Prose from Poetry Magazine

Miss Bishop Says So

Remembering Elizabeth Bishop.

She let the words do the shining.

I met Elizabeth Bishop in 1972, when I audited her poetry class (not “workshop,” she would have hated that term) my senior year at Harvard. She was quite unlike my other professors. She was a woman—at the time Harvard had exactly one tenured woman, and not many women in the lower ranks either—and there was nothing of the grand professeur (or grand poete) about her. She was modest and unaffected, reserved but not cool. We called her Miss Bishop. She was the only teacher I had in four years of college who invited a class to her house—a sunny, rather bare apartment on Brattle Street, I think it was, where she showed us a Joseph Cornell-ish art box she had made that she said drew on the folk art Brazilians made to memorialize dead children.

How I wish I had taken notes! She was a wonderful teacher, the perfect blend of formal and free, just like her poems. She gave us assignments—sonnets, villanelles—but she always said that if we burned to write something else, we should of course do so. One afternoon she gave us end words—“blue” was one—and had us all sit there for half an hour and turn out sestinas. I wonder about that now—Bishop’s “Sestina” being one of the few modern examples of the form that is moving (in both senses) and doesn’t feel like an exercise. My sestina, in fact, was about how boring sestinas are.

What strikes me, having taught a bit myself, is how kind she was. We can’t all have been budding poets, yet she talked about our work as if we were. Bernard Malamud, whose freshman writing seminar I had taken, was a brilliant teacher in the old authoritarian style, who had no trouble telling eighteen-year-olds that they lacked sufficient gifts to write fiction; he saw himself, I think, as a kind of talent scout from God. Maybe he was—but I had friends who took years to recover from his verdicts. Bishop had the opposite approach: she seemed to enjoy teaching, and was clearly amused by her students, a typical Harvard combination of the bow-tied and the tie-dyed—young fogies and hippies—but I don’t think it was a calling, part of her identity. She wasn’t concerned to make final judgments or peer into our depths.

Toward the end of the semester, in office hours, she said to me “You should take your poetry very seriously.” Those were the most important words said to me by any teacher, and possibly any person.

I was too shy to keep up with her much after I graduated, but I recently came across two longish letters from her. Both were from 1978, the year before her death. In one she reminisces about Port Clyde, the town in Maine where I was living at the time:

Did I tell you (forgive me if I repeat myself) that I’ve been to Port Clyde, twice, I think—and a year ago last June I actually went on an Audobon [sic] trip that started from there—out to Matinicus Rock, to see puffins, and lots of other sea birds. It was a lot of fun. I stayed with two friends, at a rather dismal, tall, green, Victorian house, near the landing—it had just opened that very day for guests and was very strange.

She invited me to visit her in North Haven the next summer, but like an idiot, I didn’t go.

In the late seventies, when she read at the Guggenheim, I went to hear her. Bishop is sometimes described as a notoriously poor reader of her own work—flat, low-key, lacking in presence. After all, she was a short, gray-haired woman who wore nondescript wool skirts that fell below the knee, the antithesis of what a poet was supposed to look like. I thought she was a good reader—I dislike theatricality in poetry readings, and that super-sensitive breathy chanting thing poets get into where every line ends with an upward lilt like a question. But more than that, her reading was a kind of gift; it made me see that whatever way a poet reads his or her own work is fine, is, in fact, perfect, because the way they read is part of their sensibility, their own personal expression of their poem. No one else can have that relation to those words: it’s unique. It was interesting that Bishop said “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow” in a straightforward, even way, and not “rainbow! rainbow! (pause) RAINBOW!” She let the words do the shining. The way she read said: the words on the page are the poem, I’m not going to slather a lot of emoting on top of them, I’m going to let them speak for themselves. True or not, this insight has helped me not to be nervous about giving readings: however I perform is all right, I tell myself, because I am the writer reading my own work.

And although I am the one telling myself what is, after all, my own idea, I always imagine it is Miss Bishop saying it to me.

Originally Published: July 1st, 2009

Born in New York City, poet, political columnist, and personal essayist Katha Pollitt was educated at Radcliffe and earned an MFA from Columbia University. She is the author of the poetry collections The Mind-Body Problem (2009) and Antarctic Traveller (1981), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her poems...

