The Case of Elizabeth Bishop

Drafting is one of the most biggest elements of the writing world and just by mentioning the subject, it can induce a number of groans, even screams, depending on where the writer is in terms of their work and if they have a deadline. Writers are always going back and fixing their pieces, even if they haven’t touched them in years. There’s a common practice in which the writer will scribble down their first draft and stick it in a drawer for months at a time, only to revisit the work and see how it holds up. More often than not, the writer will find it’s not up to their standards and use this opportunity to get rid of the spelling errors and the prose if it seems too clunky or cheesy.

Many writers have been and still are considered perfectionists, such as in the case of Elizabeth Bishop, and it would take a lot of rewriting and revising for her to be completely satisfied with her work before she submitted it. Bishop, in a way, was a lot like an inventor working on her latest machine, trying to fine-tune the engine and get rid of the scratches, wanting everything to run as smoothly as possible. After her death in 1969, she left many pieces behind, which were gathered in a 2006 book entitled “Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments.”

The book, which was edited by Alice Quinn, who is described as “an executive director of the Poetry Society of America,” was subjected to a lot of scrutiny as well as debate when it was published. (http://arts.columbia.edu/writing/faculty/alice-quinn) Some felt that Quinn was disrespecting Bishop’s memory and craft by publishing the book, insisting that she wouldn’t have wanted those poems to be seen by anybody, not until she was fully satisfied with them all. It was seen as prying into her personal business and tantamount to ripping a page out of her diary. Even at her best, Bishop was known for criticizing every last element of her work and wanting to make sure nobody got a chance to saw it until she felt it was ready.

In a New York Times article entitled “New Elizabeth Bishop Book Sparks a Controversy,” a professor by the name of Helen Vendler was greatly opposed to the release, stating that by publishing the works, it was doing a dishonor to Bishop and her craft and she never would have been okay with it. Vendler was sure that Bishop would have been humiliated by the idea, that so many people were reading her works before she got a chance to perfect them and they should have stayed locked away, possibly in a drawer somewhere. Vendler also didn’t hesitate to say, “Had Bishop been asked whether her repudiated poems, and some drafts and fragments, should be published after her death, she would have replied, I believe, with a horrified ‘No.’” (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/01/books/new-elizabeth-bishop-book-sparks-a-controversy.html)

While there is something noble to be said about respecting Bishop’s privacy, Vendler didn’t mention if she had read the book and if there were any poems that she thought were good enough to be in it. Of course, Vendler didn’t want to see the book published in the first place but at the same time, one can’t help but wonder if any pieces would have caught her eye, had she given it a chance. Quinn didn’t publish the book as a means to disrespect Bishop or her writing skills. On the contrary, she found that Bishop’s works were so deep and powerful, they had to be shared with a wider audience. Not only would it allow the new readers to become familiar with Bishop but it would give them the chance to see more obscure and fascinating pieces. In Quinn’s eyes, it was a way of honoring Bishop, putting her or rather, her writing in the spotlight and letting others be able to discover and appreciate it.

While Bishop is a highly regarded poet by many, she is not as familiar with the average reader in the way somebody like Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman is. Quinn’s book would introduce her to the casual audience and perhaps that would lead to them looking into her other works. In the book’s preface, Quinn did make a note of Bishop’s need for constant editing and perfecting but she didn’t throw away these pieces either. It makes one wonder if they were so bad, why didn’t she chuck them? It seems like a reasonable argument but still, Vendler believed the book would do more harm than good. However, a man by the name of Frank Bidart, was certain that Bishop would have thrown the works away if she didn’t like them. As he put it, “Believe me, Bishop was perfectly capable of destroying things. If she never wanted these to see the light of day, she would have destroyed them.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/01/books/new-elizabeth-bishop-book-sparks-a-controversy.html)

Both Quinn and Vendler have a valid argument, in that Quinn did violate Bishop’s privacy, albeit to help her and her writing and Vendler should have read the book to understand where Quinn was coming from. Both are obviously big fans of Bishop and care about her work and Quinn even mentioned that it was an incomplete collection. Maybe it’s not the way Bishop would have wanted it but at least other fans can pick it up and decide for themselves whether it’s a loving tribute or too close for comfort.

Sources:

“Elizabeth Bishop.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Web. <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/elizabeth-bishop&gt;

“Alice Quinn.” Columbia University School of the Arts. Columbia University, Web. <http://arts.columbia.edu/writing/faculty/alice-quinn&gt;.

Rich, Motoko. “New Elizabeth Bishop Book Sparks a Controversy.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 1 Apr. 2006. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/01/books/new-elizabeth-bishop-book-sparks-a-controversy.html&gt;.