I’m a little late to this party, as to most things. Everybody has been linking to Dana Gioia’s excellent piece on Elizabeth Bishop in the New Criterion, but there hasn’t been much said about the larger questions raised by the essay. Bishop was Gioia’s teacher, and so there’s a nice personal angle, but what he’s really interested in are the different forces that act on literary reputations, propelling some upward and sinking others. Bishop turns out to be a great case study, having steadily ascended in stature since her death in 1979. It’s pretty surprising, at least for a younger reader, to realize how little this ascendance seemed to be in the cards during Bishop’s lifetime:
If Bishop’s present apotheosis was preordained by Fate, no one told us thirty years ago. At Harvard in 1975 when I studied with Bishop and often spent afternoons chatting with her in a Cambridge teashop, she was a respected elder poet but no literary celebrity. Her seminar on modern American poetry, which I took, had only four other students–a reliable sign of her literary market value in fashion-conscious Cambridge. If John Ashbery exaggerated a few years later when he called Bishop a “writer’s writer’s writer,” it wasn’t much of an exaggeration.
So how did Bishop crack the canon so decisively? Gioia points to factors both extrinsic and intrinsic to her work. On one hand, Bishop’s reputation benefited from growing academic interest in women’s writing and gender criticism in the years following her death. On the other, Gioia argues, the poetry itself does the trick: not only its excellence, a (sometimes) necessary but never sufficient condition for canonicity, but another quality, unfashionable to talk about:
There is something essentially disinterested and noncommittal about Bishop’s sensibility that is central to her broad appeal. More than any major American poet of her generation she possessed what John Keats celebrated as “negative capability,” the imaginative power “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” She had a native genius for reflecting the rich complexity of experience without reducing it into abstraction or predetermined moral judgment. She is inclusive by being artfully inconclusive. This quality of her work is not always evident when we read it casually, but once we teach her poems or analyze them seriously, this aspect is hard to ignore. There was once a term commonly used to describe this sort of meaningful ambiguity and openness to diverse kinds of interpretation: universality. Much derided and oddly misconstrued by critical theorists in recent decades, universality remains an inescapable literary notion. The term does not describe literary works that have fixed and identical appeal to all audiences everywhere; rather, universality refers to works that have a remarkable ability to engage very different audiences often in notably different ways.
I know what he means about teaching Bishop. I once taught some of her poems to a freshman humanities class, populated largely by students who had no notion of becoming humanities majors but were there to fulfill a requirement. These budding economists and biologists really perked up reading Bishop, and turned out what was collectively the best group of papers produced in the course.
In a post today on other matters, Erin O’Connor at Critical Mass discusses the related subject of accessibility in academic literary studies. Insofar as the accessibility of literary criticism and the universality of literary works are related, perhaps the misconstrual of the latter that Gioia points to is not so much “odd” as entirely predictable:
Literary scholars’ collective hostility toward technology, especially as it expresses membership in a self-described cultural elite and a discipline-specific condescension to those outside it with pretenses to know or understand literature and culture, is closely connected to a deep suspicion of accessibility. Holbo is right that literary studies is one discipline that should be aiming at a wide audience and whose health may be measured in terms of its ability to connect with a public that is larger than its overspecialized self. He is right, too, that one sign of the systemic disorder of literature departments today is that their members are positively hostile to the idea that their relevance may and should be assessed by–horror of horrors–uncredentialed laypersons, the great nonacademic unwashed.