Wherever Home May Be: On the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

One hundred years after her birth in Worcester, Mass., in 1911, Elizabeth Bishop stands as the most highly regarded American poet of the second-half of the 20th century. She is admired in every critical camp—from feminists to formalists—who agree on little else. Her work also attracts a wide general readership. Taught and studied in high schools and universities, Bishop is, for the time being at least, the most popular woman poet in American literature after Emily Dickinson.

Such immense regard would have astounded the author. Bishop (1911–79) had a high regard for her own work, which she crafted with scrupulous care, but she never courted a broad public. She wrote slowly and published little. She disliked giving readings or interviews, and she generally avoided public literary life. (When she won the National Book Award, she skipped the ceremony.) For most of her career, Bishop was, in John Ashbery’s only slight exaggeration, “a writer’s writer’s writer.”

What makes her pre-eminence particularly remarkable is that she wrote so little. She published only five volumes of verse and a short illustrated book on Brazil. Her final collection, “Geography III” (1976), included only 10 poems. Indeed, the contents of all five books, excluding translations, total 88 poems. If one gathers in all her other uncollected original verse, the published oeuvre rises to 105 poems. In other words, across her adult life Bishop wrote, on average, only two or three poems a year.

But what poems!

Critics have a hard time describing the special quality of Bishop’s poetry. We tend to fall back on adjectives like “reticent,” “meticulous,” “restrained,” which make her work seem dull and slightly mechanical. The quiet perfection is hard to express without making it sound like a Swiss timepiece. Bishop simply wrote so well that she never needed to raise her voice for emphases or effect. While poets such as Allen Ginsberg shouted slogans or rumbled with prophetic noise, she spoke to us calmly as equals.

What animates Bishop’s poetry is the deep authenticity of a writer who knew exactly what she was and never tried to seem otherwise. Her work is never pretentious or inflated. Preternaturally observant, quietly inventive, detached but compassionate, Bishop created poems that seem unnervingly real. We see the place, the person or the thing as if we were truly there, and we feel emotions that the author doesn’t state overtly but slyly awakens inside us.

One reason that Bishop’s work feels so real is that most of it grew directly out of her life, though she characteristically presented it indirectly. The author rarely stands center stage in the poems. Bishop acted mostly as a surrogate for the reader, underplaying her own emotions and inevitably viewing the scene with provocative ambiguity. Her celebrated poem “Questions of Travel,” for instance, ends not with answers but deeper questions:

‘Is it lack of imagination that makes us come to imagined places, not just stay at home? Or could Pascal have been not entirely right about just sitting quietly in one’s room? Continent, city, country, society: the choice is never wide and never free. And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?’

Notice that the lines rhyme. “I have always been an umpty-umpty poet with a traditional ear,” Bishop told Anne Stevenson in 1963. Most of Bishop’s poems employ rhyme and meter, though she used those techniques with enormous freedom. She could write with equal ease in free verse and occasionally published prose poems. Her imagination was disciplined but inclusive, and she could make a good poem from a nursery rhyme, a samba or a surrealist sculpture. But her characteristic poem has an iambic beat and unfolds in a clear narrative line, like a story.

There is a special irony that Bishop has come to be the signature poet of late 20th-century American literature, a period stereotyped by free verse and experimental forms. Bishop admired Modernism, but she resisted being drawn into its endless arguments about stylistic innovation and the radical transformation of human consciousness. She was, in the highest sense of the word, a prosaic poet, who like the supreme prose masters—Flaubert, James, Na bok ov —could create a verbal fabric so fine that nothing was lost to it. Never trying to be merely modern, she succeeded in becoming perpetually immediate and contemporary.

Bishop’s early life was a chronicle of loss and dislocation. She was the only child of a wealthy American contractor and his Canadian bride. Her father died before her first birthday. A few years later her emotionally fragile mother was institutionalized, never to recover. The young Bishop was allowed to visit her mother only once after her confinement.

