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Elizabeth Bishop: America’s greatest poet since World War II?

February 9, 2011

The poet as a young woman.

I’m not a poetry head like many of my friends and even some people in my family. To me, poetry is akin to pornography: I know what I like when I see it, and I like Elizabeth Bishop. So join me in considering her achievements on this, the 100th anniversary of her birth.

Bishop may or may not be, as critic and novelist Jay Parini has it in today’s Guardian, “the major American poet of the postwar era,” eclipsing Lowell, Roethke, Plath and Sexton. But he’s certainly right in saying that her reputation has continued to quietly grow while more famous writers recede into the gathering mists of time.

Parini makes a strong case, though: “In her own lifetime, she was not so widely admired as today. She never had the ‘public intellectual’ side of Lowell or, say, Allen Ginsberg. She didn’t have Roethke’s robust rhythms, Plath’s or Sexton’s sad but highly public breakdowns. Instead of breaking down, she put the world together in a clear and coherent fashion, in a small quantity of perfect poems…”

That’s not to say Bishop did not have her own dramas and traumas, but she kept them to herself. I had never even heard of her until I covered the 1992 Key West Literary Seminar, which was devoted exclusively to her work. Born in Nova Scotia, Bishop lived in Key West from 1938 until 1946, when her first collection, North & South, won the Houghton Mifflin Prize for poetry.

In 1951 Bishop used a $2,500 fellowship from Bryn Mawr College to visit Brazil, where she fell in love with a socialite and architect, Lota Soares. (British novelist William Boyd recently visited her Brazilian haunts, and writes about it at length in the Guardian.) The two women lived together for 15 years, though their relationship was marked by alcoholism, depression and vicious arguments. When Bishop returned to the United States, Soares followed. Soares committed suicide in 1967.

Bishop was known as a shy person — she even seems bashful in the black-&-white pictures that survive — but apparently she had a gift for friendship. She became lifelong pals with Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, Octavio Paz and others. Despite her relative obscurity and small body of work–only about 70 poems in her lifetime –she won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award — the trifecta in American letters.

I could tell you how great Bishop’s poems are, extol her craftsmanship and lack of pretentiousness, her mastery of old-fashioned forms and how she harnessed them for the profit of modernism. But instead I will give you the beginning of her most famous verse, “One Art.” It’s a villanelle, an Italianate poetry form very difficult for writers in English, with its paucity of rhyme words. It’s also one of the great, understated expressions of that universal human experience, loss.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

So many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss in no disaster.

If that seems promising, then you can find the entire poem at Poets.org.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2011 9:42 pm

    In my humble estimation, she’s at the top of all those you listed. The poem I love best by her is called The Moose. It’s full of heartache and honesty and lines that will leave you panting for more like these:

    A moose has come out of
    the impenetrable wood
    and stands there, looms, rather,
    in the middle of the road.
    It approaches; it sniffs at
    the bus’s hot hood.

    Towering, antlerless,
    high as a church,
    homely as a house
    (or, safe as houses).
    A man’s voice assures us
    “Perfectly harmless. . . .”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 10, 2011 11:08 am

      Between you and Parini, two writers I already admire, I’m sold. Bishop it is, best of her time.

  2. Mike Mcleod permalink
    February 10, 2011 11:07 pm

    Every time I read that poem aloud it brings me peace. It’s so offhand, so droll, so bravely cavalier , so keenly intelligent in its acceptance of loss, the fabric of loss. She more than accepts it. She celebrates it. That’s the wondrous contradiction of this work.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 11, 2011 4:42 pm

      I think you just listed the criteria of a great modern poet. Nobody fits it better than Bishop, though Frank O’Hara comes close.

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