Elizabeth Bishop

1911–1979
Elizabeth BishopJoseph Breitenbach

During her lifetime, poet Elizabeth Bishop was a respected yet somewhat obscure figure in the world of American literature. Since her death in 1979, however, her reputation has grown to the point that many critics, like Larry Rohter in the New York Times, have referred to her as "one of the most important American poets" of the twentieth century. Bishop was a perfectionist who did not write prolifically, preferring instead to spend long periods of time polishing her work. She published only 101 poems during her lifetime. Her verse is marked by precise descriptions of the physical world and an air of poetic serenity, but her underlying themes include the struggle to find a sense of belonging, and the human experiences of grief and longing.

Bishop, an only child, experienced upheaval at a tender age. Her father died before she was a year old. Her mother suffered through serious bouts of mental instability and was permanently committed to an institution when Elizabeth was only five years old. The poet never saw her mother again. She was taken at first by her maternal grandparents, who lived in Nova Scotia, Canada. After some years, however, her paternal grandparents took charge of her. They were well-to-do inhabitants of Massachusetts, and expressed their concern over the limited financial and educational resources available in Nova Scotia. Under their guardianship, Bishop was sent to the elite Walnut Hills School for Girls and to Vassar College.

Her years at Vassar were tremendously important to Bishop. There she met Marianne Moore, a fellow poet who also became a lifelong friend. Working with a group of students that included Mary McCarthy, Eleanor Clark, and Margaret Miller, she founded the short-lived but influential literary journal Con Spirito, which was conceived as an alternative to the well-established Vassar Review. After graduating, Bishop lived in New York and traveled extensively in France, Spain, Ireland, Italy, and North Africa. Her poetry is filled with descriptions of her journeys and the sights she saw. In 1938, she moved to Key West, where she wrote many of the poems that eventually were collected in her Pulitzer Prize-winning North and South. In 1944 she left Key West, and for fourteen years she lived in Brazil, where she and her lover, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares, became a curiosity in the town of Pétropolis. After Soares took her own life in 1967, Bishop spent less time in Brazil than in New York, San Francisco, and Massachusetts, where she took a teaching position at Harvard in 1970. That same year, she received a National Book Award in Poetry for The Complete Poems. Her reputation increased greatly in the years just prior to her death, particularly after the 1976 publication of Geography III and her winning of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

Bishop worked as a painter as well as a poet, and her verse, like visual art, is known for its ability to capture significant scenes. Though she was independently wealthy and thus enjoyed a life of some privilege, much of her poetry celebrates working-class settings: busy factories, farms, and fishing villages. Analyzing her small but significant body of work for Bold Type, Ernie Hilbert wrote: "Bishop's poetics is one distinguished by tranquil observation, craft-like accuracy, care for the small things of the world, a miniaturist's discretion and attention. Unlike the pert and wooly poetry that came to dominate American literature by the second half of her life, her poems are balanced like Alexander Calder mobiles, turning so subtly as to seem almost still at first, every element, every weight of meaning and song, poised flawlessly against the next."

Career

Poet, author of prose, and translator. Library of Congress, Washington, DC, consultant in poetry, 1949-50, honorary consultant in American Letters, beginning in 1958; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, instructor, beginning 1970.

Bibliography

POETRY

  • North & South (also see below), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1946, reprinted, 1964.
  • Poems: North & South [and] A Cold Spring, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1955, abridged edition published as Poems, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1956.
  • Questions of Travel, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1965.
  • Selected Poems, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1967.
  • The Ballad of the Burglar of Babylon, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1968.
  • The Complete Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1969.
  • Geography III, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1976.
  • The Complete Poems, 1927-1979, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1983.
  • Edgar Allen Poe & the Juke-box, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor to anthologies, including Trial Balances, edited by Ann Winslow, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1935.

