Exile’s Return

Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It

by Brett C. Millier
University of California Press, 602 pp., $28.00

Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry

by Lorrie Goldensohn
Columbia University Press, 306 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore: The Psychodynamics of Creativity

by Joanne Feit Diehl
Princeton University Press, 119 pp., $17.95

Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell

by David Kalstone, edited by Robert Hemenway, afterword by James Merrill
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 299 pp., $12.95 (paper)

The Complete Poems, 1927–1979

by Elizabeth Bishop
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 287 pp., $10.95 (paper)

The Collected Prose

by Elizabeth Bishop, edited and with an introduction by Robert Giroux
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 8 pp., $12.95 (paper)

To one expecting a glamorous Famous Poet, the sight that first day of class dismayed: a small, white-haired woman, shy and weary, adorned with, of all things, a brooch. That winter and spring of 1977 in a basement room at Harvard, about a dozen of us met for Elizabeth Bishop’s weekly seminar on modern poetry, which consisted almost entirely of her reading aloud, in a dry drone, from the works of Frost, Stevens, and Moore.

Fools she suffered not at all; soon half the class was absent, and if she noticed, it could only have been with pleasure. One poor girl announced that she had read somewhere that Marianne Moore wasn’t a “feminist.” Miss Bishop replied: “My goodness, you don’t know what you’re talking about at all, do you?” Then after a pause, she growled, “Feminists!” We were all vaguely scandalized, and didn’t know whether she thought Moore was so obviously a feminist that one shouldn’t have to ask such a stupid question, or whether Miss Bishop (who, after all, did insist on the “Miss”) herself disliked feminists. Later I was to learn it was both.

We were often reminded to consult the dictionary. This excellent advice was “homely,” like so many other things about Miss Bishop, as well as droll. She could teach these Harvard smarties a thing or two. We wrote imitations of the poets under study, and she was especially taken with one student’s pastiche of Moore, a syllabically counted poem about a lizard. She read it to the class. “You got her tone exactly,” she said, handing it back to the beaming student, then added thoughtfully, “Of course it’s not nearly beautiful enough.”

At a recent session of the MLA, a speaker on the subject of biography proposed, jokingly, that there be a period of respectful mourning following a writer’s death before biographical work should begin—perhaps fifty years or so, “to give the ghost time to go away.” But it has only been fourteen years since Elizabeth Bishop’s death, and no such qualms have delayed the biographers. The number of studies of the poetry, the life, and the life-and-the-poetry are amazing—dozens of articles, and at least nine books at last count, including, most recently, Brett Millier’s exhaustive Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It.

By now, the detailing of the poet’s life is nearly encyclopedic. Yet there’s not that much to astonish: love affairs between women and a tendency to drink too much thrill, perhaps, less than they once might have. Indeed, most artists’ lives shock only by virtue of their very dullness. James Merrill has written memorably of Bishop’s “life-long impersonations of an ordinary woman.” But one suspects that she was exactly that, an ordinary woman, no impersonation necessary—as well as, of course, an extraordinary poet.

Bishop was born in New England in 1911, lost her father to Bright’s disease when she was only eight months …

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