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Breakfast with Miss Bishop

One Art: Letters

by Elizabeth Bishop, selected and edited by Robert Giroux
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 668 pp., $35.00

At Harvard, in the fall of 1971, Elizabeth Bishop taught a seminar entitled “Personal Correspondence, Famous and Infamous.” Because letter writing has traditionally been considered a minor art, even the best letter writers among the poets—Byron, Keats, Hopkins, dickinson—are taught and written about principally as poets. Almost no one knows how to account for the charm and power that letters can have. Because the writer of letters does not practice the “perfectly useless concentration” that Bishop saw as the mark of poetry, they can hardly be made the object of explication de texte in the classic sense.

Also, letters present an awkward stumbling block to those who take a high line about literature as a custodian of moral values. The letters of writers are—as often as not—about drinking and infidelity, about sponging and wasting time; in these letters, writers tend to complain about money, about aches and pains, about the commercial deals they have to make, about editors and publishers. Letters can be pornographic (like Joyce’s to Nora), or credulous (like Yeats’s on magic); they can be malicious, sly, gleefully spiteful, childish. One’s reverence for the poet as exemplary can often come in for a rude shock on contemplation of the poet’s letters: the soul that composed the poems and the self that wrote the letters can seem irreconcilable.

Those who are best at dealing with letters remember Yeats’s saying that the poet is not the bundle of accidence and incoherence that sits down to breakfast. That bundle of accidence and incoherence writes the letters; and yet, though letters may not emerge from the self-isolating trance of composition, the poet’s habit of observation and phrasing does. The noticings and formulations of every day are, in the poet, of a peculiar order: more than others, he or she cannot help noticing and finding the mot juste, and we read poets’ letters to share, for a moment, what it would be like to live with the alert eye and the accurate phrasing of the writer.

Elizabeth Bishop’s letters are recognizably the product of the person who wrote the poems, but they are not the equal of the poems; there is a larger gap between the two halves of what will now be seen as Bishop’s oeuvre than there is between the two halves of, say, Keats’s work. Bishop’s do not seem intellectual or theoretical letters; in fact, were it not for their fresh and lively style, one would not know, most of the time, that they had been written by someone immersed in literature and trying to evolve an original, if unformulated, poetics of her own. Bishop’s letters are almost exclusively descriptive rather than analytic. Yet to put it that way is to beg the question, since for Bishop, as I hope to show, description in letter writing was analysis.

Bishop (1911–1979) wrote letters, many of them, all her adult life. The first letter printed by Robert Giroux, Bishop’s close friend and editor, comes from her seventeenth year, and the last—a long, vivacious, and polemical one—was written on the day she died. The most bountiful group of letters comes from Brazil, where Bishop lived from 1951 to 1966. There, established in comfort by her companion Lota de Macedo Soares, Bishop had both the time to write and a succession of unfamiliar stimuli—from toucans to colonial architecture—to pique her descriptive powers. Although her important correspondences with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell were begun before the years in Brazil, some of her most interesting letters to them appear in the second third of Giroux’s selection, the part devoted to Brazil. Before Brazil, Bishop is in quest of a life; after Brazil, she is shadowed by Lota’s death.

The outlines of Bishop’s life scarcely need repeating. Her father died of Bright’s disease (the same kidney disease that killed Emily Dickinson) in the first year of Bishop’s life; her mother, after several breakdowns, went permanently insane and was confined in an asylum when Bishop was five; Bishop then moved uneasily among relations in Nova Scotia, Worcester, and Boston; and it was only after settling into her third high school (the Walnut Hill School in Natick, Massachusetts) that she began to find friends and to write. It was not until she landed at Vassar that she found (through the kindness of the Vassar librarian) a literary mentor in Marianne Moore. Moore subsequently sponsored Bishop’s work for publication, and introduced her to editors and publishers; later, it was through the generous help of Robert Lowell that the diffident Bishop was helped to grants and fellowships, to the chair of the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, and, ultimately, to teaching at Harvard.

The early circumstances of Bishop’s life left a permanent mark, chiefly in her lifelong feeling of homelessness (only temporarily abated in Brazil), in her asthma (always severe), and in a family predisposition to alcoholism. Because of her asthma, Bishop found the Northeast a difficult place to live; between her time in New York and the move to Brazil, she lived in Key West (first with her wealthy classmate Louise Crane, later with a second lover, Marjorie Stevens, whose husband was away at war). In 1946, when Bishop was thirty-five, her first book of poetry, North & South, was published. (The second, Poems, followed in 1955; the third, Questions of Travel, in 1965; the fourth, Geography III, in 1976.)

Bishop was a natural writer, but she wrote poems slowly, painstakingly, and with an almost disabling perfectionism; the great relief of letters was that they could be written off the cuff, with amusement, with relaxation, abundantly. Often her pen (later, her typewriter) seems to fly over the page.

