Fall 2008

The Elizabeth Bishop Bulletin

Volume 15, Number 1             “All the untidy activity continues…”                       Fall 2008

Library of America Celebration

Erica Levy McAlpine, Yale University

The February 2008 publication of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, prose, and letters in the Library of America series was the occasion for more than one hundred friends and scholars of the poet to gather at Yale University in June for a celebration of her life. The honor seemed particularly great in light of the fact that no other female poet, not even Emily Dickinson, has ever been included in the series, which prints scholarly editions of American writers that never go out of print. Bishop joins the ranks of only a handful of poets whose work appears in the tidy black volumes—big name figures, like Whitman and Pound, Stevens and Frost. Bishop’s friends at the Yale event, including Lloyd Schwartz, who co-edited the volume with Robert Giroux, all praised her lasting influence on American letters while admitting how baffled she herself would have been had she lived long enough to receive such acclaim. During her lifetime, Bishop was relatively lesser known as a poet in comparison with many of her literary colleagues, and yet most of them, including her close friend Robert Lowell, are not featured in a Library of America volume today.

The Yale tribute displayed pictures of Bishop taken throughout her lifetime on a stage where former students, colleagues and friends of the poet told personal anecdotes and then read a poem or two from her books. Two contemporary women writers, Alice Mattison and Anne Fadiman, shared their favorite excerpts from Bishop’s prose (her personal essay “Primer Class” and the terrifically funny “Efforts of Affection: A Memoir of Marianne Moore”). Most striking in the personal accounts were the numerous assertions of Bishop’s “excruciating” shyness and her self-deprecating humor. In the context of so large a crowd gathered to celebrate her, the stories served only to emphasize her modesty. In truth, Bishop’s reticence as a person, her profound discomfort at being the center of attention, and her self-professed stage fright (she hated reading her work aloud) may actually be part of what makes her so appealing as an artist. The fact that Bishop’s own persona is so difficult to locate (both figuratively and in terms of the various geographical regions in which she lived) is surely part of what keeps her readers interested in her poems year after year.

The publication of the Library of America edition may mark the beginning of a significant evolution in Bishop’s reception as a twentieth century poet. No longer will the ubiquitous salmon-colored edition of her poems, with its watercolor cover (Bishop painted the scene in Mexico) and its big, easy-to-read type, be a reader’s introduction to “Elizabeth.” The new hardcover claims only “Bishop” on its front, with a rather serious-looking woman staring out from the picture on the right. The poems themselves appear slightly changed, too: their formal structures are more apparent because of the edition’s smaller print, and in general, they seem shorter (obviously they are not). Reading the poems in sequence—that is, sometimes more than one to a page— suggests a greater sense of continuity within the individual books than we get in the old collected volume. Because of Bishop’s preference for describing places and objects in her poems (rather than people), it can be tempting to read them as “settings” or “objects” in themselves, and therefore necessarily distinct fromone another. But catching sight of the poem “Florida” just as one finishes “Cirque d’Hiver,” and reading straight into “The Bight” from the end of “Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” gives the reader a much better sense of Bishop’s larger poetic project and how it is served by her incredible range.

Perhaps the most gratifying change that comes with the publication of this new edition is the possibility for reading multiple genres of Bishop in one sitting. To find all of her writings in one place will be especially convenient to the ever-growing number of students and scholars who are writing about her work worldwide. Consulting Bishop’s letters and personal reminiscences while studying her poetry is particularly rewarding because of how diverse her writing styles actually are. The liveliness, humor, and affability found throughout her prose work to complicate and deepen the quiet austerity of so much of her poetry. One feels, with this new volume in hand, as if he is holding the sum of this poet’s private and public selves—both the “I” and the “Elizabeth” that she mentions in her autobiographically-inspired poem “In the Waiting Room.” Bishop was, in fact, a highly accomplished story, essay, and letter writer by the end of her poetic career. Many of her prose writings should not be missed; only a set of poems as influential as hers could have eclipsed them.

