Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It


Bishop standing next to Marianne Moore. The man on the ladder is W.H. Auden.

Brett C. Millier’s biography of of Elizabeth Bishop is very readable and clearly structured in chronological sections. I’ve made it up to 1947 so far, about 200 pages into the 600 of this tome. Millier tries to follow Bishop’s emotional as well as poetic development by drawing from letters, stories, note book entries, and published as well as unpublished poems. She is sympathetic in her account, and while Millier does explain that there are many things that simply cannot be known, she shares her own theories about what might have been the case.

I was surprised, while reading these first seven chapters, at how much I could relate, how much Bishop and I may have in common. Her sense of homelessness or rootlessness, her urge to keep moving, spending months or half a year here, then leave, and the feeling that home doesn’t quite exist — I can relate to that. Over the last ten years, I spent more time outside of Germany than in it, and never more than 10 months in any given place except one almost 3 year stint before I moved to Mississippi, and, well, now. I have no idea where home is, and like Bishop when she was at university, this rootlessness makes for stressful breaks between the semesters, because there is nowhere to go.

This rootlessness Bishop experienced was, however, not just geographic: never really knowing her father, and losing her mother to mental illness, she was handed around among relatives for some time. I suppose leaving for school, for college, was a sort of emancipation for the young girl.

Millier traces Bishop’s interests in reading and study, and this is very interesting to me. The broadness of her interests confirms my suspicion that as poets, we are primed to be interested in everything there is, but most of all, in detail.

Through Marianne Moore and other friends, Bishop was introduced to a sort of literary community. Bishop’s relationship with Moore runs like a thread through the book, from their arranged first meeting on a bench at a library via Moore’s postal workshopping of Bishop’s drafts to Bishop’s cutting of the umbilical cord in 1940 in their disagreement over “Roosters.” After this, there are still some letters, but also phone calls (of which of course nothing is left to look at today) and some visits.

Millier’s portrait shows Bishop as an introverted woman who suffered from a great deal of self-doubt. At the same time, from early on, she had a clear idea of how poetry should be created, and what makes good art: “It’s a question of using the poet’s proper materials, with which he is equipped by nature, i.e., immediate, intense physical reactions, a sense of metaphor and decoration in everything” (65).

Considering her delicate health, her acute perception of and preoccupation with the passage of time, her intensity of experience and her very detailed, multi-sensory observations as evidenced in her letters, notes, and poems, I find myself wondering if Bishop was what is known today as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).

HSPs make up about 15 to 20% of the human and animal population, and are defined by a significantly lower threshold for some or all stimuli, meaning that many or even all things are experienced much more intensely. Of course there is no way of telling, but after reading Bishop’s poetry and prose, and learning more about her personal experience, I’d not be surprised. There are many factors that may have caused Bishop’s own depression and self-doubt.

Millier points out that Bishop’s drinking and her writing are mutually exclusive, one cannot happen at the same time as the other. This makes sense in view of Bishop’s poetry, its carefully controlled wording, the intense but ordered impressions that are in it. A drunk or drugged mind may work for phantasmagoria, but not for the type of poetry Bishop wanted to write. She set herself standards that were so high she could not reach them, which is why even when her work was published in New Directions, she wrote to Moore to skip those pages because she regretted having sent them: “It is so TERRIBLE, I can’t bear to think of it, really terrible” (145).

Bishop’s self doubt was fueled by the inevitable rejections she — like anyone who sends out work — received, and also by some of her relationships: When she turned down a marriage proposal from her college boyfriend, Bob Seaver, he committed suicide. Before killing himself, he wrote her a postcard and put it in the mail. The postcard read: “Go to hell, Elizabeth” (112). What a heartless last gesture to make — a reproach that does not allow for any answer.

Her relationship with her mentor Marianne Moore was much less dramatic, much less violent, but while Moore was instrumental in Bishop’s early writing career, she did try to mold Bishop. Her complete rewrite of “Roosters” (including a new title) was the drop that finally made the bucket overflow. Bishop’s letter in defense of her own version of “Roosters” is surprisingly confident and very emotional. This is an important step for Bishop who had, up to this point, very much relied on Moore’s feedback and suggestions for her work.

In her first letter to Moore, Bishop says something that I’d love to find out more about: “Are you interested in tattooing? A wonderful book on it just came out and I am trying to get a copy” (59). Is she talking about tribal / ethnic tattooing, a sociological look at body markings in foreign cultures, or does she mean tattooing in the western sense? I know it’s a weird thing to pick out of 200 pages about a poet, but it caught my eye and tickles my fancy. (Try to picture Marianne Moore as a ‘painted lady’…)

Expect more Bishop-related posts in the near future. And some other things.

Painted Lady

Painted Lady

About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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