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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:

At first she was Bishop's doctor. but it is impossible to think that her being an orphan didn't influence the way she wrote letters. the driver had to stop suddenly for a big cow moose who was wandering down the road. a physician who had immigrated from Germany and was a general practitioner on the staff at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York." which she started writing 10 years later and finally published 16 years later still.may also help account for the extent of Bishop's travels. "The Moose. above all. quizzical. she pleads with Baumann to "forgive me for bothering you with my vague schemes -. at least at the start. Bishop wrote harrowing accounts to Baumann of her struggles with asthma and alcohol. the passionate companionship she had searched for. There are some friends in whom we confide. The stress of her work. shy. with whom Bishop lived from 1951 until Lota's suicide in 1967. failing health and perhaps cracks in their relationship finally drove Lota to kill herself. and others to whom we confess.Bishop's do -. and for her instinct not only to survey the exotic but to domesticate it. the heart and the joy of this book.but at the same time I hope you will approve of them!" A line in one of Marianne Moore's poems -. just as it was getting light. along with reiterated vows to "try to work and study much more seriously and thoroughly than I ever have before. With others as well."Early the next morning. but particularly with Moore. A talented. I dislike cheap psychologizing as much as Bishop did. And the self-portrait Bishop paints in these letters is of a woman more beguiling. powerful woman near the center of intellectual and political circles in Brazil. warily calculating what she thinks the other wants to hear. are to Anny Baumann. From 1947 until her death. The most revealing series of letters. looking at us over her shoulder. alongside the technical talk of diction or rhythm. Even at age 53. 'Very curious beasts. when writing to Baumann about her decision to accept a teaching post. determined and cheerful than the woman who emerges from Brett C. Letters have that way -. looking as much for medical advice as for emotional stability."the world's an orphans' home" -." Her insecurities were lifelong. of pink salamanders or the neighbor's collie or a Vietnamese princess she'd met yesterday. and later her friend and confidante. The life she . solicitous. But art always took the back seat to life. Her 15 years in Brazil are. there are marvelous descriptions. "Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. It was to Baumann too that she wrote most directly of her love for Lota de Macedo Soares." She's as likely to be reading Kierkegaard as fishing for amberjack or baking a cake." Readers of Bishop will recognize that episode as the basis for her famous poem. She walked away very slowly into the woods. long and bemused. thoughtful.letters all the more painful to read because we realize how unused she was to writing so nakedly of her emotions. curious happenings that eventually find their way into the imagination. Her letters to Moore are laced with praise and gratitude. Bishop writes to amuse and please. The driver said that one foggy night he had to stop while a huge bull moose came right up and smelled the engine. Their years together gave Bishop the home she never had. In Marianne Moore and Anny Baumann she was looking for the good parent. One winces to read Bishop's desolated letters to Baumann during this period . sophisticated and volatile.' he said. indulgent and enabling. Lota seems to have been both mannish and maternal. In letters to Marianne Moore. a figure at once severe and sympathetic.of capturing small moments. melancholy. over many years. Millier's 1993 biography.

"Of course I am hopelessly old-fashioned. chatty letters that with an unspoken embarrassment never mention Lowell's declaration. His wife. ordered my life better. Then I have to read them the plans for the Carnival from the afternoon papers because only the man. the poetry would be improved. because the horrible TV we keep for her is malfunctioning and makes everyone look like dwarfs. Lowell recalls a time nine years earlier when he had wanted to propose marriage to her. . No doubt if I used my head better. worked harder. and there must be many lost poems. Yet the possible alternatives that life allows us are very few. . But the landscape and local people enchant her. Leoncio. "I do think free will is sewn into everything we do. her letters seem to be arranged like display cases filled with so much vanished life. . large and black. gets treated." she says of Brazil. it boiled to the surface. 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. It meant too that her temperamental modesty and good manners lend her correspondence an admirable but sometimes frustrating reserve. pass it on in letters. The years passed. innumerable accidents and ill-done actions. . etc.."that poor shabby spoiled city" -. I've never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry. the other life that might have been had." "It is a country. Tragedies still happen. But she guarded an emotional distance from them as well. Like her poems. a bit more than an hour's drive from Rio." 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.long. .she writes about with increasing despair." he continues. He remained haunted. people's lives have dramatic ups & downs and fairy-tale endings -. That meant she liked to hear gossip but didn't. THE most striking instance of her reticence comes in a 1957 exchange of letters with Robert Lowell. with faces four feet long. has an attack of asthma. somehow. and she is continually plucking a correspondent's sleeve to notice the snails big as bread-and-butter plates. he didn't go through with it." Bishop says of herself as well. affectionate." Four months go by before Bishop answers that letter with two of her own. The distance at which she lived from her close friends prompted the abundance of her letters to them. . It was that way for these nine years or so that intervened. "The dying out of local cultures seems to me one of the most tragic things in this century. In a startling. Her second cousin. provided a sort of extended family and a source of endless concern: "The sewing girl is blue and has to be cheered up. the one towering change. then has mild hysterics and needs a sedative. who works for Lota in the park but cut his hand badly. "where one feels closer to real old-fashioned life. In the end. But. especially when it came to matters of the heart. heartfelt letter to Bishop included in this book." The corrupt politics and distressing underlife of Rio -. a few days apart -. completely undeservedly. often there must be none.or beginnings.established with Lota in Petropolis. or the baptism of the bricklayer's son: so much unmenacing strangeness. It was deeply buried. arrives by mistake. along with their toucan and cats and countless household dependents. and this spring and summer . Then the maid cries." she laments. or the hummingbird she has to chase out of her pantry with an umbrella. big hot tears. from whom he's separated. unfortunately. give her the radio and close the door. "asking you is the might-have-been for me. can read (but not too well).

