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Pieces Falling into Place

ROBERT LOWELL ONCE SURMISED that the publication of his friend Elizabeth Bishop’s letters would lead to her being recognized “as not only one of the best, but also one of the most prolific writers of our century.” That day does not seem far off. One Art, the first selection of Bishop’s letters, appeared in 1994 and was nearly seven hundred pages long; her correspondence with Lowell himself, Words in Air, stretched across nearly nine hundred pages. Now Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker, the chronicle of her forty-five year relationship with the weekly magazine, has arrived and it is over four hundred pages.

The once well-guarded secrets of Bishop’s personal life are now exhaustively bare. Her early feelings of abandonment, her struggles with alcoholism and depression, her romances with various women—most notably her partner of fifteen years, Lota Costellat de Macedo Soares—and her careful stewardship of her own career have all shaped the reception and reading of Bishop’s slim output of poems. Bishop admitted she enjoyed writing letters because doing so is “kind of like working without really doing it,” and her letters focus attention on her fluid, relaxed style. Here, for example, is Bishop describing some Brazilian post office travails to Katherine White, an editor at The New Yorker:

It is such a job to mail things here—the stamps have no glue, or not enough, and you have to stand in line at a glue machine, and get all covered with it—if you trust stamps to begin with; they say they are stolen in the PO often, and the mail just thrown away. (A newspaper editor friend of mine here found a cache of thousands of pieces of mail for the paper that that had happened to—imagine.) So if you don’t trust stamps you have to go to the central office where there is a stamping machine—and in any case you have to go to one of the few post offices, since the mail boxes are never collected—haven’t been for years. No one ever dreams of writing a letter within the country—they just vanish. Fortunately air-mail in and out is considerably better … If you do receive this, it is an [sic?] earnest of more. I never used that expression before & I don’t think I like it—I also rather doubt you’ll be able to use this short poem [“The Shampoo”], but there are more coming.

The wit, the exasperation, and the quick tone of this sketch are not far from certain Bishop poems such as “Manuelzinho”. But the passage also introduces the concerns of many of these letters: the difficulties of trans-hemispheric mail, Bishop’s glacial speed of production (she first mentions her great poem “Crusoe in England” to Moss in 1965, only to deliver it in 1970), and the magazine’s notoriously finicky taste—they ended up rejecting “The Shampoo” for being the “sort of small, personal poem [that] perhaps doesn’t quite fit into the New Yorker.” While ultimately less personal than previous volumes of Bishop’s letters, this collection offers an incisive glimpse into the mind of a poet and a magazine.

The first five years of correspondence consisted mainly of submissions, rejections, and form letters from Charles Pearce, then the poetry editor at the magazine. In 1945, Bishop won the Houghton Mifflin Fellowship Award for North and South and Katherine White, The New Yorker’s flamboyant doyenne, was one of the competition’s judges. She wrote a letter to Bishop that both congratulated the young poet and solicited “any hitherto unpublished poems” for the magazine’s pages. Bishop sent “Large Bad Picture” to the editors—even though it had been rejected once before; White’s list of queries, which included everything from capitalization to vague pronouns to a request that “large aquatic animals” become some more concrete creature, is instructive about the relationship that would develop both between Bishop and White, and between Bishop and the magazine.

As Joelle Biele makes clear in her comprehensive introduction, Katherine White exerted enormous influence over the early years of The New Yorker, and over The New Yorker’s cantankerous editor-in-chief, Harold Ross. Though White eventually helped steer the magazine away from light, occasional verse and prose and toward the more serious waters of literature, she faced pressure from Ross to balance seriousness with the decidedly middlebrow tastes of the readership (and perhaps Ross himself). After Ross’s death in 1951, and William Shawn’s promotion, White “sent out feelers” to those poets she had wanted and hoped to publish earlier, including Louise Bogan, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore, alerting them that the new editor “‘likes more kinds of poetry than Ross did.’” Bishop’s early rejections stem from this period, and they were often due to the “elliptical,” “morbid,” “elusive,” and “puzzling” nature of her writing.

