“I’m not interested in big-scale work as such,” Elizabeth Bishop once told an interviewer. “Something needn’t be large to be good.”
True to this statement, Bishop spent her career producing finely designed, precisely executed poems, elegant and exquisite miniatures, few in number and subtle, albeit significant, in their impact. Her work brought acclaim and awards, and since her death in 1979, her reputation has continued to climb. But during her life, she often felt insecure about her career, and there is no denying that next to the flamboyant, larger-than-life personalities that tended to dominate American poetry in the second half of the 20th century, Elizabeth Bishop often struck one as — the characterization is practically mandatory when discussing this poet — a modest figure.
At the head of this pack of outsize personalities was Robert Lowell, with whom Bishop had an intimate and complex relationship, a friendship that included romantic elements despite the fact that she preferred women. Compared with Lowell’s elite Boston Brahmin background, her origins and early life — a mostly unremarkable childhood spent largely in rural Nova Scotia, a landscape to which her imagination returned again and again — were indeed strikingly modest. As her inclination against “big-scale work” suggests, a certain sort of modesty was a central element of her attitude toward art. Her output, too, was modest; during her life she published only about a hundred poems.
Although proud of her perfectionism, which she claimed to have learned from her friend and mentor Marianne Moore, Bishop at times agonized over the slenderness of her oeuvre. As Megan Marshall writes in her new biography, “Elizabeth Bishop,” as of the early 1970s, her career “still wasn’t what she’d hoped — she could still be ‘cast into gloom’ by the thought of her more prolific peers.” In 1949, she wrote to Lowell that “I’ve always felt that I’ve written poetry more by not writing it than writing it” — a remark that not only suggests an explanation for her small number of completed works, but also indicates a certain attitude toward literature and life.
Marshall’s book focuses more on the life than on the literature. And Bishop’s life, like everyone’s, was at times difficult and messy, if not as visibly and extravagantly tumultuous as many of her poetic peers. Unlike many of those poets — Lowell, of course, but also Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman and others — she kept the difficulty and mess out of her writing, permitting the poems only to gesture toward them in indirect, encoded ways. Her work was never about self-display, let alone self-dramatization. Beneath the surface, though, lay considerable complexity and genuine drama.
She conducted love affairs with multiple women, sometimes overlapping, sometimes involving concealment and secrecy, during a period in which being openly gay was difficult and potentially dangerous. The most significant romantic relationship of her life, with the Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares, ended with Soares’s suicide in 1967. Bishop herself acknowledged that she drank too much, putting a strain on many of her relationships; she frequently promised her partners that she would stop, but was not able to. It may have been, in part, her way of dealing with the scars of a difficult childhood: Her father died when she was an infant , and her mother was committed to a mental institution when she was 5, leaving her in the care of more distant relatives, feeling homesick and abandoned.
Marshall’s book makes use of some previously unavailable materials, including letters from Bishop to her psychiatrist and to three of her lovers, and as a result is able to offer a more detailed portrait than existed before of the romantic relationships about which she could not be fully open during her life. But its portrait of the poet still feels somewhat remote, mirroring the control, distance and reserve Bishop insisted on in her work. (“Some surrealist poetry terrifies me,” Bishop once wrote, tellingly, “because of the sense of irresponsibility & danger it gives of the mind being ‘broken down.’ ”) As if to compensate, Marshall, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for her biography of Margaret Fuller, includes some autobiographical material centered on her own encounters with Bishop, with whom she studied poetry at Harvard in the 1970s. But these passages feel, for the most part, distracting and out of place, an unsuccessful attempt to compensate for the narrative’s inability to connect directly with its subject.
Still, there are moments in the book where control is lost and reserve overcome, where the human vulnerability of this meticulous and austere artist is revealed. Letters from 1965 that Bishop, who was at the time still involved with Lota, wrote to another lover, Lilli Correia de Araújo, clearly express her suffering and longing, along with her attitude toward the idea that putting one’s pain into poetry makes it more easier to bear.
“I need love,” she wrote. “It is the way I am made.” Some people, she admitted, “seem to function all right without it — or else they ‘sublimate’ — a chemical process I’ve never believed in for a moment.”
Troy Jollimore’s most recent book of poems is “Syllabus of Errors.”
By Megan Marshall
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 365 pp. $30