Elizabeth Bishop and The Claims For Her Sainthood

I’ve spent most of this rainy Boston day reading the Library of America’s 2008 collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s work, a volume edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz. I have mixed feelings about everything The Library of America Series. Their editions house impressive surveys of various literary figures, constructed carefully by prominent editors, scholars, and artists. On the other hand, the bibliographic code of their “authoritative” series reminds me (and many readers, no doubt) of church hymnals: the hardcover volumes even come with their own skinny cloth bookmarks embedded in the spines. And while I have no doubt that these design choices are intentional and in keeping with the LOA’s perception of their noble mission, they do seem a bit old-fashioned in these post-McGann days of literary studies. What could be an inviting and accessible overview of a prominent figure more often resembles an inaccessible shrine to American (and if the title of the series didn’t spell it out to you,  the red, white, and blue stripe running across each cover situates these authors as, first and foremost, models of American literary greatness) achievement. Despite these reservations, I think that Bishop’s work has been curated, not entombed, by Giroux and Schwartz in this edition. Their decision to include selections of her uncollected and unpublished work, not to mention drafts, runs contra to the dogma of literary scholars who find such matters distracting, ephemeral, or in worst cases deleterious to the author and his or her work and reputation.

In the case of Bishop’s gatekeepers, I am thinking here of April Bernard, who, when encountering similar material in the recent Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux editions of her Poems and Prose, melodramatically opines that “to have to see them at all, some of them so utterly unworthy of inclusion…is to worry deeply about the misdirection of readers.” Bernard’s concerns — contained in a review predictably titled “A Genius Ill-Served” — privilege the myth of the Great Poet and her body of work as incorruptible, and here again we see religiosity rear its mighty head.

For example, in Bernard’s estimations, the presence of “the intense rambling lines” of Bishop’s unpublished “A Drunkard” alongside the poet’s more polished work may teach future generations that Bishop did not knock out a poem on the level of “In The Waiting Room” every time she sat down to write.  Well, Bernard doesn’t precisely use this language: instead, she suggests that “some terribly important values, having to do with context and selectivity, are being lost” by the academic turn toward such allegedly ephemeral matters.

I don’t agree with this train of thought: if anything, introducing unpublished and uncollected work, so long as it is situated and labeled as such, seems to open up conversations about the ways a poet casts a discerning eye upon her own work.  Why might Bishop have declined to publish or revise “A Drunkard”? What makes it similar to or so unlike Bishop’s better-known pieces? Particularly in the case of a poet like Bishop, who published small volumes close to a decade apart for most of her career, the inclusion of unpublished or rougher work seems less like “padding” (though publishers may have economic and editorial interests in mind: for example, a LOA collection of Bishop’s work that only contained her published poetry would be much slimmer than the other editions in the series) and more like an opportunity to demystify the writing processes of these sanctified figures.

As Bernard notes, Bishop herself may not have enjoyed seeing the “work in progress” of other poets circulated in publications, but I believe that interest in such matters is not always the sign of an obsessive completist or an opportunistic scholar. Their inclusion invites contemplation and conversation on the poet and her work, and to reject their potential use is to rely upon outmoded assumptions of how writers should be read and revered.

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