Monday, April 03, 2006

Comment: Heroes and the Historical Record

I was thrilled to get ahold of a copy of EDGAR ALLEN POE & THE JUKE-BOX: UNCOLLECTED POEMS, DRAFTS, AND FRAGMENTS (FSG, March 2006), the new Elizabeth Bishop collection edited by New Yorker poetry editor (and Poetry Society of America president) Alice Quinn. Bishop is one of my favorite poets of all time; I love how plain spoken and unpretentious her poems are at first reading, and the riches they reveal as you examine them. I know she was famously a perfectionist, often spending years hanging on to a poem without publishing it as she waited for the perfect word to come to her; her COLLECTED POEMS is a very slim volume. So it's a fascinating treasure to have this wealth of scraps to pick through, these "rough gems" as the poet David Orr describes them in his review: the phrases born of that fierce and exacting and compassionate mind, even if they never made it into a final form that completely satisfied her.

But not everyone feels the same way. A friend of mine at FSG mentioned that Quinn "had made a lot of enemies" by insisting on publishing this book, and The Times had an article on April 1st detailing the controversy. At the head of the opposition is Helen Vendler, who insists that Bishop would never have wanted these unfinished poems to see the light of publication, that they aren't up to her standards and, by implication, that Quinn is exploiting Bishop's legacy.

This sparked a conversation the other night with the ALP about artists and the historical record. The exchange was inspired not only by Bishop, but also by George Lucas. To the best of our knowledge, it is now impossible to acquire the original movie versions of the original STAR WARS trilogy on DVD. The only version available is the "new and improved" one, with the additions Lucas made thirty years after the fact using new special effects technology and slightly tweaked plot elements (Greedo shoots first, etc.)

It is, of course, Lucas' prerogative to mess with his movies. (One opinion holds that he's bought into the myth of the Myth, that the attention of Joseph Campbell and others who see STAR WARS as an archetypal hero story has convinced Lucas that that was what he meant all along, and that he's back constructing the original movies to reflect what he insists was the larger picture; but his personal intentions and illusions are clearly something we can't see.) But destroying the original versions -- or making them unavailable -- is a blow to the history of culture, a loss of the once Real Thing that audiences responded to in the first place. Making the "improved" versions available would be a great choice. Making them the only option is, in essence, stealing the historical record.

One of literature's most famous modifiers of his own work, of course, was another poet: Walt Whitman. He published six edititions of LEAVES OF GRASS, each time adding poems and revising others. As poet Galway Kinnell points out in his introduction to ESSENTIAL WHITMAN (Ecco, April 2006), "Many of Whitman's revisions seem intended to domesticate the 'barbaric yawp' and make his verse sound more recognizably like poetry... He revised straightforward phrases to make them more literary and deleted some of his happiest, most unliterary touches." Yet the new poems in the later editions can't be scrapped to go back to the first edition, and indeed, some of the changes are in fact good ones. (Kinnell has dealt with the problem of mixed choices on the part of the author by incorporating old and new versions, so that "some of the poems in this book... are in versions that have never existed before." He makes this clear in the intro, however; he's not passing off his versions as Whitman's, only as an amalgam of what he considers the best of Whitman's choices.)

The reason LEAVES OF GRASS remains a true text is that all of the editions Whitman created are still extant. Different versions are published, editors make choices about what to leave in and leave out, but it's always acknowledged that Whitman's book was a long work in progress, and that later editions are not "definitive" editions. The record remains intact, and our literature is the richer for it.

The reason I'm all for Alice Quinn's audacious move in publishing Bishop's scraps and fragments is this: she makes it completely clear that that is what they are. There is no claim that these are "lost masterpieces" or that they should be placed on the same footing as the COLLECTED POEMS. The carefully footnoted poems, prose, and manuscript pages in this book are always viewed as a different sort of thing. They are part of the great poet's work, but incomplete parts. They may be a source for felicitous phrases and beautiful thoughts and structures, but they cannot be read in the same way as the poems Bishop chose to publish. Bishop didn't destroy these poems, though she didn't publish them, so there is a sense in which she must have thought them valuable. And for us, as grateful readers or new discoverers of her poetry, they have great value. If Quinn had published these pieces without making it extremely clear that Bishop considered them unfinished, or if she had "finished" them using her own judgement, that would have been dishonest and exploitative. That they are treated as part of the literary historical record is what makes Quinn's collaboration with Bishop a fruitful one.

What do you think: should this volume have been published? What should an editor do or not do; what responsibilities does he/she have to the author's intentions? Should final versions be privileged over earlier ones? Should drafts be destroyed? As writers, what are we to do with the incompleteness of our intentions? As readers, what are we to do with the incompleteness of our heroes?