A second thread in Biele's book that gives pleasure is the silliness of the New Yorker: no dedications on poems, Pearce asking Bishop whether she had any "long one-column poems," publishing poems in season so that a Valentine's Day poem came out in February, and — my favorite — editor William Shawn's rule that for the New Yorker to publish a translation, it had to be better written than anything the magazine published in English (a response to Bishop's translation of The Diary of Helena Morley). What????

In terms of poetry, the silliness gets real when Biele describes Howard Moss as "one of the most influential editors of his generation." Nonsense. As Biele notes, he was limited by, for example, having no room for the Beats or Objectivists. If Biele means that Moss's influence allowed him to put certain poets in the pages of a magazine where their work might be read by what was once called the common reader, then she is right. But the limits Moss worked within kept too much vital American poetry out for him to be influential beyond the New Yorker's pages.

As the definitive Poems, edited by the poet Saskia Hamilton, and Prose, edited by Bishop's friend and champion, the poet (and Phoenix classical-music editor) Lloyd Schwartz, make clear, Bishop's art rises above all the fuss. Those who love her poems as I do might enjoy Biele's book because they will get to think about her in a new context. Then they will return, as I did, to the poems.

For me, Bishop is one of those poets at whose poems I want to point to and exclaim, "Here, read this." James Schuyler, Philip Whalen, Lorine Niedecker, Frank O'Hara, and Robert Creeley are in that company. Their personal appeal overrides whatever critical judgment I may have. Indeed, their poems helped me do away with whatever rules I was taught in school. They join Bishop in delivering pleasure, which W.H. Auden saw as the most reliable of guides. In Bishop's poems, that pleasure comes by way of the eye — in recent American poetry, only Schuyler transcends her unabashed looking — and through phrases that are everywhere in her best poems. Here's one from "In the Waiting Room": "like the necks of light bulbs." This describes "black, naked women with necks/wound round and round with wire." We know Bishop labored over this poem for many years, as we know she labored over others. The time it took is meaningless when the end result so memorably presents a singular imagination. And this happens over and over again.

The most endearing aspect of Bishop's poetry, and something peculiar to her, is her habit of second-guessing. "Poem" ("About the size of an old-style dollar bill") has this sort of interruption in its opening lines: " — this little painting (a sketch for a larger one?)" The poem ends with a longer second thought, a question that answers itself with " — the little that we get for free /the little of our earthly trust. Not much." The way Bishop allows in the voice that tests what has just been written — the mind that thinks in writing the poem — is a thrilling move that I and others have shamelessly made our own.

< prev  1  |  2  |  3  |   next >
Related: Interview: Girl Talk, All in the family, Year in Books: Word plays, More more >
  Topics: Books , Elizabeth Bishop, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell,  More more >
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious
    Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) came of age as a writer in Beat Generation San Francisco, but he was no beatnik.
  •   JOE BRAINARD’S COLLECTED WORKS  |  April 25, 2012
    The sui generis artist and writer Joe Brainard invented a literary form.
  •   POEMS, PROSE, AND THE NEW YORKER  |  February 02, 2011
    After John Ashbery described Elizabeth Bishop as "the writer’s writer’s writer," reviewers repeated the witticism as if it were true. Actually, beginning with her first book, Bishop got awards and grants — that master poet politician Robert Lowell was in her corner — that gave her much more public recognition than Merrill's phrase suggests was the case.
    If you are interested in the great painter Philip Guston (1913–1980), you will want this book. If you are interested in American painting from 1945 on, and into the future, you will want this book. If you enjoy a great talker in top form, you will want this book.
    David Young's Selected and New Poems is a good book by a good poet. You'll have to take my word for that, because I am not going to quote from his poems.

 See all articles by: WILLIAM CORBETT