It is John Ashbery who takes the cake – in this case, the triple-decker cake with the solitary little sugar bride on top – for his description of Elizabeth Bishop: she is ‘the poets’ poets’ poet’. It sounds farcical, but it’s strictly true, and there’s as little getting round it as there is improving on it. As I begin, therefore, I feel stirrings of a wholly impersonal desire maybe to pan her. No, not really, but where else have the culture vultures not been, with their guides and follow-me signs?
Marianne Moore and her mother finished her in Brooklyn (decorum studies?) after she left Vassar. James Laughlin, founder of New Directions, publisher and friend of Ezra Pound, was so desperate to publish her that even after he accepted he wasn’t going to be allowed to, he still hoped at least to be permitted to announce that he was. The alpha males – and the alpha-beta males, and the beta-alpha males – of her generation, Lowell and Jarrell and Berryman, vied with each other to slip her the bays, though this could take strange and even injurious forms: in a Dream Song that cuts a lusty swathe through the ranks of American poetesses (no. 187), there is a tacky reference to ‘Miss Bishop’s too noble-O’, while Lowell wrote lurid, clodhopping monologues ‘for’ her (‘I would drift and hear/My genius begging for its cap and bells/And tears bedewed my flat, untasted beer’) and poemised perfectly good short stories of hers; when he says, ‘“The Scream” owes everything to Elizabeth Bishop’s beautiful, calm story “In the Village”,’ he means it. Her standing is the more remarkable in that she didn’t demand it, and had no way of compelling it; she gave readings rarely, unwillingly and not well, didn’t (at least until her last decade) teach, didn’t review, hardly blurbed, and her rate of production was anything but intimidating. She did have a ‘first read’ contract with the New Yorker (from 1946), but even that – at that time – would have seemed more like an eccentrically coined practical arrangement by a long-term absentee than something to be envied; in the heyday of ‘lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals’ (Frank O’Hara), the New Yorker was not viewed as a particularly serious publisher of poetry. Appearing there did nothing to contradict Bishop’s self-stylisation as a ‘poet by default’: ‘I’ve always felt that I’ve written poetry more by not writing it than writing it.’ In a generation at worst of noise-makers and grimly professional professionals – ‘Les Maudits: the compliment/ each American generation/pays itself in passing’ (Lowell’s ‘For John Berryman’ in Day by Day) – Bishop stood out for her unassumingness and positiveness and the reticence of her personal style.
She wasn’t a player – she wasn’t even American, but three parts Canadian. She had spells in New York and Washington, but she didn’t (as she might have said) ‘get on’ in those places, and preferred the less assertive, more unregarded corners of Maine and Key West, where the US seems, a little improbably, to fade, and concede some of its identity to its neighbours, before, in 1951, taking herself off the power map altogether by emigrating to Brazil for 15 years. Where once she had traded on absence and alienation – ‘the sea, desperate,/will proffer wave after wave’ or ‘And I shall sell you sell you/sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me’ – now she offered her presence, only it was her presence somewhere else: ‘We leave Santos at once;/we are driving to the interior’ is how she importantly/briskly/newsily ends ‘Arrival at Santos’. She hardly needed Brazil in order to be distant, but it did provide her with a wonderful alibi: Brazil was serio-comic, excessive, tropical, garish, serendipitous, violent, unpredictable, harmonious and inconsequential; it was expressive of her and complementary to her. It was a new landscape and a different society from that in the college-bound poem-vitrines of her peers; which of them, in the 1950s, wrote about poverty or race? Brazilians assumed she was there in disgrace, or maybe on the run. ‘They think if I were any good I’d be at home,’ Bishop said. Americans – except the few who knew – assumed much the same.
A cynical analysis would suggest it was because she was so unthreatening that she was chosen for her role, and while there is probably some truth to this, there isn’t much, and it was mainly her contemporaries’ straightforward and never fathomed fascination with her difference that set her up and kept her there. In the 1960s and 1970s younger American poets – James Merrill, Frank Bidart – sat at her feet; later, others, younger still, filled her classes when she taught, protestingly, at Harvard and MIT. Nor is hers at all a transatlantic reputation: she is ours as much as theirs, or even theirs as much as ours. I can think of dozens of British and Irish poets, men and women, younger and older, who have written about her, thought about her, commended her, invoked her example, sworn by her. Nowhere such unanimity.
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[*] The Complete Poems was reviewed by Susannah Clapp in the LRB of 19 May 1983, The Collected Prose by Craig Raine (17 May 1984) and Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box by Gillian White (25 May 2006). One Art: The Selected Letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell were reviewed by Colm Tóibín (4 August 1994 and 14 May 2009 respectively).