Elizabeth Bishop: Biography & Famous Poems

Instructor: Sophie Starmack

Sophia has taught college French and composition. She has master's degrees in French and in creative writing.

From her early childhood spent moving from relative to relative, to her adult life exploring South America, Elizabeth Bishop had a love for travel and an ear for language. In this lesson, we'll go over the poet's life, her famous poems and major literary themes of her works.

Overview

Some poets write about the epic, sweeping conflicts that shape a civilization. Others write elegiac, mournful dirges about emotions so violent they can only be mirrored by fitful storms and tossed seas. But what about the quiet, everyday events of an average life? Can that be the stuff of poetry, too?

Elizabeth Bishop dedicated her literary career to proving that it certainly could. In her detailed, restrained poems, she shows that simple moments - catching a fish, waiting for an aunt to have a tooth pulled, visiting a dirty gas station - can also be filled with transcendent beauty and deep meaning.

Biography

Early Years

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) had a childhood that was anything but happy. Her father died when she was only eight months old, and when Elizabeth was about five, her mother suffered a mental breakdown and was confined to an institution. Left pretty much an orphan, Elizabeth was shuffled about from family member to family member. She first lived with her maternal grandparents at their home in Nova Scotia, then with her father's parents in Worcester, Massachusetts, and finally settled with an aunt. As you might imagine, the constant moving took its toll, and Elizabeth was frequently sick with asthma and other childhood ailments. Because of all this, she attended school somewhat sporadically. She was passionate about music and art, though, and was accepted into Vassar College in 1929.

The simple house where young Bishop lived with her grandparents.
Home of Elizabeth Bishop in Nova Scotia

Literary Beginnings

At some point in your education or career, you may have had a mentor - perhaps a coach or a favorite teacher who believed in you and pushed you to reach your potential. Maybe that person even pulled some strings for you or used their influence to help you get ahead. For Elizabeth Bishop, that mentor was Marianne Moore, a very successful poet known for her Modernist writings. The two women met at Vassar, and Moore used her influence to help Bishop get some of her early poems published. The relationship was so important that Bishop dedicated a poem, the funny and whimsical 'Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore,' to her teacher and guide.

Another one of Bishop's close poetry friends was Robert Lowell, known for being one of the earliest confessional poets. The two exchanged many letters and drafts, and Bishop dedicated 'The Armadillo' to him after he wrote his poem 'Skunk Hour' for her.

Travels

Perhaps it was those early years of uncertainty and constant moving that left Elizabeth Bishop with her lifelong wanderlust. A seasoned, almost incessant traveler, Bishop left for Paris after college and thanks to an inheritance from her father, she didn't have to worry too much about her cash flow. From Paris she made her way to Key West, then on to a brief stint in Washington, D.C. With the help of a travel grant, Bishop explored South America and ended up living in Brazil for almost 15 years. It was there that she met her life partner, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Poem collections like 'North & South,' 'Questions of Travel' and 'Geography III' reflect Bishop's lifelong obsession with travel and place.

Poetry and Publication

The publication of Bishop's first collection, 'North and South,' won her a great deal of critical success, and she was named U.S. Poet Laureate in 1949. She published sporadically and worked slowly, but she was meticulous and gifted. Her work continued to be well received, and she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1956 and the National Book Award in 1970.

Although Bishop was active during the 1960s, a time known for the intimate and revealing work of confessional poets like Sylvia Plath and her own friend Robert Lowell, Bishop herself was much more reserved. Her work sometimes included clues from her own life, but she preferred to take an arm's-length view, focusing instead on the photographic qualities of scenes and images. Her work does embody a great deal of emotion, especially loss (we'll see that later when we discuss her style), but it's always treated in a reserved and objective manner. Similarly, Bishop's later life coincided with the feminist movement, but she didn't like to consider herself a 'woman poet' or a 'feminist poet.' She tried instead to keep her private life to herself, hoping that her work would be judged on its own pure literary merit. Whether or not that was possible for a lesbian poet writing in the 1950s, '60s and '70s is a matter we'll leave to the historians!

Later Life

In the 1970s, Bishop's inheritance began to dwindle, and to support herself, she was forced to take on teaching jobs, a position she was somewhat ambivalent about. As we've noted before, Bishop wrote slowly and published minimally, but now money was a concern, and she worked to sell more poems to magazines like The New Yorker. In 1977, she completed her last collection, 'Geography III.' She died in Boston in 1979.

Literary Style and Themes

Use of Detail

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