She was raised first by her poor but affectionate maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia. Then the 6-year-old child was moved to her wealthy but remote paternal grandparents in Worcester. She soon developed asthma and eczema and was transferred to an aunt’s. The orphan continued to be shuffled among well-meaning relatives in both countries until she was packed off to boarding school as a teenager.

It was at Vassar, in the early 1930s, that Bishop began to write seriously and co-founded an “advanced” literary magazine with fellow student Mary McCarthy. In her senior year she met the poet Marianne Moore, who became a lifelong friend and the first of her many literary champions—these would eventually include Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Octavio Paz and James Merrill. Bishop had a gift for friendship, which proved a saving grace in her rootless and nomadic life.

A small inheritance from her father gave Bishop a freedom few artists enjoy. She never had to work regularly, except at writing until late middle age, when inflation reduced her income. What she did mostly was travel, constantly seeking a real home. She tried to settle in New York and Key West, Fla., and spent time in Paris and Washington, D.C. In 1952, having embarked on a trip around the world, Bishop took ill in Rio de Janeiro. There she met Lota de Macedo Soares, an architect, who became her lover. Bishop quickly settled in Brazil, and the two women lived together for 15 years—the one extended period of domestic stability in Bishop’s life. Then in 1967 the Brazilian idyll was terminated by Soares’s suicide.

Bishop wanted to stay in Brazil, but it proved impossible to manage alone, especially given the animosity of her lover’s friends. Reluctantly, she left her exquisite historic home in Ouro Prêto, Brazil’s baroque mining capital, and returned to the U.S. She lived briefly in San Francisco and settled, finally, in Boston in 1970 to teach at Harvard. Bishop liked her students (as I learned personally 36 years ago), but she disliked teaching, which she did only from financial necessity. In these last years, Bishop’s fame began to grow. In 1976, she won both the Neustadt International Prize for Literature and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Academics suddenly discovered her work. But the public recognition came too late to make a meaningful difference to the author—though she had the personal comfort of a new relationship with a stable and successful younger woman. In 1979, she died.

Since Bishop’s death, Farrar, Straus & Giroux has published nearly every surviving scrap of the poet’s work, including unfinished drafts, paintings and much private correspondence. These five posthumous volumes were then supplemented by a large Library of America compendium. The fiercely private and self-critical author, who had so fastidiously edited her own lifework down to less than 100 poems, has gradually been unveiled to public scrutiny.

Now two new volumes, simply titled “Poems” and “Prose,” have been culled from this editorial abundance to celebrate Bishop’s centenary. They essentially contain everything the author published or drafted near completion. Taken together, they provide a compelling record of a great but unusual writer.

“Poems” is one of the indispensable books of modern American poetry, presenting a writer who can bear comparison with her own masters: Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore. There are no bad poems. One finds a few weaker ones in her first collection, but even early in her career she achieved a consistently high standard—frequently interrupted by masterpieces such as “The Fish,” “The Map,” “The Moose” and her heartbreaking late poem “One Art.”

The only problem in “Poems” is the publisher’s desire to bulk up the necessarily slim volume. It seems reasonable to include her unpublished drafts and fragments as an appendix, though few of them add much to her reputation. The best is probably “It is marvellous to wake up together. . .” a discreet but overtly lesbian love poem. But does the reader really need 27 pages of photographs of journal pages and typescripts?

Bishop has received less attention for her short stories, essays and memoirs, which were never collected in her lifetime. Her best fiction and memoirs are almost on a par with her poetry. Indeed, they are all spun from the same autobiographical cloth, presenting similar settings (and sometimes the same characters) with similar concision and evocative detail.

The stories are mostly early work and mostly somber. Set in the hardscrabble Nova Scotia of her childhood, they present small, stark dramas of anxiety and loss. The real treasures of “Prose” (admirably edited by Lloyd Schwartz) are the memoirs. Bishop’s fiction uses its energy to control the dark material it explores, but her memoirs luminously unfold, casting light instead of shadows.

