Halfway through Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence, Howard Moss confesses: “The truth is that I have, somehow, forgotten how to write letters. All I can think of saying is what I had for lunch, or what kind of day it is.” Fortunately, Moss makes a distinction between letters and written communication, between vivid self-expression and quotidian details. His mea culpa stands alongside the book’s title as a warning to readers that there are very few letters in this dense, new collection, which was released alongside Poems and Prose to mark Bishop’s centenary.
Instead, there are queries. Queries that do not “give us a rare glimpse into [Bishop’s] artistic development,” but rather the provisions in her contract. It’s true that the collection offers a lens onto The New Yorker’s house style and its influence on Bishop’s poems, but readers of The New Yorker should be able to guess what that entails.
Charles Pearce says it best when he refuses Bishop’s “The Slot Machine” because “it doesn’t seem quite precise enough (I believe that is the right word).” Any reader’s guess as to whether this is intentionally humorous is as good as mine. Pearce continues to describe the poem as “a bit too long,” and ends the letter “Sincerely, Charles A. Pearce.” There are many other instances of meta-precise language in the collection, but this is by far the best—and it appears on page eight.
The best lines from The New Yorker’s half of the correspondence appear early in the collection, when its rules were most rigid and its editors the least experimental. Choice rejections include: “having printed at least two verses about Florida in the past two weeks, we couldn’t go another,” “it was far too special,” “too difficult for a general magazine,” and “the poem is too personal for us.” Unfortunately, there was not concordance between the editors on “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” which describes a Bible’s illustrations of the Middle East. It is one of those sent back on account of obtuseness. It was eventually published in Partisan Review, a safe haven for many of the more “difficult” poems.
The poem begins with biblical conviction: “Thus should have been our travels:/ serious engravable” and continues by comparing the scenes in the Bible—“arranged in cattycornered rectangles . . . caught in the toils of an initial letter”—to her personal travels, where “there were beautiful poppies splitting mosaics.” The comparison is clear: both describe patterns, but Bishop’s own memories are bursting with life. The poem is the biblical rendering of her private experience—“serious engravable”—and offers insight into the relationship between form and meaning.
The editors’ decision is particularly strange since they had just accepted one of Bishop’s most famous poems, “At the Fishhouses,” which also takes up the theme of structure and freedom and describes an “emerald moss/ growing on . . . shoreward walls.” Just as the Bible’s illustrations send Bishop on a nostalgic journey, so will the editor’s decisions return the reader to their source. Much joy is to be had off the page in private reflection, where one can revisit the poems whose acceptances or rejections will inspire feelings of satisfaction or anger.
If The New Yorker’s best lines (read: most frustrating) emerge at the beginning of the collection, Bishop’s best lines (read: most enraged) appear toward the end, at which point her modesty subsides.
I . . . think I can claim to be one of the better poets The New Yorker publishes. Everything else has gone up, including rates from other magazines. . . . Don’t you think it is about time my rates were raised?
The reader can rest assured that Moss responds with good news: “Your line rate, in cold cash, will be changed from $2.50 to at least $2.90 or higher.” The poem that is accepted immediately following their negotiation is “Sandpiper,” which we now know earned Bishop cold cash in the amount of $58. Bishop’s compensation (or lack thereof) is a major source of frustration in the collection.
Perhaps what this collection traces is not Bishop’s “artistic development,” but her patience. It is put to the test when she thinks The New Yorker is holding a poem until it is seasonally appropriate—a common practice.
P.S. If by chance the waiting room is now waiting for next February—maybe I should take it back and refund the payment? I am much better now, but after feeling that my end was approaching, just last week, I’d like to see something published, to cheer me on my way a bit—
As the poem ends “it was still the fifth/ of February, 1918,” Bishop is frustrated when February, 1971, comes and goes without publication. The second half of the postscript, which directly refers to Bishop having been sick, also recalls a depleted Bishop after the suicide of her partner of sixteen years, Lota de Macedo Soares.
The collection’s shortcomings are due to its scope—Lota’s overdose is neither announced by Bishop, nor revealed in a condolence letter from her longtime editor and friend Katharine White. Rather, it’s inserted by the editor, Joelle Biele, in centered italics between a letter from Bishop and one from Moss, whose innocent note, dated the day after Lota died of a coma, ends jovially. One of the most peculiar things, however obvious, that arises from the publication of collected correspondence is the omniscience it grants to the reader. When it comes to major milestones in history or in the private lives of its subjects, collected letters create a world of parallel and layered experiences. While the period in which Bishop is writing (1934–79) was rich in history, as her life was rife with tragedy, the collection is limited by its narrow focus and ultimately leads us back to Bishop’s poems, where life breaks through the lines.
Callie Siskel is a former associate editor of The New Criterion
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