In This Article Elizabeth Bishop

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Concordance
  • Correspondence
  • Reception and Reputation
  • Film and Theater

American Literature Elizabeth Bishop
by
Brett C. Millier
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0017

Introduction

By the end of the 20th century, to the surprise of the Anglo-American critical establishment, Elizabeth Bishop (b. 1911–d. 1979) had emerged from the prodigiously talented generation of poets born between 1910 and 1920—a generation including Jean Garrigue, Muriel Ruykeyser, May Swenson, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, and Robert Lowell, among others—as the most firmly canonized among them. Known mostly by other poets when she died, Bishop’s work was tirelessly promoted by her editor and publisher, Robert Giroux, and taken up by academics who discovered that her multifaceted poems would support multiple readings. The revelation of compelling biographical facts spurred further interpretations. Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on 8 February 1911. Her father died when she was an infant, and her mentally ill mother was permanently institutionalized when Bishop was five. These early losses shaped both the emotional tenor and the geography of Bishop’s childhood, as she was bounced between her mother’s family in Great Village, Nova Scotia, and her father’s family in Worcester. She attended Vassar College, where she was part of a heady literary circle that included Mary McCarthy, Ruykeyser, and Eleanor Clark. After graduation, she tried to live in New York but could not, and so traveled—to Europe, to Mexico, and for increasingly long stays in Key West, Florida. In 1946, she won a poetry prize, which included the publication of her long-delayed first volume, North & South. Thereafter, Bishop would publish a slim volume every decade or so—A Cold Spring (1955), Questions of Travel (1965), Geography III (1976)—a total of ninety or so finished poems. She suffered throughout her adult life from debilitating allergies, asthma, and alcoholism—but her small output is better explained by her perfectionism, her determination: in her words, “never to try to publish anything until I thought I’d done my best with it.” Like those of Robert Frost, Bishop’s poems are the result of painstaking craft in the service of a musical prosody resembling natural speech. They yield meaning and wisdom on first reading, and even more when read more deeply. Formed of meticulous observation and a modest but insistent lyric voice, the poems appeal to a wide variety of readers. Bishop left the United States in 1951 and lived in Brazil with her partner, Lota de Macedo Soares, until Lota’s death in 1967. Bishop taught at the University of Washington in 1965–1966 and at Harvard University from 1970 to 1977. She died in Boston on 6 October 1979, of a cerebral aneurysm.

General Overviews

The years 1985–1995 saw an explosion of general studies of Bishop’s work that catapulted her into the academic canon. While Stevenson 1966 remains even in the early 21st century a compelling study of a poet still at work, an enormous upwelling of critical interest followed the opening of the Elizabeth Bishop Papers at the Vassar College Library in Poughkeepsie, New York, to scholars in 1983, and the publication of The Complete Poems, 1927–1979, that same year (Bishop 1983, cited under Poetry). Travisano 1988 and Parker 1988 were the first studies to present the full trajectory of Bishop’s career (in very different books), and book-length studies followed at the rate of two or three per year in the 1990s. Stevenson 1966 and Travisano 1988 are excellent introductions; Kalstone 1989 gives the best account of Bishop’s stylistic development. Costello 1991 offers the most theoretically sophisticated early reading, and Goldensohn 1992 was the first work based on research in Brazil. Doreski 1993 and McCabe 1994 make extensive use of the Bishop archive at Vassar in pursuing important new biographical readings.

  • Costello, Bonnie. Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    A “compositional and meditative” (p. 13) reading of Bishop’s poems that argues that visual perception is their central concern, and that Bishop first struggled for “mastery” of what she saw, then gave that up in favor of interactions in which the seer—or poet—submits to the scene. Dense, but important and highly influential.

  • Doreski, C. K. Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    E-mail Citation »

    Locates Bishop firmly within a postmodern aesthetic in her awareness of the limitations of language. In examining Bishop’s rhetorical strategies in poems and stories, Doreski shows how Bishop creates the “illusion” of realistic description and emotional intimacy, while carefully controlling the degree to which she reveals herself in her work.

  • Goldensohn, Lorrie. Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    Goldensohn traveled to Brazil in 1987 and came back with a cache of Bishop’s papers and notebooks previously unseen in the United States, including the manuscript of the unpublished poem “It Is Marvellous to Wake Up Together.” Goldensohn reads that poem’s imagery throughout Bishop’s work and argues for its remarkable coherence.

  • Kalstone, David. Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. Edited by Robert Hemenway. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989.

    E-mail Citation »

    A beautiful and illuminating study of how Bishop developed her own poetic voice and style in conversation and conflict with her most insistent models, Moore and Lowell. Strong readings of Bishop’s early poems are here; the author, perhaps Bishop’s best early reader, died before he could complete the book.

  • McCabe, Susan. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    Compelling and readable study of Bishop’s poetry and prose, emphasizing how gender and sexual identity shaped her thinking about her own losses, and how a postmodern notion of identity as fluid and changing helped her negotiate through art the recurring experience of devastating loss.

  • Parker, Robert Dale. The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

    E-mail Citation »

    Important early study that reads Bishop in the context of many other writers, both those she had read and those she had not. Identifies three stages in the development of Bishop’s “anxiety over poetic occasion” (p. ix): wish, where, and retrospect.

  • Stevenson, Anne. Elizabeth Bishop. New York: Twayne, 1966.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first critical study of Bishop. Stevenson found Bishop receptive to her queries; Bishop’s letters in response remain her most important self-commentary (reprinted in Bishop 2011, cited under Prose). In 2006, Stevenson published Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop, which uses these letters in a reader’s guide to Bishop’s work.

  • Travisano, Thomas J. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first study to identify the three-phase trajectory of Bishop’s development as a poet, from “Prison” (“Fables of Enclosure”) to “Travel” (“Florida” and A Cold Spring) to “History” (Questions of Travel and Geography III). Remains a readable, accessible, and useful introduction.

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