Jonathan F. S. Post — author of one of those other VSI titles, on Shakespeare’s sonnets and poems, as well as of an important critical study of Anthony Hecht — begins his artful guide to Bishop’s poetry with his own consideration of how she “made her way to the top.” He rightly points to the great literary friendships she forged in her lifetime, first with Marianne Moore as a mentor, and then with Lowell and Randall Jarrell as contemporaries, followed by younger poets such as James Merrill, Adrienne Rich, and Seamus Heaney. Post produces a cogent quote from Heaney on the currents of literary taste that moved in Bishop’s direction and away from Lowell, who was the more garlanded poet during their lifetimes: “Lowell is taking the punishment that’s always handed out to the big guy eventually […] the fashion shifted, the culture favored a less imperious style, the gender balance needed adjusting […] the time was propitious for the perfect pitch of Bishop.”
Post also mentions in passing my own introduction to Bishop, which came via the New Generation promotion of young British poets in 1994. In a special edition of the leading magazine Poetry Review, the 20 poets chosen for the promotion were asked to pick the three 20th-century books that had most influenced them. Fifteen years after her death, no less than six of the writers named Elizabeth Bishop as an influence, which was enough to catch the eye of any young poet seeking guidance on whom they should be reading. It was only some years later, when I befriended one of those New Generation writers, the Irish American Michael Donaghy, that I learned — or so Michael claimed — of how he had lobbied many of his fellow poets to pick Bishop as a sort of cross between in-joke and spirited intervention.
My curiosity piqued, I began to read whatever I could find by and about Bishop (the first biography, by Brett C. Millier, was published in 1993), and I found one element of her life story personally compelling. We are meant to keep such things out of consideration when we first encounter poets, and it is hard to think of a writer less “Confessional” than Elizabeth Bishop. Indeed, she famously reprimanded Lowell for his use of Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters in his poetry collection The Dolphin. Nonetheless, such is the growing literary industry around Bishop and her circle of friends that the correspondence just mentioned was recently published as The Dolphin Letters (2020) — with Bishop’s pained and painstaking letters to Lowell and Hardwick very much the denouement.
Bishop’s childhood was an unhappy one. Her father died not long after she was born. Her mother suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalized when Elizabeth was five, leaving her to live with relatives in Massachusetts. She would never see her mother again. Bishop’s physical health was also poor. Her early years were those of an invalid, not unlike the childhood of Robert Louis Stevenson (another writer who spent most of his life living anywhere but where he first called home). Bishop’s health problems included eczema, asthma, and bronchitis. A letter to Anne Stevenson, written in 1964, describes a flare-up of “exzema [sic] that almost killed me. One awful day I was sent home from ‘first grade’ because of my sores — and I imagine my hopeless shyness has dated from then.” In the most recent biography, Love Unknown (2019), Thomas Travisano suggests that her lifelong auto-immune disorders and alcoholism were a result of the trauma from that period. Whether that is true or not, I have always felt that Bishop’s eczema, in particular, is a hidden factor at play in her work.
A poem such as “The Prodigal,” for example, usually draws attention, as Post writes, as a “parable on drunkenness in a pigsty.” But drunkenness in “The Prodigal” is bluntly portrayed. The true parable lies in the body horror of that poem, figured in the pigs and their “enormous brown odor he lived by,” as well as understanding that the Prodigal’s “exile” is also one of the self from the body (“his shuddering insights, beyond his control”) — all of which is Bishop’s coded way of addressing shame and a troubled relationship with her own skin. You need to look carefully to see this in her work and it can appear in the most peculiar places, such as the description of oxen in “From Trollope’s Journal”: “Their legs were caked the color of dried blood.” Note how writing descriptively of animals can allow Bishop to mediate her alienation, most directly (and positively) in her late poem “Pink Dog.” Eczema is never mentioned explicitly in the poems but does appear in her short story, “The Country Mouse”: “Then I became ill. First came eczema, then came asthma.” At the story’s culmination, the young protagonist realizes her selfhood with direct reference to her afflictions: “I felt … myself. In a few days it would be seventh birthday. I felt I, I, I, and looked at the three strangers in panic. I was one of them too, inside my scabby body and wheezing lungs.” It is telling that when Bishop rewrites this episode in her famous poem “In the Waiting Room,” the references to her ill health are glossed away.