OTHER

  • (Translator from the Portuguese) Alice Brant, The Diary of "Helena Morley," Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1957, reprinted, 1995.
  • (With the editors of Life) Brazil, Time, Inc. (New York, NY), 1962.
  • (Editor, with Emanuel Brasil) An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1972.
  • (Translator, with G. Aroul) Octavio Paz, Selected Poems of Octavio Paz, New Directions, 1984.
  • The Collected Prose, edited and introduced by Robert Giroux, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1984.
  • (With Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell) Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1989.
  • One Art: Letters, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1994.
  • (Translator) Joao C. De Melo Neto, Selected Poetry, 1937-1990, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1995.
  • Exchanging Hats: Thirty-nine Paintings, edited by William Benton, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1996.
  • (With George Monteiro) Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop (interviews), University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1996.
  • (Editor, with Joel Conarroe and Theodore Roethke) Eight American Poets: An Anthology, Vintage Books, 1997.
  • Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop (edited by Saskia Hamilton), Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010.
  • Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence (edited by Joelle Bispiel), Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011.

Also translator, with others, of Travelling in the Family by Carlos Drummond. Contributor of poetry and fiction to periodicals, including Kenyon Review, New Republic, Partisan Review, and Poetry. Co-founder of Con Spirito.

Further Reading

BOOKS

  • Bishop, Elizabeth, and George Monteiro, Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop (interviews), University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1996.
  • Blasing, Mutlu Konuk, Politics and Form in Postmodern Poetry: O'Hara, Bishop, Ashbery, and Merrill, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1995.
  • Brower, Reuben A., editor, Twentieth-Century Literature in Retrospect, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1971.
  • Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Volume 2: American Poets, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973, Volume 4, 1975, Volume 9, 1978, Volume 13, 1980, Volume 15, 1980, Volume 32, 1985.
  • Contemporary Poetry in America, edited by Robert Boyers, Schocken (New York, NY), 1974.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
  • Fountain, Gary, and Peter Brazeau, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1994.
  • Frankenberg, Lloyd, Pleasure Dome: On Reading Modern Poetry, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1949.
  • Fussell, Abroad: British Literary Travelling between the Wars, Oxford University Press, 1980.
  • Gay and Lesbian Biography, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.
  • Jarrell, Randall, Poetry and the Age, Random House (New York, NY), 1953.
  • Jarrell, Randall, Third Book of Criticism, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1969.
  • Kalstone, David, Five Temperaments: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Oxford University Press, 1977.
  • Lombardi, Marilyn May, The Body and the Song: Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics, Southern Illinois University (Carbondale, IL), 1995.
  • MacMahon, Candace, editor, Elizabeth Bishop: A Bibliography, 1927-1979, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1980.
  • Mazzaro, Jerome, Postmodern American Poetry, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1980.
  • McCabe, Susan, Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss, Pennsylvania State University Press (University Park, PA), 1994.
  • Millier, Brett C., Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It, University of California Press, 1995.
  • Molesworth, Charles, The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American Poetry, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1979.
  • Pinsky, Robert, The Situation of Poetry, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1976.
  • Poet's Choice, edited by Paul Engle and Joseph Langland, Dial (New York, NY), 1962.
  • Rosenthal, M. L., The Modern Poets, Oxford University Press, 1960.
  • Schwartz, Lloyd, and Sybil P. Estess, editors, Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1983.
  • Shigley, Sally Bishop, Dazzling Dialectics: Elizabeth Bishop's Resonating Feminist Reality, Peter Lang (New York, NY), 1997.
  • Stepanchev, Stephen, American Poetry since 1945: A Critical Survey, Harper (New York, NY), 1965.
  • Stevenson, Anne, Elizabeth Bishop, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1966.
  • Swenson, May, Dear Elizabeth: Five Poems and Three Letters to Elizabeth Bishop, Utah State University Press (Logan, UT), 2000.
  • Vendler, Helen, Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1980.
  • von Hallberg, Robert, American Poetry and Culture, 1945-1980, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1985.
  • Winslow, Ann, editor, Trial Balances, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1935.
  • Wylie, Diana E., Elizabeth Bishop and Howard Nemerov: A Reference Guide, G. K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1983.

