Adventures in Feministory: Elizabeth Bishop
Sylvia Plath is the most famous woman poet of the 1950s. She's probably one of the most famous poets of the 20th century. And she was a pretty good poet. Her work is honest, heartwrenching, and chock-full of angst and guilt and daddy issues. But she’s also famous for her bummer life story (anybody who’s read The Bell Jar knows the extent of the bummer factor), and frankly, I’m a little tired of her. That’s why this week’s Adventures in Feministory is not about Plath. I want to profile another ‘50s-era poet who is sometimes overlooked and whose story is filled with a lot of sassy, smart letter-writing and a prolonged Brazilian vacation: Elizabeth Bishop.
Bishop was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts, and she didn’t exactly have a sunny childhood. Her father died less than a year after she was born. Her mother was institutionalized when she was five, and Bishop never saw her again. She moved to Nova Scotia to live with her grandparents in a house that she later described as having “something ominous, threatening, lowering in the air.” Not so nice. But she loved her grandparents and after a little while she started to think life in Nova Scotia might be all right. Unfortunately, she was soon whisked back to Worcester where she lived with rich family members she didn’t know, developed asthma, and was very, very lonely.
What do you suppose this wheezing, orphaned, thoughtful mill town girl decided to do next? She went to college, where she started writing and getting her work published. Her first book was a huge success, she became poet laureate, and rumor has it that the highly regarded poet Robert Lowell asked her to marry him. So of course she did what any lady with a nugget of sense would do: she peaced out and moved with her lesbian partner to a secluded town in Brazil. See ya, oppressive 1950s American establishment!
In Brazil, Bishop wrote and wrote. She wrote zillions of thoughtful and hilarious letters to everyone she knew. She wrote poetry that became famous for its wit and strangeness. Unlike many other poets of her time, Bishop maintained some distance. She didn’t want people knowing her business, and she didn’t want to be known for her success as a “woman poet.” She refused to be included in anthologies of “women’s writing” because she wanted people to appreciate her work regardless of her gender… sort of the same reasoning the Brontes used when they published under masculine pen names. Not the best display of sisterhood, but for a woman writing in the postwar era, a pretty bold statement of individual strength.
I’ve been reading a book by Rachel Cohen called A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists. The chapter on the young Bishop and the venerable older poet Marianne Moore is great. According to Cohen, there was a librarian who kept trying to set Moore up with young ladies, I suppose to give the ladies a chance to be molded and mentored. Moore was kind of a prude. Bishop was not. But they were introduced and they became great friends who wrote letters back and forth for decades until Moore’s death. One of my favorite stories from another source is about when Bishop sent Moore a draft of her poem “Roosters.” Moore and her elderly mother looked it over and did not approve. They were shocked by Bishop’s frank mention of a “water-closet.” Then, in an attempt to give the poem a more classical feel, they naively suggested that Bishop rename it “The Cock.”
Here’s to Elizabeth Bishop, who wrote beautifully, triumphed despite her messy childhood, refused to put up with anyone’s bullshit gender categories, and thankfully decided to stick with “Roosters.”
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