Carefully studied access
Edgar Allen Poe & the Jukebox: uncollected poems, drafts, and
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
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:
pretends to laugh and weep
descends to drink and murder.
box can keep the measure
always, and the down-beat.
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
does the music burn?
or all your horror
half as exact
as horror here?
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:
beforehand what they want
exactly what they want.
obtain that single effect
that can be
calculated like alcohol
or like the
response to the nickel?'
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.