PERIODICALS

  • America, February 19, 1994, p. 21.
  • American Literature, March, 1982; October, 1983.
  • American Poetry Review, March-April, 1978; January-February, 1980; January-February, 1985.
  • Antaeus, winter-spring, 1981.
  • Antioch Review, summer, 1981.
  • Arizona Quarterly, Volume 32, 1976; winter, 1982.
  • Atlantic, January, 1966.
  • Bloomsbury Review, November-December, 1996, p. 5.
  • Books Abroad, winter, 1967.
  • Book Week, February 20, 1966.
  • Book World, April 27, 1969.
  • Boston Review, April, 1983.
  • Canadian Literature, autumn, 2000, Richard Sanger, "High Seas: Elizabeth Bishop Returns Home," p. 113.
  • Canadian Poetry, fall-winter, 1980.
  • Canto, winter, 1977.
  • Centennial Review, winter, 1978; winter, 1981.
  • Chicago Review, Volume 18, numbers 3-4, 1966.
  • Chicago Tribune Book World, April 1, 1984.
  • Christian Science Monitor, January 6, 1966.
  • CLA Journal, June, 2000, Zhou Xiaojing, "'Constant Readjustment' 'Experience-Time' in Elizabeth Bishop's Poems," p. 420.
  • College English, February, 1959.
  • Commonweal, February 15, 1957.
  • Contemporary Literature, winter, 1971; fall, 1984; summer, 1985; summer, 1999, Bethany Hicok, "Elizabeth Bishop's 'Queer Birds': Vassar, Con Spirito, and the Romance of Female Community," p. 286.
  • Dublin Magazine, January-March, 1957.
  • Encounter, December, 1983.
  • Explicator, spring, 2000, Kathleen More, "Bishop's 'Cape Breton,'" p. 161.
  • Field, fall, 1984.
  • George Herbert Journal, spring, 1982.
  • Grand Street, autumn, 1983.
  • Hollins Critic, February, 1977.
  • Hudson Review, autumn, 1956.
  • Independent Sunday (London, England), September 14, 1997, Lavinia Greenlaw, review of Exchanging Hats: Paintings by Elizabeth Bishop, p. 34.
  • Iowa Review, winter, 1979.
  • Kenyon Review, Volume 19, number 2, 1957; Volume 28, number 2, 1966.
  • Library Journal, September 1, 2000, Rochelle Ratner, review of Elizabeth Bishop (audio cassette), p. 274.
  • Life, July 4, 1969.
  • Listener, November 30, 1967; June 2, 1983.
  • London Magazine, March 1968.
  • London Review of Books, May 7, 1984.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 17, 1983; February 19, 1984.
  • Massachusetts Review, autumn, 1970; autumn, 1982; summer, 1983.
  • Michigan Quarterly Review, winter, 1977.
  • Modern Poetry Studies, winter, 1975; spring, 1977; winter, 1977.
  • Mosaic (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), June, 2000, Ernesto Suarez-Toste, "Une Machine a Coudre Manuelle: Elizabeth Bishop's 'Everyday Surrealism,'" p. 143.
  • Nation, September 28, 1946.
  • New England Quarterly, June, 1956; December, 1984.
  • New Leader, December 6, 1965; May 9, 1994, p. 14.
  • New Republic, October 21, 1946; April 9, 1966; February 5, 1977; November 10, 1979; April 4, 1983; March 19, 1984; August 8, 1994, p. 29.
  • New Statesman, April 6, 1984.
  • Newsweek, January 31, 1977; March 14, 1982; February 13, 1984.
  • New Yorker, October 5, 1946; October 8, 1955; May 29, 1978; September 30, 1991, p. 85; March 28, 1994, p. 82.
  • New York Herald Tribune Book Review, September 4, 1955.
  • New York Review of Books, October 12, 1967; June 9, 1977; January 13, 1994, p. 15; June 9, 1994, p. 39.
  • New York Times, January 22, 1977; December 13, 1981, Paul L. Montgomery, "Vassar Acquires Papers of the Poet Elizabeth Bishop," p. 39; February 12, 1983; January 5, 1984; July 8, 2001, Margo Jefferson, "We Are All Tourists," p. 27; August 6, 2001, Larry Rohter, "Brazilian Renaissance for an American Poet," p. E1.
  • New York Times Book Review, July 17, 1955; May 5, 1968; January 7, 1973; February 6, 1977; December 3, 1978; February 27, 1983, David Bromwich, review of The Complete Poems, and "Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art," p. 7; January 15, 1984; April 17, 1994, p. 1.
  • Observer (London), April 8, 1984; April 24, 1995, p. 24.
  • Paris Review, summer, 1981.
  • Parnassus, spring-summer, 1973; fall-winter, 1976; spring-summer, 1977.
  • Partisan Review, winter, 1956; spring, 1970.
  • Ploughshares, Volume 2, number 4, 1975; Volume 3, numbers 3 and 4, 1977; Volume 5, number 1, 1979; Volume 6, number 2, 1980.
  • PN Review, February, 1984.
  • Poetry, December, 1955; March, 1979; December, 1990, p. 159.
  • Poetry Review, June, 1983.
  • Publishers Weekly, July 7, 1945.
  • Raritan, summer, 1984; winter, 2000, Anne Ferry, "The Anthologizing of Elizabeth Bishop," p. 37.
  • Restaurants & Institutions, June 15, 1999, Jennifer McGeary, "Vintage Memories," p. 22.
  • Salmagundi, summer-fall, 1974.
  • Saturday Review, January 18, 1958.
  • Sewanee Review, summer, 1947; spring, 1978; winter, 1998, review of Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, p. R18.
  • Shenandoah, Volume 17, number 2, 1966; Volume 33, number 1, 1981-82.
  • South Atlantic Quarterly, summer, 1983.
  • South Carolina Review, November, 1977.
  • Southern Review, autumn, 1977.
  • Style, fall, 2000, Martin Bidney, "'Controlled Panic': Mastering the Terrors of Dissolution and Isolation in Elizabeth Bishop's Epiphanies," p. 487.
  • Time, April 25, 1994, p. 82.
  • Times Literary Supplement, November 23, 1967; March 7, 1980; August 28, 1981; June 3, 1983; April 27, 1984; February 20, 1998, review of Exchanging Hats, p. 36.
  • Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), April 24, 1994, p. 19.
  • Twentieth-Century Literature, Volume 11, number 4, 1966; Volume 28, number 4, 1982.
  • Utne Reader, May-June, 1999, Edward Hirsch, "How to Read a Poem," p. 89.
  • Vanity Fair, June, 1983.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1966; autumn, 1969; spring, 1984.
  • Wall Street Journal, January 12, 1984, Ellen Wilson, review of The Collected Prose, p. 22.
  • Washington Post Book World, February 20, 1983; May 1, 1994, p. 5.
  • World Literature Today, winter, 1977.
  • Young Readers Review, September, 1968.

