Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911 – October 6, 1979), was an American poet and writer, increasingly regarded as one of the finest twentieth-century poets writing in English. Bishop has always been regarded highly by critics and connoisseurs of poetry (James Merill referred to her charmingly as a "poet's poet's poet"), but only within recent decades has her stock risen among general readers.
Bishop's most salient features as a poet are her tremendous dedication to the craft (her notebooks reveal that almost every poem she ever published had undergone twenty or more revisions) and her meticulous precision in her choice of just the right words and images to convey experiences both microscopic and hauntingly beautiful.
Elizabeth Bishop was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts. When she was very young, her father died and her mother was sent to a mental institution. Elizabeth was sent to live with her Canadian grandparents in Great Village, Nova Scotia, for a few years, and later to her father's family in Boston, Massachusetts. These early years of dispossession would later come to factor prominently in her poetry.
Bishop attended The Walnut Hill School in Massachusetts, entering Vassar College in the fall of 1929, the year of the stock market crash. She graduated from college in 1934, having befriended writer Mary McCarthy, who was one year her senior. Bishop spent the next two years traveling abroad to France, Spain, North Africa, Ireland, and Italy, settling in Key West, Florida, for four years. Bishop's early poetry, such as the Florida poems in North & South, would deal explicitly with her experiences of travel and the contrast of an adult life spent in warm climates versus a childhood spent in small, cold villages on the Atlantic coast.
During this time, Bishop befriended the poets Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, and, later, James Merill. Moore, in particular, who was many years Bishop's senior, would act as a mentor and stabilizing force in Bishop's life. The two corresponded constantly until Moore's death in 1972.
Like Moore, Bishop's poetry focused on almost microscopic impressions of scenes from the world that reveal, upon close examination, an entire world unto themselves. Lowell's influence on Bishop's life would almost be as great as Moore's, though Lowell's confessional, heavily-autobiographical style did not appeal to her, and their poetic styles have relatively little in common. But the two were close; writing letters to one another continuously. At one point Lowell even proposed to her, though Bishop declined.
After returning home from her travels, Bishop published her first volume of poems, North & South, in 1946, and served in the position of consultant in poetry (now called poet laureate) for the Library of Congress from 1949 to 1950. While working for the Library of Congress, Bishop wrote and published one of her more famous poems, Visits to St. Elizabeth's, written in the style of a nursery rhyme and describing the disorienting experience of visiting the institutionalized poet, Ezra Pound. The poem begins as follows:
During most of the 1950s and 1960s Bishop spent most of her time in Brazil with her companion Lota de Macedo Soares, living in the mountain city of Petropolis, a few miles north of Rio de Janeiro. While living in Brazil, she published an additional book of poems, Questions of Travel, dealing again with ones sense of place, with life lived in two hemispheres, and with the place of poetry in a changing world. She also edited an anthology of Brazilian poetry and translated Alica Brant's classic Brazilian novel, The Diaries of Helena Morley.
In the early 1970s Bishop left Brazil after Lota's suicide to live again in America. She was appointed to teach writing at Harvard from 1970 to 1977. During this time she published her last volume of poems, Geography III, once again returning to the scenes of Nova Scotia and tropical Brazil that had shaped her life. Appointed to the Academy of American Poets in 1976, Elizabeth Bishop passed away in October 1979 in Boston.
Early in her career, Bishop was regarded (and perhaps dismissed) as a "miniaturist," a master of small poetic structures and descriptive detail. Careful reading of her work, however, reveals a sharp confessional edge: her life story is told through poems which, though nominally addressing and describing other subject matter (including paintings, tourist destinations, etc.), in fact speak to the events of her life.
Moreover, close attention to Bishop's "miniatures" reveals that most of her poems were so brief (and her poetic output so small) only because each poem had been worked and reworked to the point where adding anything more would detract from their intricate perfection. Her works are distinct from most of the other poets of her time, including Moore. She was not very interested in confessing herself and her insecurities to her readers, like her contemporaries Lowell, Plath, Sexton. Nor, like Moore, Pound, or Frost was she overly concerned with the form modern poetry would take. Rather, Bishop wielded an imposing command in a wide variety of forms, and was able to compose poems that feel somehow deeply personal and at the same time read like pure perceptions. Take, for instance, the long, winding opening of Bishop's celebrated late poem “The Moose”:
The poem, which is one of Bishop's longest, was commissioned by her aunt in the early 1960s. Bishop turned in the completed poem nearly fifteen years later. Like all of her poems, “The Moose” reflects Bishop's fastidious attention to detail in the delicate precision of its images and the perfect choice of few words. Bishop's meticulous word choice relates to her own poetic interests; her favorite poets were the seventeenth-century Metaphysical George Herbert and the nineteenth-century Victorian Gerard Manley Hopkins, both of whom were very much concerned with the power of specifics words and images to reveal an "inscape" (Hopkins' term) of unnoticed beauty. Herbert, in particular, was renowned in his own time for his masterful precision, and Bishop, is equally precise, with her "clapboard farmhouses / and neat, clapboard churches" and her "windshield flashing pink."
Bishop's poetry is unlike any other of her time, and although she was largely relegated to her niche as a "poet's poet" through most of her life, as time has passed she has continued to rise in critical esteem and is now often mentioned as one of the greatest American poets writing in the twentieth century, despite the fact that her Collected Poems is a slim volume of barely more than a hundred pages. Bishop's work, certainly, is a prime example the ancient motto pauca sed matura: "few, but ripe."
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