One Art, 17 Drafts

Bishop's sixth draft of "One Art."
Bishop’s sixth draft of “One Art.”

A little over a year ago I recorded again one of my all-time favorite poems, Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” It was part of a recurring Valentine’s Day series called “Love Poems You Wish You Had Written.” I suppose the post is worth re-reading, especially since it mentions my favorite professor and celebrates the reunion of another one of her students and I, after nearly a quarter of a century.

I’m also pretty happy with the audio recording, though I’m less keen on the link to the old, grainy video from 6 years ago on YouTube. But despite the poor quality and the over-long and irrelevant introduction to that reading, I just can’t delete any of it. It’s all sacred somehow.

Fortunately for us, Elizabeth Bishop did not feel the same way about her first draft of the poem. There is a misconception,  maybe born from modern Valentine’s verses, or the goth fad of the 90s and early 2000s, that you can vomit up your emotions onto the page and call it poetry. Usually, this is among the younger set, but not always. There is this notion that poetry cannot be critiqued or judged in any way, as it is somehow sacred, holy and perfect in the form it first takes when it is born on paper. Yet most living things grow and develop after they are born. No baby is ever dumped from womb into bassinet and thought to be unchangeable and fully formed.

Special maybe, sacred even, but we would think it odd to keep an infant an infant and then send it off to school without ever teaching it how to walk. But maybe the metaphor breaks down here, especially if you don’t think of art as a living thing. But it’s also inadequate because the best parents learn from their children as they grow too. The best writing experiences for me are growth experiences.

Bishop was persistent in her craft. In the special collections section of the Vassar library there are 17 drafts of “One Art,” much of it in the poet’s own handwriting. Even the typed lines are full of cross-outs and scribbled corrections and changes in the margins. After watching M. Mark’s video I now want to go to Vassar. I am glad those “sacred” early drafts were saved so that we could follow the path she took in her precision. But I’m even more grateful that she didn’t stop at the first or third version, that she went on to sculpt and perfect what is one of the greatest poems in modern English.

 

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10 Replies to “One Art, 17 Drafts”

  1. And by the way, you failed to mention in that other post how a certain villanelle was that student’s brightest memory of you, after two decades. So “One Art” was doubly, or triply, appropriate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. Yes, she has that reputation, but I wonder if it is because of the contrast with her more confessional peers. I remember Robert Lowell’s poem in which he sort of argued with her objections, “but why not say what happened?” To me the exquisite detail in her poem “The Fish,” her attention to every hook and scar, and even the rainbow in the oily boat water, all that detail is where her love shows, well the detail followed by the sudden release of the old giant creature. PB and I are talking about a road trip to Vassar! Or I’m trying to con her into one. We should all go see the manuscripts!

      Liked by 1 person

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