts of a keen observer thinking: they hold little sketches, or such observations as: "Loved the wrong person all his life / lived in the wrong place / maybe even read the wrong books—").
One notebook page holds a doodled-in metrical pattern of dactyls, sketched at a diagonal, as if Bishop is quickly taking musical notation or tapping out a whole stanza of scansion:
Dum ditty dum ditty dum dit /
dum ditty dum /
ditty dum ditty dum /
dum ditty dum ditty dum
The same page holds ideas for rhymes ("imposture / imposter") and a few inscrutable notes ("TURVIS?" underlined three times and "poem: a religion" underlined once).
Bishop once wrote about a group of women "retreating, always retreating" behind an elaborate curtain. It is impossible to know what to make of the artifacts of any life, especially that of a writer as private as Bishop. Still, twenty-six years after Bishop's death, Alice Quinn, the current poetry editor of The New Yorker and a Bishop devotee, has gathered and ordered the fragments so that the world can try to enter the spaces Bishop leaves behind. Her book, Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, attempts to replicate the experience of sifting through the archive, allowing the reader to flip between drafts, letters, and notes, and to imagine the bridges between them. The book—which follows Bishop from her teenage years and time at Vassar through early travels to New York and Europe, follows Bishop's moves to Florida and Brazil, and then back to Boston, and holds her musings on love, cupid harlequins, and suburban fairs; her precise descriptions and lyric riffs; and elusive, evocative snippets that deal with Bishop's familiar themes of mapmaking and travel, homesickness and home.
I spoke with Alice Quinn over lunch and tea in the Condé Nast lunchroom. While the women's magazine crowd fanned out from the lunchroom to the various floors, Quinn curled into a round booth, drank a cup of Earl Grey tea, and talked into the late afternoon about the process of curating the fragments.
| Bishop in her home in|
Key West, 1945. (Photo by
Josef Breitenbach, courtesy
of the Center for Creative
Photography. Copyright © The Josef
So, how did this book get started?
Let's see. Years ago, I made several trips to the Bishop archive at Vassar College on behalf of Robert Giroux, Bishop's lifelong editor. Bob was then making a selection of Bishop's letters for publication—the great book that was eventually (and brilliantly) titled One Art—and Bob was grateful for the material I was able to dig up there. One day he took me to lunch and asked me if I'd like to put together an edition of Bishop's uncollected poems and drafts, and the challenge proved irresistible. I was gratified to learn a few years later from J. D. McClatchy, James Merrill's literary executor, that James thought the drafts he'd seen at Vassar would make a marvelous book.
But it took me quite a while to figure out how to assemble the book. It wasn't that difficult to find the essential material, although I did continue to make discoveries up to the minute the book went off to the copyeditor. Vassar had catalogued quite a number of the drafts, and others were lodged in Bishop's journals and easy to spot, but I didn't want to just hang these drafts and fragments on a line. It took several years for me to settle on the path I chose, which was to contextualize this material by quoting passages from her journals and letters that illuminate her thinking—either by echoing the subjects of the drafts or the phrasing in them. I quote other sources, as well. In the note on the title poem, "Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box," for instance, I quote Baudelaire's essays on Poe, which it's clear Bishop read. Herbert, Hopkins, and Baudelaire were her favorite poets from early on. All these things are ways of helping us enter Bishop's frames of reference and artistic process. For example, Baudelaire's passionate appreciation of Poe, and the manner in which he describes the American revulsion at Poe's alcoholism, would have made a big impression on the young Bishop, who was living in Key West and experiencing a lot of temptation and fear about her own drinking.
| See a draft (with|
accompanying doodle) of
Bishop's "The Traveller to Rome."
I took a long time assembling these notes, but I did keep making discoveries as I studied the notebooks. I hope it was time well spent in the end. Although I knew how fascinating it would be to her core readership, I didn't feel the world was clamoring to see this work. But Bishop's core readership has been growing steadily for a couple of decades now, and it turns out that there is a real hunger for it. Nearly half of the 108 drafts and fragments have found homes in our important periodicals and magazines—many of them in The New Yorker, naturally, as that's where Bishop published most of her poems, but others have landed in The Paris Review, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, and now in The Atlantic.
