The Powerful Reticence of Elizabeth Bishop

In 2009, when Alice Methfessel died in California at age 66, everything in her house was rifled through and catalogued. That’s because Methfessel had once been the lover of the poet Elizabeth Bishop—the woman to whom Bishop dedicated the National Book Award-winning Geography III. When “a mass of unidentified paper sitting in a storage container” was discovered among Methfessel’s effects in 2010, her heirs “promptly sold the lot to Vassar,” in the words of Bishop scholar Lorrie Goldensohn.

The discovery of letters at Methfessel’s ranch property was not the first time that Bishop’s private writing has been found and published since her death in 1979. It’s an exposure that the poet would not have welcomed: Bishop was a private person during her lifetime, and deliberately withheld her personal life from her published poems. The decision to publish after her death the poems that Bishop had kept private in life has sparked controversy. In 2006, Alice Quinn of the New Yorker edited a collection of Bishop’s unpublished work, which Helen Vendler lambasted in this publication. “Had Bishop been asked whether her repudiated poems, and some drafts and fragments, should be published after her death,” Vendler wrote, “she would have replied, I believe, with a horrified ‘No.’”

It is this latest reserve of material from Methfessel’s house that Megan Marshall includes in her new biography of Bishop, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast. It is not new information that Bishop loved and lived with multiple women over her 68 years; Bishop’s first biographer, Brett C. Millier, confirmed the partnership with Methfessel in 1993. Nor are the traumas that punctuated Bishop’s life revelations to anyone who has read about her before: Her childhood abuse and alcoholism are well known to her devotees. What Marshall’s revisit offers is an attempt to connect more fully than ever Bishop’s poetics with the facts of her personal life—a synthesis of life and work that becomes a beguiling prospect when its subject is the famously private Bishop.

Though readers, critics, and especially biographers have long romanticized the discovery of caches of personal effects in the homes of writers, the ins-and-outs of their unearthing are decidedly unglamorous. They can verge on intrusive, tasteless, and even criminal in some cases. When Italian journalist Claudio Gatti revealed the identity of novelist Elena Ferrante in 2016, incensed fans wrote of Ferrante’s anonymity as a feminist act of resistance against the state of modern authorship, in which the writer is increasingly asked to reveal herself: physically, with an author photo, as well as biographically, in pages and pages of “behind the book” pieces, personal essays, appearances, panels, and social media accounts. For a poet like Bishop, whose work was so often predicated upon withholding, these demands can seem particularly violating—not least because they are made most passionately and persistently of authors who are women.

Bishop’s body of work is notoriously compact. She published only 100 poems in her lifetime. Octavio Paz said of Bishop that her poetry is a lesson in “the enormous power of reticence.” She won a Pulitzer Prize, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and a National Book Award for poems that were modern in style but removed in register, as devoid of biographical detail as they are short in word count. “Something needn’t be large to be good” is how her mentor and friend Marianne Moore described the Bishop aesthetic. Bishop herself called it her “Scotch-Canadian-Protestant-Puritan” temperament. Bishop’s enduring popularity is all the more remarkable, then, given how different she was from her contemporaries, and from the confessional direction American letters has trended since. Bishop was holding herself back from her work at a time when it had never been less fashionable to do so—friends like Mary McCarthy, who wrote The Group about their shared social circle at Vassar College, were mining their personal lives to great acclaim when Bishop was struggling to finish just one poem a year. So how can we arrive at an understanding of the power of her poetry through the dissection of her ephemera, through the piles of papers and self-reflections that she deliberately kept out of her published work? The answer is that we can’t—or at least that the point reached is one in which Bishop herself continues to evade capture. Instead, Marshall’s biography tells us about what the current market demands of women writers, and the origins of this impulse for more, more, more.

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