In 1974, Elizabeth Bishop seemed to have all the things a poet could want: a teaching position at Harvard, a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and a first-look contract with The New Yorker, which almost always decided to publish her work. And yet she was inconsolably unhappy. “When you write my epitaph,” Bishop said to the poet Robert Lowell, “you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”
That year, things only got worse. Bishop’s longtime lover, the Brazilian heiress Lota de Macedo Soares, had committed suicide in her presence in 1967, and her much younger current lover, Alice Methfessel, 31, with blond hair and dazzling eyes of “blue blue blue,” had recently jettisoned Bishop to become engaged to a man. Bishop’s sadness was bottomless: Alcohol could saturate the pain, but never take it away. The trappings of success were preferable to those of failure, but the older and more eminent that Bishop became, the more desperate and needy she grew as well. “Yesterday brought to today so lightly! / (A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift),” Bishop wrote in the poem “Five Flights Up.” But it was also at this low point on her high perch that she wrote, over several painstaking drafts, what became her most anthologized and best-loved poem, “One Art.” It was a work that began as a riffy, associative free-verse rumination on the many kinds of loss but that, in its finished form, became a seamless and airtight villanelle, a form that dates back to the Renaissance. Written in the 1970s, a period experiencing a renaissance of a different sort—punk rock, self-help, singer-songwriters, Studio 54, and the “zipless fuck”—”One Art” made it clear that Bishop’s writing was both antiquated and somehow still of her moment.
Despite her crippling loneliness, Bishop sought out no group for empowerment or support. She kept such matters private, in her fashion, all the way to her death in 1979, at the age of 68. Bishop left behind 100 well-wrought poems, but very few musings on her private life. The entire time that she lived with Lota, who inspired tender, erotic poems like “It is marvellous to wake up together…” and “The Shampoo,” it was merely as her “guest” and “friend.” In fact, Bishop worried about whether the latter poem was too tawdry, despite Lota’s carefully veiled presence; in a letter to the poet and playwright May Swenson, she asked if there was “something indecent about it I’d overlooked.” And when Bishop was the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress in 1950, she avoided cruising for women at DC’s version of the Stonewall Inn or anywhere else, aware that Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt wasn’t just going after reds; in what was known as the “purge of the perverts,” the government was also rooting out gay and lesbian employees. Officially, Bishop had the honor of representing poetry in America, but she was also in many ways a prisoner of her desires, keeping her head down and determined to avoid the next raid.
One of the brilliant features of Bishop’s writing was that, despite her astonishing control and mastery of forms from centuries past, she had a gushing emotional register just barely below the surface. The effect was subtle, and even at its most pitched tones, one could miss it. But Bishop’s poems were beautifully constructed edifices with emotions that bubbled close enough to the surface for readers to feel and hear them. In these poems she was, as Flaubert might have put it, present everywhere but visible nowhere. Indeed, one of the arts of “One Art” was her ability to hide in plain sight, using antique verse structures to expose the personal wounds that she was simultaneously trying to keep to herself. Several drafts of “One Art” were published posthumously in the controversial Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, a collection of unfinished writing from the ultimate perfectionist poet. The facsimiles are not easy to read, but they’re worth the effort: Within the limitations of the villanelle—19 lines composed of five tercets and a quatrain—there were only so many words to cover losing her father to disease, her mother to an insane asylum, Lota to suicide, and now her “love, love, love,” Alice.
Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, the new biography by Megan Marshall (whose previous book, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, won the Pulitzer Prize), helps to fill in for devotees of Bishop’s work much of what couldn’t fit into one of her painstakingly perfected poems. And what we learn from Marshall’s book—informed by a mother lode of newly discovered letters—is that none of Bishop’s accomplishments could ever ease the pain of her loneliness.
