Tuesday, April 11, 2006


Blythe and Bishop

Sounds like a white-shoe law firm, doesn't it? But no, it's merely me quoting again from Ronald Blythe, then moving on to the recent, barrel-scraping publication of Elizabeth Bishop's leftovers. Here's Blythe on the lubricated Twenties:
The twenties was not a drunken decade as decades go but a revolution in drinking habits, plus the existence of Lady Astor, caused it to sound as though it was. The alcoholic emphasis in much twenties writing (drinking is easily the most boring subject in all literature and it defies sympathetic interpretation by any except the rarest drunkard poets, such as Li Po or Verlaine) is really nothing more than the Briton's eternal plea to have a drink when he feels like it. Before the war it was exceptional to be offered a drink before luncheon or dinner and sherry would be served with the soup. The immediate post-war years found people entering the dining-room very jolly indeed and ever so slightly sick, the reason being the cocktail boom. A great queasy river of manhattans, bronxes and martinis flowing from countless all-too-amateur sources savaged the taste buds and jarred the nervous systems of the middle and upper classes.
What, incidentally, is a Bronx? There seems to be some dispute. According to Magnus Bredenbek's What Shall We Drink? (1934), the cocktail was invented around 1900, inspired by a bartender's visit to the Bronx Zoo. A competing theory puts the creation in Philadelphia. In any case, we're talking four parts gin, one part orange juice, and one part Italian Vermouth. What those ingredients have to do with a trot through the Monkey House is anybody's guess.

And what shall we read? I'm all for Elizabeth Bishop's Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments. There was a very public (and widely reported) spat between Alice Quinn, who edited and annotated the volume, and Helen Vendler, who tore into the entire project in a lengthy New Republic essay. La Vendler was livid:
It will be argued that Bishop could have burned all these pieces of paper if she did not wish them to see publication. (I am told that poets now, fearing an Alice Quinn in their future, are incinerating their drafts.) But burning one's writings is painful, and Bishop kept her papers, as any of us might, because the past was precious to her. Bishop did not expect to die when she did, in 1979, at the age of sixty-eight; her death was sudden and unforeseen. (Even if she had left instructions not to publish her papers, she could not rely on their being obeyed: Max Brod disobeyed Kafka's explicit command to destroy his writings. But some poets have been obeyed: Hopkins asked his sisters to burn his spiritual journals, and they did.) Had Bishop been asked whether her repudiated poems, and some drafts and fragments, should be published after her death, she would have replied, I believe, with a horrified "No."
Of course Vendler doesn't really know the answer to that question. What's more, I don't believe she would block the publication of Hopkins's spiritual journals if they were suddenly to surface at, say, a yard sale. As long as the contents of this collection are identified as sublime discards--and Vendler correctly takes The New Yorker to task for sidestepping this duty when they published "Washington as a Surveyor"--then I don't think we're betraying the poet.

William Logan takes this tack in his New Criterion essay, and so does Kerry Fried in a brief but excellent Newsday review. Anything I could add would be superfluous, so I'll simply quote one of the brief poems I like, "Foreign-Domestic." This is not a typical Bishop performance, with its neat tetrameters and a (relatively) conventional sense of whimsy. So what? I love it anyway: a snapshot of domestic bliss, subtly undermined by the corpse-like image of her companion.
I listen to the sweet "eye-fee."
From where I'm sitting I can see
across the hallway in your room
just two bare feet upon the bed
arranged as if someone were dead,
--a non-crusader on a tomb.
I get up; take a further look.
You're reading a "detective book."

So that's all right. I settle back.
The needle to its destined track
stands true, and from the daedal plate
[an oboe starts to celebrate
escaping from the violin's traps,
--a bit too easily, perhaps,
for the twentieth-century taste,--but then
Vivaldi pulls him down again.]

(Said Blake, "And mutual fear brings peace,
Till the selfish love increase...")
Full disclosure: Bishop crossed out all the stuff contained within the square brackets. Her instincts were on target, I think, since the intensity drops off and the final rhyme ("then" and "again") sounds pretty feeble. Do I regret reading the poem in its entirety? Nope.

Some fun quotes on the 1920s:

It was an era paralyzed by sophistication.
-- Aldous Huxley, quoted by Alistair Cooke, PBS, Feb. 18, 1973

The first self-concious youth generation in America.
-- Paul Fussell, _New York Times_, Apr. 24, 1977

In the 1920s it was legs. My God, women hadn't shown their legs for 2,000 years.
-- Robert Riley, interview in _New York Times_, Dec. 12, 1973

No era ever vanished so suddenly, so completely, as the twenties.
-- David Dempsey, _New York Times_, Feb 15, 1970
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