Elizabeth Bishop Under the Microscope

February 8, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop

(This is an essay I wrote for The Bloomsbury Review, which started as a review of One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, and originally published in their November/December 1996 issue.)

In the autumn of 1978, I heard Elizabeth Bishop read in Rochester, New York. I didn’t know much about her except that she was a friend of Robert Lowell’s and somewhat of a protégé of Marianne Moore–not bad credentials, in my mind.

She was small and puckish and reminded me of my surrogate “Aunt,” Gladys Taylor, who would have been her contemporary and with whom my family shared a house in Rhode Island during my formative years. Bishop’s similarity to this important personal figure, along with the poet’s own reading of her poems, put me into a holding pattern above the figure of Elizabeth Bishop. I have yet to touch ground.

In preparation for the reading, I had read the only books of hers I could find: Geography III (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976) and the Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969). I reacted to Bishop’s poems with startled bemusement. Here was a poet unlike the other American poets I had been reading–the Beats and confessional poets like Lowell, and modernists like Pound and Williams.

Her work was delicate and refined, quiet and well-crafted–the antithesis of the bombast and pluck to which I then subscribed, exemplified by Kerouac and Ginsberg’s credo “first thought, best thought.” Here was a quiet refutation of that dictum, the significance of which, in relation to my own poetry, I could not then have fairly understood. (Now, nearly twenty years later, as I seem to write poems only for the joys of revision, Bishop’s example is ever more profound.)

So when my editor suggested I review Bishop’s One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop (Selected & Edited, and with an introduction by Robert Giroux, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), I could not resist the temptation to get to know this poet more intimately than I ever imagined. Well over a year later, I have devoured nearly everything written by or about her, and still, when I open The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 (Noonday, 1983), I remain startled and bemused.

Such an intimate knowledge of Elizabeth Bishop and her life brings with it a certain responsibility; I’ve also discovered that the challenges posed by such an intense investigation have only deepened my feelings for her as both a poet and person. Having spent a year and a half with Elizabeth (I feel I know her well enough now to refer to her by her given name), I have rather fallen in love with the idea of Elizabeth Bishop, her work, and who she was.

This love affair is not without pitfalls. I have grown protective of her privacy and her gifts: How would she react to this exegesis of her life and work? What right do we have to pry so deeply into her private business? My Elizabeth Bishop, the one I have fashioned over all this time, is anything but reticent.

From the composite portrait offered by Brett Miller’s biography, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (University of California, 1993), and the uneven but engaging oral biography, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop (University of Massachusetts, 1994), compiled by Gary Fountain and the late Peter Brazeau, but chiefly from Elizabeth’s own writing, I’ve found a charmingly passionate guide to an alternative modernism.

(Add to these recent titles what I’ve gleaned from David Kalstone’s book on Bishop, Moore, and Lowell, Becoming a Poet [Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989]; Lorrie Goldensohn’s delightful Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry [Columbia University Press, 1991]; and Bonnie Costello’s critical study, Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery [Harvard University Press, 1991].)

What I’ve come to realize, beyond this, is that Bishop was an intensely personal writer; thus, our response to her work is equally personal. I know scores of people who respond to her sensibility; yet, each does so in a very distinct way. Bishop’s personal vision and precise expression touch her readers in ways that her contemporaries could not.

Lowell may have written more and with greater intensity, but the finesse and control with which Bishop observed her world is unmatched in our century. This is what makes her such an important poet to her expanding readership and to our age.

* * *

In an 1883 letter to his cousin (reprinted in The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson: Vol. II [Greenwood Press, 1969]), Stevenson wrote:

There is but one art–to omit! O if I knew how to omit, I would ask no other knowledge. A man who knew how to omit would make an Iliad of a daily paper.

Elizabeth Bishop’s creative work fills two small volumes–her Complete Poems weighing in at 276 pages and The Collected Prose (Noonday, 1984) at 274 pages. It is a wonder to have these letters, which bring her published writings, not counting the translation of The Diary of “Helena Morley” (1957, Noonday, 1995) or Brazil, the book she wrote for Life’s World Library in 1962, to just under 2,000 pages–but what pages!

Bishop was a private person, and I imagine she would be shocked at such a deep investigation of her private life and her public work. Her poetry has often been referred to, rather narrow-mindedly I feel, by a (largely male) community of critics as “dry,” “impersonal,” “distanced,” and “unemotional.”

For anyone who has spent any serious time with her work and who has been guided by the poet’s fine eye and ear for detail, her work is anything but dispassionate. She wrote slowly and with much deliberation and would not publish anything she felt was not absolutely ready.

Coming, as much of her work did, at a time when others were engaged in personal introspection and egotistical posturing, it is easy to see why her perfectionism was often mistaken for reserve. Very few of her poems–“The Shampoo” and “Armadillo” being exceptions–were overtly personal in reference. She possessed a highly tuned sense of good manners, what used to be known as decorum. Bishop maintained a modesty throughout her life that is ill-suited to our society’s passion for grisly details.

