Tuesday, June 07, 2005

bishop draft energy knights gale (Barbra N).

A fascinating account of how Elizabeth Bishop revised poems is found here. As to the poem, “One Art,” “[t]he poem does seem to have been written over a period of about two weeks—ending on 4 November 1975—much shorter than her usual period of composition.” (Same). The poem was immediately occasioned by Bishop’s belief that a rupture had occurred in her love-relationship with Alice Methfessel: “There is no doubt that the crisis behind this poem was the apparent loss to Bishop of Alice Methfessel, the companion, caretaker, secretary, and great love of the last eight years of her life.” (Same). And: “Elizabeth's letters to her doctor, a brilliant woman then in her seventies, describe the despair of the fall of 1975. Elizabeth was sure that she had lost the last person on earth who loved her. The letters agonize over her prospect of a lonely old age, crowded with fans and students and hangers-on but empty of love. Out of this despair, apparently, came the villanelle ‘One Art’.” (Same). I infer from the “apparent” and “sure she had lost” that it was not a total rupture. In fact, Methfessel was named by Bishop as her literary executor. Bishop of course was very reticent with her personal life and especially her love life in her poems. The process of how she revised shows that sometimes the revision process was a progression away from referents from Bishop’s personal life that were too raw or embarrassing, toward highly polished objective external imagery within which the original raw statement and image was buried. In other words she used her amazing craft rather as an oyster does, taking the initial grit (unpoeticized, somewhat flatly and banally stated, overly personal (from her perspective)) first draft text, and successively wrapping and layering it in mother-of-pearl creamy translucency, until from dirt she had made a jewel. However, I would like to be able to see her drafts. I have become too familiar with her polished published poems. I am hungry for unseen texts, even if they lack the craft-values that would allow me to savor them as much as the final poems, or as many times. And, I think this hunger reflects a larger trend in internet poetry writing -- related to how the threshold for what is "publication" has gone way down, especially in blogs, which are "push button publishing for the masses." I think the model of what a poem is, is changing from the final polished poem to be read over and over and savored, to a poem that is to be read once or twice and then the reading eye moves on. I think the model is arguably changing away from what Bishop's final published poems represent, and more toward what her notes and unpublished drafts represent. Toward a less "crafted" and "perfected" text, but one which, as well, does not demand that the reader want to re-read it many times, or buy it in a book.

In short I wish Bishop's drafts were posted online. I am sure Bishop’s instructions to Methfessel were NOT to make them public. Accordingly to this day apparently, all Bishop’s drafts of poems are in a collection at the Vassar College Library. For example, the collection holds seventeen drafts of "One Art.”

Below, I advance a somewhat muddled hypothesis that the suppressed textuality of Bishop's drafts represents a force, which she felt necessary to conceal, but which today with different social norms and internet pushbutton publishing, is becoming more revealed. I detect such revealing or revelation in Barbra's poem noted below, which in its phrasing alludes to some phrasing in "One Art," specifically, "the art of losing."

I met Barbra in Florida. She walked into the courtyard of the dimming evening. This was in front of the bookshop. Little yellow lights on the tables, candles. Water beads oval shanks of glasses.

Set a trap and forget it;
you will know when it’s worked.

One or two of the other presences there seemed partially trapped in her. I understood the mystery and delicacy of the situation, but little else. One other’s voice was as if dipping and hiding, like a skipping-away evasion. Most everyone there had warmth for her. She brought a presence, a gravitas. Although she had written poems, she was neither dead nor subsidized. Having to drive and work, she composed musical poems
Reflecting her moods. It seemed like a regular situation. But the
Suppressed time-energy of Elizabeth Bishop’s destroyed and hidden drafts came in and became part of her energy. For even unwritten, erased or deleted words have an equal effect on time alteration. Certain silences afflicted her, one might say, affecting Weil. Neither Nightingale nor Bishop was all that affected. Nightingale because of her receptiveness and tolerance was as good a candidate as any for the secret reception of Bishop’s never-published drafts, the energies of their being-silenced. In the way that the base of a dam feels terser, against the palm of the hand, even though it’s the same concrete as a sidewalk. There is more behind it than behind the sidewalk -- this silenced force seems to press through -- at least at the level of mood -- once we realize and carry around a perception in our heads about all the invisible and walled-off reservoir back there, out in back of language, in the silenced reality that bears the actual marks and traces of the same forces that made Bishop silenced, in her drafts -- she made her first drafts of poems at an enormous distance from where they would end up, revised. She had to climb, erase her way up the mountain of corrections. She had to punish and delete the word, replace with the new word. One reason Nightingale existed was to loosen up this tight-knit crosshatched depth in that which had passed through Bishop and been secreted into the drafts.

