“The armored cars of dreams, contrived to let us do so many a dangerous thing.”
“All the untidy activity continues,” observed American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) in her verse titled “The Bight.” It was an accurate perspective, not only of the world, but of her own troubled existence as well. Despite a life marked by alcoholism and emotional upheaval, Bishop wrung beauty from the chaos within and around her. True, hers was a modest output: four books of poetry in the space of three decades. But depth, not breadth, was her strongest suit; the Massachusetts native and future Poet Laureate of the United States would ultimately garner the choicest laurels: the National Book Award, Guggenheim Fellowships, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer for poetry.
This year, Bishop would have marked her hundredth year. In her absence, the festivities will be conducted by her alma mater, Vassar College. September saw a day long symposium, in which a cadre of Bishop scholars deconstructed their heroine, capped by a keynote speech by former United States Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, disarmingly titled “Elizabeth Bishop: The Bee’s Knees.”
For those seeking to delve deeper into Bishop’s complex psyche and the verse that sprang from its recesses, an exhibition of her most compelling papers remains on display through December 15 in the Thompson Memorial Library on the Vassar campus.
Titled “From the Archive: Discovering Elizabeth Bishop,” these works are culled from Vassar’s expansive collection of Bishop papers, obtained from her estate beginning two years after her death. The collection numbers in excess of 3,500 pieces and includes draft poems and prose, as well as her correspondence, personal papers, working papers, notebooks, diaries, memorabilia—even her baby book and the doorplate from her residence in Brazil.
For the exhibit, curator Ronald D. Patkus, the head of special collections at the Vassar College Libraries, asked 10 Elizabeth Bishop scholars and editors to select for display items that they felt shed significant light on their muse. Among the totems are a 1934 composition book filled with Bishop’s jottings, just after graduating college; an early draft of the poem “12 O’Clock News”; and two drafts of the unfinished story “Homesickness.”
Even unfinished pieces from Elizabeth Bishop’s work will stand up to intense scrutiny, says Thomas J. Travisano, president of the Elizabeth Bishop Society and professor of English at Hartwick College, Oneonta. “Literary excellence is the defining characteristic of Bishop’s work,” says Travisano, who moderated one of the September 24 panels. ”Her work is just too well written, on the level of metaphor, rhythm, musicality, observation, wit, humor, insight, structure, subtlety, and sheer intelligence to be readily dismantled by the critics. As a writer, she doesn’t offer many points of vulnerability. It’s hard to attack a master of understatement.”
The 1934 Vassar alumna influenced contemporaries as varied as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, W. H. Auden, Sylvia Plath, Flannery O’Connor, and Mary McCarthy. And, despite her lesbianism, Bishop carried on an epistolary love affair of sorts with the noted poet Robert Lowell, in whom she recognized a similarly gifted but bruised soul.
“Elizabeth Bishop was in many ways ahead of her time, and her work anticipated many of the key issues that are now on people’s minds,” says Travisano. “She deals with contemporary issues such as gender, outsider-hood, otherness, cultural boundaries, and global interdependence in very sophisticated ways. At the same time, she touches on such eternal themes as love, loss, and humanity’s relationship to nature in fresh and exciting ways.”
“From the Archive: Discovering Elizabeth Bishop” will be exhibited through December 15 at Vassar College’s Thompson Memorial Library. (845) 437-5799; www.vassar.edu