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by Bamber Gascoigne

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)


One of the most important American poets of the twentieth century, hailed for her work which fuse together accurate perceptions of the visible world with the poet's experience and memory. Although Elizabeth Bishop received numerous awards during her lifetime, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Books Abroad/Neustadt International Prize for Literature, she was also a somewhat lonely figure and her oeuvre was relatively small – less than a hundred poems apart from essays and stories.

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

(from 'One Art,' The Complete Poems 1927-1979, 1983)

Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester, Mass. In 1911, when she was only eight months old, her father died from Bright's disease; he was vice-president of his father's contracting firm, which had built in Boston the Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts. Until the age of six, Bishop lived with her maternal grandparents, the Bulmer family, in Great Village, Nova Scotia, and then returned to Massachusetts to live with her father's family. Bishop great-grandfather sailed the North and South American coasts, and went down with his ship in 1866. Bishop loved the sea. In her late teens she mastered the skills to sail a fifteen-foot sailboat from Plymouth to York Harbor, Maine.

In her poems Bishop celebrated the rural and coastal Great Village, where the "grandmother sings to the marvelous stove / and the child draws another inscrutable house." (from 'Sestina', in Questions of Travel, 1965) Bishop's mother, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, who could not accept her husband's death, suffered a series of nervous breakdowns. Eventually she was confined in 1917 to a mental hospital. Bishop never saw her again.

Since her childhood, Bishop's health was fragile. She was plagued by asthma and later she suffered from depression and occasional bouts of alcoholism. Uncle George Shepherdson bathed her; Bishop later recalled how his fingers probed her. On one of the lowest points of her life, Bishop drank a whole bottle of eau de toilette to get the alcohol.

At sixteen, Bishop was sent to Walnut Hill boarding-school in Natick. In 1929 she entered Vassar College, where she found "the compass rose painted on the library floor / predicted all the ways she would travel." While at Vassar, Bishop co-founded a literary magazine, the Con Spirito, with Mary McCarthy and others. "She's always pretending to be something-or-other," Bishop said of McCarthy, "and never quite convincing herself or other people."

Encouraged by Marianne Moore, her first mentor and friend, Bishop began to pursue writing seriously. Her mother died in 1934, on the same year when Bishop graduated. Bishop's early poems and short stories were published in magazines and periodicals, including The Partisan Review, launched in 1934 as an organ for the Communist John Reed Club. The appearance of a number of prominent writers and intellectuals on the pages of PR strengthened the magazine's prestige, but Bishop was never a member of its inner circle. Nearly all of her best poems and rare short stories appeared in The New Yorker, beginning from 'Cirque d' Hiver' (1940). For this piece she was paid one dollar per line.

After extensive travels with Louise Crane, a paper mill heiress, in Newfoundland, Europe and North Africa, Bishop settled with Crane in Key West, Florida. Bishop spent there much of the next decade; she became a good friend of Ernest Hemingway's ex-wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. One of her poems from this period, 'The Fish', predated Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, but at the end Bishop's speaker, an old man, lets the suffocating fish go. When Bishop mailed a copy of the poem to Marianne Moore, she apologized: "I'm afraid it is very bad and, if not like Robert Frost, perhaps like Ernest Hemingway!"

North & South (1946), Bishop's first book, contained some of her best-known poems, including 'The Map' (1935), 'The Man-Moth' (1936), based on a newspaper misprint for mammoth, and 'The Unbeliever' (1938). "One is reminded of Kafka and certain abstract paintings, and is left rather at sea about the actual subjects of the poems," said Robert Lowell in his review. The majority of these poems Bishop wrote in New York. When she congratulated Lowell on the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for Lord Weary's Castle and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he replied: "You are a marvelous writer, and your note was about the only one that meant anything to me." Bishop's friendship with Lowell lasted until his death.

'Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance' from her second book called A Cold Spring (1955) recalled Bishop's stay in Mexico, where she went with Marjorie Stevens. After meeting the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda on the summit of a pyramid in Chichén Itzá, she bought a volume of his poetry. "His chief interest in life . . . besides Communism seeems to be shells," Bishop wrote to Marianne Moore.  Neruda was more impressed of her work, calling her a "great North American poet". 

