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Elizabeth Bishop 101

The life and career of a master of description

The geography of Elizabeth Bishop’s work and life is a series of diverse landscapes and shifting scenery. This American expat poet grew up in several households and in multiple locales, which may have set in motion a trend of flexibility and excursion for an artist who occupied many states and countries throughout her career. 

Her mobility aside, Bishop placed a great deal of focus on editing and publishing her poetry. She was highly selective in choosing which poems to publish in her lifetime, which she collected into just five books that she revised relentlessly. Scholars and proponents of Bishop’s craft continue to affirm her influential place in an ever-evolving field of contemporary American poetry.

Canada and New England
After the death of her father when she was seven and the subsequent illness of her mother, Bishop spent an unsettled childhood with various members of her family. Initially living with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia, a time and landscape documented in her poem “The Moose,” she was later whisked to New England by her father’s well-to-do family. Though this was not the happiest time in her life, her family’s resources provided a prestigious education. At Vassar College, Bishop met her friend and peer Marianne Moore. Over the years, Bishop and Moore helped each other immensely as contemporaries, sharing many letters and rhymes. Sometime after 1947, Bishop also met Robert Lowell, another poet and friend with whom she forged a lifelong friendship. She wrote more than 1,000 letters to friends and fellow writers, including Lowell, Moore, James Merrill, and Frank Bidart. Bishop’s poems, letters, and works of prose not only showcase variations of her style and ability but also reflect her attention to relevant issues.

Travels North and South
Following her university years, Bishop entered a period of extensive travels, spending time in Ireland, Europe, and North Africa before moving to Key West, Florida. These settings surface in her writing, although not always in obvious ways. In Bishop’s first book, North & South (1946), the restless poet grapples with space and relation. Within much of her early work, figures, materials, specimens, and environments correspond and attempt to correlate in typical yet shifting landscapes. Atmospheres and events in these poems are often plausible but distorted. The speaker in “Little Exercise” appears almost reluctantly to offer directives to readers or an unspecified recipient while advancing at a pace that requires distance. In “The Man-Moth,” Bishop defines or refuses identity by showing a doubled or altered individual as speaker, a man and/or creature, trapped between fluctuating patterns of opposites: light and dark, forward and reverse, inward and outward. (Incidentally, the title of this poem was inspired by a typo for the word mammoth in the New York Times.) Only a few poems from her first book contain the pronoun I; frequently Bishop’s speakers provide the perspective of a hardly committed collective, a loosely bound “we.” Scene and narrative develop with great detail around figures, historical or found, in poems such as “A Miracle for Breakfast,” “Jeronimo’s House,” and “Roosters,” a poem that connects the biblical tale of St. Peter and his denial to a town’s jarring transformation at dawn.

In 1948, shortly after the publication of North & South, Bishop was named consultant in poetry for the Library of Congress—a precursor to the position of poet laureate. While living in Washington, D.C., she visited the poet Ezra Pound, who was being held at a psychiatric hospital after being charged with treason following his activities in Italy during World War II. Bishop recounts these experiences in the haunting poem “Visits to St. Elizabeths.”

The level of description that Bishop lends to many of her poems can create a prosaic or an encyclopedic feel, not always welcome by readers who find her style emotionally cold. However, much of her language is careful and evocative, giving the impression of a place or an object keenly seen. Her sharp eye may have led Bishop to engage in painting throughout portions of her life. She created many paintings, 40 of which remain, mostly watercolor and gouache. Many poems and paintings depict scenes from her travels, especially when she lived in Key West and Brazil. 

Farther South
In her second book as well as her third, Questions of Travel (1965), Bishop found herself landing in and learning to claim a territory in ways she had never experienced. A 1951 trip to Brazil resulted in an unplanned stay of 17 years. The South American culture, landscape, and community kept Bishop anchored there, as did her romantic relationship with Lota de Macedo Soares. During this period, she began to consider travel and childhood in slightly more intimate modes, perhaps due to a newly adopted stability in her foreign land. Frequently, the more personal the details Bishop included in a poem, the more she used form and rhyme, trying out sestinas, villanelles, and sonnets as constructs to guide and mask the poem’s emotional content. As her work progressed, more people and communities appeared in her writing where once there were objects and imagined spaces. The poems “The Armadillo” and “Filling Station” incorporate concrete places with rooted characters that arguably begin to illuminate the author’s position and psyche discreetly.

Arrival at Santos” and “At the Fishhouses,” two poems from her second collection, A Cold Spring (1955), both contain nearly list-like or photographic details that invite readers to experience the scenes themselves. If Bishop stepped away from the confessional mode to attend to appearances, she embeds much of the poems’ feelings in the landscapes and inanimate materials themselves, allowing mountains to do the self-pitying, and palm trees to feel uncertain. This distancing effect appears in early poems but did not entirely dissipate as the poet evolved. Bishop might have sought relief from personal exposure by also working on translation, on poems in other languages, in genres such as prose and memoir, and in art forms such as painting.

“A Cold Spring” reveals a Bishop who was moving away from the fantasy and symbolism of her earlier work to tackle a slightly more erotic, organic poetics and traveling into new hemispheres and realms that would alter the way she explained and expressed the self. Though Bishop didn’t reveal things directly as a confessional poet might, she continued to hone her use of persona, rhyme, and narration to let her poems slowly warm and expose pieces of her personal world.

A Return
Bishop’s final book, Geography III (1976), is perhaps her most open and welcoming, likely due to a greater balance of the personal with the distanced: a balance she learned through writing and living. By the time she was writing Geography III, she had lost Lota to suicide and consequently left Brazil to live in Massachusetts and teach at Harvard University. Her return to the United States and the passage of time made her more intimate poems of this book possible. One of her most well-known poems, “One Art,” contains a more expressive speaker, an “I” who tries to describe and accept her loss and grief.

The longer Bishop wrote, the more she was able to see herself in a context of writers, living and deceased, and the more she was able to find room for herself in her own context, her poems. Poets Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell particularly had a lasting effect on their friend’s work. Lowell’s later poems granted Bishop a highly intimate and confessional model, and Moore’s poetry inspired extreme precision in physical description. In her late poems, Bishop may have found a happy medium between these impulses without abandoning her own strengths or interests. If the poet found a temporary home in other lands, especially Brazil, she found even more of a home in her powers of perception and awareness and her ability to express the self obliquely by depicting the landscapes she inhabited.

Poem Sampler

Elizabeth Bishop 101

The life and career of a master of description

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