Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence


I sort of see you surrounded with fine-tooth combs, sandpaper, nail files, pots of varnish, etc.--with heaps of used commas and semicolons handy, and little useless phrases taken out of their contexts and dying all over the floor," Elizabeth Bishop said upon learning a friend landed a job at The New Yorker in the early 1950s. From 1933 until her death in 1979, Bishop published the vast majority of her poems in the magazine's pages. During those forty years, hundreds of letters passed between Bishop and her ...

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I sort of see you surrounded with fine-tooth combs, sandpaper, nail files, pots of varnish, etc.--with heaps of used commas and semicolons handy, and little useless phrases taken out of their contexts and dying all over the floor," Elizabeth Bishop said upon learning a friend landed a job at The New Yorker in the early 1950s. From 1933 until her death in 1979, Bishop published the vast majority of her poems in the magazine's pages. During those forty years, hundreds of letters passed between Bishop and her editors, Charles Pearce, Katharine White, and Howard Moss. In these letters Bishop discussed the ideas and inspiration for her poems and shared news about her travels, while her editors offered support, commentary, and friendship. Their correspondence provides an unparalleled look into Bishop's writing process, the relationship between a poet and her editors, the internal workings of The New Yorker, and the process of publishing a poem, giving us a rare glimpse into the artistic development of one of the twentieth century's greatest poets.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This superbly edited collection traces the correspondence between poet Bishop and her editors at the New Yorker--Katharine S. White (wife of E.B. White) and Howard Moss--from 1934 to 1979. Many of Bishop's finest poems were first published in the New Yorker. These were the days of manual typewriters, carbon copies, and Varitype working proofs. The letters often capture the back and forth from editor and publisher to writer concentrating on the nitty-gritty of punctuation and word choice. "Punctuation is my Waterloo," Bishop bemoans. The "real world" rarely intrudes, for example, a fleeting reference to the 1960 presidential campaign. When White departs as poetry-and-fiction editor in 1956, taking her warm and chatty approach with her, Bishop's initial disappointment is clear. Over time she warms up to Howard Moss and vice versa, even to the point of his eventual purchase of her cherished clavichord. He pleads: "Please send some poems!" This is a fascinating, placid, and inevitably repetitious correspondence that ought to be assigned to all aspiring editors of poetry. (Illus. not seen) (Feb.)
Library Journal
Bishop (1911–79) was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize (1969) and the National Book Award for poetry (1970). The New Yorker championed her poetry from the outset of her career, and this correspondence, spanning 1934 to 1979, is between Bishop and her editors Charles Pearce (1939–44), Katherine Angell (1945–61), and Howard Moss (1962–79). The New Yorker editors were as knights to their Bishop. They nurtured her talent, afforded her the protection of steady financial support, and safeguarded her interests during her residence in Brazil. The letters, at once polite and solicitous, are also earnest commentaries and dissections of her work. The editors parsed stanzas and sentences, questioned Bishop's punctuation, and suggested textual changes that Bishop accepted as often as she rejected. The letters are a revelation in how solitary, private creation is made public through the editorial process. Biele (White Summer) is a poet and Bishop scholar whose introduction and annotations are indispensable in elaborating the evolution of this process. VERDICT For enthusiasts of Bishop's work and devotees of The New Yorker.—Lonnie Weatherby, McGill Univ. Lib., Montreal
Kirkus Reviews

A stunning collection of Elizabeth Bishop's (1911–1979) professional and personal letters, which span more than four decades.

A volume like this is both a time capsule and an artifact. Opening it, readers encounter fresh evidence of the marvelous poet as a compelling human being; closing it, they realize that in this digital age such a book may not longer be produced. In the letters, Bishop continually complains about her typewriter, carbon paper, the erratic snail-mail deliveries and the inability to see her poems in print because her magazines were piling up in San Francisco. At theNew Yorker, editors Katharine White and Howard Moss became her principal correspondents, and both would become Bishop's dear friends and champions as well. The individual letters are dazzling. The principals debate about the placement of commas, hyphenated words, dedications, typography, diction and what sorts of things do and don't belong in the magazine. TheNew Yorkeraccepted Bishop's first work (prose) in late 1934; they were copyediting her last (a poem) when she died in October 1979. Early in her tenure as a contributor, the magazine began offering her an annual first-reading agreement, which she terminated in 1961; she requested reinstatement in 1967. Initially, Bishop accepted with grace and equanimity the rather frequent rejections (she submitted fiction, nonfiction and poetry), but near the end she enjoyed a steady stream of acceptance and encomium. Personal details begin to appear very early in the correspondence—we hear about illness, loss, frustration and failure, not just from Bishop but from her editors. She was difficult and dilatory at times—losing letters, asking favors—but her poems were peerless. Following her long, luminous introduction, editor and poet Biele (White Summer, 2002), with consummate humility and profound respect for her subject, stays far in the background, appearing only in spare but necessary footnotes.

