Only 100 of Elizabeth Bishop’s finely wrought poems were published before she died in 1979. Although her work was greatly admired and she received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, her shyness and extremely complicated personal life meant that she was, for the most part, not a public figure. Since her death, she has become one of America’s most revered poets. In the vivid and compelling Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, Megan Marshall, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in biography for Margaret Fuller: A New American Life and the Francis Parkman Prize for The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, explores the complex relationship between Bishop’s life and work.
Bishop endured a harrowing childhood: Her father died when she was only 8 months old, and when she was 5 years old, her mother was hospitalized for insanity. Bishop’s mother remained institutionalized until her death many years later at age 54, two weeks before Elizabeth graduated from college. The future poet was raised by aunts and uncles in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts.
“I really don’t know how poetry gets written,” Bishop wrote. “There is a mystery and a surprise, and after that a great deal of hard work.” Often poetry and alcohol were her twin compulsions and, Marshall writes, “By her fifties, poetry and alcohol had become organizing principles, more powerful even than love. . . .” Several women were her companions/lovers and as one of them said, Bishop “fell in love easily. She also fell out of love easily.” She lived at a time when same-sex love was taboo in the U.S. and the American Psychiatric Association’s first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, newly released in 1952, described homosexuality as a “ sociopathic personality disturbance.” Bishop lived an itinerant life for many years, spending long periods in Key West and Brazil.
Two major poets championed her work: Marianne Moore, early in her career, and later Robert Lowell. He became, in their exchange of 400 letters, Bishop’s most appreciative reader and booster. He especially admired a quality in her life as a writer that he could never achieve: “the pleasure of pure invention,” as if the poems had come from her imagination. Lowell was identified with “confessional” poetry, in which he wrote about his own life, an approach Bishop detested. We learn how she was able to transform her life’s experiences into poetry, although the process usually took place over a long period of time and was rarely recognized as directly personal.
Marshall’s biography has two significant features that distinguish her work from others who have written about Bishop. First, she gained access to a collection of her subject’s most intimate correspondence, thought to have vanished, after the death of her last lover in 2009. Secondly, Marshall, although not close to her, was a student in Bishop’s “Advanced Verse Writing” class, offered at Harvard University late in the poet’s life. Alternating chapters of the biography with the author’s memoir give us a first-hand glimpse of that time and place.
This carefully researched, insightful and well written account of a major poet’s life shows in detail the suffering and difficulty that made her art possible. I enjoyed the book tremendously.