Today marks the 100th birthday of poet Elizabeth Bishop, born in Worcester, Massachusetts on February 8, 1911.
Bishop is one of America’s leading poets. Among her best-known poems are “The Filing Station” (click on the audio link to hear Bishop read it), “In the Waiting Room,” and “The Fish” (click here for the poem with Bishop’s audio reading and here for Bishop’s correspondence with poet Marianne Moore on the poem).
Bishop’s traveled widely, lived for a while in Key West, Florida, and then moved to Brazil, where she lived for a number of years with her lover, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Bishop returned to the U.S. in 1970, taught at Harvard, and died in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1979 at the age of 68.
This past weekend, at the AWP conference in Washington, D.C., I attended a the Elizabeth Bishop Birthday Celebration, a panel led by editors, critics, and poets who knew Bishop and offered stories, readings of letters, and assessments of her work.
For those of you (sorry, Susan!) who were not able to attend, what follows is a synopsis of my notes from the panel.
Poet and writer Joelle Biele discussed Bishop’s long (over forty-years) relationship with The New Yorker, chronicled in the book, Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence, edited by Biele and published just last week by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Next came Lloyd Schwartz, editor of the Library of America’s collection of Bishop’s poems, prose, and letters.
Schwartz: “If I were delivering a formal paper, I would call it, A Creature Divided.” This refers to an obliquely autobiographical line in Bishop’s “Sonnet,” that was published posthumously. (Click here for Schwartz’s commentary on that poem. (The audio links, unfortunately, are broken).
Schwartz tried to show what a complicated person Bishop was. She devoted her life to art and works of art, for example, yet she wrote to Robert Lowell that “art wasn’t worth that much” and criticized him for not being accurate in his transcription of letters of Elizabeth Hardwick (Lowell’s wife).”
Bishop was a many-faceted creature. Her correspondence reveals her, as her friends knew her, as “Elizabeth.” Yet, there was also the proper, fastidious “Miss Bishop.” An image she went along with but, in large part, was created by the New Yorker, Schwartz noted. Her writing is wilder and stranger than they let her be. The New Yorker tried to tame her, change her.
Sometimes Bishop resisted, although that doesn’t mean she didn’t allow them to make the changes they pushed for in her work. But often she was uncertain about elements in her work, especially punctuation. In a letter to Howard Moss, Bishop asked about when it was correct to use “which” vs. “that.” “I can’t ever remember,” she said. “Don’t tell anyone.”
The back cover of Biele’s book shows the changes The New Yorker made to Bishop’s “North Haven,” Schwartz said. It shows how they “wrecked her poem.” In Bishop’s version of the poem, she had capitalized all the names of the flowers. The magazine changed it to make it conform to house style.
You can see some examples of letters between Bishop and editor Howard Moss on the poem, “Crusoe in England." Perhaps the funniest line is where Maxwell refers to the Wordsworth quote (from “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”) that Bishop has included in her poem:
I’d read were full of blanks;
the poems—well, I tried
reciting to my iris-beds,
“They flash upon that inward eye,
which is the bliss…” The bliss of what?
One of the first things that I did
when I got back was look it up.
Maxwell writes: “the whole quote is an anachronism. Is that ok?”
(By the way, I looked it up when I got back, too. The line ends: the bliss of solitude. Italics mine.)
Another case of altering her poems involved a lower case “g” that a New Yorker style editor had indicated needed changing because it “would go against English and looks monstrous.” Editor William Maxwell, at least conscious of the magazine’s inflexible attitude, jokingly wrote in a letter to Bishop that allowing a lower case “g” would “rock the magazine to its foundations,” and, so, asked her to please let them change it.
Bishop also liked 18th and 19th century punctuation and had a habit of beginning a line with a dash, but The New Yorker would not tolerate that. (Much as Emily Dickinson’s unique punctuation was tamed upon initial publication, Bishop’s lively, expressive, original punctuation was changed, too.)
One of the most famous examples is in her poem, “One Art.” In every one of her drafts, Schwartz pointed out, Bishop ends the first line with a colon:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master:
What follows in the poem is a list of lost items (keys, places, names, watch, years, etc.). The New Yorker changed Bishop's colon to a semi-colon and in later drafts, Bishop didn’t push to change it back. Why, Schwartz asked. Was it insecurity on Bishop’s part?
Another speaker on the panel, Jane Shore, poet and professor at George Washington University, was a student of Bishop’s at Radcliffe, and eventually her colleague at Harvard. In 1979, Ploughshares published an article by Shore titled “Elizabeth Bishop: The Art of Changing Your Mind.” (Unfortunately, the full article is not available online, only the first page.)
But Shore summarized some of the essay during her talk. She noted that because Bishop used the present tense in her poems, it is like eavesdropping on her thoughts. There are lots of examples where Bishop changes an image or thought mid-stream in a poem. Often she does this by asking a question, using a conjugation, or correcting herself with “rather” or “that is.”
Often Bishop gives the impression of a person who seems ambivalent, because she gives an image, then takes it away. But the clever result is that you are left with both images. In “Santarem,” for example, she gives a series of oppositions with slashes in between:
life/death, right/wrong, male/female
In her essay, Shore quoted from the poems and noted that Bishop deflates religion, politics, and art, and describes “moral owls.”
Looking back, Shore laughingly said, “I don’t know why, at the time, I thought Bishop wouldn’t see this article. It was published in Ploughshares and available at the bookstore in Cambridge!”
Sure enough, she received a letter from Bishop, dated May 10, 1979, and written on light blue stationery. “Dear Jane: I was both surprise and pleased” to see the article in Ploughshares. Bishop noted how one develops patterns in one’s writing without being aware of it. “I think I shall try to avoid such either- and or-ing in the future.”