Excerpted from Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box by Elizabeth Bishop Copyright © 2006 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Published in March 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
To visit the Department of Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries, and explore the abundance of Elizabeth Bishop material is to enter a universe of fascinating proportions. In the boxes that preserve more than thirty-five hundred pages of Bishop’s writing are brief, indelible character sketches. (“Loved the wrong person all his life / lived in the wrong place / maybe even read the wrong books—”), bits of overheard dialogue she found irresistible, notes for stories, commentary on poetry she revered (by Herbert, Hopkins, Stevens, and Moore, particularly), wholly arresting, distinctly characteristic bits of description (“the bureau trapped in the moon-light, like a creature saying ‘oh’ ”; “Begonias ghostly in a galvanized bucket”), accounts of dreams, drawings, menus, shopping lists, and hosts of fascinating remarks on the art of poetry, as well as the occasional withering comment on a poem, an essay, or a literary attitude or viewpoint she deplored. Of Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate of England and friend to Hopkins, for instance, she writes, “The reasonableness of all his ideas is too much—not a touch of the fanatical. He seems to have made himself into a poet out of wisdom—after deciding, sensibly, it was the best profession life had to offer him.” There are also—especially in her notebooks from the 1930s and ’40s, when she was often desperately uncertain about the direction of her work and her life—anguished cris de coeur, indicating how much courage and bedrock stamina her survival entailed.
Many of the titles set down in the notebooks are referred to just once, including early groups with marvelous descriptive tags indicating Bishop’s ideas for them. Her post-college journal, which she began on the island of Cuttyhunk off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts, in July 1934, lists the following on one page: “ ‘The Citrus Fruit’—love & friendship, ‘The Emblem in the Eye’—6 sonnets, ‘Flags and Banners’—motion in dreams, and ‘An Individual Island for Everyone’ (breakfast foods, etc.—satire).”
And there are innumerable fragments and drafts of poems, work that she did not complete to her satisfaction or considered trifling; drafts with phrases that haunted her, showing up again and again in her notebooks over the course of years; drafts with lines written out in a rush but accompanied by a chosen rhyme scheme; fragments that showcase verbal gestures familiar to Bishop readers from the more successful resolution of those gestures in the poems we know—all of it work that for one reason or another she chose not to publish but did not destroy.
Thinking about poetry in the highest terms was instinctive for Bishop and meeting her own standards was almost impossible, and this may account for the extraordinary quality of her unpublished work. In a letter to Marianne Moore dated December 5, 1936, the twenty-five-year-old Bishop discusses her reaction to the new book by Wallace Stevens, Owl’s Clover, making clear how deeply she is pondering what poetry can and ought to do: “What strikes me as so wonderful about the whole book—because I dislike the way he occasionally seems to make blank verse moo—is that it is such a display of ideas at work—making poetry, the poetry making them, etc. That, it seems to me, is the way a poet should think.” In another early letter to Moore, she asks, “Can you please forgive me and believe that it is really because I want to do something well that I don’t do it at all?”
Early on, editors understood her perfectionism and regularly tried to goad her to let go and send them her poems. She began publishing in The New Yorker in 1940 at the age of twenty-nine, and on March 9, 1955, Katharine White wrote to 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.” Many years later, on May 26, 1972, Howard Moss, who had succeeded White as Bishop’s editor and who became her friend, wrote exuberantly to her about a poem he had seen in draft years before: “ ‘12 O’Clock News’ is marvelous and we’re delighted to have it…I was particularly happy to see that ‘unicyclist’ back. I’ve been waiting for him for years…Like Beethoven’s father, I’d simply put you in a room and make you work all the time if I could. Of course, I wouldn’t be that strict. A little gin, a few sandwiches…”
In a talk about poetry prepared but not presented in Rio in the 1960s (and included in full in the appendix), Bishop writes of the challenges as she conceived of them: “Off and on I have written out a poem called ‘Grandmother’s Glass Eye’ which should be about the problem of writing poetry. The situation of my grandmother strikes me as rather like the situation of the poet: the difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real; the natural with the unnatural; the curious effect a poem produces of being as normal as sight and yet as synthetic, as artificial, as a glass eye.”