there are omissions that puzzle me. Ned Rorem. West.just like 'Gone with the Wind' with metaphysical footnotes. when one senses her cool but slightly trembling grip on her own panic. They were very curious about Huxley. although I can't stand those novels with round-breasted heroines and wicked heroes -. homely. are letters to anyone in Brazil. nevertheless the other ladies along were all quite jealous.may well prove to be his most valuable contribution." There are other such moments in this book too. Giroux has had a long and distinguished career in service to literature. this volume -. burned all of hers. dearest unliterary friends. something that seems almost impossible -. Dr." Robert Giroux. a widower. Her reticence.but Mary does it. After Lota's suicide. her aunt. His abiding affection for her and his skillful editorial hand are everywhere at work here. Missing. plump. V. Her opinions are always just. Mark Strand. Meyer Schapiro. There undoubtedly could have been still thousands more to sort through. This was a slightly dubious compliment.which he probably considered a labor of love -. and the 541 he includes already make for a bulky book.they are all full of it. never inhibits her honesty. during or after Bishop's long residence there. which is really boasting about how 'nice' we were. however." On Robert Penn Warren: "I've always been very enamored of that red hair and that blue glass eye. just a few beads. all her letters from Bishop were destroyed. it takes an awful effort or a sudden jolt to make me alter facts.I can't tell a lie even for art. Marjorie Stevens.good. Dylan made most of our contemporaries seem small and disgustingly self-seeking and cautious and hypocritical and cold. E. One who spoke a little Portuguese said he was 'homely . Arthur Schlesinger. Another former lover of Bishop's.Eight months later. Mr." On Dylan Thomas: "I have met few people in my life I felt such an instantaneous sympathy and pity for. Mr. Octavio Paz.' And then one. apparently. and extend to her estimates of friends and their work. etc. They have to make quite sure that the reader is not going to misplace them socially. 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. was Bishop's editor and close friend. R. Bowen. Even so. Woolf. Giroux has concentrated on her circle of closest friends -. -. handsome. first -. Alice Toklas. Joseph Frank and others whom she mentions here that she has written to. Baumann. from his eloquent introduction to his deft arrangement and excisions." 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. for instance. He had over 3. and the three . but without one shred of imagination." 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. disastrously wrong. in another letter to Lowell.and that nervousness interferes constantly with what they think they'd like to say. behaving just like gentle children a little spoiled." The compiler of "One Art. .000 letters to choose from. and although there must have been many things wrong.old classmates. often uncomfortably so. 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. asked me to stay and marry him. Of her college contemporary and friend Mary McCarthy's novel 'The Group": "It's fantastic writing -. And no letters to the likes of Jane Dewey. She called it "my George Washington handicap -. telling of a trip up the Amazon with Aldous Huxley. .