Bishop was born, as the opening words of her free-verse poem “In the Waiting Room” put it, “In Worcester, Massachusetts,” in 1911. Her father died of Bright’s disease when she was 8 months old, and her mother was committed to a sanitarium in Nova Scotia when Bishop was 5; she would never have contact with her daughter again. Bishop had some family money but no stable family: She was shuttled between relatives in Worcester and Nova Scotia and, as the letters reveal, dangled by her ponytail and sexually abused by her uncle. Whatever anger she felt in these early traumatic years turned into sadness, and the sadness into poetry. She needed love so badly, but she didn’t always know what to do with it when she had it. She also knew that she had to keep herself going, though she wasn’t always sure why. As she wrote in “The Unbeliever”:
I must not fall.
The spangled sea below wants me to fall.
It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.
Bishop did not fall. She started college at Vassar in 1930, a class behind Mary McCarthy, with the hope of possibly becoming a composer. She sang in the choir during her freshman and sophomore years, but the music students were required to perform in public once a month, and “this terrified me,” she told Elizabeth Spires (class of ’74). “I really was sick. So I played once and then I gave up the piano because I couldn’t bear it…. Then the next year I switched to English.” With the Great Depression in full swing beyond Vassar’s gates, she began the perilous business of publishing poetry, even for money when she could.
Bishop also began to reach out to others like herself. In her junior year, she interviewed T.S. Eliot while he was in the United States giving the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. Bishop teased the poetic eminence about a line from his then-new play Sweeney Agonistes—”Any man has to, needs to, wants to / Once in a lifetime, do a girl in”—asking if he had “ever done a girl in.” Eliot’s reply: “I am not the type.”
A year later, in 1934, Bishop graduated from Vassar and moved to New York to begin an apprenticeship with Marianne Moore, who provided an early model for the kind of poet—and perhaps the kind of woman—she wanted to become. Bishop found herself dazzled by her new mentor and wrote, with immense affection, in “An Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore”:
Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,
come like a daytime comet
with a long unnebulous train of words,
from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.
Robert Lowell would eventually replace Moore as Bishop’s most intense poetic influence and correspondent, and while she never achieved a fame comparable to his during her lifetime, her renown since then appears to have eclipsed his. During their lifetimes, Lowell was the celebrity, Bishop the shy, retiring poet’s poet. But now she looms larger than Lowell. This would have surprised Bishop as much as anyone, but she hinted at her posterity in “The Monument”:
It is the beginning of a painting,
a piece of sculpture, or poem, or monument,
and all of wood.
Watch it closely.
Bishop would have imagined that her struggles and her sexuality were nobody’s business but her own; she said everything she had to say—and implied or omitted the rest—on her own terms. Since then, however, times have changed, and they’ve caught up with Bishop, even if it’s unclear whether she would have wanted to be caught. In “The Fish,” published in 1946, she wrote about landing “a tremendous fish”:
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
Bishop knew what it meant to reel something precious in, while also being keenly aware of what it felt like to be on the hook herself. One advantage that Marshall has in telling Bishop’s story is her access to a trove of previously unavailable letters, which reveal the poet’s more intimate and personal side—the very facts that she guarded so zealously from others. From Marshall’s book, we find out that “In the Waiting Room”—in which a 7-year-old Bishop discovers, with horror, that “you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them. / Why should you be one, too?”—was connected to her previously unknown letters to her psychoanalyst. The letters also show how desperately she sought approval from Alice: “The poor heart,” Bishop wrote in 1971, “doesn’t seem to grow old at all.”
As these new letters reveal, though Bishop was writing verse for the ages, she was barely hanging on. “I’ll have to see you going off with someone more suitable,” she wrote disconsolately in another letter to Alice, “and I’ll have somehow to turn into just being a ‘good friend’ etc.”
Marshall utilizes this new material with an elegance and craft worthy of her subject. With it, she captures Bishop’s final memory of her mother—she “would recall one unending maternal scream and its echo floating over the village”—and also plumbs the depths of Bishop’s nonsexual but intimate love for Lowell: “As you must know,” Bishop wrote to her doctor, Anny Baumann, “I love him, next best to Lota, I suppose—if one can measure love or compare it.” We also see Bishop’s heart blown to bits after Lota’s suicide, when she writes: “It’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not my fault.”
