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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:

I’m going to take issue with you—rather violently—about the idea of footnotes. With one or two exceptions (I’ll mention them later) I don’t think there should be ANY footnotes. You say the book is for college students, and I think anyone who gets as far as college should be able to use a dictionary. If a poem catches a student’s interest at all, he or she should damned well be able to look up an unfamiliar word in the dictionary…. All flower names can be looked up, certainly—some students even SEE flowers still, although I know only too well that TV has weakened the sense of reality so that very few students see anything the way it is in real life….

You can see what a nasty teacher I must be—but I do think students get lazier and lazier & expect to have everything done for them…. My best example of this sort of thing is what one rather bright Harvard honors student told me. She told her roommate or a friend—who had obviously taken my verse-writing course—that she was doing her paper with me, and the friend said, “Oh don’t work with her! It’s awful! She wants you to look words up in the dictionary! It isn’t creative at all!”

In such moments, Bishop’s intellectual confidence showed itself: poets had a right to present their words clean on the page, without interfering footnotes—and as for the dictionary, should not everyone be introduced to its delights? The pedagogical and the poetic, for Bishop (and perhaps for any writer), were bound to clash.

Bishop’s letters, in their present appearance, will have an audience already familiar with the poetry and attuned to its magic realism. But because these are largely domestic letters, they require, one might say, domestic reading. “What would you like to hear about my daily life?” they implicitly ask; and then they offer a vignette of absolutely no importance except that it reveals—in a manner slightly exaggerated, slightly askew—something that happened. For Bishop, the charm and interest of life was that it was as it is; she believed in no religion, no afterlife, no external sanctions of morality. And Lowell’s late cry in the poem “Epilogue”—“Yet why not say what happened?”—is hers as well.

For a writer, formulation in words is everything, and experience is only grasped when formulated. Letters provided Bishop with the occasion to stylize life in language—which was both a duty and a pleasure. In her twenties, she writes from Brittany to her close friend Frani Blough, “You don’t know what a blessing it is to have you be one, the one, friend who has been here, so I don’t feel dutybound to—or maybe, I can’t possibly let myself—DESCRIBE everything.” By the end of Bishop’s life, the internal compulsion to “DESCRIBE everything” became wearisome, as we can see from her remarks in a late poem “Crusoe in England”:

…I’d have
nightmares of other islands
stretching away from mine, infinities
of islands, islands spawning islands,
like frogs’ eggs turning into polliwogs
of islands, knowing that I had to live
on each and every one, eventually,
for ages, registering their flora,
their fauna, their geography.

However in Bishop’s early and middle years description was her chief joy. The letters lead us to ask what were the characteristic strategies of her work.

It is not too much to say that Bishop wrote, in prose as well as in verse, in code. As early as 1935, seeing a circus at Quimper, she remarks on only one of its several acts, saying:

I particularly liked it when one of the seals climbed his stepladder carrying a lighted lamp with a red silk shade and bead fringe, on his nose…

There are several facets to this, all parodic: the classic, aspiring ascent (the Platonic Ladder, Mount Carmel, Mont Ventoux, Everest) miniaturized; the lamp of Diogenes; bourgeois home ornament; and so on. Bishop expects her correspondent—Marianne Moore, in this case—to catch all this. If her sentence had read, “A seal mounted a stepladder balancing on his nose a glowing lamp with a fringed shade,” the vignette would have few of its actual implications—but when she makes the seal one ardent soul out of the crowd of seals, and adds “climbed” (as of a mountaineer), and “his” and “carrying” (as of Diogenes) and “lighted” (as by human agency) and “red silk” (the bourgeois touch), then the anthropomorphic associations cluster about. The joking incongruity of the language with its bearer, the seal, is one of Bishop’s chief strategies of stylized formulation.

Even in youth, Bishop had mastered incongruity of category (“We look at the fountains and dahlias and babies”) and incongruity of adjectival emphasis (“violent croquet matches”). A Wildean aestheticism—later moderated but never disclaimed—led her to write about people as if they were items in a window display:

A great many Portuguese Negroes live near me and come around in very high-set, polished old Fords selling blueberries and raspberries that go beautifully with their black faces and blue denim clothes.

This may seem chilling if examined for its political correctness; and yet, since Bishop thought of becoming a painter, it is also both respectful and entirely unprejudiced; she sees, as the watercolorist she occasionally was, the color harmonies in the scene, as in Brazil she rendered, as the comic narrator she was, the farce of the perpetually changing frieze of servants, stylized in caught moments for the diversion of the reader. Besides comic incongruity, detached aestheticism, and the freezeframe vignettes, one also comes across, in these letters, literary remarks (but not enough of them), often wonderfully stylized in metaphor: “I dislike,” she said of Wallace Stevens with wicked insight, “the way he occasionally seems to make blank verse moo.” Bishop’s literary observations to Moore and Lowell have already been much quoted, and they remain her best. She wrote Lowell, on reading the Life Studies poems, that they were

solid, real, intensely interesting, honest—and very interesting metrically…[they] have a strangely modest tone that I like, too—because they are all about yourself and yet do not sound conceited!… your poetry is as different from the rest of our contemporaries as say ice from slush.

With a few words Bishop captures the qualities that Lowell’s “confessional” poems possess and that too many confessional poems do not: solidity, honesty, metrical originality, modesty, objectivity, and crystalline form.

One is struck, reading the descriptive parts of the letters, by certain vignettes that clearly spoke more deeply to Bishop’s imagination than others, and these are the most interesting to think about. Though all sorts of incongruity attracted her, violent incongruity appealed to her the most. In describing to Moore a film called Son of Mongolia, Bishop says, “[It is] set in the most beautiful scenery.” And what is this “most beautiful” landscape? It turns out to be “great icy plains, and ruined palaces, with many fat little horses (like Ming horses) running around.” Here, Kubla Khan meets the stable, the museum, and even the circus: What are the cherubic horses doing here?

