Elizabeth Bishop, edited by Lloyd Schwartz
Elizabeth Bishop, edited by Saskia Hamilton
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 339 pp., $16 paper
Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker
The Complete Correspondence
Edited by Joelle Biele
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 426 pp., $35
There are many reasons to celebrate this year's centenary of Elizabeth Bishop's birth, not least of which is the enduring power of her writing and that she led by and large a productive and happy life. She was a survivor and a fierce defender of her own work. Yes, her childhood was rocky; yes, her death at age 68 in 1979 was untimely, but it was from a cerebral aneurysm — not by her own hand. Still, one also thinks of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, fellow poets, all well-educated women who were writing in the sphere of Harvard and the New Yorker in an old-boy era that was hard on female writers. The ceiling contained not salaries but posterity; it was low, and it was made of iron, not glass.
It helped a great deal that Bishop spent much of her career under the protective wing of the New Yorker. It helped that she was independently wealthy — Bishop inherited enough money from her father, who died of Bright's disease when she was just 8 months old, to allow her to travel extensively and own homes in Key West and Maine.
It may have helped that she was widely honored: a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the list goes on. It may have helped (in terms of a willingness to resist the cultural undertow) that she was gay, although this is rarely mentioned (certainly never by Bishop herself). It may have helped that she was not a confessional poet. No, her work has an airy dispassion to it: Something blows through the words—call it dignity, an eternal echo, details unencumbered by a clinging personality.
Three new volumes — "Prose," "Poems" and "Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker" — offer an unparalleled opportunity for complete immersion in Bishop's work. While most of the poems, beginning with "Cirque d'Hiver," were published in the New Yorker, the prose pieces — stories, essays, reviews, tributes and travel pieces — were scattered in a variety of places. Some of Bishop's stories, such as "The Village," barely conceal aspects of her own childhood in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. After Bishop's father died, her mother suffered a severe mental breakdown, and Bishop was sent from Nova Scotia to live with her paternal grandparents in Massachusetts.
Bishop tells this and other stories from her past in a generous, unsentimental way that allows the reader to better share her memories. In a piece of memoir, "The U.S.A. School of Writing," Bishop describes her first job — fresh out of Vassar — working in New York for a correspondence school. There she assessed the work of would-be writers across the country — waves of manuscripts dripping with loneliness. "To be printed," she writes of these hopeful authors, "would be an instant shortcut to identity." Bishop never entertained any such illusion.
In poetry and prose, she shows us her lifelong fascination with observation that uses all the senses and an unmistakable rhythm. "About a week ago there came a certain evening," Bishop writes in the short essay "A Mouse and Mice," "with a particularly long and quiet twilight — a dove-colored twilight, filled with shadow and the smoke of burning leaves."
We turn to the letters for special insight into Bishop — and while they reveal much about her craft, there is little of the unifying principle. Bishop lived in New York, Boston, Brazil (for almost two decades, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Key West, North Haven and many other places. Her letters to the New Yorker, as with so many writers of these generations, were lifelines. There is a lot of sheepish back-and-forth about money, frustration over long periods between submission and publication, discussion of punctuation and complaints. In the letters, one feels the natural aristocracy of the writer — a confidence about her worth that only grows as she gets older.
Some of this confidence Bishop learned from the poet Marianne Moore, whom Bishop was introduced to by a librarian at Vassar (a niece of Lizzie Borden's!). Their friendship lasted 35 years: "Efforts of Affection: A Memoir of Marianne Moore" is included in "Prose." Moore convinced Bishop that writing was worth doing right or not at all — that finding and sticking to one's voice was of paramount importance. Over decades and across oceans, the poets discussed meter, technique and the importance of determination.
What emerges from this bounty is that Bishop was working on something greater than herself, greater than any search for identity. What her work offers, beyond grace, is insight — particularly into beauty and strength. "The conversations are simple," she writes in the poem "Under the Window: Ouro Prêto":
or, 'When my mother combs my hair it hurts.'
'Women.' 'Women!' Women in red dresses
and plastic sandals, carrying their almost
invisible babies — muffled to the eyes
in all the heat — unwrap them, lower them,
and give them drinks of water lovingly
from dirty hands, here where there used to be
a fountain, here where all the world still stops.
Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.