News & Politics

Poetry, Prose, and Politics — Elizabeth Bishop at 100

How the politics and prose of America's greatest poet were gutted by her editors.

February 8, 2011 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of poet Elizabeth Bishop, and Farrar Straus Giroux has released a triumphant pair of volumes to mark the centenary and to augment the robust Bishop library. The new Proseand Poems make it clear how up until now “Team Bishop” was still sort of figuring things out. These companion volumes, in appropriately austere blue, yellow, and white jackets, are satisfying to hold in the hand, sturdy, and flexible (even if a cost corner was cut on the paper), and legibly printed. They are also so well-edited that they represent a sort of 20-20 hindsight into how a reader might best encounter Bishop’s work, and they might even be used as examples of how any not-so-prolific poet’s work ought to be made available.

The new Poems will become the standard text of Bishop’s poetry. All of The Complete Poems is reproduced here, as isGeography III, and together these account for almost all the canon. Many “Uncollected” poems and translations, some of which may be unfamiliar to Bishop’s readers, are gathered. Appendix II lists the contents of the first editions of each of the published volumes, so that we can track changes in the canon or discrepancies vis-a-visother Bishop books.

And as if to remedy what seemed to me an attempt to elevate fragments and drafts to poem status, Poems features a generous selection of Bishop’s unpublished and draft works, all with facing typescript or manuscript facsimiles, and these are properly situated as Appendix I, to make literal how, in Bishop’s judgment, these pieces were not quite-digested or digestible. (Edgar Allan Poe & the Jukebox is still the only place one can find facsimiles of the draft typescript and manuscript pages of the masterpiece “One Art”—which is one reason to buy a copy from Barnes & Noble, reproduce those pages at a nearby Kinkos, and then return it for a refund.)

No new edition of her poetry, which she created with such loving-care and sent to publishers with such restraint, not to say stinginess, could advance Bishop’s current reputation. She is America’s flagship, 20th-century poet, leaving the straight men (Eliot, Frost, Stevens, and Lowell) in her wake. (Expect a Bishop backlash by 2020.) Yet many poetry lovers who have dog-eared their pinkish copies of The Complete Poems do not own a volume of Bishop’s prose. The dynamic is similar to how North Americans who love Jorge Luis Borges’s fictions cannot name a single one of his poems. In neither case does the dynamic have anything to do with the quality of the work: Borges’s poems are phenomenal, and Bishop’s fictions, essays, reviews, memoirs, and travel pieces are always delicious and sometimes astonishing.

Marianne Moore, Bishop’s mentor, famously said that “Any writer overwhelmingly honest about pleasing himself is almost sure to please others,” and the pleasure that Bishop took in writing prose is overwhelming. Schwartz’s edition of the Prose will be the book that makes its pleasures better known. In it he has assembled, with minimal and sensitive apparatus, all of Bishop’s very best work in paragraphs, including much of what appeared in The Collected Prose and many previously uncollected pieces—some of which only Schwartz, with his decades of attention to Bishop’s oeuvre, would have recognized as necessary.

The book showcases Bishop’s mastery of sentence, paragraph, plot, and subtle argument. Here is her miraculous—and chilling—short story “The Farmer’s Children,” equal to the best by Shirley Jackson or Eudora Welty. Here is her critical notice regarding Moore’s capacity for description and imitation, which is audacious and spot on (not least because she baits her readers with snippets by Gerard Manley Hopkins). Here is Bishop’s narrative essay “The U.S.A. School of Writing,” which I hope will encourage other teachers to turn to Bishop, as I do, as their Yoda when it comes to creative writing pedagogy.

And here is “On Being Alone,” a brief meditation that shows us how Bishop as a teen was already testing ideas and principles that would shape Bishop the woman, for whom “alone” did not necessarily mean “bereft.” (This piece was first published as an editorial without a byline in The Blue Pencil, the literary magazine of the Walnut Hill School for the Arts where Bishop went to high school and where I teach verse composition. Volumes of The Blue Pencil, which Bishop co-edited and to which she contributed, can be downloaded here.

One prose work with which Bishop was not pleased is Brazil, published by Time Life in 1962. As Schwartz explains, Bishop

” …famously disliked how the editors changed what she wrote . . . especially in the book’s later chapters. Her original final chapter, completely different from the published chapter, deals with what the United States and Brazil have in common, and in it she praises Brazil’s more effective way of dealing with issues of race . . .”

