Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box

Elizabeth Bishop was unusual among twentieth century American poets in several ways. She gained a substantial readership, by poetry standards, which is unusual in itself, and she did so by publishing only a handful of books, well spaced over the last three decades of her life. Her poems were spare but not obscure, precise but plainspoken, and concerned with keen observation without neglecting the heart. These were qualities that did much to secure her a favored place among readers, even among those who otherwise rarely dipped into poetry.

Her small published output, mostly contained within four slender volumes, made it almost surprising that when her posthumous The Complete Poems, 1927-1979, appeared in 1983, it did not contain a larger and more varied assortment of unpublished work than it did. To readers of poetry, Bishop seemed that rare creature who exerted herself heavily over great spans of time upon a few select verses, honing and refining carefully, without ever engaging in that blizzard of excess most poets go through, and perhaps must go through, in endeavoring to discover their poetic voices. To make Bishop’s case more notable, she was undistracted by the demands of an academic life. Although she accepted a position at Harvard in her last decade, Bishop prided herself for many years in leading an existence far from the ivory tower.

For the many readers aware of Bishop’s place in American poetry, this new collection, edited by Alice Quinn, must come as a pleasant and long-awaited treat. The poems, fragments, and light verses found in this book are not completely unknown to Bishop readers, since they long have been described, discussed, and sometimes published, in some instances even within the pages of The New Yorker, the magazine that first gave the poet a wide audience. The quiet sensibility, the clarity of tone, the concern with close observation of a moment in time, the emotional evenness that was neither effusive nor cold: All the elements that appealed to countless readers of her published works could be found in these works that had not yet reached the eye of the general public. They had remained hidden from general view, either because Bishop herself never reached the point of deeming them fit for print, or because the slow and gradual method Bishop used in composing her poems meant, inevitably, that in the end many would remain unfinished, at least to her eyes. The idea that, to any eyes other than her own, these poems might prove acceptable was strongly suggested in the few manuscripts found and added to the 1983 volume, and it seems firmly established with the publication of this book, Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments.

Editor Alice Quinn has done what must have been a monumental amount of work in sifting through the many pages of Bishop papers at Vassar College libraries. She has the good luck to have been preceded in her research by Lorrie Goldensohn, who was instrumental in obtaining for Vassar the notebooks of unpublished work placed in the safekeeping of a Brazilian friend of Bishop, Linda Nemer. Quinn is also to be commended for her choice of title, not only for her singling out of one of the poems of strength and freshness in this large book, which it should be noted is larger than any Bishop published in her lifetime, but also because it points to one of the discoveries represented by this volume.

During her lifetime Bishop was well known to have cited a number of poets as exemplars and inspirations, most frequently George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins but also such closer contemporaries as W. H. Auden and Dylan Thomas. Yet, while the precision and clarity that marked her poetry suggested a kinship with that of America’s most original poet of the nineteenth century, Edgar Allan Poe, Bishop’s public remarks tended to remain silent on the question. This may have reflected the tendency some feel to downplay early influences; Poe clearly was of large interest to her in the 1930’s, to judge from the work in this volume, well before her 1950’s arrival as a poet. It may, too, have been the result of the tendency predominant at mid-century to downplay Poe’s place in American letters, and to relegate his works to the arena of children’s literature. As of this collection’s publication, that Poe had major influence on this major poet should go unquestioned.

Lines to be found in the poem “Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box” itself certainly give pointed evidence. “Poe said that poetry was exact./ But pleasures are mechanical/ and know beforehand what they want/ and know exactly what they want.” Besides the direct invocation of Poe’s critical works, there is the insistent repetition of the third and fourth lines, echoing Poe’s methods. The poem describes a darkened room in which the observer...

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