* * *
None of the material here was stamped by Elizabeth Bishop for publication with the notable exception of her villanelle “One Art,” which is included here in the appendix along with the sixteen available drafts of the poem as numbered by the Vassar archive. There is disagreement among scholars about the sequence of the drafts—see Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It by Brett C. Millier and Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Intimacy by Victoria Harrison (both noted in the bibliography)—but the set as it is offers a unique opportunity to study a Bishop poem from inception to fulfillment. The poem was written within months as distinct from the sometimes decades-long separation between a poem’s beginning and Bishop’s satisfaction with it. Bishop kept the drafts together. And it seems the appropriate candidate for inclusion—for the sake of contrast and study—in this book of unfinished work.
The illustrated poem that opens the book, “ ‘I introduce Penelope Gwin…,’ ” a portrait of the artist as a young girl, must have pleased Bishop when she wrote it, but where could it have found a home in her oeuvre while she was alive except in an essay on her juvenilia?
In a letter dated January 20, 1938, when she was about to turn twenty-seven, Bishop sent “Money,” one of the slighter poems collected here, to Marianne Moore. She referred to the poem as “a sort of joke (made out of a sentence in Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead: ‘Money comes and goes like a bird.’)” Graduating from college during the Depression, though, Bishop had cause to ponder the subject seriously, and her conclusion—that money’s “migratory habits” are “stern, both ignorant and wise”—is captivating even if the poem is too tidy and circumscribed to have passed muster with her. The little poem also shows the kind of phrase that could hook Bishop and motivate her to begin a poem.
Bishop’s notebooks from the 1940s are full of touching evocation of Mrs. Hannah Almyda, her housekeeper in Key West, whom she described lovingly in letters to friends. But it’s at the moment when Bishop seizes upon a powerful metaphor—“the Pelican, self-sacrificing, tearing feathers from its breast to line its nest”—and writes “for a poem?” in the margin that the depth of her regard for her friend and the scale of her own dependence become manifest.
On a draft of “Hannah A.” Bishop writes “stiff,” and yet what she sets down allows us to experience how rhyme—which she describes in an early notebook entry as “mystical”—helped her marshal and explore her thinking, and how poetry, as she remarks in a letter to May Swenson, is “a way of thinking with one’s feelings.”
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This book opens with two poems from girlhood followed by a number of poems written just after college, in the mid-1930s when Bishop settled in New York and set about methodically reading English poetry on her own, working on her knowledge of French at Columbia, and studying the clavichord with Ralph Kirkpatrick. These early poems reflect her interest in allegory and her pressing need to explore the subject of love. These are followed by poems drafted on her travels to Ireland, France, and Spain, and a fragment jotted down on her first trip to Florida in December 1936.
The kernel of the book derives from two notebooks dating, roughly, from 1937 to 1947, which Bishop entrusted to a close friend, Linda Nemer, as she left Brazil in 1970–71 after what she later described as “the fifteen happiest years of my life.” Nemer showed the notebooks to the poet and scholar Lorrie Goldensohn on a visit Goldensohn made to Ouro Prêto in the spring of 1986. As Goldensohn recounts the episode in her book Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry, “Bishop emptied the contents of her desk in Rio, and told Linda that she was likely to outlive her: she must keep these papers. Sell them if she liked, but if so, get a good price for them.” Goldensohn initiated arrangements for the purchase of these materials by Lisa Browar, who was then curator of the Department of Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries. Most of the poems in the third section of this book come from these two notebooks, referred to in the notes section as the Key West notebooks and identified by their folder numbers, 75.3a and b and 75.4a and b, in the Vassar archive. The title poem, “Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box,” is the last developed draft in the first of the notebooks. Many years after she left Key West, Bishop showed the poem to Robert Giroux, her editor from 1956 until her death, saying that she had envisioned it as the concluding one in her second collection. Her letters and journals of the period (abundantly quoted in the notes) testify to the role Poe had in her thinking in the late 1930s, and the poem is also biographically significant, pointing up the considerable anguish she was experiencing before her move to Brazil in 1951.
