The Space Between the Words: Looking for the life of Elizabeth Bishop in her letters

Book Reviews, Letters, Nonfiction, Poetry No Comments »

Photo: Alice Helen Methfessel, courtesy of Frank Bidart

By Monica Westin

Elizabeth Bishop’s correspondence with the editors at The New Yorker who published the majority of her poems, lasting from 1934 until the poet’s death in the fall of 1979, are a provocative gesture at revealing the woman behind the writing, but they leave the reader wanting much more—in a way that’s entirely apropos to the way she worked and lived.

On the one hand, the letters are entirely fitting for both Bishop’s poetry and general ethos; the genius of her poems often lies in their sensitive impersonality, and at a time when confessional poetry was de rigueur, Bishop’s strength lay in restraining herself from personal sentiment and finding an articulate but reserved mode of expression. Bishop, a U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, was also famously protective of her personal life, not wanting to be known as a lesbian poet. The letters echo this reticence, but in so doing they don’t round out any sense of the woman herself.

If you aren’t familiar with Bishop’s work or her biography, the letters are often somewhat puzzling or enigmatic. The bulk of the discussions between Bishop and her editors are mostly business (contracts and checks, which Bishop increasingly has a harder time tracking) and editorial minutiae, often punctuation, in submitted poems, with the poems under discussion rarely included in the volume. It’s best read with Bishop’s “Complete Poems” as a companion, after familiarizing yourself with Bishop’s personal life—her partner, Alice, is only mentioned in a few letters, with little reference to who she is. And while her letters mention names of poets, such as Bishop’s mentor Marianne Moore and lifelong pen-pal Robert Lowell, they’re often in passing. Bishop doesn’t gossip, and she discusses other writers usually only when their work she admires. It’s hard not to wish for more details about her personal relationships; for example, the majority of the letters are written when Bishop was living with her Brazilian partner Lota. Readers get no sense of the relationship and its breakdown into tempestuousness—or any explanation of Lota’s job as an architect, although Bishop describes some of her projects. After Bishop left her, Lota committed suicide while visiting her, but all we learn from the book is an italicized note between two letters that Lota had overdosed. Characteristically, none of Bishop’s letters comment on this event, and the moment in the book is jarring and confusing. Read the rest of this entry »