Ladies We Love: Elizabeth Bishop

3.18.2011

By Mark Doty

Elizabeth Bishop was a lifelong traveler, a painter, and a faithful correspondent who sent her friends the most readable letters ever. She was also one of the finest American poets of the 20th century. Born in Nova Scotia, she lost her parents at an early age and was packed off to distant relatives, the beginning of a restless exile that never really stopped. In New York City she went to the circus with Marianne Moore, was glamorously photographed by George Platt Lynes, and wrote distinctively cool, surreal poems. She journeyed to Key West, where her poems became warmer, and more infused with feeling. When she fell in love with an aristocratic Brazilian woman, the couple built a house outside of Rio, where Bishop's work filled with the human and animal characters of the tropics. Did any writer ever have a sharper eye? She seldom states what she thinks or feels, but lets her descriptions and details do all the work, bringing us inside her perception. Thus her poems feel clear as a drink of cool water and perpetually alive. The losses of later life -- her lover's suicide, her own stubborn alcoholism -- darken her last poems, but never sink them.

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