Bishop's Complete Poems is, by comparison with the work of other poets, a fairly small volume. What were some of the challenges of approaching the unfinished work?
Presenting the unfinished work of somebody whose reputation rests in no small part on her perfectionism is a pretty daunting task. I worked hard to gather the material by Bishop to illuminate these drafts so that those who adore her work wouldn't feel let down. Naturally most of the drafts can't compete with her finished work on an artistic level. Part of Bishop's genius was in recognizing when something was perfected and not publishing work that hadn't reached that level, but everything in the book is of interest either biographically—as it reveals terrain largely unexplored in her published work—or because it shows the kind of scene, image, or insight that provoked her to start a poem. And all this material gives us more of what was filtered through her brain and heart, which is hugely valuable. I sent a set of bound galleys a few months ago to a poet who's loved her work since his college days in the seventies, and was cheered and relieved when he wrote that he felt I'd managed to do this without being intrusive, reductive, or confusing our cherished notions.
The first poem, "I introduce Penelope Gwin...," is a long comic poem about a wandering woman who spurns family life for travel, and hides from her aunts behind potted plants. It's a bit of an early self-portrait by Bishop, isn't it?
Yes, definitely. And it gives us a sense of Bishop's insouciance as a young woman of seventeen or so. It's a very accomplished comic poem and an uncanny early portrait of the kind of woman Bishop would become—a traveler and an unsparing artist.
There are other youthful poems just as illuminating—"Washington as a Surveyor," for instance, which recently ran in The New Yorker. It has the most wonderful opening, "Lord I discovered when I discovered love / That day a continent within the mind..." Her love of geography and her pressing need to explore the subject of love in her twenties are on display here.
What were some of your favorite discoveries?
I kept being struck by the things—the sights and conversations—she dwelt on. A little note in the journals, "begonias ghostly in a galvanized bucket," gives us the young Bishop in Key West, possibly on a bicycle, taking in that apparition in a glance and immortalizing it in her notebook.
I love the drafts of a poem alternately titled "Hannah A." and "Mrs. Almyda," which enshrines her housekeeper in Key West in the 1940s. In it, Bishop settles on the image of the prehistoric pelican tearing feathers from her breast to line her nest as the apt metaphor for a demanding kind of love. She writes: "No trick, like balancing / but endless worrying/ at such discouraging/ details with small result," and she's describing her housekeeper's relationship to her. But we also see that Bishop puts a premium on love that involves tremendous attention and sacrifice.
Bishop kept beautiful letters from Mrs. Almyda all her life. I quote them in the notes to that draft. One has a recipe for "cocoanut pie" and the depth of her feeling for Bishop is just indelible: "Miss you, sure do miss the ones you love. Hope you're doing well with your writing."
I was also struck by the way the drafts and fragments sometimes give us her familiar voice but in a new tone. For instance, in her beautiful poem, "Filling Station," the speaker wonders aloud at the reason for decoration in the little ESSO station: "Why the extraneous plant? / Why the taboret?" That's a tone I might call plaintive interrogative—here reflecting a penetrating, sweet assessment of how people try to make their lives prettier. In the drafts, we encounter this plaintiveness again but in a different register. In "On the 'Prince of Fundy'," a poem set on a ship in Nova Scotia, the speaker drones about the noise on board, "Someone has a heavy tread, above. / Someone else—a woman—is singing. Why? / And why does she sing so high?" Another draft titled "Ungracious Poem" is focused on nurses—Bishop logged a lot of time in hospitals—and the refrain is "Why do Nurses talk? / What do they talk about?" Those questions are less charming; they reflect irritation and impatience, and are less mediated by art.
One of the poems that we considered for The Atlantic is called "Florida Deserta" and it has a little note on it "For Bone Key" which is, of course, a collection of poems—or an idea for a collection—that never did materialize. Why do you suppose it didn't? Were there any clues? Do the letters provide any sense of why?
