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This article is taken from PN Review 179, Volume 34 Number 3, January - February 2008.

Elizabeth Bishop's Bone Key Poems Jonathan Ellis


In 1994 Tom Paulin described the publication of Elizabeth Bishop's selected letters as a 'historic event, a bit like discovering a new planet or watching a bustling continent emerge' (p. 215). The publication of Edgar Alan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments (2006), a three-hundred-page volume of Bishop's unpublished writings edited and annotated by Alice Quinn, appears equally seismic. John Ashbery declared its arrival last year 'a stupendous event'. David Orr felt its publication to be 'part of a continuing alteration in the scale of American life'. 'You are living in a world created by Elizabeth Bishop,' he claimed without apparent irony. 'Nothing matches the impact of a great artist, and in the second half of the 20th century, no American artist in any medium was greater than Bishop' (p. 1). Putting aside the question of Bishop's greatness and whether poetry can in fact change the scale and substance of how we see the world around us, my focus in this essay is on the more modest topic of how this 'new' book might affect the way we read her 'old' collected work. Does the experience of reading Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box reveal a significantly different Elizabeth Bishop to the one we thought we knew or simply the same, slightly less finished writer?

Bishop is a great poet of unanswerable questions. Almost every poem by her is ...

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