Elizabeth Bishop 1911-1979
Biographical • Born in Massachusetts 1911 • Wealthy family – father a contractor • Father died when she was only eight months old • Moved to mother’s home in Nova Scotia, Canada • Mother psychologically disturbed • Committed to asylum when Bishop was five –never saw her mother again
Biographical • Taken back to U.S. by father’s family • “I had been brought back unconsulted and against my wishes to the house my father had been born in, to be saved from a life of poverty and provincialism • I felt myself aging, even dying. I was bored and lonely with Grandma, my silent grandpa, the dinners alone. . . . At night I lay blinking my flashlight off and on, and crying."
Biographical • Moved to her aunt’s tenement apartment aged seven • Bishop suffered from eczema, asthma, St. Vitus's dance and nervous ailments • Received no formal schooling till aged fourteen • Spent summers in Nova Scotia • Entered Vassar College aged twenty-three • Met Marianne Moore who encouraged her to write
Biographical • Won many awards and fellowships • Travelled to Brazil aged forty • Eating a cashew nut made her fall in love with Lota de MacedoSoares, a Brazilian architect
Biographical • Alcoholism and mental health issues affected both Elizabeth and Lota • Bishop resented Lota’s devotion to her work • Bishop was unfaithful to Lota • Lota committed suicide in 1967 • Meets Alice Methfessel – her companion for the rest of her life
Biographical • Died in 1979 of brain haemorrhage • …but my relationship with my relatives—I was always a sort of a guest, and I think I’ve always felt like that. • "When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived." • Actual epitaph is "All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful"
Poetry • Wrote only four collections – just 101 poems • ‘The poet’s poet’ - James Fenton • ‘a writer’s writer’s writer’ - John Ashbery • ‘One of the most important American poets of the twentieth century.’ – Larry Rohter • “All her poems have written underneath, I have seen it” – Randall Jarell
Poetry • Bishop always remained defiantly non-confessional, focusing instead with great subtlety and tact on her impressions of the physical world…Her experience of widely differing landscapes provided Bishop with a wealth of powerful imagery, while her rootlessness and lack of political and religious beliefs give her poems a kind of pure self-reliance.
I go back to Bishop often, and her poems never grow stale. They address our fragility as human beings, our wonder at the world of animals and fish, birds, beasts of any kind. • The Fish is ‘quietly resonant’. • (Jay Parini)
Poetry • Her poems often took her years to write and complete, and their formal perfection and the simple, limpid accuracy of their language have always drawn the admiration of other poets. (William Boyd)
She once wrote to Lowell: "My passion for accuracy may strike you as old-maidish – but since we do float on an unknown sea I think we should examine the other floating things that come our way very carefully; who knows what might depend on it?"
Years later, writing to U. T. and Joseph Summers on October 19, 1967, Bishop, after remarking that many of her poems were based on dream material, lets fall that The Prodigal was suggested to me when one of my aunt's stepsons offered me a drink of rum, in the pigsties, at about nine in the morning, when I was visiting her in Nova Scotia.
Main features • Forensic attention to detail • Repetition • Microscopic view of events • Impersonal quality of poems – detachment, aloofness • Repetition • Pervading sense of sadness, loneliness • Illusion of realism • Repetition • Surrealist, dream-like quality • Epiphanies • Repetition
The Fish • Tremendous fish • Acknowledgement of worthy opponent? • Ordinary contains the extraordinary? • Epiphany – things are not as they seem?
The Prodigal • Wallowing in squalor • Physical and moral squalor • Acknowledgement of weakness • Promise of unconditional love • Moment of revelation
Filling Station • Ugly reveals the beautiful • Family – sense of unity • Dirt and grease conceals the lace doily • Humour • Somebody loves us all
In the Waiting Room • Photographic recall? • Illusion of realism • Sense of identity • Fear versus comfort • Epiphany • Me myself I
First Death in Nova Scotia • Child’s perspective • Reality of death barely intrudes • Presence of monarchs in silks and ermine • Warmth versus cold • Surreal beckoning of monarchs • Sentimentality?
Sestina • Formal verse form • Key words repeated • Key words represent a condensed version of her life in Nova Scotia: • House, grandmother, child, stove, almanac, tears.