(b. 8 February 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts; d. 6 October 1979 in Cambridge, Massachusetts), prize-winning poet, translator, and fiction writer whose small body of verse during the 1960s perfected the intimate, observant voice of her earlier work and certified her place among the great American poets of the twentieth century.
Bishop was the only child of William Thomas Bishop and Gertrude May Bulmer. Though born in Massachusetts, she joined her maternal grandparents in Great Village, Nova Scotia, a few years after her father's unexpected death and her mother's precipitous mental decline. Bishop delighted in Nova Scotia's rural atmosphere, which provided a setting for several of her most famous poems, but her father's wealthy parents eventually removed their granddaughter to the more "proper" environs of Worcester. The resulting sense of loss and homelessness became a central theme in her writings and contributed to the depression, asthma, and alcoholism that troubled Bishop much of her life.
While a senior at Vassar College in 1934, Bishop befriended the poet Marianne Moore, who became a model for the young poet and encouraged her to pursue a life of writing. By nature shy and careful, Bishop showed similar qualities as a writer, revising drafts endlessly and never rushing to publish, though her work was soon appearing in The New Yorker and The Partisan Review. During the 1940s, she began summering in New York City and wintering in Key West, Florida, a pattern her first two books of poetry, North & South (which won the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Award for 1946), and North & South—A Cold Spring (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955), reflected in the varied geographies and carefully detailed landscapes of those two parts of the United States.
In 1951, anxious to escape New York's competitive atmosphere and disappointed after a planned trip to Italy to visit friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell fell through, Bishop sailed for South America on a round-the-world cruise. In Pétropolis, Brazil, while visiting the aristocrat Lota de Macedo Soares, she suffered a violent allergic reaction to the local cashew fruit. Soares's care of Bishop during her protracted illness sparked a romantic relationship that would continue for fifteen years.
Life in Brazil proved an anodyne for the ever-wandering Bishop. By 1953, she had settled happily into Soares's rural estate, with its panoply of adoptive children and animals, and felt at ease with her lesbian identity as she never had in the United States. Although removed from the social changes taking place back home, she kept abreast of developments in poetry, but the trend toward free verse and confessionalism conflicted with her more classical sensibilities. Her experience of the Brazilian landscape and culture during the late 1950s and early 1960s helped Bishop compose the poems that would form her third book, Questions of Travel (1965). Dividing the book into two sections, "Brazil" and "Elsewhere," she seemed to suggest that her new home, so unlike her childhood Nova Scotia and New England, had provided the grounding Bishop needed to explore regions of memory that proximity had denied her.
Bishop's characteristic eye for detail and her preference for questions rather than answers in her poetry thrived on her experience of Brazil. In the poem "Questions of Travel," she asked of her lifelong wanderings, "What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life / in our bodies, we are determined to rush / to see the sun the other way around? / The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?" The second half of the volume explores autobiographical elements the poet's earlier work avoided. "Sestina" recalls a moment with Bishop's maternal grandmother that entwines domestic comfort and sadness, presumably at the absence of a daughter/mother). Characteristically linking the familiar and the strange to achieve emotional resonance, Bishop described her grandmother's teacup as "full of dark brown tears."
Although her emphasis on controlled syntax and tone made Bishop's poetry seem conservative in comparison to other poetry of the 1960s, the book Questions of Travel demonstrated a new richness of diction, an increasing wonder at encounters with the natural world, and a comfort with direct statement that would influence such varied poets as John Ashbery (an experimentalist), James Merrill (a formalist), and Adrienne Rich (a feminist poet).
In 1961 Bishop's stable life began unraveling after Soares accepted a government position in Rio de Janeiro, overseeing the construction of Flamingo Park. At first, Bishop and Soares were excited by the prospect of relocating to the city. But Bishop's dealings with Time–Life Books, for whom she was writing a guide to Brazil (published in 1962), became an increasing source of frustration, and Rio's busy environs, as well as a military coup in 1964, contrasted harshly with their tranquil country life.
Bishop began to drink heavily, and though she tried writing poems and translations from the short stories of Clarice Lispector, which allegorize the experience of being a woman in a man's world, things soon fell apart. Returning to Brazil after a one-year teaching appointment at the University of Washington in 1966, where she had begun an affair with a younger woman named Suzanne Bowen, Bishop found Soares jealous and distraught. In spite of efforts at reconciliation, the two women grew further apart, and in 1967, after joining Bishop on a visit to New York City, Soares overdosed on sedatives and died a few days later.
