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April 17, 1994
Letters From A Lonely Poet
By J. D. McClatchy;
ONE ART Letters. By Elizabeth Bishop. Selected and edited by Robert Giroux. Illustrated. 668 pp. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $35. IN the 15 years since her death at the age of 68, Elizabeth Bishop has triumphed. Neither the tides of literary fashion nor the sort of feminist boosterism she herself deplored accounts for this phenomenon. It's simply that more and more readers have discovered the enduring power of her work -- quicksilver poems lined with dark moral clouds. A couple of decades ago, it seemed her beefier contemporaries -- Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke or Randall Jarrell -would tip history's scales. But her fastidious rigor has lasted better than their more sprawling, hit-or-miss ambitions. No one ever accused them of being "perfect" poets. But that has been the password to any discussion of Bishop's work. "Perfect" is a two-edged compliment. In Bishop's case, it can refer both to the exquisitely controlled textures and mirrory depths of her work and to the fact that her reputation -- like that of her first mentor, Marianne Moore -- is based on a very slim output. As a young woman, Bishop vowed "never to try to publish anything until I thought I'd done my best with it, no matter how many years it took -- or never to publish at all." In fact, during her lifetime she published (apart from several stories and essays) fewer than a hundred poems, in books that appeared only once a decade. That each poem is an astonishment, masterly in its command of tone and detail, only left her readers eager for more. Abruptly now, with the publication of "One Art," a handsome selection of letters, her work doubles in bulk. As her friend Robert Lowell once predicted, "When Elizabeth Bishop's letters are published (as they will be), she will be recognized as not only one of the best, but one of the most prolific writers of our century." What do we expect from a poet's letters? Keats, with his spontaneous brilliance, set a standard few others have matched. Byron, Dickinson -- their letters are themselves literature. But the lion's share of correspondence by modern poets that has so far appeared -- that of Frost, say, or Yeats or Stevens -- is usually of interest chiefly to scholars. Still, readers pore over letters looking for clues. We expect letters to be a sort of forcing house for poems. And wanting to take a human measure of someone we know intimately but abstractly through poems, we expect a less varnished view of the writer's true personality, something altogether more complex than a distilled poetic "voice." "One Art" satisfies both expectations. ONE letter here, written to Marianne Moore in 1946, in part describes a bus trip in Nova Scotia:
along with reiterated vows to "try to work and study much more seriously and thoroughly than I ever have before.letters all the more painful to read because we realize how unused she was to writing so nakedly of her emotions. The life she . In Marianne Moore and Anny Baumann she was looking for the good parent. powerful woman near the center of intellectual and political circles in Brazil. warily calculating what she thinks the other wants to hear. determined and cheerful than the woman who emerges from Brett C. failing health and perhaps cracks in their relationship finally drove Lota to kill herself. She walked away very slowly into the woods." Readers of Bishop will recognize that episode as the basis for her famous poem. over many years.of capturing small moments.may also help account for the extent of Bishop's travels. With others as well. I dislike cheap psychologizing as much as Bishop did. just as it was getting light. looking at us over her shoulder. A talented. and for her instinct not only to survey the exotic but to domesticate it. but it is impossible to think that her being an orphan didn't influence the way she wrote letters. From 1947 until her death. there are marvelous descriptions. alongside the technical talk of diction or rhythm. 'Very curious beasts. "Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. thoughtful."Early the next morning.' he said. There are some friends in whom we confide. looking as much for medical advice as for emotional stability. a physician who had immigrated from Germany and was a general practitioner on the staff at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. and later her friend and confidante. the heart and the joy of this book. when writing to Baumann about her decision to accept a teaching post. above all. Her 15 years in Brazil are. indulgent and enabling. The driver said that one foggy night he had to stop while a huge bull moose came right up and smelled the engine. sophisticated and volatile. Lota seems to have been both mannish and maternal. of pink salamanders or the neighbor's collie or a Vietnamese princess she'd met yesterday. Millier's 1993 biography. long and bemused. but particularly with Moore. Bishop writes to amuse and please. Even at age 53. quizzical. At first she was Bishop's doctor. solicitous. It was to Baumann too that she wrote most directly of her love for Lota de Macedo Soares. The stress of her work. "The Moose. But art always took the back seat to life. The most revealing series of letters. melancholy. Her letters to Moore are laced with praise and gratitude. Letters have that way -. One winces to read Bishop's desolated letters to Baumann during this period . with whom Bishop lived from 1951 until Lota's suicide in 1967. a figure at once severe and sympathetic." She's as likely to be reading Kierkegaard as fishing for amberjack or baking a cake." Her insecurities were lifelong." which she started writing 10 years later and finally published 16 years later still. are to Anny Baumann. and others to whom we confess. shy.Bishop's do -. curious happenings that eventually find their way into the imagination. Bishop wrote harrowing accounts to Baumann of her struggles with asthma and alcohol. she pleads with Baumann to "forgive me for bothering you with my vague schemes -. Their years together gave Bishop the home she never had. the driver had to stop suddenly for a big cow moose who was wandering down the road. And the self-portrait Bishop paints in these letters is of a woman more beguiling. the passionate companionship she had searched for.but at the same time I hope you will approve of them!" A line in one of Marianne Moore's poems -. at least at the start. In letters to Marianne Moore."the world's an orphans' home" -.
