Elizabeth Bishop: A miracle of a poet

Introduction and interview by Fan Ogilvie

Holly Bergon —David Means

Who was Elizabeth Bishop? Elizabeth Bishop has been called one of the strongest and best poets of the 20th century. She was a consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (before the honor was renamed Poet Laureate), and recipient of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, among other awards.

To borrow from Megan Marshall’s new biography of Bishop, “Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast,” wherein she brings a trove of new letters to light, illuminating Bishop’s traumas of early life and her revelations about lesbian relationships she mostly hid from public view, she can be described as a poet whose astute care in arranging words on a page may have helped her arrange order in her life, and as a result might have staved off tragedy.

Her 100 or so published poems are models of what T.S. Eliot called the objective correlative, a set of objects that correlate with a specific emotion the writer is meaning to convey. There is never a direct cry or personal display in the well-mannered and artfully crafted poems of Bishop. Satisfaction is the result of reading her. She is a poet’s poet, but also a good poet for the general reader to start with, live with, and end with.

On Wednesday, April 5, at the Chilmark library, at 5:30 pm, Holly St. John Bergon will discuss Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry as part of “Islanders Read the Classics.” For many years, Bergon taught courses in English composition and creative writing at the State University of New York–Dutchess Community College. She has published poems in the Sewanee Review, Ploughshares, Terra Nova, and other journals and magazines. Fan Ogilvie, whose most recent book of poetry is “Easiness Found,” recently spoke with Bergon about Elizabeth Bishop’s life and work.

Fan Ogilvie: Why did you select Elizabeth Bishop, a 20th-century American poet, to talk about?

Holly Bergon: Bishop was born in Worcester, and lived in Boston and Nova Scotia, so there’s a New England and coastal connection to our lives here on the Vineyard. She and I both graduated from Vassar College, and I knew writers who wrote about Bishop’s work.

FO: How will you focus your study of her?

HB: I am fascinated by the complexity beneath what looks like surface simplicity in her poems. She studied music in college, and later painted, and her poems reflect her interest in music and painting and sculpture, including a use of geometric perspective.

FO: Elizabeth Bishop insists on using fact in her poetry, as opposed to confessional poetry. How does she defend that point of view; what does she think of confessional poets?

HB: Accuracy of observation and fact was important to her. She was meticulous in creating precise, accurate images. Early in her career, she was distressed by confessional poetry, even the poems written by her great friend, Robert Lowell. She said once, “I just wish they’d keep some of those things to themselves.”

FO: Bishop traveled “recklessly,” says one of her biographers. Can you elaborate on this comment, and tell us about her long stay in Brazil?

HB: She traveled far and wide, but her work and life are haunted by loneliness and estrangement. After the early death of her father and her mother’s institutionalization, Bishop led an uprooted life, which may connect psychologically to the dislocation of her original home and family, leading to an endless search for home.

FO: How was she regarded by early friends?

HB: I think her Vassar friends meant this jokingly, but they referred to her as “the Bishop,” and said, “We all knew she was a genius.”

FO: Tell us more about her work.

HB: I want to mention her deep belief in the spiritual significance of landscape. Her pattern of work was slower than slow. She could put up notes on a wall and wait and wait for the right phrase or line to come. She died at 68, and her whole output was just over 100 poems.

FO: What do we know about her years with the Brazilian architect Lota De Macedo Soares?

HB: Bishop began living with Carlota de Macedo Soares in Brazil in 1951, and their years together were perhaps the most deeply rooted of her life. Lota was an architect and a member of a politically active family in Brazil. Their relationship ended tragically in 1967, with Lota’s apparent suicide in New York. I will discuss the significance of this relationship in the library talk.

FO: Bishop’s poetry is considered some of the finest-crafted poetry in American literature. Many of her poems were rewritten or revised over many years. Can you comment on this obsession of hers, to make it perfect in her eyes?

HB: Robert Lowell said about her method that she was “the muse that makes the casual perfect.” She was aware of craft, as she was aware of everything. She was always interested in how things work.

FO: Are there poems of Bishop’s you prefer?

HB: Certainly. “One Art,” is one of her most famous poems. I’ll quote the last stanza: “—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture/I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident/ the art of losing’s not too hard to master/ though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” This seemingly casual stanza pairs miraculously with abyss of loss. I also love the sestina about a grandmother and a child, titled “Sestina.”

FO: Her strongest poetry influences were Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. Do you see lifelong shaping of those two poets in her work?

HB: Yes, both the formalism of Moore and the openness of one’s own truth and story with Lowell; she guided her craft between the two.

FO: Readers becoming familiar with Bishop’s work begin to notice something new, something they hadn’t noticed before — humor, a bit of leg-pulling they hadn’t seen before. Can you, Holly, tell us about her delicious sense of humor?

HB: Marianne Moore referred to a “flicker of impudence” in Bishop’s poems. She was known for schoolgirl pranks; she and a friend at the Walnut Hill School once dressed up in bedspreads with baskets on their heads and walked downtown, perhaps mocking the school’s requirement that girls wear hats when going into town. The humor in her poems, however, is understated, wry, that “flicker” Moore observed.

FO: What do you want the takeaway to be at the end of your talk?

HB: I want the audience to hear and see the extraordinary in the ordinary in Elizabeth Bishop’s work. This ability is one of the reasons she’s considered one of America’s finest poets.

On Wednesday, April 5, at 5:30 pm at the Chilmark library, “Islanders Read the Classics” presents Holly St. John Bergon on Elizabeth Bishop. This program is free, sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Library Association and The MV Times.