The passions of Elizabeth Bishop

“I’m not interested in big-scale work as such,” Elizabeth Bishop once told an interviewer. “Something needn’t be large to be good.”

True to this statement, Bishop spent her career producing finely designed, precisely executed poems, elegant and exquisite miniatures, few in number and subtle, albeit significant, in their impact. Her work brought acclaim and awards, and since her death in 1979, her reputation has continued to climb. But during her life, she often felt insecure about her career, and there is no denying that next to the flamboyant, larger-than-life personalities that tended to dominate American poetry in the second half of the 20th century, Elizabeth Bishop often struck one as — the characterization is practically mandatory when discussing this poet — a modest figure.

At the head of this pack of outsize personalities was Robert Lowell, with whom Bishop had an intimate and complex relationship, a friendship that included romantic elements despite the fact that she preferred women. Compared with Lowell’s elite Boston Brahmin background, her origins and early life — a mostly unremarkable childhood spent largely in rural Nova Scotia, a landscape to which her imagination returned again and again — were indeed strikingly modest. As her inclination against “big-scale work” suggests, a certain sort of modesty was a central element of her attitude toward art. Her output, too, was modest; during her life she published only about a hundred poems.

Although proud of her perfectionism, which she claimed to have learned from her friend and mentor Marianne Moore, Bishop at times agonized over the slenderness of her oeuvre. As Megan Marshall writes in her new biography, “Elizabeth Bishop,” as of the early 1970s, her career “still wasn’t what she’d hoped — she could still be ‘cast into gloom’ by the thought of her more prolific peers.” In 1949, she wrote to Lowell that “I’ve always felt that I’ve written poetry more by not writing it than writing it” — a remark that not only suggests an explanation for her small number of completed works, but also indicates a certain attitude toward literature and life.

Marshall’s book focuses more on the life than on the literature. And Bishop’s life, like everyone’s, was at times difficult and messy, if not as visibly and extravagantly tumultuous as many of her poetic peers. Unlike many of those poets — Lowell, of course, but also Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman and others — she kept the difficulty and mess out of her writing, permitting the poems only to gesture toward them in indirect, encoded ways. Her work was never about self-display, let alone self-dramatization. Beneath the surface, though, lay considerable complexity and genuine drama.

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