Bishop deplored what she saw as an inappropriate use of one’s personal life (and the lives of one’s acquaintances or friends) as fodder for poetry. When Robert Lowell published The Dolphin (OP) in 1973 and included therein many poems formed (and deformed) out of letters from his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick, Bishop quotes to him a letter written by Thomas Hardy in 1911, which refers to

an abuse which is said to have occurred–that of publishing details of a lately deceased man’s life under the guise of a novel, with assurances of truth scattered in the newspapers.

She objected to the “mixing of fact and fiction in unknown proportions” throughout The Dolphin, and clearly felt uncomfortable with Lowell’s (and others’) mining of the darkest recesses of their own lives in their poetry. She concludes her quote from Hardy,

the power of getting lies believed about people through that channel…by stirring in a few truths, is a horror to contemplate.

* * *

Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote in a letter date September 10, 1864 (Poems and Prose, Penguin 1971):

the letter-writer on principle does not make his letter only an answer; it is a work embodying perhaps answers to questions put by his correspondent but that is not its main motive.

How easy it is to imagine that Hopkins would have found in Elizabeth Bishop the very kind of correspondent he demanded. Her letters anticipate questions and provide insight into her own life as well as the lives of her addressees. She wrote exquisitely about her daily existence, her work, reading, and the people with whom she came in contact.

Like Hopkins, whose letters Bishop had read in their published version, she never merely answered letters. In all her missives, of which a mere 500 or so are represented in One Art, Bishop entered into a dialogue with her correspondents. The dialogue begins in this book when Bishop was an innocent college senior, full of promise and just beginning to lay the groundwork for her life of letters.

Throughout this volume, Bishop’s correspondence grows progressively intuitive and is deepened by her awareness of life’s inner and outer turmoil. A poet of decorum and modesty, Bishop is a candid, but never immodest letter writer. When she admits that her companion and lover of 14 years, Lota de Macedo Soares, is battling mental illness and arteriosclerosis, she remains true to her conscience:

She has had violent fights with all our friends except two–and it seems they all thought she was “mad” several years before I did. But of course I got it all the time and almost all the nights, poor dear. I do know my own faults, you know–but this is really not because of me, although now all her obsessions have fixed on me–first love; then hate, etc.

Nearly all of Bishop’s letters to Lota were destroyed after the latter’s suicide in 1967, so our record of their relationship is rather one-dimensional. We do know, as Bishop tells one of her correspondents, that 10 or 12 of the years they spent together were the “happiest” the poet had known.

What we are left with, however incomplete, is as close to an autobiography as Bishop ever got (although a few of her stories, which appear in the The Complete Prose, deal with her early childhood in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts). Our feeling for the poet is deepened by the record of her life as represented in One Art; we come away thinking she was as much a genuine human being as a great artist.

These letters came from capable, if not always steady, hands. Bishop’s letters to Dr. Anny Baumann, who helped her overcome alcoholism and deal with asthma and psoriasis, reveal how her bouts of insecurity often led to depression, which aggravated both her asthma and her drinking. Yet, even here, our picture of the artist and person is not clouded by overt confession or melancholia. She could easily have dwelt on these problems, but in an early letter to Dr. Baumann, Bishop writes:

The drinking seems to have dwindled to about one evening once or twice a month, and I stop before it gets really bad, I think. Of course that’s still once or twice too often, but what is best about it is that I don’t seem to think about it any more at all, or go through all that remorse. I get to worrying about the past ten years or so and I wish I could stop doing that, but aside from that the drinking and the working both seem to have improved miraculously.

Bishop’s obeisance to decorum prompts a chaste response to Robert Lowell’s confession that “asking you [to marry him] is the might-have-been for me.” She took four months to write back to him, and even then barely mentions the incident, only to say,

the whole phenomenon of your quick recovery and simultaneous productivity seems to me in looking back to be the real marvel of my summer.

* * *

Elizabeth Bishop’s letters, even towards the end, kept her forthright, as she practiced a dying craft taken to the level of a personally revealing art. There are only two flaws with One Art: the twinned absence of the previously mentioned letters to Lota and the several thousand that Mr. Giroux had to forgo publishing in order to keep the volume manageable and affordable.

Her letters are obviously the most important of the three most recent books about Bishop mentioned in this essay. All three, however, should be read by anyone seriously interested in what informed the writing of one of our country’s finest poets. Finally, however, we are best left with Elizabeth’s own words on her life and work, from the poem “One Art”:

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident the art of losing’s not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

–Scott Edward Anderson, The Bloomsbury Review, November/December 1996

4 Responses to “Elizabeth Bishop Under the Microscope”


  1. […] You can read an essay I wrote about Elizabeth Bishop for The Bloomsbury Review in 1996:  Elizabeth Bishop Under the Microscope […]

  2. mckra1g Says:

    I like The Weed, The Moose and At the Fishhouses especially. While the last two are almost painterly in their deconstruction of the mundane and the celebration of the banal, the first always reminds me of the heart’s ability to regenerate, regardless of how rent it may be at any given time or event.

    Her poetry is like the delayed spread of warmth across your chest after a bolt of scotch: it’s only once you’ve internalized her words that you catch the full force of them. Pow. Right in the solar plexus and you never saw it coming.

    I’m so glad I was introduced to her work. Thanks so much for taking the time to draft this. My best, M.


  3. She has been a favorite of mine for many years, and I appreciate the depth of this article. Nicely done.


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