Thinking of Elizabeth Bishop as “elliptical” may be a stretch for contemporary readers, but the early years of back-and-forth between White and Bishop reveal how carefully Bishop had to guard against the magazine’s style infiltrating her verse. Although White found Bishop’s poem “Cape Breton” “a perfect portrait of a countryside, a wonderfully exact description of that kind of seacoast and a most distinguished poem as well,” she did have questions over a pronoun in the final stanza. “Just what is your meaning here?” she asked of a recalcitrant “their.” “Do you mean that the interior regions have little to say for themselves except in the songs of birds and except for the fact that on this Sunday you describe so exactly the fisherman who live in the little houses of the back country are mending their torn fish-nets?” But even as White admitted “confusion” over the lines, she acknowledged the faintly ridiculous source of such close scrutiny: “You know one of Mr. Ross’s fetishes is that he understand every poem we publish. Sometimes we’ve published ones he doesn’t understand but we try to make clarity an aim even so which is why I’m bothering you.”

Bishop took her rejections and White’s line edits in self-deprecating stride. “I have nothing against clarity, you know, and I think you were quite right to question the passage,” she responded to White’s “Cape Breton” letter. The correspondence between the two women was polite, gentle, and decorous. They described their houses and gardens, and often included long passages of commiseration over their various illnesses and attendant remedies. But White also read Bishop closely and admiringly. When a serious issue did arise, over Bishop’s story “In the Village,” she could sound downright maternal.

“In the Village” is an account of Bishop’s ill-fated childhood meeting with her mother. Intensely poetic, even experimental—the mother is only referred to as “She”—the story went through endless revisions. At one point White admonished Bishop for her willful obscurity. “We were, frankly, disappointed that you were unwilling to make the situation about the child and the mother a trifle clearer for readers … and sorry you did not want to make it possible for such a reader to follow and enjoy your narrative without strain and without groping.” White even went so far as to instruct Bishop in the differences between poetry and prose—“poems,” she reminded the poet, “are not usually 26 pages long.” All of this might seem a little hard to take, and Bishop’s response was coy: “I am really appalled at the amount of work you have put into my story,” she wrote back. Footnotes are helpful here, and Biele excerpts a letter Bishop wrote to her friend Pearl Kazin describing her annoyance about the episode. (Watching two brilliant women over-embroider their thoughts with tact is a useful reminder of the lost art of decorum, but etiquette does not always make for the most exciting reading, as a few of these letters prove.)

Bishop’s next editor was the vivacious Howard Moss. “This is a little bastard sonnet, perhaps too much so for your more correct taste,” she wrote to Moss of her poem “The Wit”. (It was.) As a fellow poet, Bishop seemed to have felt closer to Moss aesthetically and perhaps temperamentally. Their letters to each other were jokey, flirtatious, and included great dollops of literary gossip. Bishop was careful to refer to Moss’s own poetry and critical work, and she was always exhorting him to visit her in Brazil. Bishop’s descriptions to Moss of her life and houses in Brazil are some of the highlights of the book’s second half. “It is the top floor, 11th, with a terrace on two sides,” she wrote of Lota’s apartment in Rio, “and a view overlooking all that famous beach and bay. You go down in the service elevator in your bathing suit, out through a little tunnel alongside the café in the ground floor, and you’re on the beach—(that is if you’re not run over crossing the street.)”

Moss never made the trip, but his letters to Bishop are full of warmth, admiration, and anecdotes about his life in New York and his travels abroad. Though he does critically appraise certain lines in Bishop’s poems, especially early on, he is more business-like, and perhaps less careful, than White. “QUESTIONS OF TRAVEL is fine, and we want it, of course,” he wrote in 1955. “There are some tiny points we’d like to straighten out before we publish it. It strikes us that the last five lines of stanza 1 seem to go more logically with stanza 2. Would you mind a stanza break after “slim-hung and barnacled” and the next five lines added onto stanza 2?” But Moss also understood the idiosyncrasies of Bishop’s punctuation, which was often at odds with what he described as The New Yorker’s “grammar demons.”

