Charles Simic on Elizabeth Bishop's Uncollected Poems
April 14, 2006 12:24 PM   Subscribe

Without surprise
The world might change to something quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,
Change as the kisses are changing without our thinking.
Charles Simic on Elizabeth Bishop's uncollected poems
posted by matteo (17 comments total)
Bishop at Vassar
Bishop reads "The Man-Moth"
posted by matteo at 12:27 PM on April 14, 2006

posted by chymes at 12:50 PM on April 14, 2006

Simic: This habit of not talking about herself did not weaken her poems; it only made their genesis more mysterious.

I couldn't agree more. The problem with esthetic categories like "Confessional" is that they play to Lowell's technique and concern, but don't do justice to Bishop. What she holds back is what makes her poems.

That said, I've been meaning to pick this book up. Nice post matteo. (And I've been meaning to pick up some more Simic as well!)
posted by bardic at 12:56 PM on April 14, 2006

Oh c'mon chymes, Bishop had her darkness, but was never a drama queen like that. (And she didn't like boys either.)
posted by bardic at 12:57 PM on April 14, 2006

(Forgot to add the :P)
posted by bardic at 1:00 PM on April 14, 2006

As far as her reputation as a poet goes, these 106 flawed and at times marvelous poems will only enhance it.

I seriously doubt that. I don't think it will diminish her reputation, because that's based on her immortal Complete Poems and this will (by comparison) barely make a dent in people's consciousness, but how could this "enhance" it? The New Yorker has been printing far too many of these, and I haven't seen a single one that especially impressed me. Bishop was an excellent editor of her own work, and she would have been horrified by this emptying of her drawers. I guess it's good that these are available to people who love her work and want to investigate even her false starts and rejects, but I won't be buying it.

If you want to support a magnificent and still living poet, check out Margaret Avison.
posted by languagehat at 1:16 PM on April 14, 2006

barely make a dent in people's consciousness

I disagree. Profs and PhD candidates I know are salivating for this. They might be disappointed, but still.
posted by bardic at 1:20 PM on April 14, 2006

Elizabeth Bishop is wonderful, but I love Simic more and want to drop a little poem of his into this thread:

Eyes Fastened With Pins

How much death works,
No one knows what a long
Day he puts in. The little
Wife always alone
Ironing death's laundry.
The beautiful daughters
Setting death's supper table.
The neighbors playing
Pinochle in the backyard
Or just sitting on the steps
Drinking beer. Death,
Meanwhile, in a strange
Part of town looking for
Someone with a bad cough,
But the address somehow wrong,
Even death can't figure it out
Among all the locked doors...
And the rain beginning to fall.
Long windy night ahead.
Death with not even a newspaper
To cover his head, not even
A dime to call the one pining away,
Undressing slowly, sleepily,
And stretching naked
On death's side of the bed.
posted by Falconetti at 1:59 PM on April 14, 2006

she would have been horrified by this emptying of her drawers

Kafka, too.
posted by matteo at 2:12 PM on April 14, 2006

Simic's surreality is fantastic. I'm not a big fan of his more recent work, as they seem a bit diluted, but there are gems to be found. Anyone interested should get a copy of his collected works, and anyone a bit obsessive should try to find a copy of the Harvard Review, Fall 1997, which is dedicated to him (ignore the balls photos, layout and typeset) and has a great review and revision of "White."

A couple of good poems to start with: "Note Slipped Under a Door" and "The Soup."


Take down its ears first,
Carefully, so they don't spill over.
With a sharp whistle slit its belly open.
If there are ashes in it, close your eyes
And blow them whichever way the wind is pointing.
If there's water, sleeping water,
Bring the root of a flower that hasn't drunk for a month.

When you reach the bones,
And you haven't got a dog with you,
And you haven't got a pine coffin
And a cart pulled by oxen to make them rattle,
Slip them quickly under your skin.
Next time you hunch your shoulders
You'll feel them pressing against your own.

It is now pitch dark.
Slowly and with patience
Search for its heart. You will need
To crawl far into the empty heavens
To hear it beat.

we now return to our regularly scheduled Bishop.
posted by herrdoktor at 3:02 PM on April 14, 2006

I read a memor of Simic's about his time spent as an MP in Germany during the Vietnam War. It was surprisingly funny and bizarre, like his poetry.
posted by bardic at 3:32 PM on April 14, 2006

*memoir* eek
posted by bardic at 3:32 PM on April 14, 2006

Name dropping time: I had the good fortune of being in both Simic's poetry workshop and modern poetry class at the University of New Hampshire when he won the Pulitzer back in '89 or so. Normally he was extremely cool -- sardonic wit, slight Eastern European accent, trademark granny glasses -- but the morning he heard about winning the Pulitzer he was downright giddy, shaking everyone's hand like a first time father. All of us in the workshop got invited to the reception UNH had for him. Good times.

Now here's a bonus name drop: when Seamus Heaney came to read at UNH Simic asked if anyone in the workshop would volunteer to drive Heaney back down to Boston after the reading. I of course raised my hand, but there was a snow storm that evening and Heaney felt more comfortable taking the bus.

Anyway, Simic was a big admirer of Bishop even then -- her Collected Poems was required reading for his class.
posted by Toecutter at 7:55 PM on April 14, 2006

I gather the new Bishop book has got some mixed reviews, with Helen Vendler arguing that it should never have been published. (First link goes to Vendler's review; second link to a New York Times article, worth reading if you can get past the inane opening paragraph: 'They may not be household names, but in the insular world of poetry, they could not be more powerful. And now, in a literary clash of titans, one has squared off against the other ..' Soon to be a major motion picture?)

To me, there's no such thing as a half-successful Bishop poem -- either they work wonderfully, or they don't work at all -- and the drafts and fragments that I've seen printed in the New Yorker and the LRB strike me as having more forensic than poetic interest. On the other hand, Simic's review suggests that there may be a handful of good new poems among the dross, and the examples he quotes do have the authentic Bishopian (or should that be episcopal?) touch. So I'm keeping an open mind. The posthumous publication of Philip Larkin's uncollected poems didn't do much for his reputation, either -- in most cases you could see why he'd rejected them -- but there were perhaps half a dozen poems one was grateful to have, and for the sake of those few good poems I can forgive the rest of the Larkin heritage industry.
posted by verstegan at 11:26 AM on April 15, 2006

I disagree. Profs and PhD candidates I know are salivating for this.

Note that I said "people," not "profs and PhD candidates." I was talking about normal readers of poetry, if you will. If the audience for poetry has been reduced to profs and PhD candidates, you might as well start carving its gravestone now.

(For comparison, the publication of the original version of "The Waste Land" showing Pounds edits created a huge stir in the world of profs thirty years ago, and I was thrilled too, but I doubt the average poetry reader paid much attention, and why should they?)
posted by languagehat at 12:47 PM on April 15, 2006

because "He Do the Police in Different Voices" is actually a much better title?
posted by matteo at 3:38 PM on April 15, 2006

Someone should like to the David Orr review in the NY times and the William Logan review in the New Criterion!
posted by kensanway at 10:38 AM on April 16, 2006

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