Exchanging Hats: Paintings
Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell
One Art: Letters
Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It
“Feminists!” growled Elizabeth Bishop, and vaguely scandalized her 1977 Harvard class.1 But in the same year, the year of the publication of Geography III, she also wrote a letter in which she claimed to have been a feminist since the age of six, and she was not being contradictory. It was in the late Seventies that, for instance, some creative writing classes introduced segregation of the sexes, so that the women could express their thoughts more freely. But what Bishop meant by feminism in her own case was to be taken on equal terms with any man—not to be (as she would have felt) downgraded into the category of woman poet, not to write about “women’s experience” but to take universal experience as her legitimate range, not to be used, politically, as a member of some kind of sisterhood. When she was young, she refused to be published in a group anthology when she understood that they needed a woman to make up the numbers. Throughout her life she refused to be part of all-women anthologies, and toward the end of it (she died in 1979) she might well have resented a pressure to solidarize. She was a poet’s poet (John Ashbery called her a writer’s writer’s writer) but she was not a lesbian’s lesbian.
She cherished a long-standing aversion to a certain generation of women writers, what she called the “our beautiful old silver” school of female writing: Virginia Woolf, Katherine Anne Porter, Elizabeth Bowen, Rebecca West. She thought they were always boasting about how “nice” they were: “They have to make quite sure that the reader is not going to mis-place them socially, first—and that nervousness interferes with what they think they’d like to say.”
On the other hand she did read Woolf, and she did admire her. In a conversation with George Starbuck, also in 1977, she warmly recommended Woolf’s Three Guineas, calling it Woolf’s first feminist book and saying that Woolf was rather badly treated when she wrote it.2 Actually Three Guineas is the sequel to A Room of One’s Own, written in 1938, in letter form, supposedly in answer to a man’s question: “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” The answer may strike us as strange, since it involves a disquisition on the history of women’s colleges in Cambridge. Quentin Bell calls Three Guineas “the product of a very odd mind and, I think, a very odd state of mind.” He says her friends were silent about it, or if not silent, critical, and that Keynes was angry and contemptuous. 3
But Woolf was right to point out that “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” is a question that has a puzzling implication when put to a woman, in a world in which women are excluded from higher education, and therefore from the kinds of decisions which contribute to either the prevention or promulgation of war. One supposes that Woolf’s friends, in 1938, felt that…
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