A revelation.

Dwight Garner
One of the pleasures of Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker…is snooping around in the excellent footnotes and front matter for the wicked comments she made behind the magazine's back…there are those—and, full disclosure, I am among them—for whom this kind of shop talk from an adored poet and her serious editors is uncut catnip.
—The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374281380
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 2/1/2011
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79) won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

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Read an Excerpt

Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker

The Complete Correspondence

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC

Copyright © 2011 Alice H. Methfessel Trust
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-374-28138-0

Chapter One

February 13, 1947

Dear Mrs. White,

Here is, I am afraid, another unusable poem ["At the Fishhouses"] that I should like to get out of your way and mine. I am doing quite a bit of work these days however and have quite a large group almost done, one or two of which I feel you may like. Thank you so much for sending the things on to Mr. Jarrell. As soon as I finish the group I mentioned I shall get to work on the prose.

Sincerely yours, Elizabeth Bishop

February 17, 1947

Dear Miss Bishop:

We think that "At the Fish Houses" is a very beautiful poem and one that we are delighted to be able to buy and use when summer comes. Far from being unusable it has given us a great deal of pleasure. The check and proof will be along soon.

I look forward to the large group of poems you speak of and also the prose when you get to it.

Sincerely, Katharine S. White

February 25, 1947

Dear Miss Bishop:

Our proofroom, which has a highly conventional idea of punctuation, had scores of punctuation queries on the Fish Houses poem, but we have eliminated the major portion of them, since your lack of punctuation is purposeful and adds to your effect. Will you please study the few commas now suggested and see whether you approve. I only left in the ones I thought would really help the reader but you may not agree. In this case it should be as you want it.

Sincerely, Katharine S. White

February 28, 1947

Dear Mrs. White,

I think the proof looks very nice and thank you for your help with the punctuation. I have left in all your changes except the commas between "Cold dark deep" that occurs twice. For some reason or other it seems more liquid to me without them and I think in this case the sense is plain enough without them, don't you? I notice that quite a few tails of p's, y's, etc. are missing but I imagine that is just because it's proof.

Also, thank you for Miss Bogan's number—she was very nice.

Sincerely yours, Elizabeth Bishop

April 25, 1947

Dear Miss Bishop:

We are going to use your story "The Housekeeper", which we bought so long ago, this summer—or at least plan to now. I was amazed to find that it had been held all these years. When it went through I was working at long distance in Maine and I must disclaim having anything to do with the editing. Since it's not signed with your name it's possible that you don't care about the way the piece was edited and possibly you gave permission for editing changes at that time. I haven't had a chance to look up the correspondence. In any case I send it to you in fear and trembling lest it displease you terribly. I hope it won't. It suits the powers that be here and I myself reread it and thought it a charming story. I hope it will reach you before you leave and that you can let us have it back of course, or that if you wish to have changes made you will call me up and we can get together on it. The insert at (r) was put in for clarity because apparently most people misread the story and that Mrs. Sennett was simply working as housekeeper in Mr. Curley's summer cottage. I'm sure you meant that she owned the cottage herself. If you can think of a more adroit way of making this clear, I hope you won't hesitate to do it.

Faithfully yours, Katharine S. White

D. B. MacLeod's Briton Cove, Cape Breton Nova Scotia July 8, 1947

Dear Sir:

I have just this minute realized that there is a bad mistake in my poem AT THE FISH-HOUSES which you are going to publish sometime this summer. I've already corrected proof for the poem and only hope it is still possible to make these two very necessary corrections. I referred to layers of codfish scales stuck to the tubs, etc., when actually codfish have rather negligible scales and it was herring scales that I meant. They fished for both fish at the place I had in mind, and the scales of both were everywhere, but only herring scales would produce the effect that particularly struck me.

Lines 21 and 22 should read:

The big fish tubs are completely lined with layers of beautiful herring scales and, etc....

I hope it is not too late to make these changes and I am very sorry to have been so careless.

Thinking that Mrs. White may be away I am addressing this to the "Poetry Editor" and hoping that it will reach the right person as soon as possible. My address will be the one above for the next three weeks at least.

Very truly yours, Elizabeth Bishop

"Excerpted from ELIZABETH BISHOP AND THE NEW YORKER: The Complete Correspondence edited by Joelle Bielle, published in February 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by the Alice H. Methfessel Trust, introduction and selection copyright © 2011 by Joelle Biele. All rights reserved."


Excerpted from Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker Copyright © 2011 by Alice H. Methfessel Trust . Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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