Inconsolable, Bishop sought refuge in Bowen, who took her to San Francisco in 1968. There Bishop met such poets as Thom Gunn and Robert Duncan, and even interviewed the wife of Eldridge Cleaver, but she found the changed social mores troubling to her sense of decorum. Soon after, the two women moved into an eighteenth-century country house in the Brazilian village of Ouro Prêto. However, Bishop would never regain the peace and ease she had enjoyed with Soares, and in 1970 she and Bowen separated. Their parting, however, freed Bishop to complete her first original poems in three years, including the famous "In the Waiting Room," a reflection on the poet's girlhood awakening to the fact of her own identity.
In 1970 Bishop's Collected Poems received a National Book Award, and Robert Lowell offered Bishop his teaching post at Harvard while he spent a year abroad. She accepted and later chose to remain in Boston. While there, she completed a small volume of poems that would become her most critically acclaimed book, Geography III (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976), in which her characteristic gentle humor and clarity of vision were shown to have survived a lifetime of upheaval and loss. Bishop died of an embolism, and is buried in the Bishop family plot in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Though physically and politically removed from the United States for much of the 1960s, Bishop composed during this time a body of poetry that not only received the accolades of contemporaries, but greatly influenced American poetry for the remainder of the century. An easy blending of precise sensory detail, lively phrasing, and complex prosody resulted in poems that allowed Bishop to consider such personal issues as her own alcoholism, sense of homelessness, and lesbian identity, without succumbing to the confessionalism that dominated the 1960s. For a time the accolade "a poet's poet" distanced Bishop from other poets of the 1960s, but her poetry continues to demonstrate a capacity for both addressing and transcending the issues of its day.
Autobiographical works about Bishop include her own selected letters, One Art (1994). Biographical works include David Kalstone, Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell (1989); Brett C. Miller, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (1993); and Gary Fountain, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography (1994).
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was a poet whose vivid sense of geography won her many honors.
Elizabeth Bishop barely knew her parents. Her father died of Bright's disease eight months after she was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, February 8, 1911. Her mother, Gertrude, never got over the death of her husband William and suffered a nervous collapse, eventually going insane. She was removed to a sanatorium when her young daughter was five.
One of her earliest and most vivid memories of her mother was of a ride in a swan boat in the Boston Public Garden. Bishop was dressed in black, as had been her wont since her husband's death. "One of the live swans paddling around us bit my mother's finger when she offered it a peanut," Bishop wrote. "I remember the hole in the black glove and a drop of blood on it." Thus was the beginning of a lifelong habit of observing minute, yet significant, details.
Most of her early years were spent with relatives, whom Bishop later described as taking care of her because they felt sorry for her. She did not stay in one place too long, not always by choice. Her sudden removal from her carefree childhood home with her maternal grandparents in the coastal town of Great Village, Nova Scotia, was a traumatic experience. She loved Canada and was unhappy at the wealthy Bishop residence in Worcester, where her father had been born. She wrote in "The Country Mouse," which was published posthumously:
I had been brought back unconsulted and against my wishes … to be saved from a life of poverty and provincialism, bare feet, suet puddings, unsanitary school slates, perhaps even from the inverted r's of my mother's family. With this surprising extra set of grandparents, until a few weeks ago no more than names, a new life was about to begin.
In "The Country Mouse," a humorous account of the nine months spent as a reluctant guest at the home of Sarah and John Wilson Bishop, a successful contractor who had erected buildings at Harvard and Princeton, Bishop presents some of the scenes which found their way into her poems. One of the most poignant was the waiting room of a dentist office to which she had accompanied her Aunt Jenny (Consuelo in the poem). Although she was not yet seven, she was able to read and was browsing through the pages of a 1918 National Geographic while her aunt was being ministered to.
"Suddenly, from inside, came an oh of pain—Aunt Consuelo's voice—"
This did not surprise her, because she thought of her aunt as "a foolish, timid woman." What caught her off guard was the realization that she was her "foolish aunt … falling, falling … into cold, blue-black space."
"…I felt: you are an I, you are an Elizabeth, you are one of them."
It was the first time she had ever referred to herself in her poetry.
Bishop was more the observer with a vivid sense of place. She visited the Nova Scotia of her childhood, spent two years in Europe shortly after she graduated from Vassar, and travelled to North Africa, Mexico, Key West, and Brazil. She had stopped off in Rio de Janeiro en route to sailing the Strait of Magellan, but suffered a violent reaction after eating a cashew fruit. When she recovered she stayed on in Brazil for 15 years.
Bishop wrote sparingly, publishing only five slim volumes of poetry in 35 years, but what she wrote received high acclaim. In 1945 her work was selected from among over 800 entries in the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Competition, and the 30 poems submitted were published the following year as North & South. This collection, together with her second volume, A Cold Spring, earned her the Pulitizer Prize for 1956. She received the National Book Award for The Complete Poems in 1970, was the first American to receive the Books Abroad/Neustadt International Prize for Literature —she was chosen by an international jury of writers—and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Geography III, her last book of poems, in 1977.