In 1949-50 Bishop worked at the Library of Congress as a poetry consultant – a duty for which she was not suited. However, she continued Robert Lowell's tradition of visiting Ezra Pound, who was incarcerated in St. Elizabeths Hospital for the insane in Washington, D.C. Bishop brought him books and magazines, but did not enjoy Pound's company, who was kind of mean. In 'Visits to St. Elizabeth's' from 1950 she wrote: "This is the man / that lies in the house of Bedlam. / The is the time / of the tragic man / that lies in the house of Bedlam."

With the financial support of a Lucy Donnelly Fellowship, which Bishop received on Marianne Moore's recommendation, Bishop planned in 1951 to travel around the world. Since publishing North and South she had not been able to write enough poems for a second collection and she was in the habit of drinking. There were times in her life, when she drank whatever was around, including eau de cologne. Once when she stayed in her friend's apartment in Washington, D.C., she found under the stairs a cupboard filled with an assortment of liquor. She took a little of everything and vomited all over the house.

While convalescing in Rio from an allergic reaction to the fruit of the cashew, Bishop met Maria Costellat (Lota) de Macedo Soares, an architect and landscape designer, who was descended from old aristocratic Brazilian families. She became her lover. "I am extremely happy, for the first time in my life", Bishop wrote in a letter to Lowell. "I live in a spectacular beautiful place . . . I know, through Lota, most of the Brazilian "intellectuals" already and I find the people frank, – startlingly so, until you get used to Portuguese vocabularies – extremely affectionate . . ." With Lota, she shared a modernist house called "Samambaia," in Petrópolis, fifty miles north of Rio. In this very creative period Bishop wrote Poems: North & South; A Cold Spring, which won a Pulitzer Prize. Brazilian rhythms and way of life set a new undercurrent  in her writing.

From 1951 to 1966 she lived permanently in the country, and then kept going back for extended stays until she sold her beautiful eighteenth-century house in Ouro Prêto. In 1967 Bishop left for New York City, where she stayed in the apartment of Loren MacIver and Lloyd Frankenberg on Perry Street. At that time Bishop's relationship with Lota had already begun to go downhill. Depressed by the separation and exhausted by her job at the Parque do Flamengo (Rio's Flamingo Park), Lota committed suicide with a huge dose of Nembutal pills while visiting Bishop in Greenwich Village.

First and foremost a poet, Bishop never considered herself a a translator, but she translated from Ancient Greek, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. With John Knox she translated Henrique Ephim Mindlin's book Modern Architecture in Brazil (1956, Arquitetura Moderna no Brasil). "Have to do it to help out a friend and because I live in one of the examples of it, so feel somehow involved, but since my knowledge of architecture is probably a little less than my knowledge of Portuguese, if that's possible, it is rather hard going,"she complained in a letter to Randall Jarrell. (One Art: Letters, selected and edited by Robert Giroux, 1994, p. 311) Bishop referred to a passage on Fazenda Samambaia, where she lived. It was published by Reinhold Publishing Corporation in 1956. Mindlin was a friend of Macedo Soares. For the book on Brazil for the Life World Library series she was paid $10,000 and travel expenses.

After returning to the United States, Bishop began teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle, then Harvard University and later at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, she was not very fond of her job, saying once that all the students wanted to write free verse, and she wanted them to do iambic pentameter.

Bishop's third collection of poems, Questions of Travel (1965) is considered by many her best. "These poems, so strikingly untopical, are in a way really quite topical: add a headline or two as an epigraph, reread them from the proper perspective, and they would be current events, almost." ('A Poet of Landscape' by Robert Mazzocco, The New York Review, October 12, 1967) The Complete Poems (1969) won the National Book Award. It contained  her three collections of poems, some uncollected poems, and a selection of translations from Portuguese. Bishop's final collection of poems, Geography III (1976), which received the National Book Critics' Circle Award, reflected again her concern with place and displacement. This book contains the masterpieces 'Crusoe in England' and 'The Moose,' based on a true incident that happened to her in 1946 on her on a bus trip in Nova Scotia. In both of these poems Bishop expressed feelings of strangeness and isolation, but her attitude is wryly ironic.

