She told Lowell—encouraging him to write his autobiography—that writing the two stories [“In the Village” and “Gwendolyn”] had given her a great deal of satisfaction: “that desire to get things straight and tell the truth—it’s almost impossible not to tell the truth in poetry, I think, but in prose it keeps eluding me in the funniest way.” Lowell, too, found prose a recalcitrant medium: “a hell of a job,” he wrote her, “it starts naked, ends as fake velvet.” The point for each of them was not simply a deflection into prose. They were exploring the limits of prose as a vehicle for autobiography—just the reverse of what these efforts appeared to be. They were sharpening and altering their notions of what it meant to tell the truth in verse.
Kalstone also offers this quote from Bishop’s journal:
I think when one is extremely unhappy—almost hysterically unhappy, that is—one’s time sense breaks down. All that long stretch in Key West, for example, several years ago—it wasn’t just a matter of not being able to accept the present, that present, although it began that way, possibly. But the past and the present seemed confused, or contradicting each other violently and constantly, and the past wouldn’t “lie doon.” (I’ve felt the same thing when I tried to paint—but this was really taught me by getting drunk, when the same thing happens, for perhaps the same reasons, for a few hours.)
Fake velvet is generally what I feel about my own prose. Remarkably close but not real enough.