blackbirdonline journalSpring 2015  v14n1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Failing Big:
What Elizabeth Bishop Teaches Poets about the Twofold “Never Again” of Emotion and Craft

A good piece of one continent
and another continent – the whole damned thing!
He who loseth his life, etc. – but he who
loses his love – neever, no never never never again –
the final lines of the first draft of “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop

Sometimes when I am having trouble writing, I comfort myself that I can fail big, that sloppiness is mine by birth, an American Poetic Tradition. You’re thinking, sure, I can buy that: the conversational precedent of father Williams letting us in on the poetic possibilities of false apology notes from the refrigerator (“This Is Just To Say”), the long, loping rhetoric of Howl, the casual kitchen-sink detail of O’Hara’s love poems (“Having a Coke with You”), Dickinson’s bold dashes; later, the righteous experimentation of the language poets, the post-post-confessional style of so many writing today, generations given leave to map the “experience of experience,” as Ashbery put it.

When I say sloppy the first poet that jumps to mind is probably not Elizabeth Bishop, famous for her formal restraint, her inscrutably precise diction. But Bishop-zealot that I have become, I claim for myself an intimate knowledge of her work, the intuitive ownership of granddaughter or favored niece. I imagine I can make some bald claims, however brash. It was I who sat long with the sixteen original drafts of “One Art” spread around me as an undergraduate at an expensive special-collections library table flooded with late afternoon light, my breath and gloved hands the only things allowed to touch the page. And these are my impertinent, unearned theories about how the stanza breaks in her longer poems—a subject for another day—track the difficulties of the poem-in-the-writing, growing to include failures in their final drafts, stanza breaks sent to future poets as semaphore signal to represent surrender and restart within the poem’s final version, however seamless its surface appears.

In my imagination she’s Bishop the early postmodern, Meta-Bishop, warrior of failure and saint of process. Because of this I love failure as much as grace inside Bishop’s work, the built-in, intrinsic gaffes, the trailing-off ellipsis, sins of omission, and gawky repetitions, because I am so familiar with them as the stuff of process and because early on in my writing life it was she who gave permission to fear and to fail. I couldn’t see it all those years ago at the library, but now I can see that both fear and failure underlie those drafts of “One Art,” and this is her twofold gift to all poets: the double “never again” she repeatedly approaches and offers as proof of a process. “Write toward what you dread,” Bishop seems to be saying, “and write badly, too.” In the first draft of “One Art,” Bishop risks bad writing to get at difficult emotion imprecisely said; for her, these twin failures are the stuff of the poem, the traces of which we see even in the polished villanelle that emerges shining.

When I dislike what I’m writing, either for being poorly written or poorly felt, I remember how Bishop called some of the details from her first draft of “One Art” “too easy to be mentioned,” judging them and yet still mentioning them. That’s when I realize I should just keep writing, as Elizabeth Bishop did in that first draft of “One Art,” with a messy, meandering, “meaningless” free verse draft, titling it two bad things at once (“How to lose things / The gift of losing things”) and proceeding to define her terms, not poetically but directional essay-style, distinguishing “mislaying” from “losing” and then explaining that the poem—like all poems, right?—really only meant “to introduce myself.” Such prosody inside what will become one of the great muscular poetic assemblages of the middle generation; such a sloppy beginning for the graceful villanelle that is to come.

When I, like she, reach a difficult, untoward truth toward the bottom of the first page of the first draft, when I, like she, want only to write “neever, no never never never again” and leave the poem with its heavy satchel of failures for a walk around the room, I can, so long as I, like she, am willing to get back up the next day and write (count ’em) the 15 additional drafts that will bring me—I was going to say to resolution but perhaps it’s only toward resolution—within sight of a chance to live with whatever I found out in the writing a little longer and to learn new ways for how my writing fails me.

Certainly Bishop wasn’t looking to write about a lost love object when she began this poem—a perusal of the early draft shows much more mundane ambitions—and the “never again” indicates she had trouble continuing once she approached the “you” (not even a “you” in the first draft but an assemblage of disembodiments: the hands, blue eyes). Nor do I think that once Bishop completed “One Art” she was done with the upheaval that the poem caused her; most likely, writing it was just her way of admitting what would be with her for a long time: the chronic and gestural nature of loss. She was writing to introduce herself but not to us; she was writing to introduce one part of herself, the part that mourned the loss of the “the joking voice,” to the part of herself that never again wanted to feel such loss.