Have you read the drafts of the poems of Bishop? Neither have I. They must be all destroyed. Or maybe they exist? Maybe they are just not readily available? How many drafts of Bishop poems exist? How bad are they? Or are they good?

Why do we have interest in her drafts? Have we become bored of her finished poems? Is there a mildly negative meaning to wanting to go back to the drafts -- like someone choosing a worse flavor of ice cream, just for something different?

It's a question of using the poet's proper material
with which he's equipped by nature,
i.e., immediate intense physical reactions,
a sense of metaphor and decoration in everything--
to express something not of them--
something I suppose, spiritual.

(Bishop, from her drafts/notes/letters).

It could as readily be said that the spiritual is in us. Or the spiritual is of us. She separates it from her self. She separates herself, opens herself. Who does she open herself to? How does she name that person she opens, exposes -- allows vulnerable for the sake of beauty perceived -- her most delicate, textual foliage, the final rich finished yet classically austere unruffled omniscience-elegance of the Stevensian paraded endormered self . . . That is not quite Bishop. She has a modest quality. Hand-quilted. She slowly built her poems, one might say, but that is debatable in terms of how it felt for her. She might have felt the constant threshing of revisions, rafts and rivers of paper, potential paper, variants, two or three possible lines. Or: maybe she just sat confronted by an awful empty sense of failure on the first draft. Maybe the first draft really was bad. Awful. A long climb ahead. Could she have to climb as a poet? Was that her burden? The answer, if at all, is buried inside the core of her drafts and notes, casual letters and notes on flyleafs of books:

But it proceeds from the material, the
material eaten out with acid,
pulled down from underneath,
made to perform and always kept in order,
in its place.
Sometimes it cannot be made to indicate its spiritual goal clearly (some of Hopkins, say, where the point seems to be missing),
but even then the spiritual must be felt.

(Bishop). How anti-bodily she sounds. Total opposite than Dianne di Prima or Lenore Kandel, whom she overlapped in time. All three were alive and writing in the late 60s.

Do you believe me when I say / you’re beautiful
I stand here and look at you out of the vision of my eyes
and into the vision of your eyes and I see you and you’re an
and I see you and you’re divine and I see you and you’re a
divine animal
and you’re beautiful
the divine is not separate from the beast; it is the total crea-
ture that
transcends itself
the messiah that has been invoked is already here
you are that messiah waiting to be born again into awareness
you are beautiful; we are all beautiful
you are divine; we are all divine
divinity becomes apparent on its own recognition
accept the being that you are and illuminate yourself
by your own clear light

(Lenore Kandel). Lew Welch was with her for a while. In an interview published after his death, Welch said that he had to leave Lenore because she was “corny”:

I had to leave Lenore Kandel because she was corny, and our life was not getting on together because of that. I have an exquisite kind of fineness to my life that she could not meet.

