Posted by: Christopher Tisdall in: Entertainment Industry
PHILADELPHIA — One hundred years ago, in Worcester, Mass., a woman’s life began. An inward, shy life, a life looking for a home; a life of intense loves and friendships, alcoholism and acclaim.
It was also the life of an American original, a woman whose poetry exerts a greater influence as time goes on.
As the poet and critic Linda Gregerson says: “She’s a national treasure!”
Elizabeth Bishop’s repute has never been higher, or her verse more revered. Her centenary touched off celebrations in New York, Boston and Chicago. In Canada, the province of Nova Scotia (where she lived as a child) has scheduled an entire year of events. So has Vassar College, her alma mater. In June, the Poetry Conference at West Chester University will include a three-day seminar on her poetry.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux is issuing three separate volumes of her work: “Poems” (368 pages, $16); “Prose” (528 pages, $20) (hardcover boxed edition of both, $75); plus “Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker: Complete Correspondence” (496 pages, $35).
Also notable, from 2008: the inspiring “Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell,” edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 928 pages, $45).
“She’s become much more of a public figure since her death,” says Lloyd Schwartz, a friend of the poet’s in the 1970s and the editor of “Prose.” “We’ve been aching to celebrate her.”
Bishop is even a movie star now. Millions watched as, in the 2005 film “In Her Shoes,” Cameron Diaz read Bishop’s famed poem “One Art” to a man on his deathbed — “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” — and discussed it with him. In Brazil, the closest thing she ever had to a real home, they’re making a biopic about her, “A Arte De Perder” — “The Art of Losing.”
Bishop, who called writing poetry “an unnatural act,” was an obsessive perfectionist, keeping poems for years, publishing only about 80 in her lifetime. But for many readers, they’re indelible.
In poems such as “The Fish” and “The Armadillo,” she emerges as one of the greatest descriptive poets in English. In “Cape Breton,” she writes of
thousands of light song-sparrow songs floating upward
freely, dispassionately, through the mist, and meshing
in brown-wet, fine, torn fish-nets.
In “The Moose,” a bus leaves a moose (“Towering, antlerless,/ high as a church,/ homely as a house”) behind on a lonely road:
the moose can be seen
on the moonlit macadam;
then there’s a dim
smell of moose, an acrid
smell of gasoline.
Her poetry is vivid yet reticent, unforgettable (“In the Waiting Room”) yet elusive. There’s an unfinished quality to it, which, poet that she was, she knew and nurtured. Her range was prodigious, from childhood memories to life in Brazil, from newspaper misprints to the American voice of the 20th century.
Born in Worcester, Bishop lived for a while on her grandparents’ farm in Nova Scotia. She moved back to Massachusetts and in 1929 entered Vassar. After she graduated in 1934, there followed a life of travel, writing and recognition, including what we’d now call the Poet Laureate of the United States (1949), the Pulitzer Prize (1956) and the National Book Award (1970). She lived in Paris, in New York, in Brazil from 1951-66 and on and off through 1971, and in Cambridge, Mass., dying in Boston in 1979.
Her life was based on friendships. The great loves of that life included Lota de Macedo Soares, with whom she lived in Brazil, and Alice Methfessel, whom she met when she came to Harvard University in 1970 to teach.
She also had a lifelong affair with the New Yorker, which began publishing her poems in 1940. “I was surprised to see how involved with her poetry, and with her life, the New Yorker editors were,” says Joelle Biele, editor of Bishop’s correspondence with the New Yorker. “The editors were much tougher on her because they knew she was such an excellent poet, and they didn’t want readers to think she’d made any errors.” As writer and editors write back and forth, we see a younger poet standing up for herself more and more.
Among her beloved friends were two other 20th-century greats, Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. She was so often associated with Moore she’d complain she was “rather weary” of it — “and I think she is utterly weary of it, too!” But she drew inspiration — and a working model — from the Bryn Mawr-educated Moore, as she did from her intense friendship with Lowell.
Her letters to him might be the most revealing things she ever wrote. Her verse is famous for resisting the confessional urge, but in these letters she praises and damns other poets (she hated the Beats), speaks at length about her poems and fears, and repeatedly expresses her fierce love for Lowell, her friend and fellow poet: “Please let us not have falling-outs!”
At one time, his reputation overshadowed hers. But when feminism hit the English departments, that changed rapidly. Today, she and Lowell generally are considered at least equals.