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010  Orr, David.  "Elizabeth Bishop's Rough Gems."  Rev. of Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box, by Elizabeth Bishop.  New York Times Book Review 2 April 2006: 1, 10-11.


Orr opens his review with this startling statement: "You are living in a world created by Elizabeth Bishop. . . . [I]n the second half of the 20th century, no American artist in any medium was greater than Bishop (1911-79)."  Her work teaches us "a method subtle and flexible enough to be the same thing as an absence of any method whatsoever."  Her previously uncollected poems in this new book continue to alter the scale of American life.  In the relatively small body of work (she published around 90 poems), she chose the descriptive rather than the assertive, the conversational rather than the rhetorical, and the discreet rather than the confessional.  Her approach to poetry was opposite to that of her peers Robert Lowell and John Berryman.  She exercised restraint though her life contained "enough torment to satisfy St. Sebastian."  Even her close friends frequently ask if she has been overrated and say she was "remarkably . . . unremarkable."  Such thinking, according to Orr, results from confusing the difficult with the subtle: 


Difficulty is a beloved concept in the poetry world, because it's the crux of an old but cherished argument.  Are poems too obscure?  Or not obscure enough?  The debate is a canned one, of course, but it lets all parties make their favorite points, and everyone is therefore happy to argue over "difficulty" at the drop of a hat.   The reality, though, is that most readers and writers aren't actually made nervous by "difficulty," at least as the term is usually meant.  For one thing, difficulty is straightforward--you either figure out what's difficult, or you don't.  You might fail, but you aren't going to be misled.  (In this sense, and in its implicit endorsement of hard work, difficulty is a concept that has long been central to our shared identity as Americans).  Subtlety is different, though.  Subtlety wants to be missed by all but the chosen few; it is aloof, withholding and aristocratic--sometimes manipulative and always disguised.  It has less to do with theory and technique, which can be learned mechanically, than with style and sensibility, which require intuition.  It wants to be looked at but not seen.  It's unnerving.

Subtlety is what distinguishes Bishop's work.  First there is the voice, often called falsely naive, where she pretends to be less informed than she is.  Orr says the voice should be called falsely normal, for she more often pretends to be more straightforward than she is.  None of her work is difficult, but it is "astonishingly subtle and strange."  Robert Frost is her true predecessor.

     When she died in 1928, The New York Times obituary of her said that she "enjoyed extraordinary esteem among critics and fellow poets . . . but was less widely known than contemporaries such as Robert Lowell."  Orr says things have changed in that although the world of contemporary poetry is "a fractious place,"  nearly everyone today realizes the significance of the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.

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