Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Elizabeth Bishop and the Poetics of Identity

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Photograph ©The Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona

Poet and performance artist Staceyann Chin recently credited the self-delayed appearance of her first collection in print to a piece of advice she received from her mentor Derek Walcott: “You’d be a great writer if you would stop writing about your vagina and this feminist stuff.” To which she responded by carrying on performing those poems but never quite bringing herself to print them, until she had a child, at which point she felt the Kinko photocopied chapbooks she was selling sixty copies an evening of at readings were not enough and opted for a legacy she could leave her daughter, an actual book.

I studied with Derek Walcott as a playwright and am here neither to bury Caesar nor to praise him but rather to consider the extent to which his advice, and Chin’s response to it, are not unusual in the literary world, in fact endemic to it. Moreover, I’d like to compare Chin’s case to that of two earlier lesbian poets and their lifestyle and publishing choices, and the extent to which “writing about your vagina and this feminist stuff” can be a good or bad career move, how those decisions have panned out at different times and places over the past century in the United States.

The poets I’d like to consider are Marilyn Hacker and Elizabeth Bishop. In 1974 Marilyn Hacker won the National Book Award with her first collection Presentation Piece, a tour de force that did not focus on her emerging public lesbian identity, as indeed her subsequent two collections did not. There was a voice and range of images there, however, which poet Ben Howard noted in POETRY magazine meant that the reader “encounters images of the body, especially the tongue; of salt upon the tongue; of the sea, cliffs, a beach; of lovers awakening… it becomes apparent that the poet is attempting to formulate, in these and related images, a language of instinct and feeling — of a woman's bodily awareness — and to express the body's longings, including its 'inadmissible longings' as they are shaped and repressed in personal relationships.” Her best-selling book was a memoir in sonnets of a love affair with a younger woman — lover found, lover loved, lover lost — Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons (1986), which did not win the National Book Award, possibly because she was “writing about her vagina,” but it is difficult to say. The two subsequent awards she did win were for her work as a translator (PEN Award for Poetry in Translation 2009) and the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, honoring a body of work rather than a single book, from the same organization in 2010. She was short-listed again for the poetry award in 2013 but no self-authored poetry of her own, let alone such works as the sequence referring chattily, wittily, tragically to her sex life, has been graced with the imprimatur of institutional approval — that is, the big prizes.

Lest the focus on big prizes seem fatuous, it should be noted that Chin and Hacker’s esteemed predecessor Elizabeth Bishop was keenly aware of winning or not winning the Pulitzer Prize, and exactly when her male contemporaries Robert Lowell and John Berryman had won it. Lowell won the Pulitzer (as indeed Hacker won the National Book Award) with a dazzling technical tour de force in his first trade house publication, Lord Weary’s Castle, in 1947. Bishop won it ten years later with only her second publication, a new and selected volume reprinting her first book with a few new poems, Poems: North and South A Cold Spring, and Berryman was to win it nearly a decade later with his 77 Dream Songs — actually the odd one out in that trio since his prize-winning book was personal, though it relied on a jazzy and theatrical presentation of an autobiographical alter-ego, Henry, who made all of Berryman’s own alcohol and romance related problems safe to handle as literary entertainment. Still, one cannot imagine Derek Walcott telling him, “You’d be a great poet if you’d stop writing about your drink problem and all this suicidal stuff.” Poets are allowed to get drunk and allowed to be love-lorn, to get divorced, but perhaps just not allowed those “inadmissible longings” Ben Howard spoke of?

Elizabeth Bishop knew all about the inadmissible. Of all the poets under discussion here she may be closest to Chin because she was born in Massachusetts but grew up in Nova Scotia, Canada. That is, away was always realer to her than the United States. She also grew up having to suppress, ignore or effectively repress the inadmissible. An early memory was of her mother’s screams and another was her being taken away to a psychiatric hospital, leaving Bishop to be hosted by wealthy grandparents and a series of well-off cousins. Before you even start to ask about sexual identity there is a question of your own sanity and what emotional safety is, what is a legitimate emotion to express and what is the kind of anxiety that gets you carted off to the psychiatric hospital if you should be so immoderate in your expression of it as to give it voice. Drinking helped, from an early age, but that also incurred guilt. Bishop’s poetry therefore specializes in the surfaces of things, in the descriptions of translucent surfaces and in gliding, uneasy things which are just underneath that surface. Things the reader comes back to again and again to verify if they did actually see them there or just imagined them. Her poems, each labored over for years, sometimes decades, at a time, were first shepherded to publication by her own searched out mentor Marianne Moore, and when she was subsequently offered a first-refusal contract by the highest paying available market, The New Yorker, she took it. That market imposed its own restrictions, however.

Opinions vary about whether Marianne Moore knew Bishop’s sexuality or not. Some suggest Bishop hid it from her, others claim Moore was part of an established lesbian set. A famous anecdote in Bishop’s letters about a visit to the circus with Moore to cut a lock of an elephant’s hair may allude to a bracelet which was a gift resulting from one of Moore’s own lesbian love affairs. Whether Moore did or did not know of or share Bishop’s sexuality, what’s clear is that she did not say “you’d be a great writer if you would stop writing about your vagina” but also did not offer a model of emotional directness. Rather, she offered a model of observation, all but scientific observation of the natural world and a subsequent codifying of any emotional life on the author’s part into a purportedly neutral string of images and rhetoric. This would ascribe any emotional life strictly to the object invoked. You do not write about the poet, in other words, you write about the urn. If the urn happens to depict nude men (or women) getting up to things which might not be fit for the cover of the National Geographic, well, that’s not something you can hold the poet responsible for.