worked harder. especially when it came to matters of the heart. That meant she liked to hear gossip but didn't. The distance at which she lived from her close friends prompted the abundance of her letters to them. Her second cousin. her letters seem to be arranged like display cases filled with so much vanished life. It meant too that her temperamental modesty and good manners lend her correspondence an admirable but sometimes frustrating reserve."that poor shabby spoiled city" -. with faces four feet long. His wife. arrives by mistake. completely undeservedly. he didn't go through with it. "asking you is the might-have-been for me." she laments. along with their toucan and cats and countless household dependents. who works for Lota in the park but cut his hand badly. Then I have to read them the plans for the Carnival from the afternoon papers because only the man. a bit more than an hour's drive from Rio. But the landscape and local people enchant her. a few days apart -. seems to be living with us these days and decides he'll 'help' by washing the terrace with floods of water that come in the door of my study. unfortunately. provided a sort of extended family and a source of endless concern: "The sewing girl is blue and has to be cheered up. "I do think free will is sewn into everything we do. Yet the possible alternatives that life allows us are very few. then has mild hysterics and needs a sedative.long. "Of course I am hopelessly old-fashioned. But. somehow. pass it on in letters. and this spring and summer . it boiled to the surface." How was there ever time to write? Her years with Lota were the happiest of her life: "I like it so much that I keep thinking I have died and gone to heaven. . and she is continually plucking a correspondent's sleeve to notice the snails big as bread-and-butter plates. Lowell recalls a time nine years earlier when he had wanted to propose marriage to her. . It was that way for these nine years or so that intervened. affectionate. and there must be many lost poems." The corrupt politics and distressing underlife of Rio -. because the horrible TV we keep for her is malfunctioning and makes everyone look like dwarfs. chatty letters that with an unspoken embarrassment never mention Lowell's declaration. or the baptism of the bricklayer's son: so much unmenacing strangeness. The years passed." Bishop says of herself as well. . He remained haunted. big hot tears. can read (but not too well). In the end. etc. I've never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry. THE most striking instance of her reticence comes in a 1957 exchange of letters with Robert Lowell." "It is a country." she says of Brazil. from whom he's separated. the poetry would be improved. heartfelt letter to Bishop included in this book.or beginnings. innumerable accidents and ill-done actions. gets treated. Then the maid cries. people's lives have dramatic ups & downs and fairy-tale endings -. the one towering change. "where one feels closer to real old-fashioned life.. .established with Lota in Petropolis. often there must be none. In a startling. .she writes about with increasing despair. the other life that might have been had. It was deeply buried. has an attack of asthma. large and black. or the hummingbird she has to chase out of her pantry with an umbrella. But she guarded an emotional distance from them as well. give her the radio and close the door. Tragedies still happen. ordered my life better." Four months go by before Bishop answers that letter with two of her own. Like her poems. "The dying out of local cultures seems to me one of the most tragic things in this century. Leoncio." he continues. . No doubt if I used my head better.
After Lota's suicide.000 letters to choose from. Joseph Frank and others whom she mentions here that she has written to. Even so. Woolf. disastrously wrong." There are other such moments in this book too. One who spoke a little Portuguese said he was 'homely . Her opinions are always just. something that seems almost impossible -. Ned Rorem. Mr. this volume -. Mr. They were very curious about Huxley. nevertheless the other ladies along were all quite jealous. which is really boasting about how 'nice' we were. her aunt." The scrupulous observations that are the groundwork of her poems (no wonder Darwin was her "favorite hero") are everywhere apparent in these letters as well.they are all full of it. there are omissions that puzzle me. R. was Bishop's editor and close friend. handsome. in another letter to Lowell. telling of a trip up the Amazon with Aldous Huxley.good. etc. and although there must have been many things wrong. behaving just like gentle children a little spoiled.which he probably considered a labor of love -." The compiler of "One Art.and that nervousness interferes constantly with what they think they'd like to say. but without one shred of imagination. She called it "my George Washington handicap -. apparently. Of her college contemporary and friend Mary McCarthy's novel 'The Group": "It's fantastic writing -. Baumann. asked me to stay and marry him. and extend to her estimates of friends and their work. burned all of hers. she describes the Indians they met and recounts a detail that almost seems an allegory of her own suppressed feelings about Lowell's passionate outburst: "They are quite naked. There undoubtedly could have been still thousands more to sort through. Alice Toklas. This was a slightly dubious compliment.but Mary does it. Meyer Schapiro. plump. -. from his eloquent introduction to his deft arrangement and excisions. Dylan made most of our