Elizabeth Bishop’s Perfect Poetic Gems

Elizabeth Bishop has been called a “writer’s writer’s writer,” suggesting the admiration other poets feel for her work. Her total output was small, but she polished her poems to gleaming perfection. In works such as “Filling Station,” “The Moose,” and “First Death in Nova Scotia,” she displayed the precise observation, intellectual strength, and understated humor that continue to win admirers.

Bishop was born February 8, 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father died when she was an infant, and her mother, who eventually took her to live with maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia, suffered a series of breakdowns before being permanently hospitalized.

Despite these disturbances, childhood offered her satisfaction and interest. She loved learning the alphabet. Years afterward, she remembered: “It was wonderful to see that the letters each had different expressions, and that the same letter had different expressions at different times. Sometimes the two capitals of my name looked miserable, slumped down and sulky, but at others they turned fat and cheerful, almost with roses in their cheeks.”

In 1917, Bishop’s paternal grandparents brought her back to Worcester, a wrenching experience. “I felt as if I were being kidnapped, even if I wasn’t,” she later wrote. She lived with relatives, in Massachusetts and Nova Scotia, over the next several years, and entered Vassar College in 1930. A librarian there introduced her to the poet Marianne Moore, who encouraged her interest in writing and selected some of her work for publication in an anthology, giving an early boost to her career.

After graduating from Vassar in 1934, Bishop began an extended period of restless travel, staying in New York, Key West, and other places before settling in Brazil, where she lived for the greater part of two decades. She returned to the United States in the late 1960s, finally moving to Boston, where she taught at Harvard University.

In Bishop’s work, opposites are fused. Reticence and control—passionate feeling and also coolness—mark her writing. Her poems walk the line between public and private, the marvelous and the ordinary, and other contradictions. This heightened awareness or “double vision” came to her in childhood, as recounted in her well-known poem “In the Waiting Room,” in which she remembers sitting in a dentist’s office as a girl of six: “But I felt: you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them.

Bishop is celebrated for her powers of description and precise observation. There is something of the careful mapmaker’s exactness in her poems, reflected in the titles of several of her books, such as North & South (1946), Questions of Travel (1965), and Geography III (1976). Her poetry is aware of economic inequality and the edgy relationship between rich and poor. “Pink Dog” touches on the brutality of society in regard to outcasts. Scenes of hungry people during the Depression inspired her to write “A Miracle for Breakfast.”

Her autobiographical prose poem “In the Village,” widely considered a classic, presents life in the maritime village of her childhood as enchanting if not fully understood. Poignantly portraying the tension of living with an unbalanced person (her mother), it begins: “A scream, the echo of a scream, hangs over that Nova Scotian village. No one hears it; it hangs there forever….”

Digital Color Postmarks (click to order)

In the words of one critic, her poems “accommodate the smallest details and the largest issues.” Bishop’s poems seem open to almost any subject, including even a dirty filling station, and consistently defy expectation. “First Death in Nova Scotia” finds surprising humor in a child’s struggle to make sense of the death of a younger cousin. In “The Armadillo,” a festive fire balloon splatters against a cliff “like an egg of fire” and sends animals in the vicinity into a panic; with great subtlety, Bishop calls aerial bombing to mind, and “The Armadillo” turns out to be an anti-war classic, comparing human beings to the frightened animal with “a weak mailed fist / clenched ignorant against the sky.”

Elizabeth Bishop died suddenly of a cerebral aneurysm at her home in Boston on October 6, 1979. She received many awards and honors during her lifetime, and interest in her work continues to grow.

Bishop is one of ten poets featured on the Twentieth-Century Poets pane. The stamps will be issued on April 21 in Los Angeles, California, but you can preorder them today!

Elizabeth Bishop Dreams of the Postman

Poet Elizabeth Bishop will be honored with a stamp later this year as one of ten poets on the Twentieth-Century Poets stamp pane. The pane is slated for release on April 21 in Los Angeles, California. We’ll have more about Bishop and her amazing body of work next month, but in the meantime, I’ve been immersing myself in her poetry. My current favorite is “Dream—,” about dream letters and the postman who tries to deliver them. Apropos I think.

National Book Month: Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems

As an adolescent, I idolized poet Sylvia Plath. While my friends talked endlessly about their favorite bands and actors they wanted hanging over their beds, I spent hours poring over Plath’s poetry and journals, desperately trying to know everything I could about this mysterious woman.

Although Plath published just one collection of poetry and one novel in her lifetime, her complex body of work showcases her ability to conquer such weighty themes as marriage and motherhood, gender and power, death and resurrection, and the search for the self. Her posthumously published Collected Poems (1981) received the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. The collection includes poems written from 1956 until her suicide in 1963.

Plath’s most famous poem, “Daddy” (1962), delves into the painful subject of her father’s death when she was a child. Written in the singsong style of a nursery rhyme, the emotional verse evokes the feelings of sorrow and anger she felt at not having the opportunity to know her father before he died. This anger quickly changes direction, focusing on her husband, whose betrayal is connected, in Plath’s mind, to that of her father’s. By the end of the poem, the narrator has shed the burden of grief for both of these painful relationships.

As a teenager I wanted to be a poet, and Plath’s highly autobiographical style appealed to me. The way in which Plath reveals honest details of her life and innermost thoughts seemed so extraordinary. Though I no longer hold a romanticized image of becoming a poet, I do still love Sylvia Plath’s writing. With simplicity of language and self-reflection, she gives a voice not only to her own experiences, but those of many women. She is, in my mind, truly one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century.

Upon learning about the Twentieth-Century Poets stamps issuance later this year—and that the set of ten esteemed bards includes Sylvia Plath—my excitement for the 2012 stamp program spiked. Along with Plath, the commemorative pane will pay tribute to Elizabeth Bishop, Joseph Brodsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, E. E. Cummings, Robert Hayden, Denise Levertov, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. Designed by art director Derry Noyes, the Twentieth-Century Poets stamps will be issued in April.

“Sylvia Plath”, n.d.
Photograph by Rollie McKenna
@ Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation
Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Foundation

The National Book Award and U.S. Stamps

Congratulations to all the recipients of this year’s National Book Award! To mark the occasion, we are taking a brief look today at National Book Award winners who have also appeared on stamps.

As you might expect, the Literary Arts series has featured several NBA recipients, including William Faulkner, poet Marianne Moore, and Thornton Wilder.

Robert Penn Warren, featured on the 21st stamp in the series, was America’s first official poet laureate (1986-87) and a three-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. He received the National Book Award in 1958 for Promises: Poems, 1954-1956.

Considered a master prose stylist, Katherine Anne Porter (featured on the 22nd stamp in the Literary Arts series) was best known for her short stories, which earned her both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1966 for The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1965).

In addition to writers in the Literary Arts series, one other person honored on a stamp has also won a National Book Award: Rachel Carson received an NBA in 1952 for her masterful and poetic study of the oceans, The Sea Around Us.

The 2012 stamp program will see no shortage of National Book Award Winners. In fact, four of the ten poets featured on next year’s 20th-Century Poets stamp pane have received NBAs: William Carlos Williams in 1950 for Patterson Book II and Selected Poems, Wallace Stevens in 1951 for The Auroras of Autumn and in 1955 for The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, Theodore Roethke in 1959 for Word for the Wind and in 1965 for The Far Field, and Elizabeth Bishop in 1970 for The Complete Poems.

Who’s your favorite?