The loneliness of Elizabeth Bishop

In 1974, Elizabeth Bishop seemed to have all the things a poet could want: a teaching position at Harvard, a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and a first-look contract with The New Yorker, which almost always decided to publish her work. And yet she was inconsolably unhappy. “When you write my epitaph,” Bishop said to the poet Robert Lowell, “you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”

That year, things only got worse. Bishop’s longtime lover, the Brazilian heiress Lota de Macedo Soares, had committed suicide in her presence in 1967, and her much younger current lover, Alice Methfessel, 31, with blond hair and dazzling eyes of “blue blue blue,” had recently jettisoned Bishop to become engaged to a man. Bishop’s sadness was bottomless: Alcohol could saturate the pain, but never take it away. The trappings of success were preferable to those of failure, but the older and more eminent that Bishop became, the more desperate and needy she grew as well. “Yesterday brought to today so lightly! / (A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift),” Bishop wrote in the poem “Five Flights Up.” But it was also at this low point on her high perch that she wrote, over several painstaking drafts, what became her most anthologized and best-loved poem, “One Art.” It was a work that began as a riffy, associative free-verse rumination on the many kinds of loss but that, in its finished form, became a seamless and airtight villanelle, a form that dates back to the Renaissance. Written in the 1970s, a period experiencing a renaissance of a different sort—punk rock, self-help, singer-songwriters, Studio 54, and the “zipless fuck”—”One Art” made it clear that Bishop’s writing was both antiquated and somehow still of her moment.

Despite her crippling loneliness, Bishop sought out no group for empowerment or support. She kept such matters private, in her fashion, all the way to her death in 1979, at the age of 68. Bishop left behind 100 well-wrought poems, but very few musings on her private life. The entire time that she lived with Lota, who inspired tender, erotic poems like “It is marvellous to wake up together…” and “The Shampoo,” it was merely as her “guest” and “friend.” In fact, Bishop worried about whether the latter poem was too tawdry, despite Lota’s carefully veiled presence; in a letter to the poet and playwright May Swenson, she asked if there was “something indecent about it I’d overlooked.” And when Bishop was the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress in 1950, she avoided cruising for women at DC’s version of the Stonewall Inn or anywhere else, aware that Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt wasn’t just going after reds; in what was known as the “purge of the perverts,” the government was also rooting out gay and lesbian employees. Officially, Bishop had the honor of representing poetry in America, but she was also in many ways a prisoner of her desires, keeping her head down and determined to avoid the next raid.

One of the brilliant features of Bishop’s writing was that, despite her astonishing control and mastery of forms from centuries past, she had a gushing emotional register just barely below the surface. The effect was subtle, and even at its most pitched tones, one could miss it. But Bishop’s poems were beautifully constructed edifices with emotions that bubbled close enough to the surface for readers to feel and hear them. In these poems she was, as Flaubert might have put it, present everywhere but visible nowhere. Indeed, one of the arts of “One Art” was her ability to hide in plain sight, using antique verse structures to expose the personal wounds that she was simultaneously trying to keep to herself. Several drafts of “One Art” were published posthumously in the controversial Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, a collection of unfinished writing from the ultimate perfectionist poet. The facsimiles are not easy to read, but they’re worth the effort: Within the limitations of the villanelle—19 lines composed of five tercets and a quatrain—there were only so many words to cover losing her father to disease, her mother to an insane asylum, Lota to suicide, and now her “love, love, love,” Alice.

Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, the new biography by Megan Marshall (whose previous book, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, won the Pulitzer Prize), helps to fill in for devotees of Bishop’s work much of what couldn’t fit into one of her painstakingly perfected poems. And what we learn from Marshall’s book—informed by a mother lode of newly discovered letters—is that none of Bishop’s accomplishments could ever ease the pain of her loneliness.

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