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