Reader, understand: this is no craft essay—it’s more like archeology, forensics, a séance, or something that leans toward that dreaded second-cousin of all imaginative work: the scholarly endeavor. I’m not interested in how the poem “turns out”—truth be told I would prefer it if Bishop had shelved the villanelle idea and forged forward with that unruly teenager, the free verse poem, as she does in some of my favorite poems of hers (“Poem,” “At the Fishhouses,” “The Bight”). Rather, it’s my aim in this essay to consider the meandering way the early drafts of “One Art” lead Bishop, our intrepid sailor, into the unknown of pain and grief and endurance, toward something she faces—something all poets must face—and that’s the “never again” of their own feelings, the sense that if they could prevent feeling this again, it would be worth stopping writing.

It’s my belief that Bishop is among the bravest of our poets in facing the emotional “never again” and incorporating it into the poem along with evidence of the formal difficulties of having written it (the craft-based “never again” of our own poetic limitations). The reason to study this draft sequence—the reason Elizabeth Bishop is important to us now—is precisely because she leaves those signs of writerly difficulty, those moments of awkwardness or failure, inside the final poem to be found not by the readers but the writers—the poets of the future—as a sort of instruction manual for surviving the perils of writing the poem. Writing is surviving the “never again,” and revision is a way of surviving the aftermath of knowing the nature of that loss and the chronic inability of language to capture it. So the “never again” is twofold: a story of personal loss tied up with a story of the limitations of language and of form. In this way, every Bishop poem is about “introducing” itself, about entering language and its limitations.

So it is that I comfort myself that Bishop, ultra-composed, deeply precise Bishop, the Bishop who left a thin volume (comparatively speaking) of nearly perfect poems, or at least of poems that succeed in asserting their right to exist and therefore imbued with a kind of integrity, could be so—what other word is there—sloppy! It’s a comfort that all that composure—which, I would argue someplace else, loses its composure at all the right moments—began in difficulty, in utter tumult. And I believe the drafts of “One Art” give working poets important lessons on how to approach, and then live through and with, the “never again” of approaching and exploring seemingly uncontrollable feeling.

In truth, the first draft of “One Art,” the first of 16, has all the bones of its lovely, more mannered final version. Remarkably, the arc of losing that so expertly tracks its path through the helix-like, doubly repeating lines of the final villanelle is already present in the original mire and discursivity of the first draft. The getting there, painful in the extreme, can only really be appreciated if one reads carefully that first draft.

Before we examine crucial elements of the first draft, though, perhaps it’s important to look at the final version. Those familiar with the poem will know that the poem starts out with a light touch, explaining by way of giving direction to an imagined reader that the “art of losing isn’t hard to master,” and will not end in “disaster.” The comforting rhyme of these two words tracks through the poem predictably, with artful variations that please with their surprise, and the middle lines of the tercet rhyming also. All of this is simply the architecture of the villanelle. One feels aurally comforted as well as logically so when poem recommends that for best results on loving we should “practice, losing farther losing faster: / places, and names, and where it was you meant / to travel.” The losses, which start small (“lost door keys, the hour badly spent”) accumulate to larger things: houses, cities, rivers (two, Bishop specifies), “a continent.” It’s here, having gone from the small to the large, that the speaker begins to reveal herself, no longer expert giving reader advice but one suffering on the barbs of hard loss. Still, on this first reveal, she keeps it light, underplays the personal pain: “I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.” The language is plain and clear, the burnished language of the draft process at work.

And more plainness in the next stanza. “Even losing you,” it begins, and, if we weren’t before, we are certain now, as readers, that the speaker is talking to herself of something so private she barely approaches it except in the shorthand of “the joking voice, a gesture / I love.” She soldiers on, though, telling herself to “Write it!” perhaps to prove that losing is not disaster. Of course, the pain that arrives suddenly in the intimacy of “joking” and “gesture,” and the difficulty that sneaks up on the poet in the sudden mention of the “you” the speaker loves tell us all we need to know the disaster is indeed absolute.

