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Commentary :: Media
...if they're poets
03 May 2006
there's big questions in poet-land these days
if they’re poets…
-jeffery mcnary

(Cambridge, MA) On a certain plane, one can wonder, and even ask aloud, what was Alice Quinn, bitch-goddess-poetry-editor of “The New Yorker” doing as she fumbled through a presentation at Harvard’s Longfellow Hall recently. But midway through the awkwardness of it all, it became painfully obvious, on another plane, the abbess was trying to sell a book that evening, somebody’s book of previously unreleased works with “tortured” handwriting and typos, with her name on it as editor, titled “Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke Box Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments”, the work of Elizabeth Bishop. That evening, Ms. Quinn appeared somewhat propped up on the dais both intellectually and creatively by the likes of Pulitzer prizer and Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, Jorie Graham, (a position formerly held by the legendary Seamus Heaney); Frank Bidard, co-editor of the Collected Works of Robert Lowell and nominee for the Pulitzer as well as National Book Awards; Pulitzer Prize winner Lloyd Schwartz, a frequent contributor to National Public Radio (NPR); and former Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize nominee (a personal favorite and post-modern icon of the fuck-it-all-cool) Robert Pinsky. Combined, the works of this crew enriches the most sophisticated of collections.

It goes without saying, the air at such events is rarified, and this writer was excited to learn Dr. Pinsky was “not playing poker these days”, his rich “Life of David” was in it’s second printing, the Pinsky collaboration with Tod Machover on the cutting-edge opera Death and the Powers was on schedule to open in New Jersey in autumn of 2008, and that none of the 300 plus gathered in Longfellow had phoned 911 to quickly get Ms. Quinn to Logan Airport or perhaps a local asylum. At this writing, it appears that neither Harvard University nor Harvard Bookstore has approached her for any damages she may have done to the high-tech equipment the czarina of the self-addressed-stamped-envelope nervously, misused, banged and throttled throughout her presentation. But with the blaze of controversy following her these days over the crossed and marked up drafts of a deceased writer, the tension comes as no surprise.

The gathering was done under the banner, “A Celebration of Elizabeth Bishop”, a modern poet of the “Boston School” and contemporary of John Berryman, Robert Lowell (with whom she held a lifelong, if not “complicated”, friendship), and Plath and Sexton and that crew should you chose to stretch it. Ms. Quinn, recently took it upon herself to review, edit, and publish much of Bishop’s work, unpublished by the author and asleep in the archives of Vassar College. Ms. Quinn has been poetry editor of The New Yorker since 1987, and prior to that worked in the publishing house of Alfred A. Knopf. What she has done with her latest venture could be considered daring. It has done to the poet world what Mike Tyson did for boxing by biting Evander Holyfield’s ear in a heavy-weight bout. It’s changed things. It’s rocked them to the degree that it is uncertain whether the giants of the genre gathered in Longfellow were there the “celebrate” Bishop or douse the sparks around Quinn. Their readings came from works published while Bishop was alive and submitted them.

She had lived and written in an interesting and challenging time, an era of Castro, and Martin Luther King, Jr., of Lummumba and Ho Chi Minh, of the Kennedy’s and Pollock and late Coltrane, and Hendrix for that matter. Elizabeth Bishop’s life straddled a dynamic period of radical change on the planet, yet she did not write of shifting social phenomena directly, even while living it. Ms. Bishop’s work, one could say, was somewhat “pluralized” inasmuch as she rolled with emotional undercurrents, deep waves of intense fear and anxiety, desire and loss, while cloaking much of it in nature. In her work “Rain Towards Morning” Bishop wrote;

“The great light cage has broken up in the air,
freeing , I think, about a million birds
whose wild ascending shadows will not be back,
and all the wires come falling down.
No cage, no frightening birds; the rain
is brightening now. The face is pale
that tried the puzzle of their prison
and solved it with an unexpected kiss
whose freckled unsuspected hands alit.”

Elizabeth Bishop’s life, from it’s beginning, was somewhat challenged, with periodic glimpses of bliss from time to time later on. Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1911, Ms. Bishop’s father died before her first birthday. Her mother suffered a series of mental breakdowns and was committed to a mental hospital, and Elizabeth spent a significant part of her youth with grandparents in Canada. After attending Vassar, where she struck up a friendship with the writer Mary McCarthy and founded a socially conscious “avant-garde”, student literary magazine, the poet took off for New York City and Key West, Florida, and other points prior to breaking a string of rejections by the New York literati with her “The Map” and “Man Moth”, in which she wrote:

“If you catch him
Hold up a flashlight to his eye. It’s all dark pupil,
an entire night itself, whose harried horizon tightens
as he stares back and closes up the eye . Then from the lids
one tear, his only possession, like a bee’s sting, slips.
slyly he palms it, and if you’re not paying attention
he’ll swallow it. However, if you watch, he’ll hand it over,
cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.”