To a point this strategy worked for Bishop — note the Pulitzer prize. But it was self-censorship. When she left the US for fourteen years to live with the Brazilian aristocrat, celebrity and politician Lota de Macedo Soares she continued publishing in the US but the poems framed her emotional life as unobtrusive. But poems which described her washing a (female) lover’s hair for instance, proved problematic:

The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
— Come let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.

Her editor Katharine White (standing in for the homosexual but closeted Howard Moss, the regular editor), wrote that “this sort of small personal poem perhaps doesn’t quite fit into The New Yorker.” It wasn’t a problem just for The New Yorker. Karl Shapiro turned it down for POETRY, and even Marianne Moore, to whom she sent a draft for comment, never mentioned the poem in her reply. Only three years later did The New Republic finally publish “the little poem Mrs. White couldn’t understand.” Bishop’s biographer Megan Marshall notes of Bishop’s complaint in a letter — “It won’t make literary history… but I did think it was easy enough to understand” — that the problem was it was “Too easy, perhaps.” Bishop confided to the lesbian poet May Swenson a worry that there was “something indecent about it I’d overlooked.” Marshall suggests that Bishop now understood, in the wake of “‘The Shampoo’” being rejected, that a love poem The New Yorker happily published (‘Insomnia,’)” had dealt with the same subject and the same woman but “the first poem’s lovers had been suitably ambiguous, need not have been, to most readers, two women.” The habitual subterfuge had slipped in this poem and the resulting rebuff made clear to her what she had perhaps subconsciously already known. To allude in passing, to hint, was fine. To state was not.

And so there is an interlinked set of decisions in Bishop’s career going from emotional formation to sexual orientation to aesthetic stance to lifestyle choices and then back to aesthetic stance. Bishop spent the decade after college living with a series of women (romantically or as a dependent), the perennial guest. Then she arrived to visit a lesbian couple in Brazil and stayed on as Lota’s spouse. Being a guest took the immediate pressure of earning the rent off her limited income as a writer. This allowed her to publish slowly, but also required her to get top dollar for each poem, which meant publishing in The New Yorker, hence not writing about being gay. Actually, if we take ‘The Shampoo’ as a test case, aside from the New Republic, if you wanted to publish your poems and be well paid for them, it would appear you couldn’t write about “your vagina” at all.

Which might suggest that Walcott’s advice was not new, that it was something echoed at least silently by Marianne Moore’s response to ‘The Shampoo’ fifty years earlier, and that some kind of self-imposed or externally imposed censorship has always prevailed on gay writers. But what’s more interesting is how this aesthetic stance plays out over the longer haul. Leaving aside the Pulitzer prize or National Book Award, there are questions of prevailing readership for one book and its subject matter — how often a book is reprinted, whether it stays in print at all, how an author’s reputation survives over time and after they are dead. Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, though it did not win the National Book Award, is available in eight different editions and was last reprinted in 1995, a good ten years after it first appeared. Presentation Piece, that award-winning first collection, is long out of print, only available in a collection of her first three books reissued in 2003. That is, the scandalous lesbian love affair remains in print while the show piece is now bought only by those who want for the sake of completion to read Hacker’s first three books. Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle is out of print, only available in his Selected or Collected. The show piece has faded, though his first confessional book Life Studies was reprinted in 2007.

But what Elizabeth Bishop has managed, which neither of her confessional male contemporaries, nor Hacker nor Chin I suspect will manage, is a different level of canonization. In 2014, Library of America 180 appeared: Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters, not that it was required since every word she wrote is very much in print and constantly reprinted and being pored over, but that strategy of self-effacement, of not quite saying while still saying, of not being quite outright, has worked out rather well for Elizabeth Bishop. As Walcott would have been ready to acknowledge, Bishop was a great poet and she did write about her vagina, though not “that feminist stuff.” Adrienne Rich, who challenged Bishop to write more “frankly,” is widely read, an icon, but she will not, I suspect, ever make the Library of America. Just because of her subject matter? Who can say. Hart Crane wrote openly gay poems, as did Whitman, but those boys had unequivocally canonical works about big bridges and dead Presidents in their pages. Can you be a woman and write about anything you like? Plath wrote as madly as Lowell or Berryman but she was safely straight. So is Sharon Olds — who faced a lot of resistance to her domestic poems at the start but also challenged Whitman to a fist fight in her first book. I suspect, and I am sure there may be exceptions, but I suspect you can quietly mention a dalliance in a few poems beside your canonical work, but ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ becomes canonical and the love that speaks it boldly may be acquire a following but remains too rich for the judges of a big prize. Langston Hughes, for instance, in his Library of America volume, makes no mention of who he sleeps with. So the question I am left with is — do you have to practice self-censorship and not leave your child an honest legacy, or do you have to leave enough unsaid for the reader to be forced to come back, always come back, for one more time to see just what it was between the lines that you exactly said?


Atar Hadari

's “Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik” (Syracuse University Press) was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award and his debut collection, “Rembrandt’s Bible,” was published by Indigo Dreams in 2013. “Lives of the Dead: Poems of Hanoch Levin” won a Pen Translates award and is out now from Arc Publications. He contributes a monthly verse bible translation column to MOSAIC magazine and is currently a Vice-Chancellor’s PhD Scholar in Theology at Liverpool Hope University where he’s writing on William Tyndale’s translation of Deuteronomy and the way it was edited to become the King James Version.

All contributions from Atar Hadari

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