(Welsh interview dated Summer 1969, p. 322, San Francisco Beat, Edited by David Meltzer, City Lights 2001). On May 23, 1971 Lew will leave a note on the table of a small cottage near Gary Snyder’s house and go off walking in the scrublands with a revolver, never heard from again. Isn’t the seed of his suicide hidden in the second sentence above? Because he puts himself into too exquisite a position. It is too much alone. Beauty must not inhere anywhere near that near to the self. Or so Bishop may have speculated. So her tone by comparison sounds like this:

The air smells so strong of codfish
that it makes your nose run, and your eyes water--
The five little houses have very peaked roofs
& little cleated gangplanks running up to the second story
for wheelbarrows. grass on the shore side
They are silver; mossy on the leeward
and large tubs completely lined with codfish scales plastered stuck
& a wheelbarrow equally plastered with them
a thick creamy iridescent coat of mail with flies crawling on it--

(Bishop, draft of “At the Fishhouses”). The image here (surely she must have believed) was too crude, finger-painted, rough -- not yet revised, made more perfect artistically, so that it is both more vulnerable and more attractive to the reader’s gaze, so the reader likes it more, which means, desires, which means, what does the reader desire, which is, certainly not a poor dead woman . . .

Thoughts about revision:

1) cuss words. for example, may get edited out even before one first keys a symbol.

2) Bishop and revision. Bishop’s great amount of revising reflected a severe disability in the use of words. So she had to revise a whole lot, much more than other poets, to get to her final poem. And there were very few final poems. Comparatively few. Compare to Emily. Or Whitman. No, Bishop was more over at the middle-period Larkin part of the continuum, as opposed to, say, the Bukowskian unbelted belly.

I sang him "A Mighty Fortress Is My God"

[Line crossed out]


[crossed out]

stood up in the water & regarded me

steadily with big eyes, turning his head a little from time to time.

A solid line

They have a capstan there

the thin bright grass



(Bishop poem draft). The feeling reading this: is it, “this is not poetry yet?” Is it some sort of artistic rule-criteria for the actual physical deployment of these 24-odd symbols across the page, to what extent must they be a slave of meaning? The rules grow so thick here, they are like crosshatchings, giving an illusion of chiaroscuro depth. The symbols are not formed for raw enjoyment as pure simulation of an image. Compare black paint strokes:

~ ~

They would have so much work to do, to even begin to be seen not as strictly symbolic representational squiggles.

the thin bright grass



When she was writing, “publication” meant: get selected for one of the few legitimate little magazines or *gasp* get a book out. What a mountainside that must have seemed to her -- to someone so unwanting to become ambitious. For the friends to appreciate it, the poem had to be artistically perfect. . .

But if so, then, what were these other texts for?

If you imagine seeing it, or painting a picture of it, it would be fantastic, sort of like a Goya painting . . . and yet the narrator speaks as if it were something that happened yesterday-- this is one thing I like. I like the purity of the language, which manages to express a deep emotion without ever straining . . .

(Bishop). The “homely” quality has to be refined, images must be substituted, metaphor must occur, precise, musical phrasing . . . This is how she imagined it and how it is all read . . . Except at these verges . . .

Can we say: her published poems were more vividly able to be seen? That her finalized, finished, polished work was more full of artistic power? Yes, to the extent we wish to precess the parts of seeing and power, out of the whole natural ritual.

Finished, finalized: more able to be read? Or is it that we secretly appreciated power more than weakness, seeing over incoherence? And: to the extent we did not prefer the weak, the incoherent, the mangled, the mandibled -- to what extent were we skipping a season? And would that season catch up?

To what extent is artistic power related to a preference for power over weakness, vividness over obscurity, clarity over the dusted, the effaced, the receded: and if so, to what extent must those metaphors apply, or, to what extent is there a reversal, so that weakness comes forward due to the grace and self-withholding of those around her, and, to what extent, are the powerless allowed to partake this for that moment of their temporary, always-latent lives? To what extent, would we either reject beauty for something different, or demand that beauty extend to include further. To what extent do we plausibly insist on a precession of love in front of fatality. She was partially influenced by the long thin blur brittle shadow of Eliot.