The reader who reads the final draft is left impressed with Bishop’s restraint, her reticence, and her composure in the face of overwhelming loss, and her formal choices underscore this impression. Perhaps the reader admires the stoicism, wishes she herself might face such loss with the same brave face if so tested, and reads the graceful music of the villanelle and Bishop’s arch humor as courage. Of course, they are brave! Form becomes ballast against the extreme emotion of the poem, test and proof of Wordsworth’s supposition that poetry has its origin in “emotion recollected in tranquility.”

But the part of me that doesn’t trust writing as tranquility, the writer part that hasn’t quite experienced it that way, wants the struggle and looks for it. And sure enough, traces of it are embedded into the final villanelle. Geek-type devotees of Bishop (for instance, me) know that midway into the poem when Bishop writes of losing “my mother’s watch,” though mentioned off-handedly, she’s referring to no ordinary loss: Bishop was separated from her mother at the age of five when her mother was committed to an asylum, and never saw her again. In a letter to a friend just after her graduation from Vassar, a letter that otherwise (and first!) details her plans to move to a hotel in Greenwich Village, Bishop gives her mother’s death two stark sentences, writing “I guess I should tell you that Mother died a week ago today. After eighteen years, of course, it is the happiest thing that could have happened.” The happiest thing that could have happened! Imagine writing that at the age of 21. Possibly given the perpetual, matrilineal nature of Bishop’s loss, the submergence of pain had become a family habit, a necessity of survival for a daughter who receives word of the death of her mother and then must begin her solitary post-college life in a residential hotel. Later, reticence will be named by critics as a part of Bishop’s signature style, and perhaps it is, but mightn’t it also be a handicap she mightily overcame in draft after draft, and then reluctantly reentered with a plan to unweave what she had woven?

This “mother’s watch” so crucial to the architecture of the poem, this detail that acts as a harbinger of other losses and competes with the “even losing you” of the final stanza, is nowhere to be seen in the original draft, and that’s no surprise, since facing that single detail may have been one of the most painful experiences of the poem for Bishop, a post-never-again-level discovery born of dogged determination to keep on writing into the aftermath of loss. Though it’s buried high up in the poem and overshadowed by nearby wordplay (near this difficult moment is one of Bishop’s best “-aster” rhymes, “my last, or / next to last of three loved houses went”), the moment is, I would argue, the first turn, a tonal disruption in the lightness of the poem thus far. Here the poem begins its move toward darkness and depth. Wordsworth’s tranquility takes on the guise of form here, helping the poet approach an emotion that threatens to overtake her with the comfort of a repeating line and rhymes. If she’s like a lot of poets I know, Bishop backs into the worst of the loss and then depends on the patterns of language to distract and to buoy her. This is why I suspect the poem becomes a villanelle as early as draft two. Immediately after the messy “never again” of the first draft, Bishop lights on the idea of this fixed form for the poem. For a moment, perhaps, Bishop has found a vessel for her emotion, or a distraction from it; I can’t help but wonder what would happen if the cup of the free verse poem had run over, but perhaps—formally—this was a “never again” Bishop dreaded, given the poem’s subject matter.

In fact, Bishop does a lot of using form to distract herself away from the pain of her subject before she ever puts her mother’s watch into the poem. To the best of my handwriting-deciphering the mother’s watch doesn’t show up until it’s an alternate phrase in draft 9, the next typewritten draft after the first. Drafts two through eight, all handwritten, are concerned mostly with the rhyme scheme of the villanelle, some drafts literally columns of end rhymes. But draft nine is a heroic bit of sloppiness, lots of xxxing out and cross-hatching slash marks from the Royal Deluxe, above one of which appears “mother’s watch.” Did it, could it have taken nine drafts to back into the pain of that loss? Of course it could. In this draft Bishop also begins to force herself to include the meta-remark that has become so famous, and such a famous stylistic component to many of her poems: the poet-peeking-out-of-the-writing. Here’s it’s not “(Write it!)” but “(Say it: disaster.)” She’s getting close; that’s what revision—and maybe even formal distraction—is for: the reentering of some form of courage, the chronic reapproaching of difficulty.

