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Bishop, Elizabeth 1911–1979

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Bishop was an American poet, short story writer, editor, translator, and critic who spent much of her life in Brazil. Her poetry and prose is noted for its attention to detail and masterful craftsmanship. She often employed elaborate rhyme schemes in poems marked by an ironic sense of humor and a subtle use of fantasy. Bishop has been the recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 9, and Contemporary Authors. Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Marie-Claire Blais

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464

The body of [Elizabeth Bishop's] work is relatively small, yet one cannot read a single line either of her poetry or prose without feeling that a real poet is speaking, one whose sense of life is as delicately and finely strung as a Stradivarius, whose eye is both an inner and an outer eye. The outer eye sees with marvelous objective precision, the vision is translated into quite simple language, and this language with the illuminated sharpness of an object under a microscope works an optical magic, slipping in and out of imagery, so that everything seen contains the vibration of meaning on meaning.

In "The Armadillo," for instance, there is the baby rabbit on whose peaceful world a fire balloon falls: "So soft!—a handful of intangible ash / with fixed, ignited eyes." Bishop makes such an image stand for a whole world of violence, vulnerability, helpless terror and protest. One cannot read the poem without quivering with a sense of the pain inherent in every form of beauty. Or she can say something that seems to mean exactly what it says, such as "we are driving to the interior," in "Arrival at Santos," although we have been prepared earlier by "Oh, tourist, / is this how this country is going to answer you" for the idea that every great personal change is a country waiting to be explored in its interior.

Yet Bishop is not personal as Lowell or Plath or Berryman is personal. Everything we know about her from her poetry comes through images that transform her particular suffering or loneliness or longing into archetypal states of being. "Four Poems," for example, is a sequence about the pain of the loss of love in which there is a flow of energy between the interior and exterior landscapes, the latter imitating the shape, color and anguish of the former. Somehow Bishop performs the miracle of fusion without ever altering her exterior truth. The fourth stanza makes one think of Donne in its mingling of physical and metaphysical, in the preciseness of the last lines: "a separate peace beneath / within if never with." No poet has ever spoken more concisely of the state of loving someone who is no longer there, of willing good to crystallize out of the pain.

Much of Bishop's poetry is the result of this struggle for accommodation with what is intolerable in life. Some poets turn their struggle to rage and hate, but she has arrived at a kind of pure nostalgia that is both past and present and at the peace "beneath" and "within" (but not necessarily "with") which I consider essential to great poetry.

Marie-Claire Blais, "Presentation of Elizabeth Bishop to the Jury," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977, p. 7.

Candace Slater

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 976

[The] Brazil in which Bishop so recently lived is already of another era. The early days which the poet spent in the emperor's old summer resort, Petropolis, represented a kind of latter-day Golden Age of Brazilian letters. Bishop was personally acquainted with a good number of the nation's most famous writers, many of whom had been active in the extremely...

(The entire section contains 8266 words.)

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Bishop, Elizabeth (Vol. 1)


Bishop, Elizabeth (Vol. 15)