As one can tell from her titles, her lifelong passion for travelling influenced her poetry. "I think geography comes first in my work," she told an interviewer, "and then animals. But I like people, too. I've written a few poems about people."
Appropriately, one of her earliest poems, "The Map," describes "Labrador's yellow, where the moony Eskimo has oiled it" and points out that because of cramped space the names of seashore towns run out to the sea and cities cross neighboring mountains. Yet maps are not merely guides to geographical places, nor are they aesthetic objects only. As with most of her poems, "The Map" one sees is not just the colors of the rainbow confined to irregular shapes. One sees Bishop's poem as a guide to the way she views and senses the patterns of life.
"Man-Moth," inspired by a typographical error in the New York Times—the intended word was mammoth— describes the nocturnal New Yorker whose home is "the pale subways of cement" where
Each night he must be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams. Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie his rushing brain…. He has to keep his hands in his pockets, as others must wear mufflers.
The fantasy of the man-moth travelling through New York's underground and, when occasionally emerging to the street, seeing the moon "as a small hole at the top of the sky" has a Kafkaesque quality. When asked to contribute her favorite poem to an anthology called Poet's Choice, Bishop submitted "Man-Moth," commenting on the misprint that gave her the idea: "An oracle spoke from the page of the New York Times, kindly explaining New York City to me, at least for the moment."
Other of her poems that have been highly praised included "The Burglar of Babylon," a ballad set in Rio; "A Miracle for Breakfast," about hunger; "Jeronimo's House," one of her Key West poems; "The Moose," about a bus trip; and "The Fish," her most popular poem.
So frequently has this poem been anthologized that shortly before her death Bishop declared that she would rather have any of her poems but "The Fish" included in a collection, and, if publishers insisted, she asked that they print three of her other poems with it. In the poem the fish, wearing five old pieces of broken lines "like medals," gets a reprieve and is returned to the sea.
One of the reasons for the popularity of this poem was the strong praise it received from Randall Jarrell. Bishop, who was uncommitted to any school of poetry, was also admired by poets as disparate as John Ashbery, Octavio Paz, Robert Lowell, and Marianne Moore. She also knew Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, Pablo Neruda, and Carlos Drummond, one of Brazil's most popular poets, whose work she translated from the Portuguese.
But it was Marianne Moore who had the greatest influence of all of these. While still at Vassar, Bishop met Moore through the college librarian, Fanny Borden, niece of the accused ax-murderer Lizzie Borden. After an initial interview in the New York Public Library, the two poets began a long friendship, launched when Bishop helped Moore pilfer a few hairs from a baby elephant at a circus to replace strands of the rare hair on her bracelet. Bishop kept the adult elephants and the guard busy while Moore snipped away.
Moore helped to convince Bishop to abandon her plans to study medicine and to work at her poetry instead. Critics have said that the two poets shared the same gift of acute observation and understated wit. And each of them was fond of animals. Besides Moore, Bishop credited George Herbert and Wallace Stevens as being important influences on her.
Bishop died suddenly of a ruptured cerebral aneurism in her Boston apartment on October 6, 1979. She was 68 years old.
A critical study of Bishop's work is Anne Stevenson's Elizabeth Bishop (1966). Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art was edited by Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess (1983). The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 supersedes the earlier Complete Poems (1969). Elizabeth Bishop: The Collected Prose, edited by Robert Giroux in 1984, contains essays and accounts of her life not published when she was alive. □
Born 8 February 1911, Worcester, Massachusetts; died 6 October 1979, Boston, Massachusetts
Daughter of Gertrude May Bulmer and William Thomas Bishop (the Bulmer family name was pronounced with a silent "l" and had the variant spelling of Boomer)
When Elizabeth Bishop was eight months old, she lost her father to Bright's disease after he had been ill off and on for six years. The death had a disastrous effect on her mother. Unable to cope with the tragedy, her mother became increasingly disoriented and was in and out of mental hospitals during Bishop's early childhood. In 1916 she was permanently institutionalized and never saw her daughter again before she died in 1934.
As an only child growing up, Bishop was continually aware that she did not provide her mother with sufficient consolation or sense of purpose to keep her from leaving yet again. The memory of what seemed to be maternal neglect and rejection stayed with Bishop all her life and surfaced in her poetry, a particularly clear instance being an unpublished draft of a poem called "A Drunkard," where it is associated with the beginnings of her lifelong problem with alcoholism, her "abnormal thirst."
