Transcript for Joelle Biele on "Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker"

Jim Fleming: Elizabeth Bishop was one of the great poets of the 20th century. She didn't write a lot. But, everything she did write, had a kind of perfection to it. Even though her subjects anything, but poetic. She wrote about ordinary things, like fishing and sitting in a dentist's waiting room. Most of Elizabeth Bishop's work was published in the New Yorker magazine. And now, thanks to the writer Joel Beaux, we can get a first hand glimpse of how Bishop and her editors collaborated.

Beaux recently edited a book called 'Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker-The Complete Correspondence'. She told Anne Strainchamps, what happened to Bishop's poems, when they were submitted to the New Yorker.

Joel Beaux: The poem would come in, like, say to Catherine White and she would read it and decide whether she wanted the poem or not. Whether she said yes or no, she had to bring it to another editor to get a vote, which would usually be Howard Moss, but it could be someone else, who was on hand, like William Maxwell. And then, they would vote on it. If they were both to no, the poem would go immediately back to Elizabeth Bishop. But if they were a no and a yes or a yes and a yes, the poem would either go to the editor in chief Harold Ross, when he was there or later to William Shaun. And Shaun and Ross had the final say. If they said no, that was it, even if White and Moss were a yes.

Anne Strainchamps: But it was a complicated system of checks and balances. Sounds like the American government.


Beaux: And, they were very cordial, in how they would let Bishop know about the votes. They loved to use the word 'we' and I asked a old time editor there, why did you use the word 'we', and they said, “we never wanted anyone to be mad at anyone of us individually.”  They just said, “The votes were no”, and they didn't want to reveal who voted how.

Strainchamps: Never got to know who the Russian judge was?


Beaux: So, things were often phrased in the passive voice, when you got your things back. So, for instance, with The Shampoo, Catherine White says, “The votes were mixed, but the Nos had it in the end.”


Strainchamps: How did Bishop respond when her work was rejected? That must have been hard for her.

Beaux: Ya, it was. I think 'The Shampoo' was particularly difficult rejection for her.

Strainchamps: The Shampoo?

Beaux: This poem 'The Shampoo',  which was about washing Lotus Waris's hair. The reason why, it was probably rejected was that because it was an openly lesbian love poem. And the New Yorker did not publish anything, that had to do with homosexuality. And I think, Bishop took the rejection quite personally, since, she knew all of the editors, and they knew of her sexuality and they had been writing back and forth, about Bishop's time in Brazil and her relationship with Lota. They are known for other relationships and, I think she took the rejection then, quite personally because, they accepted her or they seem to accept her as friend, but when it came to publishing something, they wouldn't do it.

Strainchamps: Now, I'm curious about the editing part. Her poems, because,  I guess until, I read some of these letters, it hadn't really occurred to me that, that much work would go into editing a poem. But, one of the recurring topics of correspondence, between Bishop and her editors at The New Yorker, is punctuation.

Beaux: [Laughs] Ya. I think the source for that, goes back to Harold Ross, who founded the magazine and had previously been a newspaper editor. And his mother had been a great school teacher. I think he took the lessons that she taught him, into the the newspaper business and applied those rules to the magazine, to the poetry, to the captions and cartoons. Everything, punctuation marks had to be perfect. So, even, as for poems had to be cleared for liable, poems had to be fact checked, just as if they were a newspaper story.

Strainchamps: How do you fact check a poem?

Beaux: If there is any reference, to a historical figure, if a mythological figure comes up, they were checked, to see if they actually existed. There was a poem once, by Theodore Rathigy, he made up a Biblical figure called the 'Mother of Heart', [Laughs] and they questioned for 'Mother of Heart'. Rathigy's response was, “Well, if the 'Mother of Heart' didn't exist, she should have!” [Laughter]

Strainchamps: She does now...

Beaux: So, they were checked, in the poem. In the waiting room, there was discussion about the fictitious date, the photos that Bishop is referring to, do not occur in February, 1918 issue. So, that was checked and discussed.

Strainchamps: And, when it got to the punctuation, what sort of punctuation issues came up?

Beaux: Well, the style guide for the New Yorker was Feller's Modern English Usage. And so, they just lived and died by Feller's. And with Bishop, they were specially strict. One of the editors had told me, since she had a reputation  for being a very exacting poet. And they were very concerned that anything unusual on her part, anything out of the ordinary, might look like a mistake on either her part or their's. And so, they were very sure to follow things with Feller for her poetry. Whereas, with other poets, let's say W. S Marilyn, who had no punctuation, he was allowed to do that because that was his thing. Or, in the 70s there was...were some other poets, who were more playful with punctuation but that was the reputation.