In Key West, Bishop was already drinking and having hangovers; and the anxieties consequent on finding her way as a young writer were soon compounded by the anxieties of guilt over drinking and over her inability to produce more writing—a lifelong torment. Her small private income (and her almost lifelong dependence on lovers to provide part of her support) meant that she did not have to take a job; but she did undertake one for the war effort, enrolling as a checker of binoculars for the Navy. She lasted only five days, and her letter to Marianne Moore about the job (I abridge it below) is typical in its offering of what there is to like about Bishop’s letters: her eye for the oddness and comedy of life; her impatience (here, with the absence of intellectual curiosity in others); and her delight in any sort of artisanry:

Well, I got the “job” in the Optical Shop and went to work as a “helper-trainee,” taking binoculars apart and putting them together again…. I only lasted five days, I’m sorry to say. The eyestrain made me seasick, and the acids used for cleaning started to bring back eczema, so I had to give it up…. But I’m glad I tried it…. It took three whole days of red tape to get in, before I could wear a large tin button with my photograph on it and “Industrial Worker” printed underneath, and it is taking me at least two weeks to get my “honorable discharge.”… The foreman was a great big Scot—a sort of Spencer Tracy type—who was endlessly patient in teaching me, and called me “kiddo” and “sis.”… In spite of all the gaiety they really worked awfully hard and I never say anyone idling and I was infinitely impressed with the patience of those men fiddling day after day with those delicate, maddening little instruments. I don’t think I could do it, even if it hadn’t made me sick. And their lack of imagination would get more and more depressing—not one of them had any idea of the theory of the thing, why the prisms go this way or that way, or what “collimate” and “optical center” really mean, etc.

…Some of the things we worked with were beautiful, of course—the lenses and prisms, and the balsam for gluing them. Eventually I would have worked on sextants and periscopes and all kinds of wonderful-looking things I don’t know the names of….

This is too long, but I want to talk.

Bishop plays here, as she usually does, a comic part, the one of the estranged naif to whom the “real” world is unpredictably unsettling. Here she is the ingenue suspended between her accustomed life, where words are personally chosen, and a new work life, where words present themselves in factory boilerplate like “helper-trainee” and “Industrial Worker,” on military boilerplate like “honoroable discharge,” or kindly all-purpose conversational boilerplate like “kiddo” and “sis.” Yet another life is hinted at, the scientific life of technical terms like “optical center” and “sextant,” and we recall that Bishop all her life liked the technical words of geology, biology, botany; and so on: they represented, for her, a decent, interesting, and even beautiful realm between the verbally familiar and the verbally debased.

The final sentence confirms the fact that Bishop thought of letter writing as conversation made visible—and the decorum of conversation (which precludes lecturing at your interlocutor), kept her from writing, in her letters, set pieces of literary criticism. One may agree in principle while regretting the result; yet the transparency and fullness of Bishop’s letters—through which we see displayed the whole scene in which she finds herself (the letter above also contains submarines, tattoos, undershirts, Coca-Cola, an avocado salad, and kittens)—give them their marvelous historical vividness.

From Key West, Bishop took a sea trip: at Rio de Janeiro, she fell ill from eating cashew-fruit, and was taken care of by Lota, whom she had met earlier in New York; Lota asked her to stay on, and she did, living with Lota both in Petropolis (where Lota was constructing a splendid modern house) and in Lota’s apartment in Rio. Once in Brazil, Bishop could fully exercise her talents as an anthropologist of life forms—not only on the flora and fauna and the spectacular weather, but also on Brazilians in general and the servants in particular. The pious will find her supercilious and patronizing, especially toward the servants, and of course she is, but let the pious try to run a household or deal with handymen for some years and then see whether their own letters will be more or less tolerant than Bishop’s, which are at least always laced with a rueful humor about the human condition.

In Petropolis and Rio, things went well enough for some years, but then the relationship between Bishop and Lota began to fray—in part because of normal attrition, perhaps, but Lota’s exhausting work on the planning of a large municipal park, and Bishop’s bouts with alcohol, also contributed. Bishop, invited in 1965 to replace Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington in Seattle during the first half of 1966, decided, against Lota’s wishes, to accept; and though she returned, Lota, aware that Bishop had had an affair in Seattle, grew increasingly depressed; when Bishop went to New York, Lota followed her and died after taking an overdose of Valium. That effectively ended Bishop’s life in Brazil, and ended, too, any sustained gaiety in the letters. During the last years of her life, Bishop taught at Harvard (1970–1975). NYU, and MIT; though she liked many of her students, and responded generously to talent, Bishop did not much like teaching as it is practiced in a poetry workshop. She was too private a person to create a false classroom intimacy, and too precise a writer to encourage “self-expression” as the chief criterion of art. Her last letter, written in exasperation to the poet John Frederick Nims, urged him not to gloss the words of poems in the anthology he was preparing:

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