FEBRUARY 8: Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)


Bishop was a major 20th century American poet and short-story
writer. She only wrote 101 poems, but won prestigious awards: the Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for Poems: North and South – A Cold Spring,
a National Book Award, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.


Elizabeth Bishop, 1943. Josef Breitenbach/Breitenbach Foundation, courtesy Center For Creative Photography         

She was
born on February 8, 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father died when she
was young, and her mother was institutionalised, which led her to live the
difficult, often unhappy childhood of an orphan, moving from one family to the
other. She also developed health issues, which she carried with her all her

 When she
became a student at Vassar College (1929-34), she was as much attracted to
music as she was to literature. She even considered the career of a composer,
but gave it up because the idea of performing terrified her. She then turned
towards literature studies – in her senior year, some of her poems were
published and she co-founded a rebel literary journal named Con Spirito with fellow students –
namely, writer and activist Mary McCarthy, Margaret Miller, writer Eleanor
Clark and the latter’s sister Eunice.

Speaking of
great friendships: at that time she made the acquaintance of poet Marianne
Moore, 24 years her senior, who greatly influenced her. At first Moore mentored
Bishop, helping her publish some of her poems. But progressively they became friends
and remained so (till death did them part).

friend of hers was American poet Robert Lowell. They kept a “constant and
affectionate” epistolary friendship, each influencing and paying tribute to the
other in their poetry – though Bishop did not share Lowell’s confessional
style. Hers is similar to visual art, capturing scenes, describing the world
but it also has underlying themes dealing with the experiences of grief, of
losing, longing, and the struggle to find a sense of belonging.

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling fingertips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

“I Am in Need of Music,” Elizabeth Bishop

Despite her
fragile health, Bishop loved travelling. She lived in France for a while with Vassar
classmate and first love Louise Crane, with whom she travelled extensively in
Europe, and then both moved to live (also together) in Florida, where Bishop
met Pauline Pfeiffer (Hemingway’s ex-wife).

Her most
remembered journey was to South America. The story is that she expected to stay
two weeks, and ended up staying 14 years – out of love. Indeed when she arrived
in Santos, Brazil, she met modernist designer and architect Lota de Macedo
Soares, with whom she had a romance and shared a home in Petrópolis – though
their passionate relationship became tempestuous and came to an end, marred by
alcoholism and depression. She also came to love Brazil, and be influenced by Latin American


relationship was depicted by writers Carmen Lucia de Oliveira in Flores Raras e Banalíssimas and Michael Sledge in The More I Owe You.

The 2013 film Reaching for the Moon, which I do recommend, is based on
Oliveira’s novel. Here we see Glória Pires as Lota de Macedo Soares and Miranda
Otto as Elizabeth Bishop.

When Soares
killed herself in 1967 she spent less time in Brazil, and instead shared her
time between New York, San Francisco, and Massachusetts. She started giving
lectures at Harvard in 1970 and fell in love with Alice Methfessel, 33 years
her junior. They shared a sense of humour, loved travelling – had “the same way of looking at things.” However Bishop’s health
really deteriorated, with bouts of asthma, dysentery, insomnia, and her alcoholism worsened.
They briefly parted on friendly terms, but got back together and remained so
till Bishop’s death in 1979. (great -and detailed – article about them here!)

It is
interesting to note that, if Bishop considered herself a feminist in later
years, she was never comfortable with labels such as “lesbian poet” or “ female
poet”. She refused to have her poems published in all-female poetry
anthologies, and never got involved with the women’s movement. She was
extremely private about her life. For example, most of what we know about her
romance with Soares comes from her private correspondence with Samuel Ashley
Brown. Nonetheless, Bishop is now considered one of the most important American poets of the 20th century, and her life/love affairs still inspire today’s artists.

– Lise