Carefully studied access


Edgar Allen Poe & the Jukebox: uncollected poems, drafts, and fragments,
Elizabeth Bishop [368pp, 16.95, Carcanet]


It is really fascinating to come across a book which gives such carefully studied access to the workings of such a poet as Elizabeth Bishop. I have dipped in, turned pages from the back to the front, read a few lines here and there, recognised some poems, been startled by the unfamiliarity of other themes and lines and then read through the development of certain poems more thoroughly.

The page which has set up a reverberation which I cannot subdue is on page 149 'Aubade and Elegy':

     No coffee can wake you no coffee can wake you no coffee
     No revolution can catch your attention

And then lower down on this facsimile reproduced page she tries to capture the same rhythm:

     the smell of the earth, the smell of the dark roasted coffee
     black as fine black as humus -
     no coffee can wake you no coffee can wake you

and these last words are repeated again and again on the page, both handwritten and typed. Who can resist this echo and thud? It evokes the strophe and antistrophe and epode of the classical Greek chorus. The tautology of the 'no coffee can wake you' is a revolving sound. It's a sound that recurs and then she states the opposite: 'No revolution can catch your attention'. The poem captures how it feels to be shaken to the foundations by the loss of someone who cannot be woken again - the rhythm of the line as it is repeated and the repetition does not bring back the person back to life.  This person has revolved beyond the iterated calling of the bereaved. And then later on the same page we see how EB tries to capture the same pattern of rhythm and shock a second time through 'the smell of the earth' but is driven back to the first phrase again. The facsimile reproduction with its mixture of type and handwriting almost creates a sense of a conversation taking place between the poet and the reader.  This book makes the poetic process intimate and human, it is a privilege to have such access.

Alice Quinn gives the very best of introductions to her careful study of this poet. She outlines her practical concerns - chronology, location of texts. She notes that none of the drafts were intended for publication with the exception of 'One Art'. On page 223 she reproduces the full sequence of drafts of this poem, from its beginnings to the final draft. The strong opening line 'Losing things isn't hard to master' emerges as early as Draft 2. Then in Draft 5 Bishop jots down a rhyme scheme in order to work the poem backwards from the rhyming structure. There are 16 drafts before she is satisfied with the poem. These drafts provoke thought in their own right. Quinn herself has obviously found her research exciting and revelatory.  In her introduction she asks us 'to share my experience' in providing 'an adventure for readers who love the established canon, enabling them to hear echoes and make connections' (p.xv Introduction). There are extensive notes at the back of the book, followed by a bibliography. She has undertaken this research thoroughly and expertly. Elizabeth Bishop is much better known to us through this book.

The title poem of this collection: 'Edgar Allen Poe & The Juke Box' is a quirky poem that strides across two centuries and almost two cultures.  I think it can be clearly seen that some lines are resoundingly perfect:

     The music pretends to laugh and weep
     while it descends to drink and murder.
     The burning box can keep the measure
     Strict always, and the down-beat.
          (p49)

How heavy - almost with a mechanical sound - the last word is before the music is silenced by the machine, the effect achieved with the reversal of the expected rhythm and stress. Other lines seem less balanced, less finished:

     -how long does the music burn?
     like poetry, or all your horror
     half as exact as horror here?
          (p50)

But what has Edgar Allen Poe got to do with the juke box?  Poe is well known for his popular poetry and horror stories but what is less well known is his skilled commitment to analysis of his art. Bishop writes in the poem: 'Poe said that poetry was exact' (p49).  I have entitled this review 'The Raven', recalling Poe's popular poem with its ghastly poetic precision and terrifying sonorous rhythms and rhymes of despair - all the more devastating because occasionally lit by hope.  Perhaps these are echoed by the pounding rhythms and rhymes of the juke box song with its hold over any attempt at free association of ideas or any attempt to step outside the noise and beat. The mechanical parody of the raven's speech in Poe's poem is central to the despairing lover's inner dialogue. The jukebox provides the same relentless echo:

     But pleasures are mechanical
     and know beforehand what they want

     and know exactly what they want.
     Do they obtain that single effect
     that can be calculated like alcohol
     or like the response to the nickel?'
           (p49).

This is playful but uses the opportunity to honour a master of the poetic art. To anyone interested in either Elizabeth Bishop or poetic structure, this book is a real pleasure.

          Sam Rennes 2006