Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet and short-story writer. She was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1949 to 1950, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1956 and a National Book Award Winner for Poetry in 1970. Elizabeth Bishop House is an artists' retreat in Great Village, Nova Scotia dedicated to her memory. She is considered one of the most important and distinguished American poets of the 20th century.
Elizabeth Bishop, an only child, was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. After her father, a successful builder, died when she was eight months old, Bishop’s mother became mentally ill and was institutionalized in 1916. (Bishop wrote about the time of her mother's struggles in her short story "In The Village.") Effectively orphaned during her very early childhood, she lived with her grandparents on a farm in Great Village, Nova Scotia, a period she also referenced in her writing. This was also where she developed into a first-class fisherwoman. Bishop's mother remained in an asylum until her death in 1934, and the two were never reunited.
Later in childhood, Bishop's paternal family gained custody, and she was removed from the care of her grandparents and moved in with her father's wealthier family in Worcester, Massachusetts. However, Bishop was unhappy in Worcester, and her separation from her grandparents made her lonely. While she was living in Worcester, she developed chronic asthma, from which she suffered for the rest of her life. Her time in Worcester is briefly chronicled in her poem "In The Waiting Room."
Bishop boarded at the Walnut Hill School in Natick, Massachusetts, where she studied music. At the school her first poems were published by her friend Frani Blough in a student magazine. Then she entered Vassar College in the fall of 1929, shortly before the stock market crash, planning to be a composer. She gave up music because of a terror of performance and switched to English where she took courses including 16th and 17th century literature and the novel. Bishop published her work in her senior year in The Magazine (based in California) and 1933, she co-founded Con Spirito, a rebel literary magazine at Vassar, with writer Mary McCarthy (one year her senior), Margaret Miller, and the sisters Eunice and Eleanor Clark. Bishop graduated in 1934.
Bishop was greatly influenced by the poet Marianne Moore to whom she was introduced by a librarian at Vassar in 1934. Moore took a keen interest in Bishop’s work, and at one point Moore dissuaded Bishop from attending Cornell Medical School, in which the poet had briefly enrolled herself after moving to New York City following her Vassar graduation. It was four years before Bishop addressed "Dear Miss Moore" as "Dear Marianne," and only then at the elder poet’s invitation. The friendship between the two women, memorialized by an extensive correspondence (see One Art), endured until Moore's death in 1972. Bishop's "At the Fishhouses" (1955) contains allusions on several levels to Moore's 1924 poem "A Grave."
She was introduced to Robert Lowell by Randall Jarrell in 1947 and they became great friends, mostly through their written correspondence, until Lowell's death in 1977. After his death, she wrote, "our friendship, [which was] often kept alive through years of separation only by letters, remained constant and affectionate, and I shall always be deeply grateful for it". They also both influenced each other's poetry. Lowell cited Bishop's influence on his poem "Skunk Hour" which he said, "[was] modeled on Miss Bishop's 'The Armadillo.'" Also, his poem "The Scream" is "derived from...Bishop's story In the Village." "North Haven," one of the last poems she published during her lifetime, was written in memory of Lowell in 1978.
Travel and Success
Bishop had an independent income in early adulthood as a result of an inheritance from her deceased father that did not run out until the end of her life. With this inheritance, Bishop was able to travel widely without worrying about employment and lived in many cities and countries which are described in her poems. She lived in France for several years in the mid-1930s with a friend she knew at Vassar, Louise Crane, who was a paper-manufacturing heiress. In 1938, Bishop purchased a house with Crane at 624 White Street in Key West, Florida. While living there Bishop made the acquaintance of Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway, who had divorced Ernest Hemingway in 1940.
In 1949 to 1950, she was Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress, and lived at Bertha Looker's Boardinghouse, 1312 30th Street Northwest, Washington, D.C., in Georgetown. In 1946, Marianne Moore suggested Bishop for the Houghton Mifflin Prize for poetry, which Bishop won. Her first book, North & South, was published in 1,000 copies. The book prompted the literary critic Randall Jarrell to write that “all her poems have written underneath, 'I have seen it,'" referring to Bishop's talent for vivid description.