Thus far I’ve discussed mostly the “never again” forged out of emotional disruption, the rupture or turn that occurs when the poet discovers her true subject, her backing-into-pain followed by a necessary amount of distracting herself (once the pain is known and named) with the rhythmic patterns available from form and from formal experimentation, a crucial back-and-forth between emotion and form that brings in additional details such as the late appearance of the “mother’s watch.” But emotion is clearly the half of it. In early drafts the poet faces bald emotion recollected not in tranquility but in difficulty (sorry, Wordsworth), but the poet also faces her own paltry strengths, her many formal shortcomings. The poet faces the limitations of her language.

A close look at the final lines of the first draft reveals the twofold “never again” is both a reluctance to confront emotion as well as an imperative to face the messiness and shortcomings of one’s own craft. What if the “never-again” is not just “never again may I feel this” but “never again may I write this poorly?” Here are the final lines of the first draft:

One might this this would have prepared me
for losing one average-sized not especially - - - - - - - - - - - - exceptionally
beautiful or dazzlingly intelligent person
(except for the blue eyes)(only the eyes were exceptionally beautiful and
but it doesn’t seem to have, at all . . .the hands looked intelligent)
the fine hands

A good piece of one continent
and another continent – the whole damned thing!
He who loseth his life, etc. – but he who
loses his love – neever, no never never never again –

It must be noted it was a common practice of Bishop’s and others to put alternates off to the side—“exceptionally” for “especially,” for instance. But the second alternate, the long parenthetical phrase describing eyes and hands, followed by the offset (a possible choice for the poem held in abeyance?) “the fine hands,” give us a rare view of Bishop grappling for the right word, and not finding it, replacing it with a bunch of words, none of them very good. And after all of that breathless difficulty, the emotion coming up on the plain-spokenness of “blue eyes” and “the fine hands,” in the final stanza, Bishop—as she does in other poems—restates something from above to try to keep the poem going. Here it’s the “continent.” And here’s Bishop, grappling again with the limitations of her language, its failures of repetition and momentary triteness, then swearing and exclamation points, followed by perhaps a reaching for the family Bible (“he who loseth his life shall find it” from Matthew), then finally a surrendering to the impulse to stop writing, stop feeling: “neever, no never never never again.” In this reading, it’s impossible tell whether Bishop is tired of feeling the feelings or of using the words, or both. None of it is to be experienced, ever again.

Of course she goes back fifteen more times, though never to the freedom of that first free verse version—and free verse poet that I am, I ache to think of those “fine hands” and what they might’ve come to in another universe. In the end all of this struggle, the linguistic soup combined with the emotional difficulty, twins of a twofold “never again,” is recast inside the compressed and final lines of the finished poem:

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love), I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

No exceptionally fine hands, no blue eyes. No argument about losing life versus losing love. All of that is “evident;” the fine hands and blue eyes are implicit in the “you” and the “gesture / I love.” But the writer’s struggle survives as its own subject, and with it, the double “never again,” the struggle to “(Write it!).” Played with and into all those drafts, the surface of the language is (almost) seamless. But don’t be fooled: there’s a writer in there, working the drafts, facing the “never again,” spending an afternoon distracting herself with columns of end-rhymes and then emerging again newly brave, and generous enough to leave us traces of how to do it.

These drafts stand in answer to the oft-told story of the Bishop who pinned an almost-perfect poem to her bulletin board in Brazil, one word missing, for years waiting for the one word to close the perfect unbroken surface of the poem. Robert Lowell loved this story and often retold it, and it survives as lore, folds seamlessly into the image of Bishop as perfectionist, miniaturist, perpetually reticent and always right in the end. I’m sure that happened, but other times she was blissfully wrong, she struggled, and she deemed that struggle so important she let it show even in many a final version.

Back at my blank page, or better, back at my messy, failed, ridiculously essay-like or rhetorical page, I’m far from a nearly finished poem waiting for a word on a bulletin board, but maybe I’m closer to some “never again.” I have an impulse toward difficulty and dread, toward staying near it and coaxing it with limited language. I have a desire to find my own mother’s watch, or to lose it. And I know some of how to do it because Bishop left her imperfect pages for us, alongside the perfect ones.  end

Editorial note: quotes from Elizabeth Bishop are set from Carol Ann Davis’s manuscript as provided to Blackbird.

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