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Bishop, Elizabeth (1911-1979)  
page: 1  2  

These poems and "In the Village" were collected in Questions of Travel (1965), a book dedicated to Lota in which Bishop also included poems about Brazil that consider the country's conquest by Portugal, the complexities of its race and class divisions, and the sheer magic of its tropical landscapes. The poems from her first three books, along with additional poems about her life in Brazil, translations from Brazilian poets, and several uncollected poems from the 1930s, were published as The Complete Poems (1969), which won the National Book Award in 1970.

But by 1970 Bishop's life had changed dramatically, for Lota, emotionally exhausted from a government post as overseer of the development of a large public park in Rio de Janeiro, committed suicide in September 1967. Although over the next several years Bishop tried, on and off, to live in Ouro Prêto, she found that ordinary financial transactions and the complex house renovations were difficult to manage without Lota to intercede for her with the Brazilians.

Moreover, her alcoholism had worsened; and a new lover, a young woman with whom she had lived in San Francisco from January 1968 until May 1969, suffered a nervous breakdown in April 1970, after an eleven-month stay with Bishop in Ouro Prêto.

In September 1970, Bishop returned to make her permanent home in the United States. Until her death on October 6, 1979, from a cerebral aneurysm, she taught at Harvard and also briefly at the University of Washington and New York University. With her new lover, Alice Methfessel, who helped sustain her during these years, she traveled to the Galápagos Islands, Machu Picchu, Scandinavia, Nova Scotia, and Greece, and spent summers in Maine.

In 1976, she published Geography III, which, although it contained only nine new poems, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977. Also in 1976 she became the first woman to win the prestigious Books Abroad/Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

Widely acknowledged as one of the finest twentieth-century American poets, Bishop has long been known as "a poet's poet" because of her seemingly effortless mastery of form. She often adopts a supple yet relaxed iambic pentameter, and her rhymes are both innovative and understated.

She initially learned her craft from an eclectic mix of writers she had discovered on her own--George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and modern poets from Harriet Monroe's anthology--as well as the hymns she loved. Moore's influence fostered her attention to descriptive details, and her reading of French surrealists colored many of the poems in North and South.

Finally, her friendship with Lowell inspired her to move toward a more open treatment of experience in her poetry and prose, as opposed to the fascinating but oblique self-allegories of poems such as "The Man-Moth," "The Imaginary Iceberg," and "The Unbeliever" and stories such as "In Prison" and "The Sea and Its Shore."

Nevertheless, suspicious of the sentimentality and self-aggrandizement that she saw in much confessional poetry, and, like many gay poets of her generation, equally suspicious of overtly proclaiming her sexuality, Bishop couched her experience in redactions of familiar narratives ("The Prodigal"; "Crusoe in England"), descriptions of ordinary scenes and objects ("The Bight"; "Poem"), and mundane settings such as a dentist's waiting room ("In the Waiting Room") and a bus ride ("The Moose").

Throughout her career, as Adrienne Rich argues, "the themes of outsiderhood and marginality in her work, as well as its encodings as obscurities, [are connected with] a lesbian identity." Thus, although metaphors of imprisonment, self-division, and doubling prevail, the poems often offer resolution in spite of doubt.

"The Gentleman of Shalott," for example, a half-man whose mirror reflection makes up the whole, finds his uncertainty "exhilarating," and decides that "half is enough." In "The Weed," inspired by Herbert's "Love Unknown," a weed sprouts from the prone speaker's heart and divides it. These and other poems from North and South chart Bishop's meditations on her sexuality and her consciousness that in American poetry and culture, lesbian love is a love unknown.

The book closes with "Anaphora," a poem she later dedicated to Marjorie, whose verbal doublings culminate in "endless / endless assent." Such a pattern, which begins with doubt and self-division but ends with a strong affirmation, characterizes Bishop's anatomy of lesbian identity. The inverted mirror world of "Insomnia," the broken cage of "Rain Towards Morning," and the dividing caesuras of "O Breath" suggest the tension between passion and reticence from which, in her last poem "Sonnet," the divided creature joyfully breaks, free to be gay.

Meg Schoerke

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Costello, Bonnie. Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Fountain, Gary and Peter Brazeau. Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

Goldensohn, Lorrie. Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Harrison, Victoria. Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Intimacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Kalstone, David. Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. Robert Hemenway, ed. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1989.

Merrin, Jeredith. An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Millier, Brett. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Parker, Robert Dale. The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Rich, Adrienne. "The Eye of the Outsider: Elizabeth Bishop's Complete Poems, 1927-1979." Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986.

Schwartz, Lloyd, and Sybil P. Estess, eds. Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Stevenson, Anne. Elizabeth Bishop. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1966.

Travisano, Thomas J. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988.


    Citation Information
    Author: Schoerke, Meg  
    Entry Title: Bishop, Elizabeth  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated December 2, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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