How much worse is the unknown than the known Bishop? I have not seen her surviving poem drafts having been published. I do not know if any drafts were saved and still exist, or, if they all were destroyed. It is quite possible that many or all were destroyed, perhaps by Bishop’s own hand. For unless she, or somebody else, destroyed all of those pages, then, they would still exist, huge containers of them, dozens of garbage bags, filling up the kitchen. A whole team of forensic textual detectives would have had to be assembled, sent deep into the teeming subdural not-quite-durationed burst-to-meaning (not quite “burst,” not yet

the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,

rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,

(Bishop, “The Armadillo”)). What changes, in the poem, between the initial draft and the final product. I suppose the critical test for the invalidity of the draft as art object in formal terms is just the sheer amount of boredom in the reader. You gotta entrance them, gotta entice them in. So that Nietzsche, for example, overcomes his horrible sexual disparities with women, men, and, punching hollows in his eyes . . .

Are Bishop’s drafts interesting? How ‘bout this one:

The art of losing's not so hard to master
think of that disaster
No—I am lying—

* * *

All that I write is false, it's evident
The art of losing isn't hard to master.
oh no.
anythng at all anything but one's love. (Say it: disaster.)

* * *

But, losing you (eyes of the Azure Aster)—

(from drafts to “One Art”). “Azure Aster,” that’s kind of awkward. And to say things like “no-- I am lying” is completely antipoetical. She stares too blankly at the mirror of herself. She’s gray, she’s unanchored (I tried to type unalcoholed but the ‘putr changed it weirdly).

And losing you
Doesn’t mean I’ve lied. It’s evident
the loss of love is possible to master,
even if this looks like (Write it!) like disaster.

(same). Is the “you” a man or a woman? A woman, certainly. The language is surprisingly flat and abstract. It is halting prose. Clogged up blocks of it. Big wide chunks. Cow-like. She must have felt awful. She didn’t post it. So she revised it. Back then what was “post”? Today what is “publish”?

Increase in eye-traffic constitutes reality, reputation.
Even in pixel, the “Newsweek” site sees different.
We, each different, want to give, “up,” “a big now,”
“revival,” glimpses of a heaven or a hell, in snow-holes
Of fragment, ledbettered, svelted . . .

I am more interested at this point in these unpublished drafts of Bishop than in the collected poems. I have seen the finals so many times. I want to see the preliminaries. I have been exhibited the official museum piece of her polished finished desexualized writing enough times. I want to be presented with secret access to the preliminary, the unfinished Bishop. There will be less of her there. But it will be fresher. // for appearances are that ravenous to be consumed, that once we have chewed on one book long enough, it loses its flavor, dissolves.

One might think this would have prepared me
for losing one average-sized—not exceptionally
beautiful or dazzlingly intelligent person
(except for blue eyes) (only the eyes were exceptionally
beautiful and the hands looked
intelligent) the fine hands
But it doesn't seem to have, at all. . .

(Bishop). Notice how the person here is never said in terms of “he” or “she” since it was a gay relationship, and at that time you couldn’t do that. So she has unclear circumlocutions, “the” eyes, “the” hands, “it” doesn’t, the neutrality of “person” -- she could also be describing an angel, but if so, only in bad faith, for we believe this “person” to have been the last lady that loved her. The lady left (somehow in mind died?) before she did. She passed before she did: serene greek kouros double sex yinyanger of the BISHOP DRAFTS, LET THEM OUT (? or no?), SET THEM FREE! (no? leave them there? what does it really matter?)

Even if one were tempted
to literary interpretations
such as: life/death, right/wrong, male/female
--such notions would have resolved, dissolved, straight off
in that watery, dazzling dialectic.

(Elizabeth Bishop). The other Elizabeth Bishop is the Bishop of her drafts. Thus far we have not been revealed most of the drafts. Someday all of the drafts of Bishop’s poems will be published. Breaking back through the polished surface of the final words, we will determine the gender and even maybe the names of her lovers -- what time told us later, when each misted into history.

Once you start to explore Bishop’s drafts, whole new worlds of abstract expressionism in high modernist poetry open up, far more plain chant, more confessional, more sloppy, prosy:




(Draft titles Bishop used for the finishedTEX*TM “One Art”).

