One Art: Letters, the selected letters of poet Elizabeth Bishop, is a major literary event. Bishop’s pared-down sense of craft allowed few of the facts of her personal life to surface in her work. With her astounding ear and refined eye, details in her poetry speak volumes without necessarily revealing the events or even the major characters that inspired her writing. Bishop’s singular sensibility lures readers to want to know more about her. Now, with Robert Giroux’s generous selection of more than five hundred letters, a full portrait of the poet emerges.
In the litigious society of late twentieth century America, letters and diaries of deceased well-known figures have taken on an increased significance, since they can offer unsubstantiated facts, impressions, and gossip and still be published without fear of legal challenges. Although lawyers cannot be expected to understand, even erroneous gossip holds its bit of truth. Yet One Art is not only a wellspring of literary gossip. The book is a key to the facts and observations that inspired Bishop’s great poetry. In particular, it relates for the first time a genuine sense of the complicated relationship between Bishop and the Brazilian city planner Lota de Macedo Soares, a bond that lasted fifteen years and that ended in Lota’s suicide.
Biographies and studies have analyzed in detail Bishop’s troubled childhood in Nova Scotia, with her father’s early death and her mother’s mental breakdown. Brett Millier’s 1993 biography, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It, provides a good interpretation of Bishop’s use of her early personal history in her writings. Bishop escapes Millier, however, when she moves to Brazil. Lota remains a shadowy figure whose suicide haunts the rest of the biography, leaving the reader mystified by the principal figure in Bishop’s adult life. After reading the letters, anyone who relishes Bishop’s poetry will also sense that Millier gives too much weight to the two women who had relationships with Bishop after Lota’s death. Lota’s death movingly haunts the letters of Bishop’s final years; in writing to friends, she leaves no doubt that Lota was the major emotional, sexual, and intellectual relationship of her life.
One Art is happily the antidote to Millier’s disappointing work, sketching—in Bishop’s own words—the development of her complex love both for Brazil and for Lota, who quickly emerges as a fascinating, complex character. Since the letters begin with a collegiate Bishop, the volume provides a portrait of the adult poet, one without Freudian or deterministic overview. Bishop speaks for herself and manages to transcend her biographers and critics.
Bishop’s first letters are coquettish, cherry missives to girlfriends from Vassar College, from which she was graduated in 1934. Bishop’s classmates were a stellar crop, including Mary McCarthy, Eleanor Clark, Louise Crane, and Muriel Rukeyser. A flurry of letters surrounds Con Spirito, the renegade literary journal Bishop began in association with her friends as an alternative to the campus magazine. Already regarded as a literary force, Bishop was soon introduced by the school librarian to poet Marianne Moore, who immediately recognized the young poet’s potential. Bishop courted Moore in a series of wonderful letters, inviting her on outings to the circus, where they fed the elephants graham crackers, and to view a film documentary on Mongolia.
After college, Bishop began the first of her travels to the south, reporting back to Moore on the storks and camels of Morocco and the snakes and alligator wrestlers of Florida. Bishop learned from Moore the virtue and power of description; for both poets, to create a precise verbal rendering of an object or animal was both a kind of evaluation and analysis and the essence of poetry. Bishop settled in Key West for nine years, buying a house with her friend Louise Crane. While there, she began getting poems and an occasional story published, working slowly toward the publication of her first book, North and South, in 1946.
Only after four years of correspondence did Bishop address Moore as “Marianne”—an event that she celebrated by writing the name large, as if it were lit with electric lights. Bishop received explicit critiques of her poems from Moore, until with “Roosters” she had the courage to reject Moore’s suggested rewrite. Much more valuable as an informal portrait of the poet, the letters only hint at Bishop’s evolution as a poet. Nevertheless, for the Bishop enthusiast there are astounding revelations relating to specific poems, especially in regard to their incredibly slow evolution. The most amazing example is in a 1946 letter to Moore detailing a bus trip from Nova Scotia to Key West. At the end of the letter, Bishop describes the appearance of a moose on the road in the middle of night. This incident inspired the classic poem “The Moose,” begun in 1956 and not completed until 1972, twenty-six years after the incident.
Robert Lowell was introduced to Bishop by Randall Jarrell, and their correspondence began after his review of North and South. With Lowell, Bishop enjoyed talking shop, and the two poets were to prove major influences on each other. Their friendship develops through the letters, culminating in Lowell’s manic reassessment in 1957 (included in One Art) that his never-uttered marriage proposal to Bishop nine years earlier had continued to be for him a temptation of “the other life that might have been.” Bishop blithely ignores Lowell’s skewed sense of the past “moment,” focusing instead on personal chitchat and poet talk. From other letters her friendship and concern for Lowell are clear, as well as her understanding of his unstable psychological profile, but never did she take seriously his odd romantic overtures.
Bishop’s drinking problem surfaced in Key West, culminating with her extreme anxieties about assuming a job in...
(The entire section is 2471 words.)