Goldensohn, Lorrie. Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. Print.
Rather than writing a biography of Elizabeth Bishop, Lorrie Goldensohn sets out to trace the development of Bishop’s poetry. This may sound technical, but I have to say that the result is really quite readable. Goldensohn starts out with Bishop’s “step-child” of a book, that Time Life volume Brazil of which she said that none of her friends and family would ever lay eyes on it if she could at all help it. The biography of Bishop’s poetry, as Goldensohn lays it out for us, does not start with juvenilia as one might expect, although it does end with a chapter titled “Last Poems.” Goldensohn decides against a chronological structure for her book. Instead, she draws on a good number of Bishop’s poems to pull together clusters of images and how they correlate both with each other and with experiences (and people) in Bishop’s life.
As I’ve already said, the focus of this book is on Bishop’s poems, and for the most part, Goldensohn stays true to this, with close readings of some of Bishop’s most interesting poems. She also looks at some of her prose. The whole book seems to hinge on Bishop’s 40s: “it appears that in the forties the door of the cage closed on the amatory adventures of its occupantj, signaled to the tourist, and opened years later on the autobiographical adventures of the child” (49). All chapters refer back to this period in Bishop’s life.
Goldensohn is (understandably) excited to share her discovery of a theretofore unknown Bishop poem titled “It is marvellous [sic] to wake up together.” She argues that this particular poem is an exploration (on the part of Bishop) of another type of poetry she might write, a potential path Bishop then abandoned. She finds the poem more overtly erotic than Bishop’s poetry usually is, and much of the book, in fact, is about whether and how Bishop’s homo- or bi-sexuality is revealed or concealed in her poetry. Goldensohn argues that Bishop’s decision to abandon a more erotic, more openly sexual / homo-romantic poetry is in part explained by the social pressures of the day, and in part by Bishop’s personality and manners. While a lot of Bishop’s poetry is personal, there are clearly some parts of her personal life Bishop did not want to make public.
One section I found interesting (well, I found a lot of the book interesting, but this one stood out because it was something that I’d not come across in other texts) is in chapter 3, “The Body’s Roses.” Goldensohn constructs an Elizabeth Bishop who has a strong familial, parental yearning, using the poet’s letters, such as “her lighthearted brag to Joseph Summers, that after ten weeks with Lota’s grandchildren, they were such experienced hands at childcare that they could ‘give three baths and three shampoos in half an hour flat'” (69).
Chapter 3 also talks a little about Bishop’s stance on race relations (for example pp.76-7), showing us a woman who clearly enjoys her experience (in Brazil) of a less strained interaction between black and white.
Chapter 8, “Skunk and Armadillo,” shows the interactions between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, and between Lowell’s and Bishop’s poetries. Goldensohn positions Lowell’s poetics as a sort of compensating force opposite that of Marianne Moore’s poetics, with Bishop leaning alternately more towards one, then more towards the other in her own writing. She shows Lowell as an important influence after Moore’s influence on Bishop has weakened (after “The Rooster”).
Bishop, at this point, has a clear idea of what she wants her poetry to be: “I think one can be cheerful AND profound” (181) writes Bishop in regard to the difference between her style and that of Lowell. Bishop also has a clear idea of how poetry should be read / art should be taken in: “What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration” (247). This, to me, seems to resonate well with the personal-yet-not-private self in her poetry.
The final chapter puts in a nutshell what the previous chapters have suggested or implied. Bishop, Goldensohn argues, combines in herself the moralist and the scientist (286), a lover of description. She avoids abstractions and heaviness (the latter being something she sees in Lowell’s work) and leaves readers of her poems with observations rather than answers and imperatives.
Goldensohn’s book, like I said at the beginning, is quite enjoyable to read if you’re interested in Bishop, even at a non-academic level. Her close readings are interesting and sensible. She does, however, every once in a while draw a conclusion / make a claim that’s really more of a non-sequitur: it doesn’t quite follow what’s been said so far. Then again, no book is perfect (imho), and these small instances don’t harm the book much.