Thanks to Schwartz’s and Giroux’s careful editing, several of Bishop’s extraordinary letters are included in the new edition, too. These selections from her correspondence are among the best examples of American epistolary art. They are interesting not only in terms of Bishop’s own literary development but also as window into the personal lives and careers of some of this country’s most influential artistic figures. In them we discover the intimacy of Bishop’s friendships with writers such as Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, and Randall Jarrell alongside her more personal relationships with friends and lovers during different periods of her life. As in any selection of letters from a much larger group, certain inclusions necessitate exclusions, too; the fifty-three letters printed at the end of this book are only a small portion of the vast correspondence of this poet and perhaps will serve as an impetus for Bishop’s readers to consult the much larger selection in the volume One Art—still an indispensable resource  for any serious Bishop scholar.

Several of the figures mentioned in Bishop’s letters were in attendance at the Yale tribute (John Hollander, J.D. McClatchy, and Lloyd Schwartz among them). As a cross-section of people from Bishop’s life and a forum for reading several of her diverse and far reaching works, the event itself took on something of the character of the Library of America edition it aimed to celebrate. Bishop appeared on the screen and in the ears wearing her full range of colors. Lighter poems, like “Sandpiper,” were read alongside darker ones, like “Pink Dog”; several of the verses were set to music; and, perhaps most memorable, the poet herself had the opportunity to begin and end the event by reading “Poem” and “Filling Station,” respectively, through an old audio recording. With the appearance of the new Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters, there can be no doubt of what her oldest and most faithful readers have always known: that Bishop, perhaps more than any other poet of her generation, has earned a definitive place among the “major” American poets.

ALA in San Francisco

Marit MacArthur, California State University, Bakersfield

“Elizabeth Bishop in the U.S.A,” a panel organized by Thomas Travisano and chaired by Lloyd Schwartz, took place at the 19th Annual American Literature Association conference in San Francisco in May. Three engaging papers demonstrated the great interest of focus on American contexts in Bishop studies, illuminating the work of this poet of travel from several different angles, treating the topics of Bishop’s reading habits early in her career, the influence of her unwilling immigration to the U.S. as a child on her perception of language, and a subtle, fascinating connection of one of her poems to the nuclear age.

Gillian White, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Michigan, presented “One of Our Public Beaches: The Sea & Its Shore as Bishop’s USA School of Reading.” Detailing the initial inspiration for Bishop’s 1937 story in a note from the poet’s journal—about newspapers piled up on a beach in Coney Island— White was less interested in the immediate context of the story’s composition than in the ways it draws on and illuminates the role of reading in Bishop’s early career. Through a brilliant analysis of the story, she examined the poet’s questions about the manner in which value is ascribed to a variety of texts, as the story’s hero, Edwin Boomer, discovers texts on his beach that range from a fragment from The Golden Bowl to bits of sensational news stories. Quoting from these and explicating them in a faux-naif manner, Boomer creatively mistakes literature for journalism and vice versa. White showed how Bishop contemplates the contingencies of publication and reception, including the context of publication and reading, to formulate her own voice as a writer, as she takes the measure of her Vassar education and embarks on a writing career and personal life that would bring her into contact with a wider world.

In the second paper, “Elizabeth Bishop’s Quest for Accuracy,” Gosia Gabrys, [an adjunct professor at Ohio State University?], offered a remarkable perspective on the poet’s mistrust of language and insistence on precision. Drawing on Eva Hoffman’s writings on the experience of immigration and exile, Gabrys located the origins of Bishop’s sense of the arbitrariness of language in her early move, at the age of six, from Canada to the U.S.— specifically from Great Village, Nova Scotia, to Worcester, Massachusetts. Expected by her paternal grandmother to learn and recite patriotic American songs such as the national anthem, Bishop, confused by American culture and language, improvised her own meanings for song lyrics and poems. Gabrys also explored the originary significance of Canadian geography and place names to Bishop, and the shifting meanings acquired by displaced signs and objects. With acute insights, she traced these themes throughout Bishop’s career, in poems such as “Map,” the unfinished “Florida,” “ The Monument,” and “Large Bad Picture.”

