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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Some thoughts on Elizabeth Bishop’s 100th birthday

Guest Blogpost by Lloyd Schwartz

Elizabeth Bishop has become such an increasing presence in our literary landscape, it’s hard to believe that it’s been more than thirty years since her death, and that February 8 would mark her 100th birthday. Celebrations will be taking place in New York, Boston, Worcester (where she was born), Nova Scotia (where she lived as a child), and Brazil (where she lived for nearly two decades).

The Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (still the most comprehensive collection of her work) came out in 2008. Bishop’s publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has just this month issued new, expanded centennial editions of the Poems and Prose volumes, along with an unsettling volume of her correspondence with The New Yorker, where she published most of her poems and stories. Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence shows that even though that journal prized her contributions, they sacrificed much of her originality and energy on the altar of “house style.”

Also in the works are a volume of Bishop’s correspondence with her first mentor, Marianne Moore, and a new collection of essays by leading Bishop scholars about her posthumous publishing history. In Brazil, the late seventeenth-century house that she restored in Ouro Prêto is now on the market for $2,000,100 (this is not a typo) and her watercolors are now being sold at skyrocketing prices. In 2005, her best known poem, the villanelle “One Art,” was recited by Cameron Diaz in the Hollywood movie In Her Shoes. No one would be more surprised than Bishop.

One of the most controversial developments since her death has been the appearance of her unpublished poems, mostly in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, edited by former New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn. For the first time, the general public had access to drafts and fragments (and some very-nearly finished poems) available before only in the archives of the Vassar College Library. Many critics found this publication a revelation of Bishop’s surprisingly messy working process and considered some of these poems—often unusually autobiographical and a number of them explicitly lesbian love poems—significant additions to her canon (many of these are included in the Library of America Elizabeth Bishop). But several critics, outraged at seeing work Bishop had not intended for general publication, felt that it was a betrayal.

It seems never to have occurred to anyone to see what Bishop herself might have had to say on the matter. But someone finally examined Bishop’s will, which explicitly gives her literary executors “the power to determine whether any of my unpublished manuscripts and papers shall be published, and if so, to see them through the press.” End of controversy. Here’s my favorite:
Breakfast Song
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue.
I kiss your funny face,
your coffee-flavored mouth.
Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you,
without the easy breath
and nightlong, limblong warmth
I've grown accustomed to?
—Nobody wants to die;
tell me it is a lie!
But no, I know it's true.
It's just the common case;
there's nothing one can do.
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue
early and instant blue.

From Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box by Elizabeth Bishop, edited and annotated by Alice Quinn. Copyright © 2006 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. www.fsgbooks.com.
Let the centennial celebration commence!

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters, edited by Lloyd Schwartz; American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, volume two: E. E. Cummings to May Swenson (includes nineteen poems by Elizabeth Bishop)

1 comment:

  1. Dana Gioia had a piece on Bishop and the new books in yesterday's Wall Street Journal.

    Enjoyed this post.


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