Greg Simon
Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box:Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments
By Elizabeth Bishop
Edited and Annotated by Alice Quinn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2006

 

When I was attending the University of Washington in the late 1960s, a professor of mine, who was always amused and energized by even the slightest suggestion of naïveté, once assured me that my latest literary obsession, Elizabeth Bishop, was 20 years old, living alone in genteel poverty on the east coast, and looking for a boyfriend who could be sympathetic to her vocation.  Imagine thinking a poet in her twenties could have written North & South and A Cold Spring.  What was I smoking?
 
How lovely then that I, all grown up now, should have a second chance.  Some 40 years later, the same twenty-year-old poet I once thought I could rescue from despair magically reappears in the form of an un-cohesive, even somewhat disheveled collection of drafts and abandoned poems, assembled from her papers by Alice Quinn, successor to the late Howard Moss as poetry editor of The New Yorker.
 
The publication of …Juke-Box has caused a minor maelstrom of protest, as if one of the most honored 20th century American poets needed warriors to come to the rescue of her posthumous reputation.  (See above.)  A ludicrous notion, for as the very clear-minded poet Carol Rumens pointed out in Guardian Review, “If Bishop did not destroy her papers but gave them to a university library, she could not have seriously opposed a wider readership.”  In fact as Alice Quinn’s notes take us deeper into the archives only a few have seen – “boxes listed as Unpublished Poetry” – “folders dedicated to articles about Bishop” – “boxes and folders listed as Fragments” – “boxes that contain Bishop’s many notebooks and journals from 1934 to 1978” – it is readily apparent that Miss Bishop kept everything.  I would give a fortune to see those notebooks, but is …Juke-Box a treasure-trove?
 
Well, yes and no.  Rumens again: “Most of the poems are not drafts of finished poems – they are poems that did not get beyond draft stage.”  What I was amazed at were the completely abandoned drafts and fragments that seemed to hold so much promise.  But anyone familiar with Bishop’s published oeuvre (not a very difficult task as her Collected Poems runs only 200 pages or so) must have suspected there were pages Bishop had rejected in over forty years of writing.  But with a poet for whom reticence was a major rhetorical weapon, could anyone have imagined she would leave us with 3500 pages?  When I saw that number in Quinn’s introduction, I immediately wondered if …Juke-Box was just the first of a multi-volume set to be foisted upon us in the future.
 
My father once gave me this advice: “Keep everything you write.”  And now I’m sorry I didn’t listen to him.  If I want to read the letters I wrote to other writers, I have to find out where they are archived.  If other poet friends showed disinterest or disdain toward something I had written, I lightened my psychic load by discarding the offensive piece on the spot.  “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” Miss Bishop advises.  “So many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster.”  But in the case of …Juke-Box, not fully lost, just postponed.  Yes, even EB went down the wrong hallways, not once, but hundreds of times.  And she sighed.  And she put the offending pages away in a carefully labeled box.
 
Meghan O’Rourke, a poet/editor who moved from The New Yorker to a post at Paris Review, really frightened me by suggesting that in this massive, yet-to-be-fully revealed archive we might eventually come upon the poet “in naked moments of aesthetic undress.”  But I’m not so sure this is something to be frightened of.  I myself have peered with intense interest behind the Collected Poems of every poet I’ve attempted to understand or translate – men, women, and other alike.  I’ve read everything – letters, essays, memoirs, journalism, gossip, obits and memorials, imitations and plagiarism.  I think reading poetry for understanding is not art; it is science and mystery combined in a not always reputable way.  (Cf. The Aspern Papers.)  At a certain point every work of art involves messy, blurred ink, crime, mistakes, post-mortems, things hidden in attics and cellars, suspension of better judgment and common sense.  Ms. Rumens puts it gently, with utmost tact: “An evaluative reading probably isn’t the right response to […Juke-Box], which is essentially a story of creative process.”

What we really have left of Elizabeth Bishop’s life as a poet has nothing and everything to do with the pages in …Juke-Box.  Poetry shines like a grail, as does Bishop’s mastery of the forms of it.  Her successes were born of repeated failure, but never tarnished by it.  “It is hard to get heavy objects up into the air,” she wrote in a fragment from 1937, while she was living in Key West.  “[A] strong desire to do so is necessary, and a strong driving force to keep them aloft.”  O’Rourke calls this desire and force “alchemy”; Rumens refers to the “archaeology” of poetic accomplishment.  But Miss Bishop must have the final words:
Prose = land transportation
Music = sea transportation
Poetry = air transportation (in its present state)