“The art of losing isn’t hard to master” is the refrain in Elizabeth Bishop’s masterful villanelle “One Art,” and the irony cuts several ways at once. She spent her life as a woman and as a poet modestly—and fiercely—perfecting that “art.” She never knew her father, a prominent builder who died at the age of thirty-nine, before her first birthday. Her grief-stricken mother had to be institutionalized in her native Nova Scotia in 1916, and Bishop never saw her again; she received news of her death as she graduated from Vassar in 1934. Raised by her Canadian grandparents and an aunt, Bishop searched all her life—in Manhattan, Paris, Morocco, Key West, Seattle, San Francisco, various places in Brazil, at Harvard University, and finally in a wharf flat with a marvelous view of the harbor in Boston—for “home.” Through her successive losses of all these homes, she created, for her readers as well as for herself, the place wherein to resolve and objectify all memory and all loss: her verse.
Bishop had a gift for forging deep relationships with cats, birds, flowers, and seascapes as well as with people. Her relationships with people included those with children and common folk in the Brazilian slums and highlands; a succession of lovers, mainly women, who remained friends; revered literary figures such as William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, and Charles Baudelaire; and such living colleagues as Marianne Moore (her first verse tutor), Robert Lowell (who later wondered why he had not married her in 1948), Randall Jarrell, Adrienne Rich, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, James Merrill, and John Ashbery.
Bishop, one of the first twentieth century American poets, had an eye, sharp, objective, and intelligent, with which she zeroed in on concrete physical detail. That detail is carefully chosen to operate within a complex psychological, inward drama that drives always for that imaginative truth that, as Wallace...
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