Bishop had a particular genius for sketching memorable characters in a few perfect sentences. In a memoir of her mildly dissolute uncle, she sketches his formidable wife in a few sharp phrases: “If Uncle Neddy was a ‘devil,’ a feeble smokey-black one, Aunt Hat was a red, real one—redheaded, freckled, red-knuckled, strong, all fierce fire and flame.” Once again it is the sheer physical presence of her writing that astonishes. Most authors try to achieve verisimilitude by slowly piling on des criptive details. Bishop achieves it swiftly by offering just the right details. Here, for example, she evokes a desolate and barren store in rural Brazil in one short sentence: “A glass case offered brown toffees leaking through their papers, and old, old, old sweet buns.”

Even in her memoirs, Bishop rarely makes herself the central subject but focuses her imagination on the people and places she encounters. Balancing humor, pathos and compassion (with a touch of innocent wonder), these pieces capture the emotional complexity of daily existence. The best of the memoirs—such as “The U.S.A. School of Writing,” which describes her brief stint working at a shady correspondence school—have the resonance of short novels.

The critical selections in “Prose” are quite minor by comparison. Abstract speculation bored Bishop, and she had no gift for intellectual argumentation. Her best pieces are short and idiosyncratic, though brightened by flashes of wit, as when she calls e.e. cummings “the famous man of little letters.” A painstaking writer, who agonized over every sentence, Bishop lacked the necessary facility of the professional critic. In 1970, the New Yorker appointed her their new poetry reviewer, and she took on her first assignment. Three years later they were still waiting for it.

The New Yorker played a central role in Bishop’s career. She published the vast majority of her work in the magazine, whose editors had recognized her special talent from the start. Already in 1946, just as her first book appeared, the New Yorker offered her the elite status of a “first reading” contract—giving Bishop a higher per-word rate and the magazine right-of-refusal on all her poems. Her editors adored her, especially Howard Moss, who eagerly accepted almost every poem she submitted, usually with lavish praise and a prompt check. “I love your flattery,” Bishop responded, “and wish I could believe 25% of it.”

Bishop’s long and affectionate relationship with the magazine is thoroughly documented in “Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence.” This ample volume presents 400 pages of letters between Bishop and her editors, most notably Moss and Katharine White, and covers 45 years of dealings: from 1934, when the magazine accepted an anecdote from the new Vassar graduate for its “Talk of the Town” column, to a postcard written shortly before the poet’s death.

This book of letters is not for every taste. Poets and New Yorker aficionados will find it irresistible. The rest of humanity will rightly find it baffling. Although the letters address many topics, their central concern, their ruling passion, is punctuation. The dash, hyphen, parenthesis and especially the comma have never inspired greater emotion and imagination than among the old New Yorker editors who could —and regularly did—discuss small matters of punctuation for weeks.

“Commas in the New Yorker,” quipped E.B. White, Katharine’s husband, “fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” Yet reading this volume, noting the meticulous attention brought to each poem and story, one realizes how skillfully the editors helped focus and clarify every detail of the text. Bishop would sometimes complain, but she rarely discarded the changes when her poems appeared in books.

The letters also document the scrupulously polite etiquette that prevailed at the old New Yorker—a ritualized kindness worthy of a Victorian parsonage. Bishop would submit poems (many of them now famous anthology pieces) to Moss, her most devoted fan, with self-deprecating comments such as, “I doubt you will be interested in this.” Moss would quickly accept the poem with lavish praise. Then in the next paragraph the editing began—not stopping until the final proof. The exaggerated politeness clearly helped ameliorate the annoyance of the magazine’s protracted copyediting and factchecking process. But as these letters so copiously prove, the editors never tried to change the author’s intentions, even in the smallest matters, only to realize them. For a woman without a fixed home, family or even country, the New Yorker provided a sense of stability and continuity. It adopted her early and gave the consistent support that allowed her to develop her idiosyncratic talents into genius.

Elizabeth Bishop’s future reputation will surely fluctuate slightly according to the currents of taste, but she has indisputably won a permanent place in the American literary canon. An independent and honest writer who never chased fashion, joined groups or struck public poses, she labored at the art’s perennial task—to communicate the joy, sorrow and wonder of being human. She took her time about it, and it shows.


The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2011.

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