Elizabeth Bishop: Secondary Sources

A little write-up (in the spirit of a personal annotated bibliography) of some secondary sources I looked at regarding Elizabeth Bishop. One of them isn’t really actually secondary, since it’s an interview with Bishop herself, but since it’s neither her prose nor poetry, this is where it’ll be. For my previous Bishop posts (about her prose, poetry, and biography), go here. Virtually all of the texts I’m looking at are available through the usual channels of university digital databases etc, some of them are available free online. Hope you find this useful! elizabeth-bishop-wins

Carson, Luke. “John Ashbery‘s Elizabeth Bishop.” Twentieth Century Literature 54.4 (2008): 448-71. Carson suggests that echoes of Bishop can be found throughout Ashbery’s career as he borrows phrases from and makes reference / response to a number of her poems. As an example, Carson outlines the parallels between Ashbery’s “Ode to Bill” and Bishop’s 1972 “Poem.” He also looks at Ashbery’s “Flow Chart” and its parallels with Bishop’s Crusoe poem and the waiting room poem. His conclusion is that Ashbery’s “loyalty to the person” — however vague and changeable his use of pronouns, however nameless his others in his poetry — can also be tied to Bishop as well as his lover and his mother.

Cording, Robert. “The Otherworldliness of Elizabeth Bishop.” Worcester Review 32.1-2 (2011): 41-6. Cording compares a Wordsworth poem, a Frost poem, and Bishop’s ‘The Moose” to trace Bishop’s potential transcendentalist roots.

Frost, Carol. “Elizabeth Bishop’s Inner Eye.” New England Review 25.1/2 (2004): 250-7. Frost takes a keen interest in Bishop’s poem “The Fish” in order to illustrate how the “inner eye” in Bishop’s writing sometimes amalgamates a number of true experiences and events (suggesting that, even when Bishop says “That’s how it really happened” and there’s indication that’s not true per se, in a way she is telling the truth because “it” is a composite of a number of true things). She argues that in those instances, Bishop is associating rather than observing (but then, the associations only happen as they do because Bishop is such a skilled observer). Lots about a few species of fish.

Gioia, Dana. “Elizabeth Bishop: from coterie to canon.” The New Criterion April 2004: 19-26. A former student (and friend) of Bishop’s, Gioia sets out to “honor her [… in what she hopes] is a dispassionate and detailed look at the reasons behind her current popularity” (19). And that’s what this article does. She also lists a few other sources I want to read: the 1977 special issue of World Literature Today (17 articles on Bishop’s work to that point) as well as Gioia’s own “Studying with Miss Bishop” (a memoir essay, published in the New Yorker). Gioia points out a number of reasons that have contributed to Bishop’s increased popularity / canonization (gender, sexuality, revision of the canon to be more inclusive of women, feminism) and concludes that part of what makes Bishop attractive to a wide range of critics and scholars is that her work is open to interpretation from various perspectives (what she calls “universality”).

Kalstone, David. “Trial Balances: Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore.” Grand Street 3.1 (1983): 115-35.  An interesting article that takes a critical look at the common claim that Marianne Moore was a major influence on Bishop’s work. He argues that while yes, of course, Moore had an influence, it’s not an obvious one, since both writers’ work is quite different. Moore’s strongest influence: Her encouragement of Bishop to recognize und use her skills of observation. Kalstone sees between the two poets a “kinship of methods” that develops over the course of (especially the first decade of) their friendship.

Starbuck, George. “‘The Work!’ A Conversation with Elizabeth Bishop.” Ploughshares 37.4 (2011-12): 161-84.  This is a reprinted, modified version of the same interview published in 1977. This “restored” version contains some parts that were originally cut. This may be a good piece to read if you want to get a sense of what it would be like to have an intellectual conversation with Bishop. It is, as the title suggests, more of a conversation than an interview. There is a lot of detailed information here that isn’t of so much interest for my purposes right now, but it does have Bishop commenting on her own accuracy / inaccuracy, she mentions Auden as an important influence, and she talks a little about her attitude toward feminism / anthologies of women poets / her encounter with Anne Sexton. This ties in with the piece by Spivack (2011).

Spivack, Kathleen. “Talents in a Teapot: Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Boston.” Confrontation 109 (2011): 238-56.  This piece is very much a personal narrative account by Spivack, whom Lowell had taken under his wing when she was an undergraduate poet. While it’s an interesting piece to read, it is much more about Lowell (and about Spivack herself) than it is about Bishop. She does, however, bring up the idea of “protective coloration” and suggests, in the same vein, that Bishop’s public dismissal of the Women’s Rights Movement / feminism was a kind of protective mechanism that was meant to shield her from criticism or from prying eyes. Spivack gives readers a pretty good idea of the social / intellectual climate in Boston in the late 50s and 60s, and that while Bishop was not publicly homophobic (as Lowell could be), she kept her (lesbian) private life very private by necessity.

Zona, Kristin Hotelling. Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and May Swanson: The Feminist Poetics of Self-restraint. Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan, 2002. Print. I focused on chapters 2 and 3 here, in the interest of time. Chapter 2 looks more closely at the friendship between the two poets and the influence Moore had on Bishop. Zona shares a quote from Bishop’s “Efforts of Affection” in which Bishop is exasperated at the feminist misreadings of Moore as cold and un-feminist. I had to chuckle at the mental image of Moore, in a long skirt, climbing a lamp post at a feminist demonstration. Zona posits that Bishop was both puzzled and fascinated by Moore’s writerly and personal persona. Where Moore tries very hard to restrain herself in her poetic writing, she is downright exuberant in her letters to Bishop. In the essay “A Modest Expert,” Moore praises Bishop for being “spectacular in being unspectacular” and her “verisimilitude that avoids embarrassingly direct description” (Zona 54), both of which are high virtues in Moore’s view. While the two poets have quite different approaches, they share a keen eye for detail and observation as well as a personal restraint in their poetry. Moore in particular had a strong dislike for emotional indulgence in literary writing, and was very much aware that her private persona, as evidenced by her letters, did not meet her own criteria, so she spent much time revising to get closer to her ideal. This, Zona argues, was vital for Moore because she wanted to leave room for the reader’s emotional response rather than taking up the whole poem with her own. Chapter 3 examines Bishop’s “Ambivalent ‘I’.” Zona points out that Bishop was not comfortable with the most visible forms of feminism she saw around her, but that we could / should still read her work as feminist, albeit in a different manner. I guess I’d paraphrase the argument like this: Bishop was a quiet (as opposed to loud) feminist, and she refused to look at the problem from only the women’s perspective. This is where the ambivalence comes in. Bishop makes no clear moral judgments, and it may not really be interested in them either, — the uncertainty, the imbalance or struggle between different perspectives or realities are much more interesting to her and central to her poems. Finally, Zona touches on race in Bishop’s writing. For this she looks at “Cootchie” and “Faustina.” Again, she points out the ambivalence of the “I” / the refusal to give an or clear-cut answer. A discussion of “The Waiting Room” and Bishop’s fascination with / exploration of the formation of self conclude the chapter. This book is very readable, by the way. I enjoyed its clarity as well as the information.

About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.


  1. have her books, and Robert Lowell’s – enjoy re-reading them both

  2. Pingback: The Biography of a Poetry (Goldensohn / Bishop) | Outside of a Cat

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