March 6, 2017
ost poets who enter the canon arrive amid clatter and controversy. Elizabeth Bishop took a different route. In an era when it was still possible for a poet to become a national celebrity, Bishop avoided publicity and published only about a hundred poems. Nonetheless, her reputation rose slowly and quietly, and continued to climb after her death in 1979.
Bishop became a consensus favorite in the literary community. Formally oriented poets admired her innovative off-rhymes, skilled variations in line lengths, and the rhythms folded into her meter. Political poets of the left, such as Adrienne Rich, clashed with Bishop about being reluctant to promote the women’s and gay liberation movements through sacrificing her privacy, but most such critics stood down when Bishop’s lesbianism became more public. Today, she often seems beyond criticism.
Megan Marshall, a professor at Emerson College and former Bishop student at Harvard, accepts her subject’s greatness with no apparent hesitation, but readers should not be afraid to test that assessment. It is true that Bishop’s technical strengths make her a poet’s poet. When it comes to craft, Bishop’s poetry rivals that of James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott, and A.E. Stallings. When it comes to precise and striking extended descriptions, she is in a class by herself.
A “great” poet, however, offers a vision and body of work that provokes strong emotions and worthwhile reflection. Bishop is too self-absorbed to meet that standard. Moreover, with just a few memorable exceptions, her subject matter has such limited range that one can create a template for much of her poetry.
Bishop’s poems, particularly the early ones, tend to be painterly. Their brief titles efficiently set a scene, usually with a place name or an article followed by one noun: “The Map,” “The Imaginary Iceberg,” “Wading at Wellfleet,” “Large Bad Picture,” “The Man-Moth,” “The Weed,” “The Unbeliever, “The Monument.” Her poems often open with a simple declarative sentence:
Land lies in water; it is shadowed green. (“The Map”)
Alone on the railroad track,
I walked with pounding heart. (“Chemin de Fer”)
He sleeps on the top of a mast
with his eyes fast closed. (“The Unbeliever”)
Typically, the poem then shifts to an extended description of something that Bishop just witnessed, or a scene remembered from her childhood in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. These descriptions, even in the earliest poems, are almost always precise, detailed, and apt.
Early poems such as “The Fish” (usually an English major’s first exposure to Bishop) established her reputation for crisp descriptions that are hauntingly beautiful even when they are raw:
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony. (“The Fish”)
A striking aspect of Bishop’s early poems is that they rarely seem to go anywhere. Like Frank O’Hara, she seems content to capture what she sees and recoils from seeking any larger meaning. Her closing lines are often summaries that feel tacked-on and avoid placing the scene in a larger context:
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go. (“The Fish”)
Other poems, less well-known, close even more awkwardly or sentimentally:
And your shadowy pastures will be able to offer
these particular glowing tributes
every evening now throughout the summer. (“A Cold Spring”)
At last the visitor rises,
awkwardly proffers her bunch
of rust-perforated roses
and wonders, oh, whence come
all the petals. (“Faustina, or Rock Roses”)
Her farewell poem to her close friend Robert Lowell ends in this sing-song and cloying fashion:
You can’t derange, or re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)
The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.
Her poem describing the Air Force band while she was the Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress closes childishly:
Great shades, edge over,
give the music room.
The gathered brasses want to go
Sometimes Bishop even ends her poems in ways that suggest she is bothered by her own failure to find larger meanings:
Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic. And a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky! (“The Armadillo”)
In short, many of her poems lack the spiritual or philosophical underpinnings of the great poems of Rilke, Wilbur, and Akhmatova.
Bishop’s method of composition encouraged a certain kind of barrenness. Except for a five-day stint working with binoculars for the Navy in World War II, less than a year as the Consultant in Poetry, and some light duty in academia late in life, Bishop lived off a small trust fund while visiting wealthier friends and lovers. A houseguest who shunned housework, she spent most of her days (when not impaired by alcohol and drugs, often dangerously so) writing copiously in her journal and then trying to fashion a small percentage of her journal observations into poetry. Often enveloped by tumult, Bishop largely ignored politics, charitable work, and the communities around her, living as a non-participating observer while developing a strong esthetic sensibility.
As Bishop aged, she occasionally broke out of this box. The incandescent villanelle, “One Art,” offers the fire lacking in most of her verse. There are glimmers of a social conscience in two poems, “Squatter’s Children” and “Manuelzinho.” That social conscience falters, however, in her artfully ambiguous poem about Ezra Pound that contains this off-key recurring line: “This is a Jew in a newspaper hat.” Mostly, though, in poems such as “First Death in Nova Scotia” and the overly acclaimed “Sestina,” Bishop continues to document and project, from a safe distance, both isolation and loneliness.
