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Poet of the Week: Elizabeth Bishop

Some poets feel like kindred spirits as soon as we read their work. Some take longer to get to know. We need to get to know them beyond their written word because they reveal more about the world around them than about themselves. At times, we may need to go beyond the genre they are known for and study personal documents such as letters and journals. Sometimes we learn bits and pieces about a poet and decide there are few things about their personal lives that we would want to emulate. Sometimes all we would want to find in common with a poet is poetry, and then we discover another commonality we never knew existed. Suddenly, regardless of varying life choices, we desire to know more about this person.

Elizabeth Bishop is one of these poets for me. During my research of her life and work, I wondered how I ever came to know her work at all. I think it must have been through my college courses or through my writing mentorship. Maybe it is because her work inspired Mary Oliver’s style. There have been moments when I find I have little if anything in common with Bishop. Then there is this glimmer of “Aha” that makes me wish I could sit down and talk with her over a cup of tea. Here are a few things I learned about Bishop as a poet, how they provide a glimpse about who she was as a person, and how I have learned to relate to her as a poet.

Non-Prolific Perfectionist

. . .a perfectionist who did not write prolifically, preferring instead to spend long periods of time polishing her work. 

From Elizabeth Bishop’s biography on Poetry Foundation

I understand the perfectionist’s tendencies far more than I wish I did. Perfectionists often struggle with never-good-enough syndrome. The term perfect is a misnomer because our own visions of what is perfect vary depending on our personal preferences. So, I do understand Elizabeth Bishop’s polishing practices, and I do think that most poems require multiple revisions.

I am unlike Bishop in that I have published more than 101 poems. There is no right or wrong amount of poetry that a poet must publish in a lifetime. Emily Dickinson’s collected works far surpasses mine, but only ten of her poems were published (and most likely without her permission). But, the quantity of Bishop’s poetry speaks to the quality of her process. I wonder if her personal expectations for her poetry would have lead her to continue to revise these 101 poems if she had not felt it more compelling or required to publish.

Impersonal

Her verse is marked by precise descriptions of the physical world and an air of poetic serenity, but her underlying themes include the struggle to find a sense of belonging, and the human experiences of grief and longing.

From Elizabeth Bishop’s biography on Poetry Foundation

Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry falls within the contemporary era of American literature. During this time frame, Beat poets and Confessional poetry were most popular. Bishop was unlike her contemporaries in her restraint from writing about her personal life.

Bishop’s poetry avoids explicit accounts of her personal life and focuses instead with great subtlety on her impressions of the physical world.

From Elizabeth Bishop’s biography on Poets

Bishop also refrained from writing poetry that focused on the women’s movement including gender and sexual identity. She kept her private life exactly that. I admire her desire to let the quality of her poetry speak for itself.

Much of Bishop’s later work also addresses the frigid-tropical dichotomy of a New England conscience in a tropical sphere.

From Elizabeth Bishop’s biography on Britannica

I find the connection between Bishop’s geographical travels to be a unique construct of her work. I am eager to study these poems more in depth. Based on my reading and research, Bishop describes the world through her visual interpretation. I think that is one of the metaphorical joys of poetry. Yet, true to a Bishop poem, she allows the landscape to speak for itself with the poet as an appreciative observer.

. . .spare, powerful meditations on the need for self-exploration, on the value of art (especially poetry) in human life, and on human responsibility in a chaotic world. 

From Elizabeth Bishop’s biography on Britannica

Painter

Bishop worked as a painter as well as a poet, and her verse, like visual art, is known for its ability to capture significant scenes.

From Elizabeth Bishop’s biography on Poetry Foundation

Elizabeth Bishop’s interest in painting was a new discovery for me. My own painting adventures began this year, and I am intrigued by how painting enhances my view of nature. I suspect this art form will influence my future poems. But, I don’t think that painting will replace poetry as my main priority.

I like painting probably better than I like poetry.

Elizabeth Bishop as quoted in The Paris Review

Poet’s Poet

Elizabeth Bishop is considered to be a poet’s poet. But, I had to ask myself, What does that mean exactly?

A poet whose poetry is generally considered to appeal chiefly or especially to other poets.

Lexico

Other poets, especially Edmund Spenser, are considered to be “the poet of poets.” Why is Elizabeth Bishop considered a poet’s poet? She was most known in poetic circles until the publication of Geography III. She was a lifelong friend to Marianne Moore who was her mentor and to Robert Lowell with whom she had extensive correspondence. Since then, she has influenced other poets including Mary Oliver.

I am pleasantly surprised at these discoveries about Elizabeth Bishop and how I am able to relate to her better as a poet. I hope my readers will enjoy journeying through her work more this week.

I think this assessment sums up Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry best.

“Bishop’s poetics is one distinguished by tranquil observation, craft-like accuracy, care for the small things of the world, a miniaturist’s discretion and attention. Unlike the pert and wooly poetry that came to dominate American literature by the second half of her life, her poems are balanced like Alexander Calder mobiles, turning so subtly as to seem almost still at first, every element, every weight of meaning and song, poised flawlessly against the next.”

Ernie Hilbert as quoted by Poetry Foundation

Categories: Poetry

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