Readers unfamiliar with Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry may find the first chapter of this biography slow going. Since Brett Millier is writing a literary biography and believes that discussion of a writer’s work is integral to understanding the life, she almost immediately begins by analyzing the autobiographical content of Bishop’s stories and poems. This works well for readers already familiar with Bishop’s oeuvre, but to the uninitiated it may prove frustrating that the analysis precedes the narrative. If the reverse were the case and the autobiographical content of the stories were rendered in the biographer’s narrative voice, the biography would stand a chance of winning many new readers for Bishop. Then the biographer would be free to introduce significant analysis of Bishop’s writing, showing how a master stylist developed the autobiographical elements already told, in story fashion, by the biographer.
Millier began her work on Bishop in graduate school, and occasionally her biography shows signs of a thesis mentality—not in the sense of emphasizing a single approach to the poet but in assuming, once again, more knowledge of the poet than can be expected from a general audience. Most readers may have read a few anthologized poems by Bishop but are unlikely to appreciate the way Millier links one title to another in her text before (in some cases) providing a narrative foundation for such linkage.
Once these criticisms of biographical technique are put aside—and they can be jettisoned after the early chapters—Millier emerges with a clear, sensitive, and compelling narrative presentation of her subject’s life. One of the pleasures of reading the biography is to observe the biographer growing in confidence: As she gets to know her subject better, she begins to provide a deeper sense of Bishop as a person and earns the reader’s confidence by carefully evaluating the evidence. Millier is never quick to judge Bishop, but she is not chary of making judgments when they are needed to advance her interpretation of Bishop’s life and work.
The overwhelming impression conveyed by the biography is of a very lonely person and a gifted writer who took extraordinary pains over her prose and verse, often spending twenty years to finish a piece and refusing to release any work of which she was not absolutely certain. Bishop’s courage and tenacity are awe-inspiring. She would experience dry spells. It was not unusual for her to go two years without completing a single poem, and it was not remarkable for her to put a poem through as many as fifteen drafts. She wanted to write more quickly and produce a great volume of verse, but her way of cultivating the imagination simply took years and years of labor, and she could not force herself to be prolific, though she often vowed to do so.
Bishop often reacted to her loneliness as if it were a curse, but it seems, in retrospect, to have been necessary to the kind of poet she became. Sometimes she chose loneliness over the hectic demands of full-time work and of urban existence, but her childhood experience suggests that a feeling of isolation was thrust upon her and could not be shaken off, no matter how much she tried to change her lifestyle in later years.
Bishop’s earliest years were spent in Great Village, Nova Scotia, though she was born in Massachusetts. Her father died eight months after she was born, and her mother had a mental breakdown from which she never recovered. Bishop spent her childhood with uncomprehending relatives, first in Nova Scotia and then in Massachusetts. Though she eventually found family members who tolerated her precociousness, she was never at ease in any home and, except for fifteen years in Brazil, never really settled down anywhere. Her travels were extensive: all over the United States, Spain, France, Mallorca, England, Morocco, Mexico, Haiti, Brazil, Italy, Greece, Finland, and the Soviet Union.
At Vassar College, Bishop certainly made close friends and began to find outlets for her literary talent. Still, several things about her made her stand apart from her generation. This was the 1930’s, a time when poets such as W. H. Auden were writing political poetry and inspiring a generation of writers to believe that art had to be concerned with social change. Bishop had virtually no interest in politics. Her favorite poet was Wallace Stevens, and she found his allegories about the nature of existence just the kind of philosophical and metaphorical poetry she wanted to write. Her poems were rooted in reality, but the idea of making political points—of assigning oneself, so to speak, to the right or to the left—appalled her when it did not bore her.
There was also the fact that Bishop was a lesbian in an...
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