Letter Perfect

Inside Elizabeth Bishop’s forty-year correspondence with The New Yorker

Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence edited by Joelle Biele | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 496 pages, $35.00

“Of course nobody wants to send them anything really ‘good,’” wrote Elizabeth Bishop to a friend in 1945, just after selling The New Yorker another few poems. Her quip was at least half sincere. The magazine, especially in its first few decades, was notoriously fussy, and for poetry it sought a very particular quality: clear, polished, prim, sleek—teapots, not tempests. This made for a small overlap between what the great poet wrote and what the great weekly would publish. A style too “remote,” as the editors put it, from the general reader, or a subject too personal—or with the faintest blush of eroticism—was, as they were used to writing, “not for us.”

Yet many of Bishop’s finest poems and stories landed in The New Yorker, perfected, in their way, after rolling through the beautifully engineered car wash that was the magazine’s editorial staff. Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker collects nearly forty years of letters between Bishop and the magazine, largely a correspondence with two of Bishop’s formidable editors, Katherine White and Howard Moss. It was more than a partnership. In letters to Moss and White over the years, her valedictions warmed from “Sincerely” to “Affectionately” to “Love.”

Bishop’s accepted work was a huge favorite among the New Yorker staff, partly because her writing was even more buttoned up than the magazine’s style guide. Her career took shape against the rise of confessionalism—the explicit, intensely personal outbursts of troubled souls like Robert Lowell, W.D. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. Compared with the howling candor of that movement, feeling in Bishop’s poetry comes with a chilly coyness, a tense ulteriority. The import of her poems is most often submerged beneath a pretense of description—a bird, a festival, a fish, a childhood memory inlaid with details. Her years in Brazil during the 1950s and ‘60s were especially well suited to this approach: She often wrote as though sending dispatches to the anglophone world, idle letters from a keen-eyed observer in an exotic country. Her style was casual but crystalline.

Even a thumbnail biography, however, reveals she had plenty to howl about. Her father died in 1911, when she was eight months old; about four years later her mother was confined to a mental asylum for life, leaving Bishop to a lonely childhood with relatives in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. Adult life brought morbid depression, binge drinking, and continual anxiety over her productivity. Later she lost her great love Lota de Macedo Soares, a lively, charming Brazilian aristocrat she lived with for about twelve years in Brazil: In 1967, shortly after a lapse in Bishop’s fidelity, Lota trailed Bishop back to the States and killed herself with pills in Bishop’s New York apartment. She was both anguished in life and amiable in letters, both self-destructive and marvelously creative, a combination she hinted at in the last lines of “The Bight,” written for her 37th birthday: “All the untidy activity continues, / Awful but cheerful.”

Bishop did have a scenic life, however. Outfitted with a large inheritance from her father, she traveled widely, from France and Spain to South America and North Africa. She needed the remove from bustling, restless New York. Mostly she confined her relationship with publishing to the mailbox, and that was enough. She wrote to Moss that seeing her poetry in the New Yorker’s pages gave her “a very pleasant sensation of actually being a live American poet.”

Bishop signed a first-reader agreement in 1946, requiring her to first submit any new poems, stories, and travel writing to the magazine. “I understand perfectly that you feel that much poetry you have written would not be for us,” White wrote at the time. Though Bishop renewed the contract for years, her more difficult or provocative poems were often passed on to Partisan Review, The New Republic, and small literary magazines. The New Yorker editors were more eager to receive submissions than to accept them. Frustrated, Bishop suspended the agreement from 1961 to 1968. Overall, though, their pickiness suited the exacting, meticulous poet who revised poems for years. In fact, Bishop published only around ninety poems in her lifetime: Whether she published didn’t count nearly as much as whether she deemed something worth publishing.

Rejections aside, Bishop had received plenty of outside encouragement from the start, and not only from the The New Yorker. Marianne Moore was a giant in poetry and an early mentor of Bishop’s (“the one ‘celebrity’ I ever tried to meet in my life,” Bishop said in a letter to the writer Anne Stevenson in 1964). Moore wrote in to recommend Bishop for the 1944 Houghton Mifflin Poetry Prize Fellowship, as did John Dewey and Edmund Wilson, two major intellectuals of the era. Bishop won at the eleventh hour, after White—who was one of the judges but apparently set on someone else—was persuaded to change her vote.

Despite lukewarm beginnings, White proved a useful editor to Bishop. She was “unfailingly perceptive about my work,” Bishop told Moss in 1977. The New Yorker valued White as well. She had quickly risen from a minor editorial position to become a close adviser to Harold Ross, the founding editor. She advised Ross not only on how to achieve his vision for the magazine, but on what that vision should be. Yet she was no less occupied with the finer details. White’s son Roger Angell—a former chief fiction editor at the magazine—noted, affectionately, that “she was a major-league worrier”: a passionate, dedicated editor who watched her writers (and their writing) like a hen watching her eggs.

Moss joined the magazine as poetry editor in 1948. Moss was himself an accomplished poet and also a critic. He, too, worried about his creative output, regretting that his editorial career had eclipsed his literary reputation, and that it had elbowed out much of his time for writing. Bishop encouraged his work, and Moss cherished their correspondence. Like White, he adored Bishop. His poem “Letter to an Imaginary Brazil” ends with a bit of a swoon: “Thin-scaled as life upon the width of death, / Who cannot read your poems, Elizabeth.”

This collection is most interesting as a record of how Bishop and her editors mulled over questions of style, clarity, and accuracy—and as a keyhole through The New Yorker’s legendary doors. Sometimes Bishop’s submissions provoked charmingly cordial editorial notes. Her story “In the Village” mentions a child’s fascination with “steaming cow flops”; as White put it, “the loving description of manure seems to go too far.” But only a Bishop fanatic would want to read every page of this book. Stuffed as they are with small talk and galley-correction pleasantries, Bishop’s letters to and from The New Yorker offer far fewer gems—and far more dull patches—than her correspondences with other friends and writers.

A more engaging collection is Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Bishop’s letters to Lowell are more personal, and wonderfully detailed. Writing from Rio de Janeiro in 1953, she mentions “a young cat who caught a foot-long lizard and hid it, as a surprise for me, half-chewed, in the pocket of a jacket hanging on a chair.” Yet even these letters are fairly chatty. Lowell was far more explicit than Bishop about his thoughts and feelings. When he wrote passionately to Bishop about wanting to marry her, he barked loudly up the wrong tree—really the wrong forest—but in response came only the usual: chirpy talk of Brazil, writing projects, books, and daily life. Likewise, Bishop didn’t discuss aesthetic theories or spiritual quandaries the way, say, Hopkins or Keats did. (“People wrote better letters in those days,” Bishop remarked to her students at Harvard, recommending the letters of those poets.) And she rarely offered more illuminating commentary on Lowell’s poems than verdicts like “The poems in [Partisan Review] are very impressive. Of course, I love the skunk one.”

Rather, in her letters as in her poems, Bishop preferred description, a surface she mastered like a figure skater born for the ice. The poet of sly, perceptive imagery might well have been winking at her own gifts when, in “The Toad,” she wrote, “My eyes bulge and hurt. They are my one great beauty, even so.”

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Jeremy Axelrod is the assistant editor of Parnassus: Poetry in Review. His writing has appeared in Commentary, The Yale Review, The New York Sun, The New Atlantis, and elsewhere. Tags: , , , ,