March 2011

Josh Cook


Poems by Elizabeth Bishop, edited by Saskia Hamilton

As the controversy over Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box, a collection of unpublished drafts and poems posthumously published, showed, Elizabeth Bishop is still at the forefront of American poetic consciousness. The second appendix of Poems lays out the order of publication and original contents of the books published in Bishop's lifetime. The poems in her first book, North & South, were collected three times, and an edition of selected poems came out after she'd only released three distinct books. A complete poems even came out before the seminal Geography III. Poems was released to commemorate the centenary of Bishop's birth, but it really fits into a decades old trend; the desire for a new Elizabeth Bishop book, whether she wrote one or not.

Saskia Hamilton, editor of Poems, includes a short introduction and a few notes and then stays out of Bishop's way. The conventional size and layout of this inexpensive paperback makes it a book you can throw in a satchel and mark up with notes, guilt-free. This is described as a “definitive” edition, but “definitive” can have different definitions. There are readers out there at a time in their lives when they need to read Elizabeth Bishop. Fans of her work will remember that time in their own lives. Hamilton has produced a definitive edition for those readers.

Poems has three major differences from The Complete Poems 1927-1979: exclusion of juvenilia, inclusion of facsimiles, and reorganization of the translations. Poems takes 1933 as its starting point, excluding the juvenilia, because 1933 was “the date of the earliest published poems in Bishop's selection for The Complete Poems (1969).” The drafts and facsimiles, many first published in Juke-Box, are included as an appendix, rather than in the collection proper. Finally, the translations are presented chronologically with the other poems and not as a single separate section.

A Bishop scholar might find fault in these decisions, but for a general reader like me, they make no discernible difference. I only have two minor editorial concerns. First, I would have appreciated including the originals of the translated works. Even though I don't speak the languages, I like the potential for analysis created by juxtaposing a translation with its original. Second, I would have preferred the inclusion of facsimiles with more editorial marks on them. Most of those in Poems have very little of Bishop's process on them, some bearing only the strike-through of complete rejection. The inclusion of such works makes sense in Juke-Box, as it sought to present a picture of Bishop's unpublished work, but, as an appendix, I think most readers would be most interested in watching Bishop change specific words and lines.

Regardless, Bishop's poems are the point. There is no need to review her work here, but in re-reading many of them for this piece, I came across two lines I believe create great images for Bishop's poetic project. In “Imaginary Icebergs,” she writers, “We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship / although it meant the end of travel.” In “Insomnia,” she writes, “... into that inverted world / where left is always right / where the shadows are really the body...”

The translations might be most revealing to those readers who have only encountered Bishop's work in anthologies and poetry classes. By showing us poems Bishop found enough value into to justify the effort of translation, they give us a sense of her reading process. What fascinates me is how un-Bishop many of them are. Often philosophical and abstract almost to the point of surrealism, they demonstrate a reading range far beyond what is implied by her writing. These translations also imply her ability as an editor, as they are essentially an anthology of poetry. Just in case we needed more, Bishop is a brilliant editor as well. “Don't Kill Yourself,” and “Traveling in the Family,” by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, are both stunning works; “My Last Poem,” by Manuel Bandeira, remarkably pulls off its conceit; and “Hell is Graduated,” by Max Jacob, might be the best poem in the book. Her poetry itself has already proved Bishop is one of America's great writers of poetry, but her translations argue that she is also one of our great readers of poetry.

In a work collected in Juke-Box, and now in Prose, the companion release to Poems, Bishop writes, “The three qualities I admire in the poetry I like best are: Accuracy, Spontaneity, Mystery.” What a magnificent critical statement. In the hands of one reader, it provides a rigorous structure for analysis, but another might take it as a starting point for a wholly subjective exploration of the effects of the poem on the self. Of course, we assume that Bishop aimed for these qualities in her own work, but that's not why I bring it up. The statement is about reading poetry, about the point of reading poetry. And further it goes. How many of the great moments in our lives could be explained by those three words? Isn't watching the sun rise, on the beach, after you've been up all night talking and laughing and drinking with your friends, maybe while the remains of some sloppily constructed bonfire smolder to your left, the result of mysterious decisions, spontaneously made, and accurately enacted? Poems is a collection for those moments, and for the moments when the fisherman has hooked you, and for the moments when you've broken the line.

Poems by Elizabeth Bishop, edited by Saskia Hamilton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374532362
368 Pages