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April 28, 2006 11:11 PM   Subscribe

A new book collecting unpublished poems of Elizabeth Bishop offers us unpolished views of work in progress, by one of the 20th century's greatest literary perfectionists. But in doing so, it raises again "An issue as old as the printed word: Is work that a writer chose not to publish during her lifetime fair game after she dies?" [more inside]
posted by paulsc (7 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
"There are compelling arguments on all sides. Bishop is one of the greats of American poetry and anything she wrote holds interest and importance. On the other hand, it would be unfair to put forward work she considered immature, unsuccessful and/or incomplete as an equal part of her oeuvre, even though she didn't destroy it. As poet Charles Simic points out in his tactful review for The New York Review of Books, publication of the work "most certainly would have mortified her if she were still alive."
Vassar College offers a good Web site for its extensive collection of Browning's papers. Browning was a prolific letter writer, occasionally writing up to 40 letters in a day, and the collection holds thousands of her letters to other literary figures and influential friends:
"One will find within the Bishop Papers over 200 letters from Marianne Moore written between 1935 and 1969 discussing their work and mutual friends; and more than 200 letters from Robert Lowell written between 1947 and 1976 discussing his work and that of Bishop's. Other correspondents include:

* Lonie Adams,
* John Ashbery,
* John Berryman,
* Louise Bogan,
* John Malcolm Brinnin,
* Seamus Heaney,
* Anthony Hecht,
* Randall Jarrell,
* Archibald MacLeish,
* James Merrill,
* Howard Moss,
* Octavio Paz,
* Katherine Anne Porter,
* Muriel Rukeyser,
* Anne Sexton,
* Mark Strand,
* May Swenson,
* AllenTate,
* Alice B. Toklas,
* John Updike,
* Eudora Welty,
* and Edmund Wilson.

Some links to Bishop reading and discussing her work are available here.
posted by paulsc at 11:13 PM on April 28, 2006

I know of at least one case where the answer to that question is unambiguous: Franz Kafka. Almost none of his work was published in his life time, and his will instructed his executor to burn it all.

His executor decided he could not do it. Instead, he arranged to publish it. I think there's no question that was the right decision.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:27 PM on April 28, 2006

Makes me wonder what great works never were.
posted by TwelveTwo at 11:36 PM on April 28, 2006


The publishers of Bishop's Collected wasn't shy about including her juvenalia, and I agree with the article that this volume too will contain "illuminating stuff here for poets and scholars to consider." (15 drafts of "One Art"? Bring it on!) Besides, there's an inner voyeur in all of us, especially in a certain unnamed fanboy.

As for whether Bishop would've been mortified by the publication of her works-in-progress? Posterity is a cruel, cruel mistress that satisfies oh-so-few. She can join the club.
posted by DaShiv at 11:54 PM on April 28, 2006

Here's "Betraying Elizabeth Bishop," the original article that sparked the controversy, by Helen Vendler for The New Republic; it's pretty scathing in its attack on Alice Quinn. It then sparked this April 1st NYT article, which put the controversy on the non-poetry map. Both offer lots more details than the Seattle piece.

It's a fascinating subject for artists in general; in this case, a poet pal tells me the consensus among his friends is that Quinn went somewhat overboard in presenting the poems, treating them too much like finished works, possibly for marketing reasons as much as anything.
posted by mediareport at 11:55 PM on April 28, 2006

A bit of previous discussion on Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box here and here.

In terms of American poets, I guess Dickinson would be the canonical example of what unpublished work can offer. I am a big fan of Helen Vendler, but it seems like her basic problem with the book is the presentation, mostly in the New Yorker, of Bishop's unpublished poems without an explanation that they are unpublished juvenilia.

I can get behind that, but I don't think anybody will realistically be buying this book without knowing exactly what the provenance of this new material was. (Does anybody buy poetry books who isn't in an MFA program anyways?)

Besides, Vendler herself actually finds some interesting insights in contrasting these poems to Bishop's published work, so clearly there is some value in having it accessible.
posted by whir at 12:14 AM on April 29, 2006

You have to destroy that stuff you don't want out there. Got to maintain total control of your output. That's what separates the greats from the not-so-greats.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:24 AM on April 29, 2006

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