The odd thing about Bishop’s mind is that the presence of pleasurable visual incongruity—the fat little horses, like babies, amid great icy plains and ruined palaces—always set her to asking, “Why?” Though there is no real answer to that question (except in her wonderful poem “The Filling Station,” which offers the theological answer “Somebody loves us all”), Bishop needs always to understand, by asking “Why?” the reason for her own attraction to the unsettling, the preposterous, and the “mistaken.” It was a “mistake,” aesthetically speaking, for God to put fat little horses into his sublime stage set of Mongolia (as if one were to put Winnie the Pooh into the stage set for Lear)—but the odd and off-putting pleasure Bishop experiences as she sees the indulgently sensual horses in the midst of the deathly ice and ruins tells her something about her own nature—about the babyishness that is part of her own sensuality, the romping comedy that is part of her aestheticism, the comic decorativeness (Ming horses) that she superimposes on the tragic. It also tells her reader this (and she had every trust that those she wrote to—most of whom were writers or painters—would “get” the implications of her way of putting things).

Of course, many of the letters are workaday ones, though even those may find a sympathetic reading from other writers, who will have received from their publishers, for instance, the sort of awful publicity material that Bishop received from Houghton Mifflin; to whom she complains, “It was so full of mistakes and wrong emphasis that it makes me very nervous to think what may appear on the dust jacket.” Some things never change.

The sheer burden of the business of carrying on a literary life in the twentieth century can be sensed from these letters as well. And even in the humdrum letters, a life is going on—friends come and go, loneliness comes and goes, illness comes and goes. Bishop’s asthma, brought under some control but always likely to erupt again, is a constant theme. And so is her alcoholism, which caused quarrels with Lota and was the occasion of anguish, shame, and humiliation to Bishop. Her physician and confidante in New York, Dr. Anny Baumann, received letters which abandon altogether the bright, ironic, and metaphorical tone which Bishop normally used for correspondence; and although these letters are, in one sense, the saddest and most revealing in the correspondence, one misses in them precisely the Bishop style. Here is a 1966 letter to Anny Baumann. (abridged) which will show what I mean:

I ran out of Antabuse about 6 weeks before I left Seattle, and I didn’t want to go to a doctor there, so I went without…I did not miss one single class because of drinking…Lota will simply not believe any of this. She has told me, and friends here, too, that I “spent 6 months drinking” in the US, and that I go away from her just to drink…She keeps saying (1,000s of times now): “It is just a harmless salt.” Well, I know perfectly well that if I take one whole pill I can’t take a drink even eight days later—I know because I’ve tried & got very sick. It is true that in the past I have cheated—particularly the last two or three years…But I really do not LIE. I think the only times I lie about drinking are when I have already started….

I am sorry to write such a silly-sounding and dismal letter, but I am at my wits’ end and can’t enjoy life here at all.

Such a letter could be written by almost anyone; only its sentence-rhythms suggest that a writer is behind it. Bishop’s self-deprecatory remarks at the end of the quotation are in part conventional, but they are also revealing. The bedrock of unadorned emotion seems to her “silly-sounding”—as if one had not yet done the intelligent thing of having some self-reflexive thoughts about one’s own situation, some distance on one’s self-pity. It also seems “dismal”—not yet refined by comedy. If Bishop was anything, she was intelligent, self-reflexive, and ironic; words that came out unmodified by those qualities were somehow not really hers, no matter how much they may have seemed to describe her situation. Words became hers when they sounded like her—when they took on the color of her mind and personality, when they took on style. So for all the information in the letters to Dr. Baumann, they are perhaps the least interesting of the letters as a window into Bishop’s mind.

Once, when I told Elizabeth Bishop that I was feeling depressed about something or other, she asked me whether I had ever read the letters of Sydney Smith, the English clergyman and wit of the early nineteenth century. When I said I hadn’t, she took her own two volumes down from the shelf and pressed them on me, saying, “I’ve found that he’s a sure cure for melancholy—you have only to read him and you feel better.” The remark was characteristic; she knew as well as I that there is no sure cure for melancholy, but that literary people are cheered up by style more than by anything else. And, perhaps, by brisk letters. Bishop loved Jane Welsh Carlyle’s letters for their sharp intelligence; and she contrasted them with the letters of Hart Crane and Edna St. Vincent Millay: of the latter two books she says,

I don’t know which is more depressing. I suppose his is, it was all over quicker—but she isn’t quite so narcissistic and has some sense of humor, at least. But it isn’t really fair to judge by letters—modern letters. People seem to write to complain, mostly (present company excepted of course).

At her best, Bishop didn’t write to complain, but to talk—and to give pleasure by writing in a current free, unembarrassed, and intimate. One Art is a book one can pick up, maybe on a sad day, for an anecdote about Sammy the toucan, or a quick description of scenery, or a literary compliment. My favorite of these latter is Bishop’s remark to James Merrill about his poems:

The poems kept reminding me of The Golden Bowl (without cracks) and then just now I thought they also reminded me of some of James’s short stories—only boiled down, or distilled, so that the impression I got reading them was a sort of liqueur de James.

There’s an exquisite care in that—a flourish of appreciation and connoisseurship meant to give blushing pleasure to the youthful recipient, a James who has produced a liqueur de James.

In his informative and balanced introduction, Robert Giroux tells us that Bishop wrote several thousand letters (his notes say that he has collected over three thousand, of which he has printed 541). Lota’s family burned Bishop’s letters to Lota; letters to other correspondents will no doubt turn up. There will probably be a Complete Letters some day; but this collection will remain, for the general reader, the invaluable companion volume to the Complete Poems.

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