contemporaries seem small and disgustingly self-seeking and cautious and hypocritical and cold. But I am finishing up a long piece about it (and hope to goodness I can sell it and start building the garage) so I won't describe any more. are letters to anyone in Brazil. . And no letters to the likes of Jane Dewey. Her reticence. homely. . He had over 3. it takes an awful effort or a sudden jolt to make me alter facts. Missing." Robert Giroux. first -. during or after Bishop's long residence there. They have to make quite sure that the reader is not going to misplace them socially. however. and the 541 he includes already make for a bulky book. Giroux has concentrated on her circle of closest friends -.I can't tell a lie even for art. all her letters from Bishop were destroyed. although I can't stand those novels with round-breasted heroines and wicked heroes -. just a few beads.' And then one.just like 'Gone with the Wind' with metaphysical footnotes. Octavio Paz. a widower. West.may well prove to be his most valuable contribution. never inhibits her honesty. Giroux has had a long and distinguished career in service to literature. often uncomfortably so. His abiding affection for her and his skillful editorial hand are everywhere at work here. Another former lover of Bishop's. dearest unliterary friends." On Anne Sexton: "Anne Sexton I think still has a bit too much romanticism and what I think of as the 'our beautiful old silver' school of female writing. E. Bowen.Eight months later. Arthur Schlesinger. Mark Strand.old classmates. Dr." On Dylan Thomas: "I have met few people in my life I felt such an instantaneous sympathy and pity for. V." On Robert Penn Warren: "I've always been very enamored of that red hair and that blue glass eye. when one senses her cool but slightly trembling grip on her own panic. Marjorie Stevens. for instance. and the three .
The woman who gave him & her husband are Polish refugees and ran the zoo in Warsaw. the inquiring critic -. received many letters in answer to her queries about Bishop's poems and methods. but so far the favorite toy is a champagne bottle cork. . there is little of the speculative brio one finds in. and it remains the burden of her best poems.' " RARE BIRD Yesterday was my birthday & I am fonder of Brazilians than ever. that writers sometimes send their most interesting letters to strangers. "I think we are still barbarians. . But Bishop has something harder to achieve: an extraordinary patience. though.a TOUCAN . Anne Stevenson. grapes -. In her notebook. Stevenson's book have long since been recognized as central to our understanding of Bishop. sometimes even giddy -. "obvious" questions often elicit more pointed and revealing answers than the familiar correspondent can. than in her accounts of them.eminent fellow poets to whom she wrote most carefully: Marianne Moore. . "One Art" does not quite substitute for an autobiography. for one thing -.meat.to make life endurable and to keep ourselves 'new." she once told Robert Lowell. He steals everything. . say. IT seems to me. nor the great events of the day more comic. quick. Giroux pointed out in a recent telephone interview from his home in Jersey City.came bringing me my lifelong dream -. tender." Mr. spontaneity and mystery. and their heads under a wing. ." RISKING POSTHUMOUS WRATH The thousands of letters Robert Giroux collected for "One Art" belie the common perception that Elizabeth Bishop was not prolific. . or Sammy. also from the birthday. there are too many important facts missing. whose "Elizabeth Bishop" (1966) was the first critical study of Bishop's work. Instead.to see him swallowing grapes is rather like playing a pinball machine." Part of that loneliness she cultivated. Bishop wrote that the qualities she most admired in a poem were accuracy. I am calling him Uncle Sam. And something I'd never known -they sleep with their tails straight up over their heads. And beneath all the enchanting detail one senses -.the anxieties.without their ever being dwelt upon -. yet none of these letters are included in "One Art. "And it isn't true that she didn't produce a lot of poems." "When you write my epitaph. . . The intrepid tyro. the suffering. But I think we should be gay in spite of it. He eats six bananas a day. They prefer the anecdote to the idea. Flannery O'Connor's letters. The routines of daily life have rarely seemed so fascinating. with her knack of looking at things around her through both ends of the telescope.because we have no known language in common. And part of her loneliness she assuaged with the generosity of her love and friendships. . as just possibly future ages may be able to see. I think. particularly something bright. the losses. I never dreamed they'd give me a toucan. I must say they seem to go right through him & come out practically as good as new -. . "barbarians who commit a hundred indecencies and cruelties every day of our lives. to be gone through in one enthralled reading and then browsed in ever after. "The archives at ." she once wrote in a letter to Anne Stevenson that perfectly captures the spirit of this book. so the silhouette is just like an inverted comma. The excerpts quoted in Ms.their unexpected. Robert Lowell and James Merrill. . From "One Art: Letters. . the timid fan. Those same qualities shine through these letters. it stands as a sort of golden treasury. "you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived. And then later on a neighbor whom I scarcely know -. Friends of Lota's came bringing a large cake.
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