But while, in Marshall’s steady hands, this new archival material often flows smoothly into the story, her attempts to interpolate her own life are somewhat less felicitous. Marshall was Bishop’s student at Harvard in 1976, and so it makes sense that she appears in a chronicle of Bishop’s life. But a more conventional biography would have taken that shared history—attending a class that Bishop taught, getting a B from her, deciding to give up on poetry—and consolidated it into a preface or an afterword, or perhaps a little of both.
Marshall, on the other hand, has done something different, opening each long chapter on Bishop’s life with a more personal one about herself. After discussing Bishop’s childhood and adolescence, Marshall introduces a chapter by announcing, “I was the worst kind of student poet.” After describing Bishop’s loneliness during her tenure at the Library of Congress, Marshall writes of her own homesickness as a Harvard student. And so on.
Much of this really doesn’t have any business being in the book. But one suspects that Marshall is attempting to echo Bishop’s poetic approach in some way, concealing parcels of her own life in the biography of someone else. The subtitle of Marshall’s book, A Miracle for Breakfast, is the title of one of Bishop’s two exquisite sestinas, and the repeated words in it—”balcony,” “crumb,” “coffee,” “river,” “miracle,” and “sun”—are all used as chapter titles. The chapters themselves don’t do anything to mimic the form of a sestina, but they do capture the life of the woman who wrote two of the greatest modern sestinas while planting evocative (though at the same time evasive) details about her life throughout them.
To Marshall’s credit, her invocation of this masterful poem does reveal a lot about Bishop’s life. But it is Bishop’s other great sestina, simply titled “Sestina,” that perhaps best mixes biography, emotion, and poetic craft—and, one suspects, might have served as a better model for Marshall’s own book. “Sestina” uses concrete images and tells specific stories within its structure; and yet the limitations imposed by the form provide the kind of indeterminacy that any biographer seeks in order to create a sense of suspense in his or her narrative. Above all, the poem doesn’t have to make explicit the emotional consequences implied by its imagery and biographical description, and it is careful not to interpolate any overtly biographical information about the writer while nonetheless remaining powerfully evocative. The final tercet, in particular, has a revelation in every word:
Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.
The house is “inscrutable” because young Elizabeth knew no stable home, and as the meaning of these last lines sets in, one begins to realize that the most solid foundation Bishop ever had in life, after having lost all of her homes, was her poetry. And this is where Marshall’s book, for all its virtues, is missing something crucial. If you love Bishop’s poetry, or if you want to learn more about her to help you fall in love with it, this book doesn’t linger long enough on the poems to allow you to truly inhabit them (much as one might inhabit the “open house” that Bishop describes in “Song for the Rainy Season,” a place “darkened and tarnished / by the warm touch / of the warm breath, / maculate, cherished”).
This is a shame, because Marshall’s prose is uniformly eloquent, and her book was clearly written by someone with a deep knowledge of Bishop’s poems, the experiences that went into them, and the ways in which they were made. But even “One Art,” supported by all that red-hot archival material, just breezes past, and by the time Marshall writes about its evolution from free verse to villanelle, the poem has already been accepted by Howard Moss for publication in The New Yorker, after which Marshall gallops away from the poem itself and back to Bishop’s life, with all its plentiful drinking, desperation, and disappointment.
Of course, dwelling for too long on the works can make a book unwieldy as well. Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce is the ultimate example of a biography that goes as deep into a writer’s art as it does into his life. Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake each received its own section, but the resulting book sprawled for nearly 1,000 pages. One doesn’t necessarily want a work of that length on Bishop—rather, something in between the biographical stories of this miserable, self-destructive, and brilliant poet and Ellmann’s canonical doorstop. Bishop’s life without sufficient attention to the poems—what is that? It feels like she really was the loneliest person who ever lived.