The uncertainty surrounding her mother's condition was mitigated by the stable and loving relationship Bishop had with her maternal grandparents. After being widowed, Bishop's mother had taken her daughter and returned home to live with them in Great Village, Nova Scotia, a tiny and close-knit community filled with relatives and neighbors. When Bishop was six years old, however, the warmth and liveliness of life in Great Village came to an end following the arrival of her father's parents, the prosperous Bishops, whose wealth had been made from a successful contracting firm noted for building such landmarks as the Boston Public Library and Museum of Fine Arts. The Bishops were intent on taking their granddaughter back with them, and so she was returned, against her will, to her birthplace in Worcester, Massachusetts.
The contrast between the cold and proper opulence of the Bishop home and her country existence in Nova Scotia could not have been greater. The sudden isolation and boredom were terrible experiences for a sensitive child who had already suffered more than her share of misfortune. She became ill with a number of severe ailments including bronchitis, asthma, and eczema, all of which plagued her for the rest of her life. Her miserable stay with the Bishops lasted only nine months, but it represented a profound turning point. Her famous poem "In the Waiting Room" recalls it as a fall from innocence into a painfully acute and alienating consciousness of time and self.
Her health became so poor that the Bishops allowed her to be rescued by her aunt, Maud Bulmer Shepherdson, her mother's older sister. In 1918 Bishop moved to Revere, Massachusetts, to live with Maud and her husband. Although she loved her aunt and was deeply grateful for her generosity, she continued to suffer from the sense of having no rightful place or home of her own. During an interview with Elizabeth Spires in 1978 (published in Paris Review, Summer 1981), Bishop said, "…my relationship with my relatives—I was always a sort of guest, and I think I've always felt like that."
Before the age of fourteen Bishop had little formal education, but with the help of her aunt she developed her literary interests through independent reading. At fourteen she began attending high school and day school, and from 1927 to 1930 she went to Walnut Hill, a college prep boarding school in Natick, Massachusetts. In 1930 she entered Vassar College and became part of a group of gifted students that included Mary McCarthy, Eleanor Clark, and Muriel Rukeyser. During her senior year, she was introduced to poet Marianne Moore, who was forty-seven at the time. Moore befriended the young Bishop, and their relationship—as mentor and apprentice initially and then as colleagues—lasted through the years, despite the many travels and changes of residence that characterized Bishop's nomadic life.
A second key friendship with a fellow poet took shape when Bishop met Robert Lowell in 1947. As two up-and-coming writers, they established a relationship of peers. Both had just published highly acclaimed collections—North & South (1946) for Bishop and Lord Weary's Castle for Lowell—and they sensed in each other a kinship that would develop into a mutually sustaining exchange of ideas, drafts, and advice.
In 1951 Bishop embarked on a trip around South America. During a stop in Rio de Janeiro, she suffered a violent allergic reaction to the fruit of the cashew tree and had to abandon her plans and recover there. She was cared for by the friends she had been visiting, and with one of them, Lota Costellat de Macedos Soares, the friendship deepened into an intimate relationship. She ended up living with Soares in Brazil for 15 years. For much of that period she led a settled and happy existence, combining domesticity with creative production.
Bishop's second collection of poems was published with a reissuance of her first collection, and the combined volume, Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring (1955), won the Pulitzer Prize in 1956. Her third collection, Questions of Travel (1965), was followed by The Complete Poems (1969), which received the National Book award in 1970.
After the tragic death of Soares in 1967, apparently by suicide, Bishop made arrangements to take up residence in the U.S. and spent the final decade of her life writing and teaching, primarily at Harvard University. In 1976 she became the first American and the first woman to receive the Books Abroad/Neustadt International Prize for Literature. That same year saw the publication of the final collection to appear in her lifetime, Geography III, which won the National Book Critics Circle award in 1977. After her death in 1979, Bishop's reputation continued to grow and she has come to be considered one of the preeminent poets of the 20th century.
Brazil (with the editors of Life, 1962). The Ballad of the Burglar of Babylon (1968). The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 (1983). The Collected Prose (1984). One Art: Elizabeth Bishop (letters edited by Robert Giroux, 1994).
Brown, A., "An Interview with Elizabeth Bishop," in Shenandoah 17 (Winter 1966). CANR 61 (1998). CLC 32 (1985). DLB 5 (1980), 169 (1996). Goldensohn, L., Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poet (1991). Kalstone, D., Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell (1989). Millier, B. C., Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (1993); "The Prodigal: Elizabeth Bishop and Alcohol," in Contemporary Literature 39 (Spring 1998). Paton, P. M., "Landscape and Female Desire: Elizabeth Bishop's 'Closet' Tactics," in Mosaic 31 (Sept. 1998). Showalter, E., ed., Modern American Women Writers (1991).
—MARLENE M. MILLER