Perhaps the best way to read Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 496 pp.) is, surprisingly, straight through—but with support. Some books of literary letters are best browsed, like an antique store; but if you prop a copy of Bishop's Complete Poems, 1927-1979 on your lap and Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker on top of that—and have Bishop's Collected Prose near to hand, for additional reference—the great poet's exchanges with her editors at the magazine for which she was, for three decades, probably the most celebrated and most frequently published poet, take on the spirit, if not quite the grip, of narrative. With each poem Bishop submitted to her breathlessly eager editors, primarily Katharine White and Howard Moss—a collection that includes much of Bishop's greatest pieces—the generally congenial, warm back-and-forth between the correspondents enriches the reader's appreciation for the circumstances under which Bishop made her poems, and above all for the poet's extraordinary meticulousness and care.
That is lucky for fans of Bishop's poetry, which for all its depth and beauty tends to be autobiographically very guarded (actually, that guardedness is why the the poetry is so great). Bishop was a lesbian in the days when that was still taboo—even more so, perhaps than male homosexuality—and it's hard not to think that her desire to stay in the closet impelled a broader secretiveness about her personal life. Too, Bishop spent much of her midlife in Brazil, where she wrote some of her very greatest poems (e.g. "Questions of Travel" and "Manuelzinho"), with her lover, Lota de Macedos Soares—whom she usually refers to as "my friend"—making Bishop an even remoter figure in the world of poetry. That she achieved such high fame anyway is a testament to the sheer greatness of her verse.
And that we have her letters with Moss and White (the wife of E. B. White, author of Charlotte's Web and the indispensable Elements of Style)—which finally, after some years, imply that she became friendly with and trusting enough of them to come out out to them—proves beyond a doubt how much of her time, and of herself, she poured into her work. The New Yorker was there for all of it, a mutually beneficial relationship that this new book honors by revealing, over the course of its pages, as much about the magazine's evolving ways and means as it does about Bishop's: The New Yorker is revealed to have been as fussy as Bishop herself could sometimes be.
Bishop was not a prolific poet—far from it—another way in which she avoided self-exposure: simply by staying silent so much of the time. (The New York Review of Books just published a peremptory dismissal of the very idea of Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker, suggesting that its publication evinces "a holdover of that exasperation Bishop inspired during her lifetime, arising from the sense that she just never produced enough.") On the contrary, 50 full years of her poetry are easily contained in a rather slender volume, and Bishop's selectiveness about publishing was early and carefully decided. As editor Joelle Biele notes in her introduction to these letters, partially quoting from Bishop's own essay, "Efforts of Affection," "Bishop had long absorbed the ethic that her mentor and friend Marianne Moore had imparted to her. Each time Bishop left Moore's Brooklyn apartment, nickel for her subway fare in hand, she left determined 'to work harder, not to worry about what other people thought, never to try to publish anything until I'd done my best with it, no matter how many years it took—or never to publish at all.'" She would hold a poem for years, sometimes fretting over just a word or two, before parting with it.
Thus the lifespan of a single poem, in lively, sometimes decorously (and, later, indecorously) touchy letters between Bishop and Moss or White, can last for five years in correspondence. In May 1965, for example, she promises Moss that "I shall send you my Robinson Crusoe poem ["Crusoe in England"] as soon as I give it a good dusting,—maybe this week." In September she changes her mind. Fully two years later, in 1967, she tells Moss, "My Crusoe poem didn't please me when I finished it but maybe I'll rewrite [it] sometime." The poem then apparently disappears entirely, until almost exactly five years after Bishop's first mention: "I am awfully tired of sitting on this egg," she writes Moss in 1970, enclosing the poem, "and think maybe it has hatched, after all." The very next day, she sends him a revision: "I think I've improved it quite a bit, so if you happen to want it, will you please use this version?"
It goes on: In June of 1971, she corrects The New Yorker's proof of "Crusoe in England," mailed by hard copy to Brazil. (The primitiveness of editorial technology back then is an eye-opener, for digital-age readers, throughout the book—"sometimes the green crayon was hard to read," White notes of one of Bishop's marked-up proofs.) Bishop corrects the proof again a month later, after the first one seems to have gone missing in transit; and she adds a terse defense of some anachronisms in the poem that The New Yorker editorial staff had questioned. "My God!" exclaims Moss, returning to the hashed-up manuscript after a trip to London, "espionage and codes seem simple by comparison."