Lastly George Lensing, Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, presented “‘A faint boom’: Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘A Cold Spring’ and the Aberdeen Proving Ground.” Despite the extensive biographical studies of Bishop that have been done, Lensing reminded us that there is still opportunity for discovery when we reading Bishop in specific biographical and historical contexts. He connected the composition of “A Cold Spring” to Bishop’s close friendship with Jane Dewey—a physicist and daughter of John Dewey—particularly the time Bishop spent on Dewey’s farm in Havre de Grace in 1950 and 1951 near the Ballistic Research Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, where Dewey worked. Lensing then gave a very persuasive reading of the poem, in its response to the lyric tradition, as an evocation of a tainted Eden that powerfully suggests the larger cultural context of its composition: the postwar, nuclear age.


Gillian White, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

MacArthur, Marit J. The American Landscape in the Poetry of Frost, Bishop, and Ashbery: The House Abandoned. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008. 257 pp.

Marit MacArthur’s The American Landscape in the Poetry of Frost, Bishop, and Ashbery: The House Abandoned (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) explores the image of the abandoned house in the American rural landscape – our “vernacular ruin” – as a potent, central trope that links these three poets. The first full length-study of this trope in American literature (to my knowledge), The House Abandoned proposes a plausible line of influence (through Wordsworth) from Frost to Bishop to Ashbery, and attends with great detail to cultural trends in the U.S. that explain the charge of the abandoned house as an American poetic image.

MacArthur’s methodology is to interweave biographical and cultural-historical material (including interesting details about poems’ publication contexts) with close readings of work spanning the author’s career. In three chapters (one per poet), this study explores each poet’s nostalgia for and meditation on a lost dwelling place: Bishop and Ashbery for childhood homes; Frost, for the Derry, New Hampshire farm where he lived for nine years at the start of his poetic career. MacArthur notes that each poet makes frequent imaginative return over the course of his or her career to the image of the lost house to trope “personal and cultural loss and consolation.” The poets’ nostalgia for lost abodes thus participates in broader cultural trends typifying “unsettled patterns of American life” and the “Heideggerian problem of dwelling” which, in twentieth and twenty-first century U.S., relate to patterns of “restless,” economically-driven internal migrations. MacArthur considers data that might have influenced her writers, ranging from mass migrations out of rural areas to state sponsored efforts to promote rural tourism (such as “Old Home Week” in New Hampshire), homelessness during the Great Depression in America to “global fears of . . . destruction and abandonment of dwellings” in the buildup to WWII.

To read biographically and culturally is a choice MacArthur flags as consonant with a general scholarly trend away from New Critical and deconstructionist criticism. Each chapter justifies this approach in part by seeking to correct a misunderstanding of the poet’s life that has so far (she argues) limited our reading of the poetry. In her first chapter, “Robert Frost: The ‘Ruined Cottage’ in America,” she offers an engaging digest of Lawrence Thompson’s biographies of Frost to remind us, contra the popular image of Frost as the settled rural farmer-poet of New England, of the peripatetic nature of the poet’s early life, and the domestic and financial instability that marked his largely urban upbringing. Frost’s rural life was primarily tourisitic, MacArthur argues: it represented escape and a fantasy of familial stability, which he sorely lacked.