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  1. July 2, 2009

    Lovely article. Have never been a
    fan of Bishop's poetry, this makes me want to read her work again.

  2. July 2, 2009
     LIn Boyle

    Thank you for posting this on fb. It makes me want to revist the biography I have of EB; the other I gave to a friend. She is still an underappreciated poet. How wonderful that you knew her.

    P.S.: I've been recording a poem I wrote a few months ago, one which I'll probably record as a song and narrative. I'll keep in mind what you wrote about authors reading their own works. I, too, dislike the "sing-song" poetic narrative.

    Lin Boyle

  3. July 3, 2009
     Valerie Trueblood

    Thank you for this thoughtful and touching
    picture of the incomparable Bishop.

  4. July 4, 2009
     Katherine Jackson

    When I was a teaching fellow at
    Harvard in 1968 (I think it was), a
    colleague of mind (and a poet) told me
    a woman named Elizabeth Bishop was
    reading the Junior Common Room, a
    smallish room for various gatherings in
    one of the Harvard residential houses.
    I blush to admit that I had never heard
    of her. Nor had many people, it
    seemed, because the reading was very
    sparsely attended. She was, just as Ms
    Pollit says, a small gray-haired woman,
    this time dressed in a red wool suit, the
    skirt just below the knee, and the kind
    of shoes called "pumps.". She simply
    stood, holding her book of poems. We
    all stood in a little clump around her. I
    remember that she read, in her
    nondescript -- deadpan in this case,
    because the poem is very funny --
    voice, never looking up,
    "Manuelzinho." The tone of the poem,
    bemused, wry, poignant, came through
    all the more because she simply let the
    language speak for itself. That
    ravishingly simple perfect-pitch Bishop
    language. 40 or so years later, I'm
    writing this -- looking out a window, &
    across a bay, at North Haven Island,
    and other islands, "afloat in mystic
    blue." Her language has traveled with
    me since those days.

  5. July 9, 2009
     Meg White

    Malamud as a talent scout for God. Now
    that *is* funny. Bishop sounds so much
    like my mentor, an under-appreciated
    Baltimore poet named Kendra Kopelke.
    She is kind and lovely woman who, like
    Bishop, loves teaching and is a
    generous, constructive reader. Like
    Bishop, she seems to honor the process
    of writing just as much, if not more,
    than the outcome. What a shock the
    Malamud-esque Iowa Workshop scene
    was. Almost every woman in my writing
    group was in the process of recovering.

    Thank you for this gorgeous tribute.
    Miss Bishop has always been a favorite
    and reading this felt like something akin
    to a visceral validation.

  6. July 11, 2009
     Howard Partch

    I love the painting E. Bishop did in 1942 of
    Mexico City (see cover of the book
    "Elizabeth Bishop The Complete Poems").
    I have the impression that Mexico City in
    the past did not have the utility
    infrastructure of most large U.S. cities.
    Her painting points this out in a very
    graphic way. It is neat when a poet can
    also paint and draw!

  7. July 14, 2009
     Dolores Hayden

    Thank you, Katha, for this evocative, fond portrait of Elizabeth Bishop as a teacher at Harvard in the early 1970s.

  8. July 24, 2009

    Yes, where did this "sing song" delivery thing come from? It is cardboard-ish, flat.

    Thank you for the lovely words, and for the reassuring insight: "...I am the writer reading my own words." What it's all about.

  9. August 6, 2009
     Edward Mycue

    The matter of reading "flat" Ann Stanford said and was backed-up by Josephine Miles and George Oppen. Actually, Ann advised a reading 'down the middle'. Jo didn't like theatrics. George said it doesn't make it stronger to read, or print in, BIGGER.
    Edward Mycue

  10. August 7, 2009
     Barbara Spring

    I enjoyed this memoir. When a famous poet praises your work, the effects are far reaching.

  11. August 11, 2009
     Silvia de la Peña

    How lucky you were to have known Elizabeth Bishop! When I first read EB (in a poetry class with Meg White's same Kendra Kopelke), she instantly became my favorite poet. I'm reading Words In Air now and it is a wonderful insight into her world.

  12. July 18, 2012

    I think you're right. The secret (if it can be celald that) is just to keep working and submitting and working some more. And writing is hard; it's work. Maybe some people are just looking for the quick fix success you can enjoy but that you don't have to actually work for.