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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:

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

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

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

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

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

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