Her larger point is to insist on our understanding the centrality of Frost’s nine comparatively stable years in Derry, New Hampshire to his poetic work over a lifetime. While Derry proved a rich source for his poetry, its consolations were atypical of his life as a whole, and the pathos of the rural and abandoned house in his poetry may in fact come from his “failure[s] to dwell,” which in turn resonate deeply with the experience of rural decline in New England. While Frost does romanticize the American rural past, MacArthur argues, we’d do better than to find in his work the myth of “stable, enduring rural life in New England.” Rather, in readings of abandoned house poems from across his career (from “Ghost House” to “Directive”), she discovers “a different mythic American  experience,” evidenced by his transposition of aspects of Wordsworth’s “The Ruined Cottage” onto an American scene. This experience is of “a restless, deracinated life, marked by frequent displacement, [and] dramatic reversals of fortune.” MacArthur’s reading of “The Gift Outright” brings the chapter to an exciting climax, and sees the accumulation of biographical detail come to impressive ends: previous readings of that poem have been “overdetermined by our [misconceptions] of who the poet was.” In light of his restless and problematic personal relationship with dwelling, and drawing on original research into his concern with “failures to dwell” at the national level (government mismanagement and abuse of federal lands, widespread homelessness during the Depression), MacArthur reads the poem, convincingly, as a critique of American colonialism and U.S. land policy.

MacArthur’s second chapter, “Elizabeth Bishop: Incarnations of the Crypto-Dream House” points out that Bishop’s childhood home in Nova Scotia served much the same role in her work as the Derry farm id in Frost’s: a lost, idealized rural dwelling to which she imaginatively returns to explore sources of consolation and inspiration as well as displacement and loss.

MacArthur’s point is that Bishop furthers the “revision of the Romantic landscape meditation” that Frost began, and also to make a case for how strongly Bishop’s fragile and neglected houses (as opposed to abandoned ones) and “questions of travel” resonate with and draw on “ubiquitous American experiences of displacement.” This chapter’s correction to the poet’s biography isn’t as forceful as in the Frost and Ashbery chapters. Rather, MacArthur extends James Longenbach’s work on Bishop’s “social conscience,” noting the many ways in which Bishop’s work engages and reflects Depression politics and the “long, apprehensive and violent prelude” to WWII. Close readings do the most impressive work here: MacArthur teases out Bishop’s interweaving of concern for lives of impoverished people and their dwellings with Bishop’s own experiences as an uprooted, leisured tourist, orphan, and lesbian. Readings also bring out the nodal quality of the writing Bishop produced during her travels through Europe in the mid-1930s: in “Sleeping on the Ceiling,” and “Sleeping Standing Up,” among others, Bishop’s personal experiences of domestic upheaval and loss converge (in dream-like or fairy-tale scenes) with her awareness of threats of homelessness facing whole populations during the advent of WWII. The chapter also offers some new, and at times unexpected, political contexts that might have captured Bishop’s attention while in Key West – Civilian Conservation Camps (work camps for the poor) as a background to “In Prison,” for instance. Such efforts see the chapter extending Mark Szalay’s work on “New Deal modernism.” Fresh use of Bishop’s teaching notes and drafts, return us, at chapter’s end, to New England and the end of Bishop’s career. MacArthur here argues for Frost’s as-yet under-acknowledged influence on Bishop’s work, reading “Just North of Boston,” an unpublished draft, and “The End of March,” as responses (corrections, really) to Frost’s view, in “Directive,” of memory as a space in which we might dwell and transcend loss.

MacArthur’s final chapter, “John Ashbery: The Farm on the Lake at the End of the Mind,” draws on her compelling interview of the poet in 2007, and seeks to correct the dominant view of Ashbery as an urban identified poet. MacArthur views this as the narrow prejudice of a critical disinclination to consider facts of Ashbery’s biography – particularly his nostalgic attachments to several rural settings and houses in upstate New York, including his parents’ fruit farm outside Sodus, New York, his boyhood home. For MacArthur, a phenomenological biographical reading of Ashbery “reaveal[s] … critical blind spots,” including the possibility that we might take his poetry “more seriously” and read his rural scenes as more than “pastoral parody.” While one wonders if we need the biography to fully register such seriousness, the attention to Ashbery’s biography does prove fascinating, and what emerges very strongly at the end of this chapter is MacArthur’s subtle sense, here evinced through her fine reading of “A Wave,” that for all these poets, “the partial consolation of memory is in its capacity to recreate the past and imagine a dialogue with it” (209).