The New Yorker finally published "Crusoe in England" that fall, six and a half years after its first appearance in Bishop's correspondence. She was, by then, 60 years old, one of the most revered poets in the English language—and after years and years of almost painful deference and good manners toward her New Yorker editors, she had begun to throw her weight around a bit and ask for recognition, sometimes crossly. The same year of publication of "Crusoe in England," she complains of the long lag time between her poems' acceptance by the magazine and their eventual apparition in print. "If I were a prolific writer, I suppose I wouldn't mind this waiting [fittingly, the poem in question is "The Waiting Room"], but since I'm not, naturally I'd like to see the few poems I do send out published—well, while I'm still alive." (Pretty brazen of Bishop to voice this demand, since she took so much longer in delivering her poems than The New Yorker ever took in publishing them. Moss promises, in response, to publish Bishop's poems within six months of the magazine's acceptance—and, when later the magazine doesn't make good on his promise, she complains again.)
The following year, objecting to the back-of-the-magazine placement of one of her poems, which Bishop took as a slight (it wasn't intended as one, apparently), she huffs at Moss:
I'm vain enough to think it's better than the other two poems in that issue [by Anne Sexton and John Updike]. I'm not sure whether it was wounded pride or simple bafflement when I found it relegated to the back pages—the first time that this has happened to me, I think, in the more than thirty years I've been appearing in The New Yorker. I hope they do better by the other two poems they now have on hand—if not, I'll just start sending work to other magazines.
Bishop comes on here like an old poet finally liberated by her lofty status to take off her gloves and fight—as though some natural combativeness, long suppressed by professional courtesy, has emerged in late life (she would die seven years later). Instead, the punches she throws seem somehow enfeebled, the swings of an aging champion trying to stay in the ring and retain her title, which was in any case not in dispute: Her mentor, Marianne Moore, died in 1972, leaving her disciple unchallenged not only as the world's greatest living female poet but perhaps its greatest poet, period.
That sense of fatigue owes partially to the cumulative effects of three exhaustive and at times exhausting decades of professional—and, occasionally, tantalizingly but not-quite personal—New Yorker correspondence (White seems to have discarded her carbons where intimate matters were concerned, collaborating with Bishop on the poet's reclusiveness—even encouraging it). Much of Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker is merely business, some of it picayune, and the reader may feel a bit drained, as well, by the effort of paging through it. You can imagine, in any case, that Bishop found it tiring to keep up with it all the distractions and transactions of the correspondence with her editors, from comma placement to payment contracts.
But Bishop wasn't just suffering from epistolary fatigue. She was life-weary. Her lover, Soares, committed suicide in 1967, via a valium overdose, and Bishop was left to manage not just her grief and loneliness, but also what had become a rather unwieldy estate in Brazil. She started to take on some university teaching in the late 1960s, for the money, but found it a tiring impediment to her work. She was in increasingly poor health—indeed, she and especially Katharine White seem to lodge a complaint of illness in just about every single letter between them in the book (some of this must have been hypochondriacal). In her very late letters, she sounds like a woman marooned. All of that makes the lamentation "Crusoe in England" seem rather baldly autobiographical, transparently displaced onto the narrator—the poet's supposed non-confessional aesthetic notwithstanding:
Now I live here, another island,
that doesn't seem like one, but who decides?
My blood was full of them; my brain
bred islands. But that archipelago
has petered out. I'm old.
"Crusoe in England" leads to "One Art," written a few years later, one of the greatest villanelles ever composed and probably the poem for which Bishop will be eternally remembered. Like so many late works by masters—Eliot's Four Quartets comes to mind—it both compresses all of the poet's lifetime of work into one elegiac last word, and it also shines a light (and your eyes) back over that work. How suffused with loss it all seems, in retrospect! "One Art" makes you want to to read everything that led up to it all over again, and appreciate it more fully, more full of feeling.
Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker, despite the pedigree of its writers (Moss was himself a National Book Award-winning poet), is no act of literature—it's just memos, really, filled out with cordialities and formal modesties, its intimacies squelched into pleasantries, its few ruffled feathers courteously smoothed over—but it does what any annotation or appendix to great writing ought to do: It sends you back to the art, which is all the correspondence you need with Elizabeth Bishop.
Joelle Biele appears at the Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham, on Tuesday, March 22, at 7 p.m. Call 286-2700 or visit www.regbook.com for more information.