Edgar Allan Poe And The Juke-Box, by Elizabeth Bishop, edited by Alice Quinn

Previously unpublished poems are an insight into a great talent

Paul Bailey
Tuesday 09 January 2007 01:00

"I couldn't believe it. It was like writing a letter," Elizabeth Bishop said of the villanelle "One Art", published in 1976, three years before her death. She wrote the poem "quickly" - that is to say, in months.

At the end of this fascinating book, Alice Quinn, poetry editor of The New Yorker, presents 15 drafts that preceded the completed version. They offer a valuable insight into Bishop's painstaking approach to the creation of poetry: a word deleted and replaced; a very slight shift in punctuation.

Her three great goals, she observed in the late 1950s, were Accuracy, Spontaneity, Mystery [her italics], qualities that have to be hard-earned. She found them in poets as disparate as George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Baudelaire. "One Art" is at once accurate (she did lose three houses), spontaneous (in its jaunty stoicism) and mysterious. It is also deeply moving.

Bottom-drawer collections of unpublished work by fastidious artists are often misguided. The author invariably knew best what to publish and what to put aside, Larkin being the perfect example.

Quite a lot of material in Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box is of interest only to those, like me, who worship at the Bishop shrine. Even so, there are more than a few treasures, such as the tender "Breakfast Song": "My love, my saving grace,/ your eyes are awfully blue./ I kiss your funny face,/ your coffee-flavoured mouth./ Last night I slept with you."

She goes on to speak of "nightlong, limblong warmth" before confronting the idea of separation and death. Comfort returns at the close: "My love, my saving grace, / your eyes are awfully blue/ early and instant blue."

Why did she never publish this? The answer could be that she went on to write an even better breakfast poem, more detailed and mysterious. But "nightlong, limblong warmth" is unforgettable and worth resurrecting.

"Writing poetry is an unnatural act. It takes great skill to make it seem natural," she wrote. "Most of the poet's energies are really directed towards this goal: to convince himself (perhaps, with luck, eventually some readers) that what he's up to... is really an inevitable, only natural way of behaving under the circumstances."

Elizabeth Bishop's circumstances moved from the near-paradisal to the grimly tragic. This beautifully produced book is a reminder, even at its most flippant, of what precisely went into the making of a great poet.

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