In all, this beautifully written book is a valuable contribution, providing a detailed, nuanced account of what links these three distinctive writers to each other and to a rich American romantic mythos: a nostalgic longing for the “house abandoned.” While the introduction’s insistence on the value of biographical criticism feels somewhat under-theorized, the force of MacArthur’s readings and her delicate manner of proposing connections between work, life, and history finally remind us that a poem’s pathos can’t quite be felt in absence of an account of lived experience.

Word in the Village

John Barnstead, Dalhousie University

“Only dimly did I hear the pupils’ re-sigh-tations of capital cities and islands and bays,” Harold Cooke, a student at the Great Village School, is reading aloud from “Primer Class” as we slip into a high-backed pew at what is now St. James United Church, caddy corner from Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood home. The front has been painted fairly recently, but the sides are peeling, and perhaps a visit from the steeplejack would not be amiss. Funds are needed, too, for the next panels in the Great Village Pergola Heritage Project, and we are here to help raise them, as part of the “Word in the Village” celebration held the last weekend in September. “I must go into the classroom now and join in the usual morning” – a pause as Harold catches his breath – ”songs.” A paragraph or so later we are descending the steps past the village children’s prize-winning haikus and cinquains about manners, stories of their own first days at school, and a framed photo of one of Uncle – no, Great Uncle George’s paintings. We go to the church hall, where a lovely corn-chowder-with-or-without onion lunch, with biscuits and homemade strawberry jam, is provided at a small charge for the benefit of the Great Village Community Association.

Afterwards, summoned by the tolling of the recast and rehung church bell, we return to the sanctuary to listen to “In the Village.” The walls of the sanctuary are painted in trompe-l’oeil stone blocks with somewhat disproportionately diminutive keystones over the arches. The central arch bears the motto “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,” with the word ‘the’ carefully centered at its apex. It has no keystone. Today Bishop’s portrait as a child has been blown up and placed over the left-hand slotted board that in the old days would have borne two figures: the amount of last week’s collection and that of a year ago. Balancing it on the other side of the arch is the hymn-board: nos. 506 (“Take My Life and Let It Be”) and 544 (“In Gratitude and Humble Trust”).

Sandra Barry, tutelary spirit for matters Bishop in Great Village, begins by reading lines from “One Art”, to prepare us for the unfortunate, unavoidable last-minute absence of CBC Radio One Mainstreet’s Carmen Klassen. There will be six readers, she tells us, and we shall proceed without intermission “right straight through”, as Bishop did the National Geographic of February 1918 (a copy of which, found in a second-hand shop in Evansville, Indiana, and purchased for a song, is kept now in the drawer of the desk in the library of her childhood home, caddy-corner across the road).

The reading begins. At once we are more aware than ever before of the music of Bishop’s prose: “Swiss skies – horizon – rims of eyes” as Anne Simpson reads. The story doesn’t suffer from disruption when the voices change, as we feared it might, — whether from Lisa Lindo’s beautiful contralto to Alexander MacLeod’s deep baritone, or from Brian Bartlett’s New Brunswick twang to Susan Crowe’s lovely vowels and consonants, so familiar from her songs. A deepening, echoing silence fills the church as Susan reads from her thick edition with its two dangling book marks. The light from the green lamp on the pulpit catches the interlocking rings of her earrings, so that they flash figure-eights as her head moves. Clang. Slp. Tears come to our eyes (I asked afterwards – I wasn’t the only one) when we reach the sentence It sounds like a bell buoy out at sea. The reading stops. There is silence, and then there is long applause. Later there will be an old-fashioned ham and baked bean supper that has to be moved (on next to no notice) to the Legion Hall because so many more than expected will be there. We make our way down the aisle. At the back there are portraits of all the ministers since Saint James was founded and Presbyterian – an early one is just a blank frame, since no picture could be located, but Dr. Gillespie is there, round-faced, and somehow slightly sanctimonious or sinister without his black straw sailor. “That was good, eh?” says a woman in a lime green jacket with its collar upturned. We head outside.

