Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters by Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Giroux, and Lloyd Schwartz (Library of America) On the occasion this month of the 100th birthday of one of America's greatest modem poets, The Library of America wants to remind you of its recently published collection: Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters. With this landmark volume, Elizabeth Bishop joins the short list of American poets whose work has been collected and preserved in The Library of America: Poe, Whitman, Longfellow, Pound, Crane, Frost, and Stevens.
This carefully edited book collects much of Bishop's poetry and prose--fiction, memoir, reportage, reviews--between two covers for the first time. This edition is the first to contain all the poetry that Bishop published in her lifetime - including the classic volumes North & South, A Cold Spring, Questions of Travel, and Geography III - and an extensive selection of unpublished poems and drafts of poems, as well as all of her published poetic translations. The volume also brings together most of her published prose writings, including fiction, reminiscences, travel writing about the places (Nova Scotia, Florida, Brazil) that so profoundly marked her poetry, and literary essays, including a number of pieces not previously collected. The book is rounded out with a selection of 49 letters written between 1933 and 1979, to such correspondents as Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, and Randall Jarrell. The result is a single edition that offers a full-scale presentation of a writer of startling range and originality, the perfect introduction for readers new to Bishop's work, and the ultimate collector's edition for her many devoted fans.
James Merrill described Elizabeth Bishop's poems as "more wryly radiant, more touching, more unaffectedly intelligent than any written in our lifetime" and called her "our greatest national treasure." Robert Lowell said, "I enjoy her poems more than anybody else's." Long before a wider public was aware of Bishop's work, her fellow poets were expressing astonished admiration of her unique fusion of formal rigor, fiercely observant eye, emotional intimacy, and sometimes daring flights of imagination. Today she is recognized as one of America's great poets of the 20th century.
This unprecedented collection offers a full-scale presentation of a writer of startling originality, at once passionate and reticent, adventurous and perfectionist. It presents all the poetry that Bishop published in her lifetime, in such classic volumes as North l' South, A Cold Spring, Questions of Travel, and Geography III. In addition it contains an extensive selection of unpublished poems and drafts of poems (several not previously collected), as well as her poetic translations ranging from a chorus from Aristophanes' The Birds to versions of Brazilian sambas.
Poems, Prose, and Letters brings together as well most of her published prose writings, including stories; reminiscences; travel writing about the places (Nova Scotia, Florida, Brazil) that so profoundly marked her poetry; and literary essays and statements, including a number of pieces published here for the first time. The book is rounded out with a selection of Bishop's irresistibly engaging and self-revelatory letters. Of the 53 letters included here, written between 1933 and 1979, a considerable number are printed for the first time, and all are presented in their entirety. Their recipients include Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, Anne Stevenson, May Swenson, and Carlos Drummond de Andrade.
Robert Giroux, co-editor, was chairman of the editorial board of Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Elizabeth Bishop's longtime editor. He edited her Collected Prose (1984) and One Art (1994), her selected letters. Lloyd Schwartz, co-editor, is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, classical music editor of The Boston Phoenix, and a regular reviewer for NPR's Fresh Air. In 1994 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. His most recent poetry collection is Cairo Traffic.
The best introduction to Bishop's work, however, is still "The
Complete Poems, 1927 - 1979," supplemented by the best pieces in
"The Collected Prose" (1984), edited by Robert Giroux, who is also
co-editor of the present Library of America book and editor of "One
Art" (1994), the mammoth selection of Bishop's letters. The earlier
editions of her poems and prose were published in an era when
editors still respected Bishop's excellent judgment about which of
her poems and prose pieces should appear in print. Bishop was her
own best editor, and I don't think the publication of so many of her
abortive poems serves her particularly well.
My main criticism of this book has to do with the "Letters" section. As with the Library of America edition of Flannery O'Connor's writing, this selection offers letters not available in "One Art" (or in O'Connor's case, "The Habit of Being"); but the Library of America edition does not supersede "One Art" because it offers fewer letters in total. Both O'Connor and Bishop were epistolary geniuses on the level of Keats and Hopkins and we deserve editions of their letters that aspire to comprehensiveness. There is a new edition of Bishop's correspondence with Lowell on the way, but what about her letters to Marianne Moore, May Swenson, and other friends with whom she had significant correspondences?
I suppose ardent readers of Bishop's letters are supposed to photocopy the letters published in this Library of America edition and stick them in "One Art" in order to have all of the in-print Bishop letters (which are a fraction of the letters she actually wrote) in one place. I am happy to do this, but aren't Library of America editions supposed to collect ALL of a writer's most important work in one or more volumes? I would rather have Bishop's poems and non-epistolary prose in one Library of America volume, and a more complete edition of her letters in another, even if the letters book were longer in coming. The Library of America edition of Hart Crane, another epistolary genius, is comprised mostly of letters, in part (I suspect) because the editor had a new edition of Crane's letters to select from. (In fact the same person edited both Crane books).
Giroux refers to his "files of Elizabeth's vast correspondence" (p. 944). When will these files become available to the rest of us in the form of a "Collected Letters of Elizabeth Bishop," which would no doubt be a multi-volume work, or even an expanded edition of "One Art"? The latter book, as far as I can tell, is not mentioned at all in this Library of America edition--why not? Has Giroux decided to "disappear" his own wonderful edition of Bishop's letters?
I suspect this Library of America edition of Bishop was rushed to press in order to capitalize on all the recent attention paid to Alice Quinn's selection of Bishop's unpublished poems, and the attention that is about to be paid to the forthcoming Bishop/Lowell correspondence. Why not wait a few more years until the shape of the Bishop canon is a bit clearer to publish an apparently definitive volume such as the present Library of America book? Quinn is currently editing Bishop's notebooks and journals, which promise to be fascinating, but which this Library of America book does not excerpt at all.
Bishop herself was a voracious reader of other writer's letters and journals, and she even taught a course in epistolary writing at Harvard in the early 1970s. I wish editors and publishers would take a cue from Bishop's own interest in letter-writing and publish more of her letters. As anyone who has read "One Art" or the letters published in this Library of America edition knows, Bishop's letters are the ultimate pleasure reading.
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