OTHER

  • Academy of American Poets Web site, http://www.poets.org/ (September 10, 2001), "Elizabeth Bishop."
  • Bold Type, http://www.randomhouse.com/ (September 10, 2001), Ernie Hilbert, "Elizabeth Bishop."

OBITUARIES:

PERIODICALS

  • Chicago Tribune, October 9, 1979.
  • New York Times, October 8, 1979.
  • Publishers Weekly, October 22, 1979.

Discover this poet’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Articles About ELIZABETH BISHOP

Audio & Podcasts

Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poetry Off the Shelf
  • Listen Bishop and Lowell
    Sarah Ruhl discusses her play "Dear Elizabeth," based on letters and poems of two iconic American poets.
Poetry Off the Shelf Essential American Poets
  • Listen Elizabeth Bishop: Essential American Poets
    Archival recordings of former poet laureate Elizabeth Bishop, with an introduction to her life and work. Recorded in New York City in 1947 and at the Library of Congress in 1974.
Poetry Lectures
  • Listen Oral History Initiative: On Elizabeth Bishop
    An informal conversation remembering the life and work of Elizabeth Bishop, with Lloyd Schwartz, Frank Bidart, Rosanna Warren, Gail Mazur, and Megan Marshall. Conducted at Harvard University in March 2012, and used by permission of the participants and the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard College Library. To see the event video, click here.

Video

NewsHour Poetry Series

Poet Categorization

LIFE SPAN 1911–1979

Elizabeth Bishop

Biography

During her lifetime, poet Elizabeth Bishop was a respected yet somewhat obscure figure in the world of American literature. Since her death in 1979, however, her reputation has grown to the point that many critics, like Larry Rohter in the New York Times, have referred to her as "one of the most important American poets" of the twentieth century. Bishop was a perfectionist who did not write prolifically, preferring instead to . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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