A poet's letters of sand and lake

 

LETTERS: JOHN McAULIFFEreviews Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete CorrespondenceEdited by Joelle Biele Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 496pp. $35

OVER THE PAST decade or so Elizabeth Bishop’s combination of accuracy, spontaneity and mystery has made her nearly everyone’s favourite poet. The publication, in 1994, of her selected letters, One Art, accelerated Bishop, precipitately, into the realm of poets who find successive generations of readers. That book revealed an extraordinary, voluminous letter writer whose clarity of description and recall introduced images, ideas and themes that fed her poems. Its publication was followed by a complete edition of her correspondence with Robert Lowell ( Words in the Air), as well as Alice Quinn’s edition of Bishop’s uncollected poems, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box,a book that comes into focus quite differently in the latest collection of correspondence.

Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker, ably introduced by the poet Joelle Biele, charts her relationship with the first publisher of most of her best poems. Bishop’s early poems were rejected by the magazine’s poetry editor, Katharine White, but White saw them again while judging a poetry manuscript competition. She followed up her interest in the manuscript by requesting work from Bishop and subsequently using her poems to change the policy of the New Yorker, which had previously published generally light or seasonal verse. White appears to have used Bishop as a conduit for the magazine’s publication of more serious lyric poems (although the editors maintained a distinction by coding each poem as “sand” (serious) or “lake” (light): this book is perhaps as interesting to New Yorkerreaders as Bishop readers with its drip-feeding of odd details about the magazine’s editing codes and processes). Bishop’s own light way with serious matters (impossible, for example, to read Manuelzinhonow without thinking of it as a poem about IMF interventions) made her poems and occasional fiction emblematic, for decades, of the kind of clear talk the editors favoured in both modes.

Bishop came from the same privileged social milieu as other New Yorkerfigures: educated at Vassar with another New Yorkermainstay, Mary McCarthy, she was a friend of Marianne Moore, who was herself educated at Bryn Mawr with Katharine White. All her life Bishop lived off an inheritance, supplemented by a first-refusal contract with the magazine: Robert Lowell would write to her in 1952, while he was living in the Netherlands and she in Brazil (“breezing on their trust funds through the world,” as he puts it in Beyond the Alps), that they were the only writers of their generation “who don’t have to work”, to which he added, “and I can hear Karl Marx muttering out a review to prove that our biases are identical”. In 1953 Bishop replied to Lowell, “The story that bought the MG is in the Dec 19th issue,” but while she was appreciative of the New Yorker’s support for her work, she was also more and more aware that Marx, among others, might be right to mutter about its effects on her poems.

Although much of this correspondence is about punctuation (Bishop’s fondness for dashes and colons drove the comma-loving New Yorkerto distraction), postal delays or illness (Bishop’s asthma and other ailments are met with detailed news of White’s operations and her successor Howard Moss’s ill health) there is also regular disagreement about how “coarse” she is allowed to be in their genteel pages. She broke off her contract with the magazine in 1961, stung perhaps by its rejection of poems such as her discreetly lesbian love poem The Shampoo,a rejection that has come to seem more significant because Bishop subsequently avoided publishing poems that dealt explicitly with sexuality: it is only in the posthumous Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Boxthat readers will find poems such as It is marvellous to wake up together, Close close all nightand Vague Poem, whose intimacy and sudden address to a lover redirect the qualities readers have always admired in Bishop. The New Yorkeralso rejected her explicitly political attack on Eisenhower, From Trollope’s Journal, and its practice of pegging her poems as Brazilian increasingly made her feel the poems were being marginalised.

BISHOP’S INVOLVEMENT in Rio’s political life informs the colonial subject matter of her most public book, Questions of Travel(1965): although a reader would not guess so from these letters, Bishop’s partner, Lota de Macedo Soares, was prominent in Brazilian political and high society (and directed the plans and building of Rio’s Flamengo Park, a huge set of gardens, sports fields and arts centres that will be at the heart of the 2016 Olympic Games).

Cultural and political contexts for her work are absent from these letters: her development is not reflected in their emphasis on narrowly editorial matters, an emphasis that may in part explain why she chose to spend the 1960s without a New Yorkercontract. By then too, of course, she had less need of the magazine’s support: Bishop and her friend Lowell were firmly established as central poets for their generation, their pictures appearing “in Timewithout insult and in Newsweekwith praise” (as Saul Bellow has it in Humboldt’s Gift, his novel about their friend Delmore Scwhartz).

After de Macedo Soares’s death, however, Bishop’s financial situation became more precarious, and she returned to the magazine, signing a new first-refusal contract and also applying for and receiving the position of poetry reviewer, a post she occupied for three years without once, despite prompting, turning in a review. She did, though, write the great poems of Geography III, almost all of them published, more slowly than she would have liked, in the New Yorker.

This book is short on Bishop’s other contexts and on gossip: Lowell, May Swenson, Frank Bidart and others familiar from One Artbarely register. It does shed light on the arc of Bishop’s development as a poet, and implicitly grants us a sense of the limits that hemmed in gay writers in the middle third of the last century. Bishop’s writing is so at home with disappearance and transience, with how apparitions take on the air of reality, that she would surely have been hostile to anyone who would ground her work in her resurrected relationship to White and Moss, or see their to and fro about punctuation as central to the poems.


John McAuliffe’s third book, Of All Places, will be published by the Gallery Press in July. He teaches poetry at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester