Authors: Elizabeth Bishop

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet


“The art of losing isn’t hard to master” is the refrain in Elizabeth Bishop’s masterful villanelle “One Art,” and the irony cuts several ways at once. She spent her life as a woman and as a poet modestly–and fiercely–perfecting that “art.” She never knew her father, a prominent builder who died at the age of thirty-nine, before her first birthday. Her grief-stricken mother had to be institutionalized in her native Nova Scotia in 1916, and Bishop never saw her again; she received news of her death as she graduated from Vassar in 1934. Raised by her Canadian grandparents and an aunt, Bishop searched all her life–in Manhattan, Paris, Morocco, Key West, Seattle, San Francisco, various places in Brazil, at Harvard University, and finally in a wharf flat with a marvelous view of the harbor in Boston–for “home.” Through her successive losses of all these homes, she created, for her readers as well as for herself, the place wherein to resolve and objectify all memory and all loss: her verse.{$I[AN]9810002057}{$I[A]Bishop, Elizabeth}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Bishop, Elizabeth}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Bishop, Elizabeth}{$I[tim]1911;Bishop, Elizabeth}

Elizabeth Bishop

(© Thomas Victor, courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.)

Bishop had a gift for forging deep relationships with cats, birds, flowers, and seascapes as well as with people. Her relationships with people included those with children and common folk in the Brazilian slums and highlands; a succession of lovers, mainly women, who remained friends; revered literary figures such as William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, and Charles Baudelaire; and such living colleagues as Marianne Moore (her first verse tutor), Robert Lowell (who later wondered why he had not married her in 1948), Randall Jarrell, Adrienne Rich, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, James Merrill, and John Ashbery.

Bishop, one of the first twentieth century American poets, had an eye, sharp, objective, and intelligent, with which she zeroed in on concrete physical detail. That detail is carefully chosen to operate within a complex psychological, inward drama that drives always for that imaginative truth that, as Wallace Stevens said, “would suffice.” In “Fish,” for example, the reader comes to see that the victory belongs not only to the meticulously described hooked fish but also to Bishop, whose deep identity with her catch projects the “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow”–and lets him go.

Bishop’s descriptions, however seemingly objective, always penetrate the physical surface not only to the life within that outward fact but also to the life within the inquiring and tensely observant mind. When the seven-year-old girl in “In the Waiting Room” hears her aunt’s small scream from the dentist’s office, it is the girl being remembered in the poem who suddenly realizes that what she’s hearing is an empathic sound in her own throat: I, too, am destined to become a woman who will suffer. Bishop’s work presents the surrealism of everyday life, wherein the truths of terror, madness, beauty, love, and death come to be recognized and accepted without self-pity.

She steeped herself, wherever she was, in the sense of place. An inveterate traveler though never a tourist, she sought out her own deepest life “geographically.” She knew that life was of the mind and that the mind is in the body, enfleshed; her most intense curiosity was with just where her body–and so her mind–was. She loved the other arts as well, including opera, theater, dance, and painting; she took her clavichord along on her travels around the world, and she had a water-colorist’s gift with the brush. What she found in cultural high art she also found in the simple freedoms and necessities of ordinary life. For her, ordinary life included her running battles with severe asthma and alcoholism.

Bishop wrote prose as well as poetry. Eight short pieces of biographical memoir and eight short stories, together with her introduction to her Portuguese translation, were published in The Collected Prose. Of these, the autobiographical “In the Village,” which most critics consider a masterpiece, also provides interesting gloss on several of her poems. The Diary of “Helena Morley,” which translates the diary of a young girl living in the family compound of her father, a Brazilian mining engineer, in 1893-1895 also throws considerable light on the translator. The work reflects a sense of deep kinship between that young girl’s growing and humorous awareness of self in place and Bishop’s own imagination.

For all her relationships with people, animals, and places, Bishop always maintained her privacy and independence. She disliked what came to be known as “confessional poetry,” believing that in art unrestrained subjectivity violated personality, exploited the self as merely a means, and distorted the sense of truth. Bishop’s work in memoir, fiction, and verse is always concerned with the processes of her mind in some “geographical” relationship. Her work may thus be seen as offering a more profound definition of what constitutes a genuine self.

BibliographyBishop, Elizabeth. Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop. Edited by George Monteiro. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. These interviews with Bishop reveal the unusual artistic spheres in which she moved. Monteiro’s lucid introduction respects the complexities of both Bishop and her repressive historical moment.Bishop, Elizabeth and Robert Lowell. Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Contained here are the letters that Bishop and Lowell wrote to each other from 1947 until Lowell’s death in 1977. Their discussions involve poetry, politics, and their feelings for one another. Essential for anyone interested in these poets.Bloom, Harold. Elizabeth Bishop: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. Bloom has gathered fifteen previously published articles on separate poems and on Bishop’s poetry as a whole, as well as a new article, “At Home with Loss” by Joanne Feit Diehl, on Bishop’s relationship to the American Transcendentalists. “The Armadillo,” “Roosters,” and “In the Waiting Room” are some of the poems treated separately. A chronology and a bibliography complete this useful collection of criticism from the 1970’s and early 1980’s.Costello, Bonnie. Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. Provides a comprehensive view of Bishop’s visual strategies and poetics, grouping poems along thematic lines in each chapter. She examines the poet’s relationship to spirituality, memory, and the natural world by exploring her metrical and rhetorical devices.Goldensohn, Lorrie. Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. Analyzing Bishop’s life through the lens of her verse, Goldensohn probes the lesbianism and alcoholism that Bishop wished to conceal in her life and examines the role that Brazil played in shaping Bishop’s works.Harrison, Victoria. Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Intimacy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Harrison’s application of critical theory to Bishop’s work reveals new facets of Bishop’s art. She examines Bishop’s language, poetics, and prosody via postmodern theory, including feminism and cultural anthropology. Takes advantage of the ample manuscript materials available.Kalstone, David. Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989. In a 1977 work, Five Temperaments, Kalstone wrote of Bishop and other poets. This book, completed after Kalstone’s death, keeps Bishop at the center with many quotations from her correspondence with Marianne Moore (the first long section) and Robert Lowell (the second long section). Includes a preface by Robert Hemenway, an afterword by James Merrill, notes, and an index.Lombardi, Marilyn May, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: The Geography of Gender. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. The first critical biography of Bishop, this resource combines the subject’s life and writings. Numerous notebook entries and letters are uncovered as sources for later poems, and Bishop’s alcoholism is discussed.Parker, Robert Dale. The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Parker has the advantage of a longer view of Bishop’s writings and criticism. His wide grasp of her life and work leads him to shape her development into three stages: poems of wish and expectation, resignation into poems of place, and finally, as is natural with maturity, poems of retrospection. He focuses on the major poems in each area, with a last chapter on the later poems, some of which, such as “The Moose,” had been in her mind for twenty years. Includes particularly fine notes and an index.Schwartz, Lloyd, and Sybil P. Estess. Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983. This indispensable source gathers critical articles from many admirers, as well as interviews, introductions at poetry readings, explications of specific poems, and a bibliography (1933-1981). Some of Bishop’s journal passages demonstrate why she is a preeminent American poet–her realism, common sense, lack of self-pity over losses–as James Merrill calls her, “our greatest national treasure.”Travisano, Thomas. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988. This comprehensive study of Bishop’s career traces the evolution of her prose and poetry through three phases. The first, “Prison,” uses enclosure as its metaphor; the second, “Travel,” breaks through into engagement with people and places; and the third, “History,” reconciles her life of loss and displacement to a calm, mature mood of courage and humor. Complemented by a chronology, a bibliography, and an index.
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