What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art"

Elizabeth Bishop (Photo: Bettman/CORBIS)
Megan Marshall, in her fascinating “Elizabeth and Alice” (“Page-Turner,”, October 27, 2016) identifies “you” in Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” (The New Yorker, April 26, 1976) as Bishop’s partner, Alice Methfessel, who left Bishop, in 1975, after a five-year relationship. Marshall also reports that “One Art” went through seventeen drafts. She writes,

As late as draft eleven, the loss of Methfessel still registered in the poem’s concluding stanza as the one misfortune Bishop could not withstand: “My losses haven’t been too hard to master / with this exception (Say it!) this disaster.”

Marshall concludes, “But, though she later described “One Art” as ‘pure emotion,’ Bishop guarded her feelings in the final version’s last stanza, pretending bravery.”

I confess that “pretending bravery” irks me. It makes it sound as if “One Art” ’s stoicism is a put-on. I think when Bishop says, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” she means it. Helen Vendler, in her brilliant “Caught and Freed: Elizabeth Bishop and Geography III” (included in her 2010 Last Looks, Last Books), writes,

By bringing “One Art” down to the very moment of present writing, by lifting her pen after she writes “like” and then reinscribing “like” after her tenacious interpolation of self-command “(Write it!),” Bishop turns once again to the one art she has claimed to master: stoicism in the face of what seems certain ruin. Her art, wrung from loss, paradoxically becomes her life principle.

What Bishop wrote in her eleventh draft is interesting. But what she wrote in her final draft is determinative. That draft shows her, as Vendler says, “turning once again to the one art she has claimed to master: stoicism in the face of what seems certain ruin.”  

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