Calls for Papers

The American Literature Association annual conference will be held in Boston from May 21-24, 2009. The Bishop Society will feature two panels. Please send abstracts to the below organizers by January 15, 2009.

The panel, “Elizabeth Bishop.s Boston,” seeks papers exploring Bishop.s early roots in the Boston area and her later years as a poet, teacher, and cultural presence.Please send proposals and queries to Lloyd Schwartz at lloyd.schwartz@umb.edu..

The panel, “Re-reading Elizabeth Bishop Through the New Editions,” seeks papers exploring the new insights into Bishop.s life, work, and cultural impact made possible by the recent new editions of her work, with an emphasis on The Library of America volume Elizabeth Bishop: Poetry, Prose and Letters, and Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Please send proposals and queries to Tom Travisano at travisanot@hartwick.edu.

Bishop’s Contributions To The New Yorker’s “Talk Of The Town”

George Monteiro, Brown University

According to Candace W. MacMahon’s Elizabeth Bishop: A Bibliography 1927-1979, Elizabeth Bishop’s first publication in The New Yorker is the poem “Cirque d`’Hiver,” which appeared in the issue for January 27, 1940, p. 23. Until recently, however, it was not known that it was preceded by an unsigned “Talk of the Town” item in 1934. In fact, The Complete New Yorker [on 8 disks] (2005), credits Bishop with four such items—in 1934, 1949, 1951, and 1956. Each of these “found” pieces reveals something of Bishop’s sense of play and humor.

“Reassurance” (Nov. 20, 1934, p. 15)

Mr. Rudd, unmarried, of Sutton Place South, had servant difficulties last week and, on the recommendation of a feminine friend to whom he appealed, hired an ancient charlady as domestic staff, pro tem. It was arranged that she was to come every afternoon for a while and do the cleaning and tidying. Mr. Rudd didn’t get home in time to see her for three or four days, but one afternoon he made it in time. Before he saw her, he saw a little note fastened to the door of his apartment with a thumbtack: “Mr. Rudd,” it read, “I am in the apartment, don’t be afraid. Mrs. Barrett.” Mrs. Barrett, Mr. Rudd says, is at least seventy, and a quite tiny lady.

“Welcome” (July 16, 1949), p. 14.

A gentleman who purchased a lot in a Rhode Island cemetery has just received the deed to it, along with a note reading, “We appreciate your interest and shall look forward to seeing you before too long.”

“False Scent” (Jan. 17, 1951, p. 21)

A lady on the way to her hairdresser’s passed a building that was being sandblasted. When, a few minutes later, the hairdresser ran his fingers over her scalp, he said, “Ah, it is good to see Madame back from Florida!”

Untitled (Oct. 13, 1956, p. 37)

Sign on a roadhouse near Saranac, New York: “Long-Expected Restaurant.”

Excerpts from “Talk of the Town” column written by Elizabeth Bishop that originally appeared in The New Yorker. Copyright © 1934, 1949, 1951, 1956 by Elizabeth Bishop. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC on behalf of the Elizabeth Bishop Estate.

The Elizabeth Bishop Bulletin, a semi-annual publication of The Elizabeth Bishop Society, is edited by Angus Cleghorn at Seneca College, with assistance from Josie Sage.

Elizabeth Bishop Society Advisory Board

Sandra Barry, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Jacqueline Vaught Brogan, Notre Dame University
Bethany Hicok, Westminster College
Laura J Menides, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Barbara Page, Vassar College
Camille Roman, Washington State University
Thomas Travisano, President, Hartwick College

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