Ms. Bishop, although not a particularly prolific writer, garnered a Pulitzer and influenced a significant number of contemporary American writers, among them Jorie Graham, while crafting only four slim volumes of work and 90 odd pieces. She received two Guggenheims, a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and with work put forth in several languages can still, nonetheless, be viewed as a poster child of the poet as troubled spirit. She was Poet Laureate of the United States in 1949. There was the torrid 17 year lesbian affair with Lota de Macedo Soares in Brazil, marked by alleged heavy drinking and ultimate betrayal on her part. This ultimately came to a crashing end with her return to the U.S. by the mid-sixties and Soares’ suicide. By then she had written “Questions of Travel”, which included a painful segment which both addressed a child’s response to a mother’s slide into insanity and her then predicament which Mr. Pinsky read at the “celebration”:

“Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s own room?

Continent, city, country, society:
The choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there…no. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?”


It’s a difficult genre in which to delve. Yet Ms. Quinn has swayed her way into controversy, sidestepping her usual review of works for the weekly editions of The New Yorker to morph into some larger phenomena seeking its own bite of post-modernity by editing and annotating these previously unreleased works. Why? That question and controversy now rages in the semi-Jesuitical poet world and poet wannabes, and has, by the way, pissed-off some off many of the accomplished in the realm. Bishop was known for her meticulous review of her writing. Nothing went to publication until she was absolutely comfortable with it. “Is work that a writer chose not to publish during her lifetime fair game after she dies?,” queried Shelia Farr in The Seattle Times. “…it would be unfair to put forth work she (Bishop) considered immature, unsuccessful and/or incomplete as an equal part of her oeuvre, even though she didn’t destroy it.”

University of New Hampshire Professor and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Charles Simic, reviewed Ms. Quinn’s effort in the New York Review of Books and wrote, “As far as her reputation as a poet goes (Bishop), these 106 flawed and at times marvelous poems will only enhance it. This would not be true of most other poets, but Bishop is a special case. Determined as she was that every poem of hers should surprise the reader with something new, she rarely wrote the some kind of poem twice.” In fact, Elizabeth Bishop was known for perfecting her poetry, even working one for over a period of years. But Mr. Simic flinches, continuing that publication of the work, “most certainly would have mortified her if she were still alive.” Former Poet Laureate Billy Collins also questioned the publication of the works, telling Motoko Rich of The New York Times, “I think, in a way, we have her collected poems, and that was Bishop at her best. Maybe that should be enough.”

Given Ms. Quinn’s position on the totem of publishing, there may be some hesitation for criticism in some circles. The has hardly proven to be the case for Helen Vender, now the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard, the most caustic critic of the enterprise. A frequent contributor to The New Yorker, The London Review of Books, and other critical periodicals, “She is like a receiving station picking up on each poem, unscrambling things out of word-waves, making sense of it and making sure of it,” Seamus Heaney wrote of her.

In a recent piece in The New Republic, “The Art of Losing”, Ms. Vendler wrote of “Edgar Allen Poe & The Juke Box”, “This book should not have been issued with it’s present subtitle of “Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments.” It should have been called “Repudiated Poems.” For Elizabeth Bishop had years to publish the poems included here, had she wanted to publish them.” They remained unpublished (not “uncollected) because, for the most part, they did not meet her fastidious standards (although a few, such as the completed love poem “It is marvelous to wake up together”, may have been withheld out of prudence).

At the invitation of Robert Lowell, Ms. Bishop relocated to Cambridge and taught briefly at Harvard. There she met and settled in with the last “love of her life”, Alice Methfessel, and crafted her Plath like piercing work of loss, “One Art”, prior to dying of a cerebral hemorrhage in Boston in 1979.

-Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
The art of losing’s not too hard to master
Though it may look like (write it !) like disaster

Ms. Quinn referred Ms. Methfessel, Elizabeth Bishop’s executrix as “fantastic. She lets everybody into the archive. Because of this, there have been something like 10 books published on Bishop in the last 10 years. Bishop is now assigned reading in French High Schools”, she recently shared with John Riter in an article for the Boston Globe.

The New Yorker is one of only a few remaining “general” reading magazines publishing poetry. That which it does, is main stream, nothing cutting edge, nothing controversial. I’d venture to say approaching minus an agent is not the best use of ones time. Alice Quinn’s name isn’t even mentioned in the Poet’s Guide to Publishing.

It’s difficult to say what will continue to ripple from this episode. The question, “Is work an author chooses not to publish during their life time good-to-go for others when they die”? What is the standard? It’s particularly vexing given Elizabeth Bishop’s self imposed high vector. Many of the works published by Alice Quinn are visibly marked or crossed out.
Ms. Vendler challenges us, “Quinn’s uninformative statement the drafts of “One Art” reads, ‘In a book devoted to unfinished work, it seemed a good idea to provided drafts of a finished poem’. But why is it a ‘good idea’ if the drafts are illegible? And did Quinn or her publishers think that they were doing Bishop a service by offering her in unreadable form”? Vendler continues, “In the long run, these newly published materials will be relegated to what Robert Lowell called “the back stacks,” and this imperfect volume will be forgotten, except by scholars. The real poems will outlast these, their maimed and stunted siblings.”

It will be interesting indeed to see how emerging as well as established
writers secure their legacy. It will be interesting indeed to see if The New Yorker stands for the count, or stays in the corner.

Copyright by the author. All rights reserved.
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