Monday, February 14, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop and Revision

Elizabeth Bishop was notoriously painstaking and particular about her poems; meeting her own standards was almost impossible. This is one reason she published a relatively small body of work and left behind many unfinished fragments and revisions. Her unpublished work, over 3500 pages, is preserved at the Special Archives at Vassar College, her Alma mater. Much of this has been published in Edgar Allen Poe & the juke-box: uncollected poems, drafts, and fragments.

Her longtime friend Robert Lowell once wrote of her in a poem, asking, "Do/ you still hang your words in air, ten years/ unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps/ or empties for the unimaginable phrase—/ unerring muse who makes the casual perfect?" (O'Rourke, 2006)

She sometimes began poems and put them aside for years. For instance, “The Moose” had its origins in a bus trip in 1946 and Bishop continued to work on it even after reading it in June 1972 at a ceremony at Harvard. What we learn from this is that not all efforts result in a poem. Mastery of self-expression is the miracle.  In a letter to Marianne 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?” (Quinn, 2006)
"One Art," Draft 16

Editors understood her perfectionism and regularly tried to goad her into sending them poems. One relatively swift success was "One Art," which was revised only 16 times and written within months, as  opposed to the sometimes decades long period between the start of a poem to her satisfaction with it. She said it almost wrote like a letter (2006).

Bishop worked hard at avoiding imprecision; she was known for her exactness. She was talented at describing scenes as if the reader were living, breathing, feeling, and thinking through the poet’s eyes. She often wound an uncertainty and self-consciousness into her poems which would reveal something painful or intimate or unearth a truth, often unexpected, to the reader. Bishop worked hard, and for years sometimes, to find just the right words to convey this sense of purpose to the reader.

As Bishop herself said when speaking about Wallace Stevens’ Owl Clover, “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.” (2006)

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