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A poet determined to be 'sane to the bitter end'


Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast

By Megan Marshall

Houghton Mifflin Harcour

368 pages, $30

Randall Jarrell, a poet better known for his criticism than his poetry, said this about Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry: She appears “to be doing what is statistically and aesthetically impossible — writing only great poems.”

Bishop’s father died when she was a baby and during her adolescence her mother was institutionalized. Financed by rich relatives, she was raised by relatives with diminished resources, who shuttled her from Nova Scotia to communities north of Boston. While with one of these families, she had a sexual encounter with a man who was her guardian.

It’s no wonder she became shy, asthmatic and prone to fighting depression with alcohol. But she also was assertive enough to get into Vassar where she fell in with the group made legendary by Mary McCarthy’s potboiler of the same name. She was studying to become a composer when a librarian introduced her to the poetry of Marianne Moore who wasn’t well-known at the time.

Bishop “hadn’t known poetry could be like that … Why had no one ever written about things in this clear and dazzling way before?” She also admired Moore’s syllabic metrics, her hidden rhymes and forms and lack of sentimentality. As editor of Vassar’s literary magazine she asked to interview Moore who chose to meet in New York City’s Public Library where she could easily get away if the interviewer proved bothersome. Afterward Moore wrote, “It is almost scary … to find a college student with so much sense.”

A long apprenticeship followed during which she got Bishop’s first poems published and persuaded her not to give up poetry and go to med school to which she’d already applied. Later when Bishop was ready, they became equals and friends.

She formed many friendships, mostly with women. But a relationship with Robert Lowell -- or Cal, as he was called -- was especially important for them. He was unsteady and competitive. Bishop was neither. She admired his manic explosions, “When everything and anything suddenly seemed material for poetry.” But his mental instability ruled out a closer relationship. As Bishop wrote to a friend, “I am one poet who’s going to stay sane till the bitter end.”

Some of Cal’s best poems were reactions to things she’d written. But his influence on her was slighter. It was not in her nature to write autobiographical poems the way he could. But he was the first reader of many of her poems and they shared a love of little known writers like George Herbert.

While poets searched for a new ways to write, Bishop went back to old forms like sonnets and sestinas. But like her mentor, Moore, she often hid them. When poets chose sides in philosophical battles, Bishop stayed in the middle ground.

“I like black and white,” she wrote, “yellow and red, young and old, rich and poor, and male and female, all mixed up.”

She eschewed literary posturing. Concerning Robert Frost she wrote, there was “something slightly unpleasant under that lichen-covered stone.” Concerning E. E. Cummings she quipped, “you have to pretend you’ve never seen a Cummings poem before, and that’s difficult.” About J. D. Salinger she commented, “Henry James did it much better in one or two long sentences.” Robert Bly and Octavio Paz were “all too vague.” And Allen Ginsberg “just can’t write.” About confessional poetry she remarked, “You just wish they’d keep some of these things to themselves.” She called it “The School of Anguish … self-pitiers” that her friend Robert Lowell seemed “innocently to have inspired.”

Her criticism, like her poems, takes the first impressions others think trivial and makes them the ones that last.

She was fortunate to have just enough money to get by but never so much that it went to her head. A small trust fund got her started, augmented by help from well-endowed friends, usually female. The men who helped her were led by Lowell, who used his many connections to come up with fellowships whenever emergencies arose.

In terms of publishing, she had patient friends (E. B. White’s wife Katharine and Howard Moss) at “The New Yorker” where Marianne Moore’s poems were never published until she became the quintessential New York City poet. Although “The New Yorker” is thought of as being liberal and risk-taking, when Bishop’s poems got too edgy they were politely rejected.

Bishop taught Creative Writing when she needed to, though she didn’t believe writing could be taught. She often took over "Cal’s" classes during his nervous breakdowns. She was a strict taskmaster and that’s how this unusual biography was born.

Megan Marshall enrolled in one of Bishop’s writing courses. Fairly innocently she broke one of Bishop’s cardinal rules and received a low grade and a stern rebuke. She gave up poetry and eventually found her calling as a Pulitzer Prize winning biographer. The reader’s concern about the author constantly interrupting the narrative to discuss the effects this unfortunate incident had on her is remedied only on the last page. That’s a gift for the persevering reader.

Marshall adds details about Bishop’s life she couldn’t possibly have gotten from Bishop’s correspondence and her interviews with many of Bishop’s living friends. Even more disturbing is the fact that she often quotes only parts of Bishop’s poems and resists analyzing them in any depth. This is not a normal literary biography. It slowly dawns on the reader what Marshall is really up to. She is writing a makeup exercise for the one she’d failed, a novel as much as it is a biography. Excellent Bishop biographies already exist. In the end it becomes an extraordinary book about how Elizabeth Bishop moved people in her life and her poetry.

By writing a few perfect poems, and staying away from the poetry scene (she lived in Brazil for a long time) and avoiding confessional or gay poetry, her poetry has outlasted the age in which it was written.

She is famous now. Books are written about her and movies are made. And “Cal, her dear friend, [is] comparatively forgotten.” Despite being competitive Cal would not have been surprised or disappointed. Maybe envious. He knew she was the one poet who could write the immortal poem of their generation.

When she described to her first biographer the conditions necessary for art to be created she said the artist had to become “a poet of the self — of a singular ‘mind in motion’ [with] a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.”

William L. Morris is a co-founder of the News Poetry pages and a poet and critic now living and writing in Florida.

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