Later on, as The New Yorker began accepting nearly everything that Bishop sent, Moss’s letters eschew such detailed editorial commentary, leaving Biele’s footnotes the enormous task of explicating what changes were actually made, and where. Overwhelmingly addressing edits in punctuation, hyphenation, and capitalization, these footnotes make for tiny, torturous reading. When Bishop took issue with the proofs, as with her poem “The End of March,” she generally used the letters to correct, but not defend, her choices. Replacing the entire final stanza of the poem, Bishop wrote to Moss: “I’m afraid I’m being a nuisance—but I don’t think I have done this kind of thing very often, have I? The last stanza of THE END OF MARCH never had pleased me, so this morning I’ve made some changes that I think improve it a lot. I hope you’ll agree.”

During her lifetime, Bishop refrained from making any grand statements on poetry, preferring to insist on it as a casual, even random method of assemblage. She once compared writing poetry to “making a map. Eventually all the pieces fall in place.” The real pleasure of Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker is revisiting the poems themselves, in real time, as they arrive on White’s or Moss’s desk. The major poems are sent off as quietly as the minor ones, and the experience of reading first “Squatter’s Children,” then “Filling Station,” then “Questions of Travel,” and finally “Exchanging Hats” is to admire, even to see, Bishop anew.

Flipping back and forth from these letters to The Complete Poems, even tracking some of the punctuation changes, is a wholly delightful experience. Like many famous poets, Bishop has come to seem the sum of what the anthologies make of her. Though she wrote very few poems, even fewer are actually read, or read much. It is wonderful to “rediscover” poems such as “12 O’Clock News,” “Going to the Bakery,” “Under the Window: Ouro Prêto,” and the achingly anxious “The Mountain”. Though she first seemed “elliptical” to The New Yorker, and later became famous for being “modest,” Bishop today sounds painfully, carefully honest. A generation of readers has finally been trained to hear her voice, understanding its light but devastating chiaroscuro as a product of her life. “Can it be that we nourish / one of the Fates in our bosoms?” Bishop asks in the poem “House Guest,” “and our fates will be like hers, / and our hems crooked forever?” Though she railed against her generation’s confessional poets—“they write about a lot of things which I should think were best left unsaid”—rereading her poetry against her letters allows her to emerge as one of the genre’s most careful practioners. Her poems quietly, but insistently, confess all sorts of things.

At times, especially during the wrangling over contracts, the letters betray Bishop’s suspicion that The New Yorker was perhaps constraining her range and visibility. “I am in some distress about the contract,” she wrote to Moss in 1971. “I’d like to sign it and would certainly like the money and the 25% bonus, etc. On the other hand, I am quite sure that if I had sent the two poems I sent you last June or July (?) to any other of the magazines that keep asking me for poems, they would have appeared some months ago.” As Bishop aged, the letters grow shorter, sadder, and at times almost irate. The calamitous events of her personal life begin to intrude, including her heart-breaking return to Brazil after Lota’s suicide.

Her relationship with Moss allows us to see how difficult finishing a poem or a story actually was for her. Bishop sent work to The New Yorker through money troubles, trans-continental moves of household, chronic illness, and personal tragedy. Sometimes, as with an article on the history of Sable Island first proposed in 1951 and the whiff of which lingered through the next four years of correspondence, she didn’t manage to finish at all. Biele’s introduction does a good job contextualizing both the demands of writing for a publication such as The New Yorker, with its in-house style and its jury of editors, and the doggedness required in publishing a poet as careful, methodical, and slow as Elizabeth Bishop. Biele notes that, with the exception of Richard Wilbur, Bishop was the only poet who worked with The New Yorker her entire career. These letters show how lively a relationship it was—full of mirth and irritation and remonstrance and respect on both sides. They are an invaluable contribution to the growing proof of Elizabeth Bishop’s greatness.

Hannah Brooks-Motl is an MFA candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. With Stephen Burt she helped edit Randall Jarrell on W.H. Auden.