Strainchamps: How much the New Yorker gave Bishop that reputation? There could be a whole other XX.

Beaux: Because she was sending in poems, that play with punctuation from the very beginning.

Strainchamps: How important is punctuation in poetry?

Beaux: Well, it has to do, I think, with pacing, and, for Bishop, turns of thought, turn of varieties. Bishop's poetry often wants to enact a mind thinking. And so, the commas would indicate pauses, may be the mind going back on it self, we thinking something, revising it and going forward. And the New Yorker did not, for Bishop, in particular see punctuation to be used for effects, as in music, a short pause, or a longer pause, let's say, they didn't believe in that. And they wanted to use it, kind of, by the book.

Strainchamps: So, something as simple as the placement of a comma, could really change the way you read a line of poetry?

Beaux: It can, it can. In Bishop, it can.

Starinchamps: Do you have a favorite letter or exchange of letter about punctuation?

Beaux: Yes, I do. This about the 'At the fish houses', which Bishop sent to Catherine White in February, 1945. When she sent it in, she called it an unusable poem and they were delighted by it, and wanted to buy it right away. When the proof was made up, Catherine White wrote Elizabeth Bishop and the date for this letter is February 25th, 1947. And she says,”Dear Miss Bishop, our proof room, which has a highly conventional idea of punctuation, had scores of punctuation queries on 'The fish houses' poem, but we have eliminated a major portion of them, since your lack of punctuation is purposeful and add stereo effect. Will you please study the few commas that I've suggested, and see whether you approve. I only left in the ones, that I thought would really help the reader. But, you may not agree. In this case, it should be as you wanted. Sincerely, Catherine S. White.”

February, 28, 1947. “Dear Mrs. White, I think the proof looks very nice and thank you for your help with the punctuation. I've left in all your changes, except the commas between 'Cold, dark, deep' that occurs twice. For some reason or the other, it seems more liquid to me without them. And I think, in this case, the sense is plain enough without them, don't you? I notice that quite a few tails of Ps and Ys etc. are missing but that is just because it's proof. Sincerely yours, Elizabeth Bishop.”

Strainchamps: What happened in the case of those commas? [Laughs] Do they stay in or got stayed out?

Beaux: There was no more correspondence about the commas and so, they ended up staying in. What I love about this exchange is how Bishop sets up her defense. She begins it very softly, with some reason or the other, and then, she moves on to describe that as liquid, which I think gives the real sense of the affect she wanted to create. And then, she embroidered the rest of the sentence with a rhetorical question, with, “And I think in this case, the sense is plain enough without them, don't you?” And White ended up agreeing.

“Cold, dark, deep and absolutely clear,

 The clear gray icy water.

 That behind us, the dignified tour, first began

 Bluish, associating with their shadows,

 A million Christmas trees, stand waiting for Christmas.

 The water seems suspended above the rounded gray

 And blue-gray stones.

 I've seen it over and over, the same sea, the same.

 Slightly indifferently swinging above the stones,

 I used to live free above the stones, above the stones,

 And then the world.

 If you should dip your hand in,

 Your wrist would ache immediately.

 Your bones would begin to ache.

 And your hand would burn as if the water,

 Were a transmutation of fire, that feeds on stones,

 And burns with a dark gray flame.

 If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,

 Then briny, then surely burn your tongue.

 It is like what we imagine knowledge to be,

 Dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,

 Drawn from the cold, hard mouth of the world,

 Derived from the rocky breasts forever.

 Flowing and drawn.

 And since, the knowledge is historical,

 Flowing and flown.”

Fleming: That's a recording of Elizabeth Bishop, reading the end of her poem, 'At the fish houses', in 1974. Bishop died in 1979.

Joel Beaux is the editor of 'Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker- The Complete Correspondence'. Beaux spoke with Anne Strainchamps.


Comments for this interview

yes, commas matter (Brady Dale, 07/28/2011 - 12:30pm)

I thought Strainchamps incredulity over whether or not commas mattered to be extraordinary. Punctuation always matters a great deal, but especially in poetry. A poet is trying to construct a careful series of emotions, and every jot and tiddle changes it.

Garth Ennis, a very famous writer of comic books, says that he feels every single kind of punctuation has its own sound.

It's like being incredulous that taking out a word or two really matters. It's huge.