Why this matters, I would contend, relates to a dualism between body and mind which lies behind much of Bishop’s poetry. The mind is apparent everywhere, the body — as we have seen — less so. Bishop’s physical tribulations also speak to something to which Post devotes an entire chapter: her interest in poetic form. Form is a way of exercising control, of reasserting boundaries. It should be obvious why that might appeal to someone with a severe skin complaint. “The Prodigal,” for all its chaos and alienation, takes the form of a double sonnet.
Form, for Elizabeth Bishop, also acted as a sort of “closet.” Post cites the story of how Adrienne Rich once attempted to persuade Bishop to be more forthcoming about her sexual orientation. Afterward, Bishop spoke to Richard Howard, ostensibly about furnishing her new apartment: “‘You know what I want, Richard? I want closets, closets, and more closets!’ And she laughed.” Not that Bishop really was in the closet, of course, as she lived much of her adult life openly with other women. Rather, she used the closet of form as a way of applying creative pressure to intractable material. “Writing, for Bishop, was not self-expression,” writes Colm Tóibín, “but there was a self somewhere, and it was insistent in its presence yet tactful and watchful.”
None of this makes Bishop a staid or dry poet, as a poem like “The Prodigal” also demonstrates. She once wrote in disparaging terms of a certain form of women’s literature, encompassing names such as Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen, which she described in a letter to Lowell as the “our beautiful old silver” school of writing: “They have to make quite sure that the reader is not going to mis-place them socially, first — and that nervousness interferes constantly with what they think they’d like to say.” In Bishop’s writing, by contrast, a different type of nervousness is deployed — and it animates everything that she says.
Post is particularly good on what he describes as “Bishop’s supreme valuation of formal variety as a means to singularity.” She often used form, but seldom repeated herself. “On the few occasions that she did,” writes Post, “as in the cases of the sonnet and the sestina, the poems appear remarkably different or distant from one another.” What Bishop does within the parameters of form also marks her out as special. In the superb critical study Becoming a Poet, David Kalstone writes of Bishop’s interest in “the rapidity of transition,” using language that makes me think of the uncontrollable itch of an eczema sufferer: “[N]ot the metrics of a piece but the real rhythm ‘the releasing, checking, timing, and repeating of the movement of the mind.’ The phrase is Bishop’s, from an article on Gerard Manley Hopkins.”
For a young poet who has not always felt secure in her own body, perhaps the movement of the mind carries particular importance. Here, then, is that different type of nervousness. Post adumbrates the many tactics she uses to enliven her verse, from casually deployed phrases and asides to errant thinking, lists, and repetition. He also focuses on the influence of a critic, Morris Croll, first mentioned in Kalstone’s study, whose essay “The Baroque Style in Prose” Bishop read as a college student. The baroque style is asymmetric and various, where the “rapidity of transition,” a sense of immediacy or spontaneity, portrays “[n]ot a thought, but a mind thinking,” which is perhaps most strikingly realized in Bishop’s peerless villanelle, “One Art,” and her use of parentheses in its famous last lines:
— Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
This is very definitely poetry but with something else going on at the same time. Post finds an apposite remark from Vidyan Ravinthiran: Bishop is “the first poet successfully to use all the resources of prose.”
Bishop uses these resources in what remains “an astonishingly small number of published poems — about 90 in all.” If that oeuvre can be summed up by two lines of her work, it might be the closing lines of “The Bight,” which also serve as the epitaph on the poet’s gravestone:
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.
As Post writes, these lines “summon a view of daily life that tilts between emotional extremes, but rarely gives way to either, striking a clarifying balance in the face of things — a chief hallmark of Bishop’s verse.”
Dualism. Extremes. Balance. These are the terms of Elizabeth Bishop. Jonathan F. S. Post has written a fine guide to her remarkable achievement. Bishop’s “clarifying balance in the face of things” can be found too in a cherished story that I shall close on. The story comes from James Merrill, who visited her in Brazil in 1970. Bishop’s long-term lover, Lota de Macedo Soares, had taken her own life a few years earlier, and Bishop had recently written to Lowell describing herself as facing “the worst situation I have ever had to cope with and I can’t see the way out.” One evening, while staying with her, Merrill returned home to find Bishop drunk, with books by Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell lying on the floor beside her. Merrill and Bishop talk for a while, and she begins to weep. She talks about her guilt at the death of Lota. And then, their conversation is interrupted by another houseguest, a Brazilian artist. Bishop gets up, switching immediately to being the helpful hostess and speaking in Portuguese. “Don’t be upset José Alberto, I’m only crying in English.”
Andrew Neilson is a Scottish poet and essayist, based in London. He co-edits the digital poetry journal, Bad Lilies, with Kathryn Gray.