Dating drafts is challenging and sometimes impossible. Bishop famously began poems and set them aside for years. “The Moose,” we know, had its origins in a bus trip the poet took in 1946, and she continued to work on the poem after reading it in June 1972 at the Phi Beta Kappa ceremony at Harvard. Every trip to Vassar yields new insights about the material presented here. Bishop’s prose account of a newsreel she watched in September 1954—see “Suicide of a (Moderate) Dictator,” in the appendix—also contains reference to a poem, “Dicky and Sister,” which she continued to work on in a notebook from the 1970s, the draft of which appears here, on page 170.
The two Key West notebooks of the thirties and forties are numbered. It’s clear that Bishop did not fill one notebook before beginning the other—both have entries from the late forties—and yet because of references to historical events, to a change of residence, or to travels that have been documented elsewhere, in letters or other writing, it appears that she used the one identified as 75.4a and b mostly in the earlier period, from the mid-thirties through the early forties, and the second, identified as 75.3a and b, from the mid-forties up through 1947. The notebook page numbers provide a rare if far from foolproof framework, and the drafts in Section III are sequenced accordingly, with a clutch of poems written around 1942 placed between the drafts in the first and second notebooks. In the notes section, I quote the source material that dates these poems positioned between the first and second notebooks to 1942 or thereabouts, but there was considerable guesswork involved.
A number of drafts from the Key West notebooks are accompanied by the notation “Bone Key” or “Key of Bone,” which Bishop evidently contemplated as a title for either a sequence or a collection of poems about Key West. A notebook page with lines from the draft “After the Rain” indicates some of her thinking:
“one of the children thinks—
Key West, Largo Hueso, Key of Bone.
& sees a key like one to the front door
made of white bone. The island is
the white coral bone key to
the depths of the gulf—
More evocative description of Key West follows, some of it again from “After the Rain”:
(The kites are flown;
the puddles are gone.)
The palm trees will make their entrance
into the evening sky. The water-tower
is silvered with metallic paint,
moon on stilts.
The moon-flower wilts.
The drafts earmarked for “Bone Key” include “ ‘From the shallow night-long graves…,’ ” “The Street by the Cemetery,” “Florida Deserta,” “Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box,” and “After the Rain,” which she continued working on after she moved to Brazil, writing to her editor at Houghton Mifflin in September 1953 that she intended to include it in her second collection.
To order drafts in subsequent sections, I’ve depended on the dates Bishop gave them or that Vassar affixed to them, on the testimony of Bishop’s friends, on references provided in her letters and journals, on the conjectures of established scholars to whom I’m greatly indebted, and on my own sense of chronology derived from an immersion in Bishop’s papers for many years. But it must be explicitly stated that the ordering of this material is in no manner definitive.
In transcribing the poems, I sought to present the most coherent, intact drafts, and I’ve indicated in the notes whether a draft is singular or one of several extant. Facsimile representation seemed the best way to reflect the state of some of the drafts (and the challenge of transcription) as well as the most exciting way to present them. (The note on the text which follows provides a more detailed description of sequencing, transcription, and other editorial decisions.)
Much, if not all, of the material assembled here has been quoted in the many excellent books on Bishop’s poetry published in the years since her papers were graciously made available for study by her literary executor, Alice Methfessel. It’s my hope that this book will provide an adventure for readers who love the established canon, enabling them to hear echoes and make connections based on their own intuitions and close reading of both the finished and the unfinished poems.