Those same qualities shine through these letters. I am calling him Uncle Sam. with her knack of looking at things around her through both ends of the telescope. there is little of the speculative brio one finds in. And part of her loneliness she assuaged with the generosity of her love and friendships. "One Art" does not quite substitute for an autobiography. though.' " RARE BIRD Yesterday was my birthday & I am fonder of Brazilians than ever. "you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived. . as just possibly future ages may be able to see. The woman who gave him & her husband are Polish refugees and ran the zoo in Warsaw. "And it isn't true that she didn't produce a lot of poems. In her notebook.meat. . "I think we are still barbarians. . The intrepid tyro." she once told Robert Lowell." Part of that loneliness she cultivated. "obvious" questions often elicit more pointed and revealing answers than the familiar correspondent can. Robert Lowell and James Merrill. quick. and their heads under a wing. Anne Stevenson. He steals everything.the anxieties.eminent fellow poets to whom she wrote most carefully: Marianne Moore. sometimes even giddy -. to be gone through in one enthralled reading and then browsed in ever after. . so the silhouette is just like an inverted comma. And then later on a neighbor whom I scarcely know -. also from the birthday. ." "When you write my epitaph. "The archives at . But I think we should be gay in spite of it. the suffering. . the losses. there are too many important facts missing. He eats six bananas a day." Mr." RISKING POSTHUMOUS WRATH The thousands of letters Robert Giroux collected for "One Art" belie the common perception that Elizabeth Bishop was not prolific.a TOUCAN . "barbarians who commit a hundred indecencies and cruelties every day of our lives." she once wrote in a letter to Anne Stevenson that perfectly captures the spirit of this book. it stands as a sort of golden treasury. I think. say. the inquiring critic -. The excerpts quoted in Ms. But Bishop has something harder to achieve: an extraordinary patience. than in her accounts of them. .without their ever being dwelt upon -. They prefer the anecdote to the idea.came bringing me my lifelong dream -. Stevenson's book have long since been recognized as central to our understanding of Bishop.to make life endurable and to keep ourselves 'new. whose "Elizabeth Bishop" (1966) was the first critical study of Bishop's work. particularly something bright. From "One Art: Letters. nor the great events of the day more comic. Flannery O'Connor's letters. Instead. yet none of these letters are included in "One Art. grapes -. or Sammy.to see him swallowing grapes is rather like playing a pinball machine. spontaneity and mystery. I must say they seem to go right through him & come out practically as good as new -.their unexpected. that writers sometimes send their most interesting letters to strangers. And beneath all the enchanting detail one senses -. for one thing -. IT seems to me. Giroux pointed out in a recent telephone interview from his home in Jersey City. . . And something I'd never known -they sleep with their tails straight up over their heads. The routines of daily life have rarely seemed so fascinating.because we have no known language in common. the timid fan. but so far the favorite toy is a champagne bottle cork. . received many letters in answer to her queries about Bishop's poems and methods. tender. and it remains the burden of her best poems. I never dreamed they'd give me a toucan. . Bishop wrote that the qualities she most admired in a poem were accuracy. . Friends of Lota's came bringing a large cake.

so I had them send it over. referring to the death of Bishop's longtime companion. too. He also received intact several letters containing Bishop's request that the addressee destroy them after reading them. Lota de Macedo Soares. 22) Copyright 2011 The New York Times Company Back to Top Home Privacy Policy Search Corrections XML Help Contact Us ." TOBIN HARSHAW Photo: Elizabeth Bishop in 1954. after her agent offered him the rights to Bishop's translation of the Brazilian classic "The Diary of 'Helena Morley." he said. but she had such a sense of perfection that she would bat them aside. "I don't think Elizabeth Bishop would have approved.she never talked about her private life and if you were so stupid as to back her into a corner. "Of course I had something of a moral dilemma at first." he noted. Posterity has its claims. It was seven or eight years until she first sent us a book of poetry. something that Mr. I had never even heard her name before. and that's that. who is now 80. Giroux says was ingrained in her personality. Robert Giroux (Arthur W. She was a New Englander. Wang)(pg. Anny Baumann. "Bishop thought 'Helena Morley' would be a best seller. but was told that whoever did the diary would get her poetry. She would start things. she was horrified that students would come in with 10 poems that they had written that week." His search for Bishop's letters. (ROLLIE MCKENNA). but she had wonderful letters regarding Lota's suicide" he said. unearthed some unexpected gems." Bishop was loath to bare her emotions in correspondence. and she was disappointed. "But they're extant and will be consulted by scholars and other strangers. "That was her character -. When she started teaching." he recalled." Mr. and although it was a marvelous book it was not of that character. "It was an interesting literary problem." he said." Yet this wall of propriety occasionally crumbled in letters to her physician and friend. first met the poet in 1957. Giroux. "An artist in Quebec named Maria Osser saw my notice somewhere and called me. Mr. she would give you hell. so I had something of a responsibility as an editor to put them in. "She hated confessional poetry.' " "I said I was much more interested in her poetry.Vassar are full of all kinds of interesting fragments. Giroux admitted he was hesitant to print them. which he began in 1986. but once they belong to the ages it doesn't matter what they think. It's literary history.

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