Elizabeth Bishop: Life & the Memory of It (2)

painting by Elizabeth Bishop (Alice Methfessel Collection)

painting by Elizabeth Bishop (Alice Methfessel Collection)

I finished reading Millier’s Elizabeth Bishop biography last night. I wanted to finish it before my birthday, and I did. So, after over 500 pages, what do I know about Bishop? Lots. Some things I’m not sure were necessary for me to know, but many things that were interesting.

Bishop’s self-doubt about her poetry and, later, her sense that she was playing a role (cheating) when she accepted various teaching jobs, and her proneness to feeling guilty stayed with her to the end. Though she did not believe that poetry-writing could be taught, she was in dire need of money, and the offers from Harvard and Washington seemed at least temporary solutions. But when she expressed her shock at learning a student was going to travel to Brazil to research her life and write about her (and by this time she had received numerous prizes, taught at Harvard, and been awarded four or five honorary degrees, at least) I don’t think it was just her innate modesty or her self-doubt speaking.

If I were in that situation, I would be just as horrified about the conflation of the public and the private, about the conflation of writing and life, although I do believe they are inseparably interwoven. I also felt “I would have done the same thing!” when reading that she agreed to read at an MLA conference, but refused to attend talks that discussed her work. While it’s certainly a sign of appreciation of her craft to want to canonize her in this way, it just makes for a very awkward situation. Bishop was very careful about how much of her private life she revealed in her writing, and then to sit in a room full of people while someone tries to explain the poems or tie them to personal life events — would you do it? I know I’d not.

Over all, Elizabeth Bishop — as described by Millier — appears to me as a person who was both vulnerable and at the same time full of energy. Well past her 60s, she was skiing and riding her bike and traveling, despite her constant struggles with asthma, alcoholism and various other illnesses. It seems that towards the end, she felt more at ease, socially — she frequently held dinners and parties at her apartment. Apparently, she made some really good strawberry shortcake! I wonder if that recipe is out there somewhere — if you come across it, do share it with me.


She was in touch most of the time with Robert Lowell (she called him Cal) and he was no doubt a source of support over the years. She felt she could talk with him about her problem with alcohol (which he shared) and they exchanged drafts to get feedback from one another. Their views on poetry, however, were quite different. Lowell let his private life flow right into the public space, especially when he published The Dolphin which contained altered sections of letters from his ex-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, whom he’d left for another woman. Bishop had warned him that using and altering these letters, without Hardwick’s permission, and then making them public, was not a good idea. Knowing his heart was set on the publication, she suggested changes, some of which he made. In the aftermath of the publication of The Dolphin, Lowell conceded that Bishop might have been right.

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell

One of the questions Bishop struggled with, and that probably fed her self-doubt, was how much one needs to write to be a writer. She did not publish many poems, compared to her contemporaries. She saw the irony in receiving a prize for her poetry when she had not written (i.e. completed) a poem in two years or so. She felt bad about not being able to write, and while she took notes for most of her adult life, she had a difficult time getting to the point where she felt a poem was good enough to let go.

Millier observes that in a number of poems where the drafts have survived, the first drafts seemed to say almost the opposite of what the finished piece says (she lists “One Art” as one example). It is very possible that Bishop was aware of this pattern and that this is a main reason why she could not let pieces go out into the world easily. Unlike Lowell, she did not want to be the suffering, passionate artist. She believed (I think) that there was a certain etiquette for good poetry, and while she felt that Lowell’s early ‘confessional’ poetry was in some way “necessary,” the later confessional poetry was not because it was too egocentric.

Bishop had a pragmatic, no-nonsense approach to publishing (and teaching) poetry. Chiding an editor for his suggestion to add footnotes to some of her poems in his anthology, she wrote: “I think anyone who gets as far as college should be able to use a dictionary…If a poem catches a student’s interest at all, he or she should damned well be able to look up an unfamiliar word in the dictionary” (549).  This was the last letter she would write, hours before passing. She’d also advised her students to use their dictionaries.

This book shows Bishop as a complex person. Millier has definitely done her research. At the end, she leaves us with a slight ambivalence about this poet who tried so hard to keep her private and public lives separate. Nobody is ever just one thing — be it a genius, a coward, a lover, a poet, an alcoholic or a lesbian, so it is perfectly possible to be independent and needy at the same time, or vulnerable and confident (Bishop had brief periods in her life where she did seem to feel more confident). She was both appalled by and fascinated with the hippy culture. She was and was not a feminist; she interviewed the wife of a Black Panther leader, but the interview was never printed, supported equal rights, but still worried about that a friend’s child might somehow turn grow up to be like the lower classes around her in Brazil.

Bishop’s life, to me, reads like a long free-fall, toward the end of which she learns to accept her situation and enjoy the ride. I did not realize how late in her life “One Art” was written, or the circumstances of it, so I’ll be reading it slightly differently from now on. Since Bishop spent most of her life searching for a home, be it geographical, physical, emotional, I think it makes sense that “First Death in Nova Scotia” may well be the poem that captures her most for me.

Her connections, her countless literary friends impressed me, and the idea that she could just go somewhere for weeks or months and stay, that she’d be invited when she needed it, and again and again there’d be someone to help her out. Most of the “good writers” I’ve met in my life (and I’ll admit there aren’t that many writers I’ve met) are kind and generous people in the sense that I’m pretty sure they, too, would help a friend out when needed, but in today’s world — at least the world I’ve lived in most of my life — such kindness is rare and had Bishop been anything but a writer / artist, she might not have made it this far.

The truth is, we’re all our own project, and each other’s. We cannot expect to be able to do all things all by ourselves, and should not judge others for asking for help. Or be too proud to ask when we need it. It can be humbling to realize one needs help, or to accept it when it is offered, but it can also show us that we’re not a lost cause. I think that’s something we forget nowadays, when politicians call welfare recipients useless parasites and the focus of popular culture is on who is “best” or “the next big thing.”  Unlike Lowell or other poets, Bishop never had a big fan following when she was alive. She wasn’t interested in it, either. What she wanted was to make good art. And she did. Mission accomplished.

About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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