We may not be used to thinking about Bishop’s interests in race, in politics, and in women’s rights, because these issues are usually but faintly heard in her poetry (perhaps because they were so personal, and she did not cotton to work that divulged personal matters directly), but Prose makes it possible to look hard at how such things mattered to her. Clearly Bishop was concerned with mapping of the earth’s spaces and inhabitants. Just track the titles of the individual books of poetry she published: North & South; A Cold Spring (whether it’s weather or a well, a cold spring is part of the environment); Questions of Travel; Geography III. The last title—her greatest book—even suggests that Bishop had written an advanced text in how humans grasp, and fail to comprehend, the planet. A life in Brazil, 36 hours in a prop-driven DC-3 away from her childhood home in Nova Scotia, perhaps the whitest white woman in the country, no doubt kept questions of race, gender, and politics in focus.

Schwartz’s inclusion of Bishop’s text for Brazil, more or less as it stood before it got into the hands of the editors at Life, is a specific example of the general excellence of his editorial decisions. Now one can compare, as I have, the two versions and read how Bishop’s draft was muted, bowdlerized, and at times rewritten to suppress Bishop’s politics and to express the politics of Time Incorporated—a commercial politics. The editors of Life seem to have taken Bishop’s draft as a structural template for the chapters of the book they published.

It is plausible to map the shape of the Bishop draft to the shape of the published Brazil with a high degree of correspondence: Chapter Eight in Bishop’s version (called “Groups and Individuals”), for example, is 29 paragraphs in five sections, while the corresponding chapter published in Brazil (“A Changing Social Scene”) is 28 paragraphs in eight sections.

But take a look at how a lively and specific and engaged passage on race and poverty from Bishop’s draft can be gutted by the editors of Life. Bishop writes:

The widespread poverty, backwardness, ignorance, and suffering in Brazil are tragic; for millions, life is hungry and dirty, short and cruel. And yet—to a South African or a North American or anyone who has lived in a colonial country,—to be able to hear a black cook call her small, elderly, white mistress minha negrinha (my little nigger) as a term of affection, comes as a revelation,—a breath of fresh air at last.

It was not planned; it just happened. But Brazil now realizes that her racial situation is one of her greatest assets. Racial mixtures can be seen all over the country. In the north, in the Amazon region, Portugese and Indian have produced the caboclo, small, well-built, straight noses, bright eyes—a very attractive physical type. The northeast, after generations of poor diet, has produced the cabeça-chata, or “flat-head,” who is also apt to be small, somewhat rickety, with thin arms and legs and a large head, but quick, and certainly prolific. In the south under better living conditions and with little or no Negro admixture, the type is more Portuguese, sometimes with German blood, bigger, fairer, with clear skin, calmer—but pugnacious, even inclined to violence. It is in and around the big cities of Rio and São Paulo that one gets every racial type mixed together, types that have lost their racial clarity along with their former agricultural skills and beautiful backlands manners. A man in Goiás will know the name and habits of every beast and bird around him; but the people of regions that have fallen into agricultural decay are sickly-looking bad farmers, to whom every insect is only a bicho, or every tree is the “five-leaf,” and all are subject to destruction. The importance of nutrition in Brazil is shown by the fact that the richer and older the family, the taller and bigger-boned they are apt to be. Sometimes their servants from the “north” or the “interior” appear almost like dwarfs beside them.

But the Editors of Life printed:

The widespread poverty, backwardness, ignorance, and suffering in Brazil is tragic; for millions, life is hungry and dirty, short and cruel. And yet to any liberal-minded South African or North American, for example, it comes as a revelation to hear, as one can in Brazil, a black cook calling her elderly, white mistress minha negrinha, “my little nigger,” as a term of affection.

Such an attitude was not planned; it just happened. But Brazil is now realizing that its history of racial assimilation is one of the countries greatest assets. Racial mixtures can be seen all over the country. With each new census, an increasing portion of the total population is classified as white.

No doubt the Editors thought that Bishop had offered its North American readers “too much information,” that detailed word-pictures of types of people who have are born from racial and ethnic intermingling served no commercial purpose. In light of what Bishop submitted to them, their substitution of the statement that “an increasing portion of the total population is classified as white” seems a) a lie, and b) a blanket reassurance to readers in California or New Jersey that in spite of what Bishop observed, Brazil is well on its way to being racially “safe,” as safe to visit as New Hampshire or Wyoming.

