Lives of the Poet

The reclusive Elizabeth Bishop reveals herself in her work.

When a reporter at the American embassy in Brazil called Elizabeth Bishop in 1956 and told her she had won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Bishop left her mountaintop home near Rio, entered a neighbour’s kitchen and ate two Oreo cookies, which she hated. “I thought I should do something to celebrate,” she later explained to the Paris Review.

Through quaint anecdotes like this one, the notoriously fastidious poet cultivated, over the years, a reserved if somewhat idiosyncratic persona. Bishop was less candid about her difficult childhood (she was only a baby when her father’s sudden death precipitated her mother’s mental breakdown) and her sexuality (in the same Paris Review interview, she casually alluded to Lota de Macedo Soares, her partner of over 15 years, who died of a tranquillizer overdose soon after Bishop left Brazil, as “a friend”). On the rare occasion that romantic relationships or childhood turbulence appear in her poetry and short fiction, she writes about them abstractly or in the third person.

Therefore one cannot help but wonder how Bishop, who published fewer than a hundred poems in her lifetime, would have felt about how much of her formerly private work has been issued since her death in 1979. In addition to selections of her letters and paintings published in the mid 1990s, the publication of Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts and Fragments, in 2006, was followed two years later by Words in Air, a fascinating, nearly thousand-page collection of Bishop’s correspondence with the poet Robert Lowell. In the midst of this ephemera, and the many critical studies and anthologies that treat Bishop’s poems like discrete texts, University of Toronto professor Eleanor Cook’s new study, Elizabeth Bishop at Work, notably emphasizes the examination of Bishop’s poems in the context and order of their original collections.

Although she is primarily considered an American poet, the three childhood years Bishop spent living in Great Village, Nova Scotia, were formative to her visual and metaphorical palette. Describing a map of the North Atlantic in the opening poem (“The Map”) of her first collection, Bishop writes, “These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger / like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.” “The Map” was written soon after Bishop’s mother died in a Dartmouth sanatorium in 1934, and Cook points out that Bishop associated her mother with yard goods; she considers the sewing metaphor in light of Bishop’s 1953 short story, “In the Village,” which opens with a woman unmistakably based on her mother being fitted for a dress.

Cook’s chronological examination of Bishop’s books, and the far-reaching connections she makes, facilitate more nuanced readings of Bishop’s later work; when the poet describes “the silken water” as “weaving and weaving” in the 1949 poem “Cape Breton,” Cook’s shrewd observation about Bishop’s fabric metaphors makes one wonder if the shoreline’s ghostly presence, “the mist [that] incorporates the pulse, / rapid but unurgent, of a motorboat,” is Bishop’s mother.

Cook’s prose is decidedly more functional than stylish, but more importantly her expertise and breadth of approach are as expansive as Bishop’s poetry is allusive. By reading Bishop’s first book as a quasi-pastiche of Wordsworth’s Prelude, Cook shows how the arrangement of poems in the seemingly miscellaneous collection actually corresponds to Bishop’s travels after her time at Vassar College and to her interior voyage—“the growth of a poet’s mind.” Also remarkable is the richness of Cook’s secondary sources, such as a French-Canadian World War One recruitment poster featuring France’s Gallic rooster fighting the German eagle, which Cook uses to contextualize how the geopolitical allegory at the heart of Bishop’s poem “Roosters” would have been more unambiguous to a mid-20th century reader.

At times, a seeming conviction that Bishop’s mastery is self-evident causes lapses in Cook’s discipline. She occasionally describes Bishop’s choices as “just right” or “a stroke of genius” without much elaboration. Part of Cook’s appraisal of “Roosters,” a poem of 44 three-line stanzas all rhymed aaa, is that it “reads easily; the rhymes are mostly unobtrusive.” However, one could not only find many awkward, lurching passages in “Roosters” (“Christ stands amazed, / Peter, two fingers raised / to surprised lips, both as if dazed”), but could also make the case that the poem’s defiant unreadability underscores its message of protest, which is why Bishop’s friend and mentor Marianne Moore had the good sense to dislike it. To be fair, this is in part a matter of divergent tastes, but Cook transcends such divergences when she is more steadfast in undertaking the burden of proof.

Another shortcoming of Elizabeth Bishop at Work is its distracting and incongruous attempts to orient itself toward a specific readership. The first half in particular suffers from unpredictable tonal shifts (from playful to anecdotal to didactic) seemingly designed to differentiate this from other academic studies. The second chapter is interspersed with tedious writing prompts for would-be poets (“Exercise: Write a short poem mostly in ordinary diction that also includes a word or two that may be hard to define precisely”) that never appear again.

Whereas Cook’s writing is most engaging when she freely explores her own impressions of Bishop’s poetry, her attempts to dictate how her findings should be interpreted come off as pedantic. Take, for instance, Cook’s analysis of Bishop’s oak leaf metaphor in the poem “Quai d’Orléans”:

The entire poem works with the old topos of leaves, not so much Milton’s leaves of Vallombrosa that descend into Shelley’s revolutionary leaves blown by the wild west wind—leaves that go back to Homer’s metaphor for souls of the dead. “Leaves” make such a potent figure for a poet that no competent poet [emphasis added] will use this word and possible topos without thought.

It is unlikely that Cook’s presumed audience of aspiring poets would appreciate being censured for lacking fluency in the topos of leaves in western literature. And Cook’s tone here risks alienating lay readers who may be drawn to a critical study of Bishop (as opposed to, say, Wallace Stevens or Ezra Pound) precisely because Bishop’s allusiveness is rarely prohibitive; while it enriches one’s understanding of the trope, Homer’s metaphor for lost souls is not essential to appreciating how a barge’s wake resembles an oak leaf.”

More than any superficial writing advice, however, this study’s value is its demonstration of how to read poetry. When Bishop, in a love poem concerned with shelter and nests, employs a “nested” (i.e., symmetrical) rhyme scheme (in this case abccba), Cook identifies how this elaborate conversion of “scheme into trope” allows Bishop to evoke an entire world in two short stanzas. That readers as attentive as Cook exist at all should compel poets to pay more attention to craft when experimenting with poetic conceits.

In a poem from her new collection, Let the Empire Down, Hamilton, Ontario–based poet Alexandra Oliver uses sonnet-length stanzas with nested rhymes (abcdefggfedcba) to describe an encounter with a young manicurist. As the girl says that a nail salon is not where she expected to end up after a childhood spent excelling in the sciences, the poem’s scheme switches to near rhymes (as in hand/friend, burble/marble, watch/catch), enacting her sense of falling short. Poetry survives in part through the symbiosis between writers like Oliver and readers like Cook, and those scouring Elizabeth Bishop’s unfinished drafts would do well to apply Cook’s methodology to finding Bishop at work in the output of contemporary poets.