In the spring of 1970, Robert Lowell accepted a position at the University of Essex, in England, leaving a vacancy at Harvard, where he’d been teaching poetry for one semester each year since the fall of 1963. He wrote to his old friend, the poet Elizabeth Bishop, then fifty-nine, to ask whether she would fill in for the fall semesters of 1970 and 1971. Despite Bishop’s meagre teaching experience, the college was happy to offer her the job on the strength of Lowell’s recommendation and the National Book Award bestowed on her “Complete Poems,” in 1970.
Bishop was living in Casa Mariana, her restored colonial home in Ouro Prêto, the picturesque former mining town in southeastern Brazil to which she’d retreated after her longtime partner, the Brazilian modernist designer Lota de Macedo Soares, committed suicide, three years before. For two decades, Bishop had found solace in Brazil from the horrors of her early life in the suburbs of Boston—her father died when she was eight months old, her mother was institutionalized after bouts of insanity four years later, and she spent the rest of her childhood being shuttled between the households of relatives, some of them abusive. But Lowell’s invitation found her at a moment when she needed relief from memories of Soares. Bishop had recently sent The New Yorker two long poems, “In the Waiting Room” and “Crusoe in England.” The first contained a coded acknowledgement of her grief, a “big black wave” that threatened the young Bishop, and the second bade farewell to Soares in its closing lines, when the repatriated Robinson Crusoe recalls the loss of “Friday, my dear Friday,” who “died of measles / seventeen years ago come March.” Had Soares lived to one more March birthday, the couple would have spent seventeen years together.
Bishop accepted Lowell’s invitation, overcoming her memories of terrible students during a semester at the University of Washington, in 1966—“their hatred for my sex, their LSD fantasies, their bluffing,” as she’d confided to friends in Brazil. Harvard, she hoped, would be different, and it was: though the shop windows in Harvard Square were still boarded up from the past spring’s antiwar riot, she found her students eager to learn, primed for her advent by Lowell. She was the first woman to teach English S, Harvard’s most advanced writing course, and the first woman poet to have her name published in a course catalogue. The Radcliffe women, who had access to all of Harvard’s courses, had begun to agitate for female professors, but Harvard’s English department still was not welcoming to women faculty members. The last female poet to teach at Harvard was May Sarton, who held a two-year lectureship in the early fifties, but only her colleague John Ciardi was permitted to teach a poetry course or named in the catalogue; Sarton taught freshman composition.
Not that Bishop wanted to be known as the first woman poet to teach creative writing at Harvard, or as a woman poet at all. She’d always been irked when described in reviews or introduced at readings as one of “our best women poets,” or “the greatest feminine poet of the decade.” Men and women “do not write differently,” she insisted. But hers was a position increasingly under attack. First, May Swenson wrote urging Bishop to give permission for a poem, preferably “In the Waiting Room,” to appear in a new “scholarly and significant” anthology, “The Women Poets in English.” Hoping to overcome Bishop’s resistance, Swenson described the volume as the first such collection to be published since 1825, and “not propagandist or ‘womans lib.’ “ Still, Bishop refused, and on women’s-lib grounds: “Why not Men Poets in English? Don’t you see how silly it is?” she wrote to Swenson. “I don’t like things compartmentalized like that. . . . I like black & white, yellow & red, young & old, rich and poor, and male & female, all mixed up.” Segregation, whether social or artistic, could only work against women’s acceptance as equal to men: “Literature is literature, no matter who produces it.”
A few years later, a younger poet, Adrienne Rich, pressed Bishop to contribute to another anthology devoted to American female poets. Rich’s first book of poems had been published in 1951, after being selected by W. H. Auden for publication in the Yale Series of Younger Poets. But it was not until the nineteen-sixties that Rich, who’d married a Harvard economics professor and given birth to three sons in quick succession, turned prolific, finding freer expression in the language of the antiwar and women’s movements that she joined after moving to New York City. She eventually left her husband, in 1970, and came out as a lesbian, in 1976. Bishop declined to be included in the collection, but she expressed to Rich an urge to follow her path, to write more openly about “the situation of woman.” Along with other vexations of her teaching job—such as coping with the fragile egos of students who, she noted in her journal, viewed Cs as failing grades, and deliberating over which student to select for the Harvard Monthly Prize (one year she chose an older married student who was not even enrolled in the college)—she particularly disliked being seen as a female role model. Speaking to a group of students at Dartmouth after a reading in 1973, one year after the Ivy League school went co-ed, she’d been asked by a “militant young lady” whether she felt like a “woman—(of all things!), when I write poetry.” The question was absurd, she thought. But, at least some of the time, the answer was yes.
In the classroom, Bishop addressed her students by surname—Miss Agoos, Mr. Sorensen—and tried to be tactful, believing that “the more polite the teacher, the more polite the students.” “Teaching writing,” a phrase she placed in quotation marks, still seemed a dubious enterprise: “Group reading, group discussion, all this going over and over and over, usually strikes me as a wasteful form of time-passing or therapy, with little or no connection to writing,” she once groused in an evaluation written for an M.I.T. creative-writing instructor under review. But she admitted that “some students do learn a lot in writing classes and . . . their writing does improve.” She wondered why she had once been “scared to death of ‘boys’ when I was at the age I should have been wild about them—was afraid to talk to them, etc—and suffered hells,” and now, “forty years too late,” she found herself perfectly at ease.
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