A paragraph on political parties from Bishop’s untitled draft final chapter is only a place to which to return, to come back to and fill in with more detail:

The “Integralistas,” Brazil’s one proto-fascist party, existed only briefly twenty years ago. There are communists and nationalists (…)

Yet if we take the first sentence and its relation to the second sentence as an indication of what Bishop might have wanted to do with the complete paragraph, in light of her penchant for use of detail, it seems that she had in mind a list of the different political parties active in Brazil. Two items have been enumerated; why shouldn’t the enumeration continue?

The corresponding paragraph as published in Brazil, however, is tipped into binary and caters to a North American obsession with Cold War’s “Us” and “Them.” The editors of Life combine Bishop’s draft sentences, absurdly lumping Fascists and Communists. Then they hammer home the danger that Brazilian politics presents to U.S. capitalist interests. Some form of the word “Communism” occurs nine times in seven sentences:

The Integralistas, the country’s one pseudo-Fascist party, existed only briefly more than 20 years ago, and the Communist party was made illegal in 1947. Brazil has both Communists and extreme nationalists today, both representing uncertain political possibilities. The exact number of hard-core Communists in Brazil is not publicly known, although in 1958 the U.S. government estimated it at 50,000. In the cities there are groups of Communist-inspired and Communist-led students, and there are Communists or Communist followers among the army officers. But it is hard to say how serious a threat any of these represent. Certainly the widespread poverty in many areas provides a fertile ground in which Communists can operate. In many cases their professed communism seems more like a political opportunism that in a crisis might easily turn in either direction, left or right, whichever seemed to promise the biggest personal power or gain.

Here we see the dangers that befell her draft when Bishop did not submit a full paragraph—not that the editors of Life might just as easily have ignored her had she submitted a fuller text, so eager are they to make it clear that Rio de Janeiro is practically Moscow, just with better beaches. I feel a chill when I read even the words “not publicly known” (my italics), feel the implication that someone in Langley, Virginia knows precisely how many Brazilians are “hard-core Communists,” knows precisely where each stops to drink a cup of coffee in the morning on the way to work.

Like her accounts of race and political parties, Bishop’s draft pages on the political and economic situation of women in Brazil were overhauled by the editors. Bishop stated baldly that “Brazil is a man’s country.” Do you think that made it into Brazil? Her account of some gains Brazilian women have made over time is detailed and evocative and betrays Bishop’s special empathy for young women who commit to teaching the poor:

Women were admitted to universities in (…). There are now women in the government, congresswomen, lawyers, doctors, psychoanalysts, and engineers. The head of the Museum of Modern Art in Rio, Carmen Portinho, is an engineer, and the graceful viaduct of Canoas near Rio is the work of another woman engineer, Bertha Leitchic. We have seen now active women are in the arts. The pianist Guiomar Novaes has long been world-famous.
Special credit should be given to hundreds of anonymous Brazilian normalistas,—the young girls who start out every year as school-teachers, often in remote villages, in one-roomed school-houses, under heart breaking conditions.

But marriage at seventeen or eighteen and the grim race of procreation are the lot of even the rich and educated. Woman themselves are against introducing divorce. Security for herself and her children is the most important thing in life.

The phrase “the grim race of procreation” rings of a profound distaste for what are today called “family values.” Here Bishop has overstepped, again. What housewife in Des Moines or husband in Atlanta would like to entertain any such scathing expression of doubt that “security for (women) and for their children is the most important thing”? The paragraph parallel to the one above in Brazil reads

Despite the advances that have been made, women in Brazil have not yet achieved the status they have in other countries. Marriage is still customary at 17 or 18, and even the rich and educated often can look forward only to a life of child-rearing. Women themselves are often opposed to introducing divorce, since security for themselves and for their children is the most important thing for all of them.

Even if none of the above seems surprising, even if from a distance of 50 years we should expect to find the editing at Time Life so retrograde, in this case at a lesbian, woman writer’s expense, I am grateful that Schwartz decided to publish this fascinating text. Thanks to Prose, we can read how Bishop’s prose could be political enough to warrant an editing that approaches censorship. And that’s only part of the good news about Farrar Straus Giroux’s decision to pour such good old wine into new skins.

Prose by Elizabeth Bishop. Edited by Lloyd Schwartz. Farrar Straus Giroux, 507 pp., $20 paperback.

Poems by Elizabeth Bishop. Farrar Straus Giroux, 352 pp., $16 paperback.

Boxed set of Prose and Poems by Elizabeth Bishop. $75 hardcover.

Also referenced: Brazil by Elizabeth Bishop and The Editors of Life. Time Incorporated, New York, 1962, 160 pp., Out of Print.

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