Marshall documents, ably and nonjudgmentally, Bishop’s solitary day-to-day existence. The barriers were there for a reason: her life had been continually miserable. Bishop’s father died when she was an infant, and her mother spent most of her adult life institutionalized. Bishop left Nova Scotia as a child and bounced around Massachusetts between inattentive wealthy relatives and predatory poorer ones. Marshall probably underestimates the severity of the molestation that Bishop experienced at the hands of relatives in Revere.
Bishop’s post-college male suitor, Bob Seaver, committed suicide after she rejected his marriage proposal, but not before he sent her a brutal note. (“Elizabeth. Go to hell.”) Soon a college friend lost a limb in an auto accident while traveling with Bishop. Though not seriously hurt, Bishop carried guilt about the amputation for the rest of her life. Her lover, Brazilian socialite Lota de Macedo Soares, killed herself with Bishop nearby. Bishop, who had bragged to Robert Lowell that she had “never met a woman I couldn’t make,” was involved with at least two other women at the time, one of whom suffered a mental breakdown shortly thereafter.
In telling Bishop’s story Marshall chose poorly by writing what Lloyd Schwartz calls a “part-memoir, part-biography.” Blurred boundaries between genres are all the rage, but Marshall’s insertion of herself into Bishop’s story should warn away similarly inclined biographers. I would be open-minded about such a fusion if Marshall had garnered some insight from her one-semester experience in Bishop’s Harvard workshop, but she offers only a few bits of mundane conversation. Marshall’s life simply does not merit being intertwined with Bishop’s in this book.
The short memoir sections, which alternate with chapters on Bishop, take up almost 15% of the book, and are a self-immolation. More than four decades after graduating from Harvard, Marshall is still whining that Robert Lowell did not give her a straight A in her first workshop. Marshall willfully violated Bishop’s rule that a student could not submit work from a previous class, and yet is still complaining that Bishop noticed her cheating and just slightly marked down her grade. Marshall also whines about being fired for poor performance as a young assistant poetry editor at The Atlantic—even though her own words (despite the Harvard education she flaunts) reveal her to have been surprisingly unfamiliar with contemporary poetry. Her explanations for these failures are transparently vindictive and petty.
What’s worse is that the memoir chapters take up space in a biography already marred by superficiality. The only significant new information comes from previously unpublished correspondence with one of Bishop’s physicians and three of her lovers. What’s discovered is marginally helpful in understanding Bishop, but not revelatory, and comes at the cost of excessive focus on Bishop’s medical and sexual history.
One example of Marshall’s limited focus is her section on Bishop’s time as the Library of Congress’s Consultant in Poetry, now called the Poet Laureate. Camille Roman’s 2001 biography capably covered this period in 26 pages. Marshall provides a generic, four-page discussion—mostly about the risks of homosexuality for a Washington public official, and the awkwardness for Bishop of Ezra Pound’s 13 years in a nearby mental institution.
Marshall does not attempt to answer other questions from this period. How, for instance, did Bishop become Poet Laureate after having published just one moderately well-reviewed book? No other poet has ever served in that post with so thin a track record. Did she benefit from the lobbying of Robert Lowell or did the Librarian of Congress, Luther Evans, simply admire Bishop’s work in The New Yorker?
Marshall’s writing is breezy and easy to read, but she frequently uses sentence fragments, dangling participles, and unclear referents. I kept longing for more of Bishop’s precision with language because Marshall’s imprecision interferes with the narrative. For instance, Marshall briefly describes Bishop’s “dalliance” with a man named Tom Wanning after almost 20 years of exclusively lesbian relationships. This abruptly Victorian term leaves the reader wondering exactly what happened and why, although 186 pages later Marshall’s mention of “dalliances with ‘other women’” makes it clear that she uses the word to mean a consummated sexual relationship. For all the detail she includes about approximately a dozen other sexual relationships, it is strange that Marshall teases readers about this surprising claim—particularly when there’s ample information about Wanning in the public domain, including his repeated denials of an affair with Bishop.
Despite my reservations about Bishop’s poetry, it is undeniable that she is an influential poet. Her biographies deserve the detail, precision, and scope that Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast does not offer.