"Bone Key" is a group of seven or eight poems Bishop developed and earmarked as a sequence. She never published them, although several—particularly "Key West," now in The Atlantic, and "The Street by the Cemetery," which ran in The New Yorker—appear to be finished. It's clear that she had a sequence in view or, perhaps, was considering "Bone Key" as a title for her second collection. Other titles—for sequences or for collections—mentioned in her journal from the Key West decade are "Geographical Mirror" and "Hotels."
The late thirties through the early forties was an important period in her development and one not extensively reflected in her finished work. I consider the drafts from this time the kernel of the book. The work she began is often dramatic and deeply sorrowful. She was so uncertain of her life's direction and the drafts about love are often heartbreaking.
Another of the drafts from the Key West journal begins,
I had a bad dream,
toward morning, about you.
You lay unconscious
It was to be
for "24 hrs."
Wrapped in a long blanket
I felt I must hold you
even though a "load of guests"
might come in from the garden
at a minute
& see us lying
with my arms around you
& my cheek on yours.
The draft closes with lines about the loved one "a thousand miles away" and the speaker trying to hold on "with the numb arms of a dreamer" and experiencing a "loneliness like falling on / the sidewalk in a crowd / that fills one with shame, some / slow, elaborate shame."
That's an indication of the isolation Bishop often felt in Key West. But in the end she didn't have a full collection of Key West poems. Her second book, A Cold Spring, which she published when she was forty-four—in a volume that included a reissue of her first book, North & South—begins with a beautiful poem set in Maryland. It has only three poems explicitly set in Key West, and it doesn't contain a single one from this clutch of poems she'd been returning to on and off for years.
But why? Any sense?
I can only speculate. Perhaps it's because they summoned up a period she was happy to have behind her.
So, what do we learn from looking at the unfinished work of a perfectionist?
A big part of the pleasure and understanding to be gained is in knowing what was on her mind during those years and in discovering new phrasing of hers, new avenues into her vision. Anyone who knows Bishop's work will recognize gestures in these poems that are more fully realized or at least differently fulfilled in her truly finished poems, but you can take so much pleasure in everything she was noticing and considering as material for poetry. Rough drafts bring you into the laboratory and feel more personal, overall.
For instance, here's a poem that provides some testimony about her relationship with Louise Crane, with whom she bought the house at 624 White Street in Key West in 1938, now a landmarked site. There's an entry in her notebook, "the lime trees, unexhausted by the bees." In the note to the draft, I quote this, along with several other entries about lime trees, but I leave it to the reader to interpret their significance with respect to this dramatically symbolic poem, which seems so clearly about betrayal.
We hadn't meant to spend so much time
In the cool shadow of the lime.
You played with three green leaves all afternoon,
—Three green leaves and a red heart.
Now it is growing dark.
I can't stand your arrangements anymore.
They were that shadow; real dark is the truth:
The lime tree is a little booth
Outlined with leaves, one clotted heart displayed,
On the outskirts of a sad suburban fair.
Now look behind the dirty curtain where
Harlequin lies drunk in his checquered clothes...
I think readers will be interested to ponder the different ways that the journal entries relate to the drafts. And in reading this material, I'm always aware of the many different eras reflected. The figure of the harlequin was prevalent in the early part of the century both in the work of Picasso and in the French poetry of that time. Wallace Fowlie, a scholar of French literature whose work Bishop followed, entitled one of his books The Clown's Grail. Even so, the personal aspect of this seems undeniable.
In general, I feel that a lot of the material in the book floats free of her finished work. We're not looking at early drafts of work she published. It's just really different stuff. One isn't pressed into a frenzy of comparison. And, sometimes it is hard to say what these things are. Is the poem I just quoted finished or a partial draft? I can't say. In any case, she decided not to publish it. Many of these drafts and fragments strike out into territory that will impress readers as quite distinct from that of her established canon.
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?
| 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.