Bishop was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she held the post of chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and collected several honorary degrees. The Brazilian Government awarded her the Order of the Rio Branco in 1971 and in 1976 she won the Books Abroad/Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Elizabeth Bishop died of a cerebral aneurysm on October 6, 1979, in Boston, Mass. Her relationship with Macedo Soares inspired Carmen Oliveira's national bestseller Flores raras e banalíssimas (1995, Rare and Commonplace Flowers). Bruno Barreto's 2014 film Reaching for the Moon (Flores raras), starring Miranda Otto as Elizabet Bishop and Glória Pires as Lota de Macedo Soares, was based on the book. "It's hard not to admire the intentions of a movie that depicts two exceptional women living exactly the way they wanted, together, outside the expected societal norms of the time. But the tone of the film itself feels unfortunately conventional – the opposite of the approach Elizabeth and Lota took in their personal and professional lives." ('Reaching for the Moon' by Christy Lemire,, November 14, 2013)

For further reading: Elizabeth Bishop by A. Stevenson (1966); Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, ed. L. Schwartz and S. Estess (1983); Elizabeth Bishop and Howard Nemerov by T. Travisano (1983); The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop by R.D. Parker (1988); Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell by David Kalstone (1989); Elizabeth Bishop; Questions of Mastery by B. Costello (1991); Elizabeth Bishop, Life and the Memory of It by Brett C. Miller (1993); Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of Poetry by L. Goldensohn (1993); Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss by S. McCake (1994); Remembering Elizabeth Bishop by G. Fountain and P. Brazeau (1994); 'Bshop, Elizabeth,' in World Authors 1900-1950, Volume One, ed. Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); The Rare and Commonplace Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota De Macedo Soares by Carmen L. Oliveira (2002); Art and Memory in the Work of Elizabeth Bishop by Jonathan Ellis (2005); God and Elizabeth Bishop: Meditations on Religion and Poetry by Cheryl Walker (2005); Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again by Sarah Ruhl (2014); On Elizabeth Bishop by Colm Tóibín (2015); Elizabeth Bishop at Work by Eleanor Cook (2016); Elizabeth Bishop's Brazil by Bethany Hicok (2016); Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast by Megan Marshall (2017); Elizabeth Bishop and Translation by Mariana Machova (2017); Elizabeth Bishop in Context, edited by Angus Cleghorn, Jonathan Ellis (2021); Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer's Life by Dana Gioia (2021); Elizabeth Bishop: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan F.S. Post (2022)

Selected works:

  • North & South, 1946
  • Poems: North & South; A Cold Spring, 1955
  • translator (with John Knox): Modern Architecture in Brazil by Henrique E. Mindlin, 1956
  • translations: The Diary of "Helena Morley" by Alice Bradt, 1957 (reissued in 1991)
  • Brazil: Life World Library Series, 1962
  • Questions of Travel, 1965
  • The Ballad of the Burglar of Babylon, 1968
  • The Complete Poems, 1969
  • ed.: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry, 1972 (with E. Brasil)
  • Geography III, 1976
  • The Complete Poems 1927-1979, 1983
  • The Collected Prose, 1984
  • One Art: Letters, 1994 (selected and edited by Robert Giroux)
  • Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, 1996
  • Exchanging Hats: Paintings, 1996
  • Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, 2006 (edited by Alice Quinn)
  • Poems, Prose and Letters, 2008 (ed. Robert Giroux, Lloyd Schwartz)
  • Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, 2010 (ed. Thomas Travisano, Saskia Hamilton)
  • Poems, 2011
  • Prose, 2011 (edited by Lloyd Schwartz)
  • Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence, 2011 (edited by Joelle Biele)

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