Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet, born in 1911. Her father died when she was a baby and her mother was institutionalized shortly thereafter. Elizabeth lived with her mother’s parents in Nova Scotia, but was soon brought to live with her father’s wealthier side of the family in Worcester, Massachusetts. She was unhappy and developed chronic asthma, so she was sent to live with an aunt in a less well-off, immigrant neighborhood. Often ill, she didn’t get much formal schooling. By the time she arrived at Vassar, however, it was obvious she was a gifted and gutsy young woman, founding a literary magazine with others of her graduating class of 1934.

After graduation, Bishop settled in New York. She had enough inherited income that she did not need to work. She met Marianne Moore, whose observant poetry influenced her deeply. Ms. Moore insured that Bishop’s poems began to be published. Bishop briefly worked as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress and knew many of the poets working at the same time as she. Robert Lowell once considered proposing to her. They did not see each other a lot, but kept up an affectionate correspondence throughout his life.

Bishop found that travel helped mitigate the restlessness she had developed due to the insecurity of her childhood. This insecurity also led to alcoholism, which Bishop tried to hide, but was never able to conquer. In 1937 she traveled in Europe with Louise Crane. When they came back to the United States, they lived together in Key West. Bishop bought a house there and stayed for nearly ten years.

Because of her love of natural history and Darwin, Bishop used a travel fellowship to go to South America in 1951. She didn’t mean to stay long, but she met the architect Lota de Macedo Soares, with whom she developed a relationship. Soares built Bishop a studio on her property, called Samambaia, outside of Rio. In 1956, on a trip to New York, Bishop and Soares returned to Brazil a month early. “I really can’t bear much American life these days,” she wrote. “Surely no country has ever been so filthy rich and so hideously uncomfortable at the same time.” In Brazil, she said, they lived in a “state of broken-down luxury.” Bishop said she was happier in Brazil than she had ever been.

Bishop’s work centered on observation, accuracy, care. She did not publish a great deal, leaving some things unfinished. “It is a question of using the poet’s proper materials … to express something spiritual. But it proceeds from the material, the material eaten out with acid, pulled down from underneath, made to perform and always kept in order … The other way, of using the supposedly ‘spiritual’ – the beautiful, the nostalgic, the ideal and poetic, to produce the material – is the way of the romantic – a great perversity.”

After the death of Soares, Bishop taught at various American universities, including Harvard, NYU and MIT. She lived and traveled with Alice Methfessel, who acted as her assistant. She died in 1979 of a brain aneurysm. James Merrill said of her work that it was “more wryly radiant, more touching, more unaffectedly intelligent than any written in our lifetime.” He also spoke of “her instinctive, modest, life-long impersonation of an ordinary woman.”

Elizabeth Bishop was a person after my own heart, reticent, observant, classical in her approach and desperately wanting to be a good person despite fighting asthma, depression and alcoholism. Because of her I recently read Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle and doubled-down on my own belief in how deeply spirit is embodied in matter itself.

In her famous villanelle “One Art,” Bishop writes that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Her biographer Brett Millier [Elizabeth Bishop: Life and Memory of It, 1992] points out that “in the writing of such a disciplined, demanding poem lies the mastery of the loss. Working through each of her losses … is the way to overcome them, or, if not to overcome them, then to see the way in which she might possibly master herself.”

No comments:

Post a Comment