{ finished + text + “TM” minus * equals = body/map }

Then she says,

--This is by way of introduction. I really
want to introduce myself—I am such a
fantastic lly good at losing things
I think everyone shd. profit from my experiences.

She then lists

one peninsula and one island. . . .
a small-sized town . . . and many smaller bits of geography or scenery
a splendid beach, and a good-sized bay. . . .
a good piece of one continent
and another continent—the whole damned thing!

Later, we have:

First, you have to recognize
this as an art; then
you must practice, not by choice
but necessity, and always
your face must not turn away.

But this was in another person, oh dove you are replaced by a nightingale, Eliza Barbara, Barbra, (Barbra Nightingale, “The Art of Removal”).

The critics say that as to Bishop's poem, "One Art," that the poem was written after the apparent loss to Bishop of Alice Methfessel, the companion, caretaker, secretary, and great love of the last eight years of her life. I think the loss here was a loss of a romantic relationship between the two, as opposed to Alice dying. This is because I also learn that Alice was Bishop’s literary executor.

Robert Lowell egged Bishop into making some recordings for the Library of Congress. She did not like the tapes because she disliked the sound of her own voice.

Apparently Bishop asked her literary executor, Alice Methfessel, to keep some recordings in silence after her death. In a brave move, Alice later allowed release of the tapes after many many people asked for them. I do not know if many many people have asked for release of the drafts of her poems yet, wouldn’t it be nice if they were all, every last scrap of her writing, up on a website?

Critics say that the early recordings are a little marred by mistakes that often happen to young poets. She says some poems too fast.

She talks the poems too fast out into the stage air and the rhythms are damaged.

Her later recordings are said to sound sometimes “lackadaisical.”

You must act quickly and true,
know the exact container,
cloth, or broom with which to collect
whatever has died: bird,
rat, or lizard perhaps, whose dried carcass
can now be picked up bare
and tossed by the tail.

I met Barbra one time in Florida. This was at the MiPo reading. At the really cool bookstore.

You must learn three feet
is pretty far down, and keep digging
till you’ve hit shale.
Do not ask if it’s legal
to bury things in your yard;
mark the spot, only if you must.

There were small candles lit at each table in the Florida courtyard.

Salty margarita glass gritty to hand.

Perhaps you have not killed
the thing that is loose;
the cat or the dog
brought it in to play,
then carelessly lost it
as it raced under beds,
behind the washer or fridge—
or was dropped in the toilet,
as once was a possum, swimming
for its life against the smooth
porcelain bowl, going nowhere.

Set a trap and forget it;
you will know when it’s worked.
Bring a broom and a bag.
Don’t breathe, double tie the bag,
then bag it again.
Throw the bag in the trash and take it
out back.
Don’t feel guilty.
If the thing to be removed
is larger than a dog
but smaller than a horse,
and you have no idea who he is,
call the police. Sometimes
they are helpful.

However, if he looks familiar,
close the door, sit down and think.
It could be your first ex-husband,
or the one after that who refused
to go away, lingering like the smell
of something dead but very much alive.
Threaten to call the dogs.
If it was your last, convince him
you’ve learned your lessons well
and can now throw out most anything,
dead or alive, knowing
there is very little difference.
Close your eyes. Turn your head.
Look at the sky, the one gardenia
that’s bloomed, and send him
back the way he came.

Look, she said. Through the vee
Fur of her barely
Opened coat, its twin
Ears nestled between her
Hollow of her

Throat where with her collarbones
Slanted -- a wheelchair rise toward a white, lit area.

Some people
Had run away after high school
And lived down on the beach
Where it wedges back against
The dark green, almost charcoal-colored pines
At the ankles of rich folks’ houses.
One of the rich people
Then took them in.
As she watched,

Now she had to work again, the honeymoon was over.

1 comment:

Pris said...

Where you get your energy is amazing. I enjoyed this read!