Some of Bishop’s meticulously edited and re-edited poems arise from over 100 drafts. Her “process” made her output comparatively small, and it’s easy to imagine her creativity running at a torturous trickle.
Yet poems don’t tell the story of Bishop’s creative life. She wrote a prodigious number of letters, over 30 a day at some points, and many are just as insightful and apt as her poems. A selected and edited collection of her correspondence runs 668 pages and could have been twice that length. Letter writing suited Bishop, allowing her to write without censuring or editing herself as she did endlessly elsewhere
Bishop died in 1979 just as personal computing arrived, but I wonder how someone of her habits might adapt to our technological age of lightning editing and instant manuscripts.
More specifically, I wonder—would she blog?
Bloggers share some traits with old school letter writers and some with essayists. Some blogs are here’s-what-I’m-doing-at-camp missives, but some are letters from smart people to smart people discussing ideas they’ve been nurturing… like communism, evolution, and negative capability. Some blogs present back-burning thought, brains trying ideas out and rehearsing paradigms.
Essays do too, but essays’ exploration often comes across as conventional. Ideas appear as if the writer were just thinking them, but the best essayists are character actors who learn to appear casual and spontaneous as they research, plan, and outline.
Bloggers, working in short bursts, haven’t that luxury. Ideas unfold as rapidly as inflatable life rafts. In one or two scrolls, ideas are out and exhausted. Emotion is as appealing as reason, discovery as important as development—blogging is getting something down.
Bishop used letters similarly. In a letter she wrote as a student at Vassar, she talked about how much she learned when someone coughs or hiccups. “You know how he feels in the little aspects he never mentions,” she wrote, “Aspects which are, really, indescribable to another person and must be realized by that kind of intuition.” One of the last poems of her life, “The Waiting Room” uses that observation when an Aunt’s involuntary “Oh!” of pain in the dentist chair leads the speaker to insight.
It took her an entire life to find the proper place for this revelation, I might post it the next week.
Most blogs aren’t notepads or proving grounds. Though they aren’t tweets, they are an immediate form appropriate for an immediate age—quickly written and read. People who dislike blogs complain how unfiltered and unedited they are, but they are also of-the-moment. Some are visceral and direct and unpolished, and that’s their appeal.
Bishop wrote in one of her letters to her friend Ilse Barker, “I am sorry for people who can’t write letters. But I suspect also that you and I, Ilse, love to write them because it’s kind of like working without really doing it.” Of course there are some bad posts—ideas or emotions that could have incubated longer—but good posts feel experiential and experimental, like working, not work.
And, despite what critics say, posts aren’t vomited mentation or self talk. Elizabeth Bishop taught a course on letters at Harvard called “Readings in Personal Correspondence, Famous and Infamous, from the 16th to 20th Centuries.” Maybe a future course will be called, “Readings in Posted Thought, Flaming and Cool, from the early 21st century.”
You would have to choose a small time window because even a few years would admit millions of choices. The volume of “letters” bars them from mainstream writing culture. Too much product. Supply exceeding demand. Call anything “democratic art,” and you doom it to oxymoronic hell.
Elizabeth Bishop’s letters center around simple observations: a party that became a fight or a gospel group’s gyrations, or a moment on the street between two lovers. They appear nothing special—except to recipients who, privy to a poet’s mind, are momentarily transported and enlightened.
Blogs aren’t the Faberge eggs that Bishop’s poems “One Art” or “The Fish” are. They aren’t even “The Map,” but they are the letters of our age, the minutiae of grand existence. I suspect Bishop might approve.