too much bishop for bishop


One wishes only to celebrate the twin volumes of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems and prose, published this year to mark the centenary of her birth. Bishop was one of the great artists of the twentieth century; her poems now tower over the landscape alongside those of Eliot and Stevens. Before her death in 1979, her sex and her distinctive tones of modesty and good humor may have misled all but her best readers into thinking of her as a minor poet. But by the mid-1980s, when her longtime editor Robert Giroux published the first comprehensive volumes of her poetry and prose, the authority and scope of her work became fully apparent. Modesty and mastery went hand in hand; good humor was the useful conveyance of profound and often shattering wisdom. It is no exaggeration to say that her poems get larger and stranger and more overwhelming with every reading. But there is a vexing problem that these new editions raise. One might call it the new biographical fallacy, born of this age of too much information. If the old biographical fallacy was the use of the life of the artist to interpret the work, the new biographical fallacy results from the impulse to lumber an artist’s work with the detritus, literary and otherwise, of the artist’s life. Correspondence, diaries, jottings, drafts, interviews—the stuff of a life in letters—are piled up for consideration, not just in the relatively circumscribed and well-understood havens of biography or critical study, but in published volumes of what is called the author’s work.

more from April Bernard at the LRB here.