Upon receiving a substantial $2,500 traveling fellowship from Bryn Mawr College in 1951, Bishop set off to circumnavigate South America by boat. Arriving in Santos, Brazil in November of that year, Bishop expected to stay two weeks but stayed fifteen years. She lived in Pétropolis with architect Lota de Macedo Soares, descended from a prominent and notable political family. While living in Brazil, in 1956 Bishop received the Pulitzer Prize for a collection of poetry, Poems: North & South/A Cold Spring, which combined her first two books. Although Bishop was not forthcoming about details of her romance with Soares, much of their relationship was documented in Bishop's extensive correspondence with Samuel Ashley Brown. However, in its later years, the relationship deteriorated, becoming volatile and tempestuous, marked by bouts of depression, tantrums and alcoholism.
It was during her time in Brazil that Elizabeth Bishop became increasingly interested in the languages and literatures of Latin America. She was influenced by South and Central American poets, including the Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, as well as the Brazilian poets João Cabral de Melo Neto and Carlos Drummond de Andrade and translated their work into English. Regarding de Andrade, she said, "I didn't know him at all. He's supposed to be very shy. I'm supposed to be very shy. We've met once — on the sidewalk at night. We had just come out of the same restaurant, and he kissed my hand politely when we were introduced." After Soares took her own life in 1967 Bishop spent more time in the US.
Literary Style and Identity
Bishop did not see herself as a "lesbian poet" or as a "female poet." Although she still considered herself to be "a strong feminist," she only wanted to be judged based on the quality of her writing and not on her gender or sexual orientation. Also, where some of her notable contemporaries like Robert Lowell and John Berryman made the intimate, often sordid details of their personal lives an important part of their poetry, Bishop avoided this practice altogether. For instance, like Berryman, Bishop struggled with alcoholism and depression throughout her adult life; but Bishop never wrote about this struggle (whereas Berryman made his alcoholism and depression a focal point in his dream song poems).
In contrast to this confessional style involving large amounts of self-exposure, Bishop's style of writing, though it sometimes involved sparse details from her personal life, was known for its highly detailed and objective, distant point of view and for its reticence on the sordid subject matter that obsessed her contemporaries. In contrast to a poet like Lowell, when Bishop wrote about details and people from her own life (as she did in her story about her childhood and her mentally unstable mother in "In the Village"), she always used discretion.
Although she was generally supportive of the "confessional" style of her friend, Robert Lowell, she drew the line at Lowell's highly controversial book The Dolphin (1973), in which he used and altered private letters from his ex-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick (whom he'd recently divorced after 23 years of marriage), as material for his poems. In a letter to Lowell, dated March 21, 1972, Bishop strongly urged him against publishing the book, writing, "One can use one's life as material [for poems]--one does anyway—but these letters—aren't you violating a trust? IF you were given permission—IF you hadn't changed them. . .etc. But art just isn't worth that much."
In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize, Bishop won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award as well as two Guggenheim Fellowships and an Ingram Merrill Foundation grant. In 1976, she became the first woman to receive the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and remains the only American to be awarded that prize.
Bishop lectured in higher education for a number of years starting in the 1970s when her inheritance began to run out. For a short time she taught at the University of Washington, before teaching at Harvard University for seven years. She often spent her summers in her summer house in the island community of North Haven, Maine. She taught at New York University, before finishing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She commented "I don’t think I believe in writing courses at all… It’s true, children sometimes write wonderful things, paint wonderful pictures, but I think they should be discouraged."
In 1971 Bishop began a relationship with Alice Methfessel. Never a prolific writer, Bishop noted that she would begin many projects and leave them unfinished. She published her last book in 1976, Geography III. Three years later, she died of a cerebral aneurysm in her apartment at Lewis Wharf, Boston. She is buried in Hope Cemetery in Worcester, Massachusetts. Alice Methfessel was her literary executor.
Awards and Honors
1945: Houghton Mifflin Poetry Prize Fellowship
1947: Guggenheim Fellowship
1949: Appointed Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress
1950: American Academy of Arts and Letters Award
1951: Lucy Martin Donelly Fellowship (awarded by Bryn Mawr College)
1953: Shelley Memorial Award
1954: Elected to lifetime membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters
1956: Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
1960: Chapelbrook Foundation Award
1964: Academy of American Poets Fellowship
1968: Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1968: Ingram-Merrill Foundation Grant
1969: National Book Award
1969: The Order of the Rio Branco (awarded by the Brazilian government)
1974: Harriet Monroe Poetry Award
1976: Books Abroad/Neustadt International Prize
1976: Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters
1977: National Book Critics Circle Award
1978: Guggenheim Fellowship