logotype

Life and Works

 

Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester (Massachusetts) in 1911, and her early childhood was marked by a succession of tragic events. Her father, William Thomas Bishop, who worked as an executive for the family construction business, died only eight months after her birth. After her father's death the family lived briefly in Boston and then in Great Village (Nova Scotia), where her mother, Gertrude Bulmer, suffered from several nervous breakdowns triggered by the early loss of her husband. At age five Bishop saw her mother for the last time, as the latter entered a mental sanatorium. From that moment, her childhood was divided between the rural bliss of Nova Scotia with her Bulmer grandmother, and the contrasting puritanism of her father's parents at Worcester. Her accounts of Worcester life are terribly sad, marked as it was by psychosomatic reactions such as asthma and eczema. After nine months in Worcester she moved to Boston with different relatives and eventually began her more formal schooling. Until then most of her childhood was spent indoors in long convalescences, watching the outside world invariably framed by windows. During her school years she showed an early interest in writing and published poems and short stories in school magazines.

A considerable sum of money inherited from her father paid for her education at Vassar College (1930-34), where she was in contact with budding women intellectuals of her age, among them Mary McCarthy, Muriel Rukeyser, Eunice and Eleanor Clark, Frani Blough (who was already a friend from Walnut Hill school in Massachusetts), and Margaret Miller, with whom she developed a long romantic infatuation. At Vassar she helped start an alternative literary magazine-with some of these colleagues-until its success forced the elder students to take them seriously and admit them as collaborators in The Vassar Review, the official Vassar literary magazine. An interview with T.S. Eliot, attendance to numerous poetry readings, and a publishing record (poems and short stories), show her engagement in literary activities during this period; but the one event that proved decisive for her career was being introduced to Marianne Moore by Vassar's librarian in 1934, the same year she graduated and her mother died. The coincidence of events is far from negligible, since Bishop grew up motherless and found in Moore a female elder (by twenty-four years) who was a published poet and editor willing to share her experience and advice. Under Moore's mentorship Bishop, who had previously considered a career in medicine, published a selection of poems in the anthology Trial Balances (1935), edited by Ann Winslow, and moved to New York.

During the mid and late 1930s she followed an intensive personal reading program at New York Public Library, and has claimed that she virtually "lived at the MOMA." During this period she perfected her knowledge of metaphysical poetry and baroque art, and fostered her early interest in modern art, helped by several surrealist exhibitions held at the Julien Levy gallery. She kept flyers from those exhibitions attached to her notebooks of those days, which are now housed at Vassar College Library. In 1935 she traveled to Europe with Vassar mate Louise Crane, visiting Douarnenez, Paris, Morocco, and Spain, from where they returned to New York at the onset of the Spanish Civil War. She spent the winter of 1936 in Key West, falling in love with the place and its people. The discovery of a warmer climate with such lush vegetation and exotic wildlife proved enormously influential in her work, where a passionate interest in nature is manifest. Watercolor painting, which she had begun in New York a few years earlier, became a dear pastime in the middle of this picturesque tropical region, and one she would never abandon. That December New York was taken over by the MOMA Surrealist Exhibition, which lasted well into 1937, allowing many opportunities for Bishop to attend. Later in 1937 she returned to Europe with Louise Crane, staying in France, especially Paris, most of the time, these trips being substantially funded by Crane's family. After Margaret Miller joined them-the situation becoming a sort of romantic triangle, since Bishop had shifted her affections from Miller to Crane after 1934-the three suffered a car accident driving back to Paris after a trip to Burgundy. As a consequence Miller lost her right arm, severed around the elbow, which ruined her promising career as a painter. Bishop and Crane continued their visit to Italy during the fall of 1937, and Bishop was deeply impressed at the sight of so many, already well-known and admired, works of art. They returned to the States in December, bringing with them three small owls as a result of her inordinate fondness for exotic pets (although cats were to be her habitual companions).

By then Bishop had managed to publish poems in American literary magazines such as Direction, New Directions, Life and Letters Today, and Poetry. In 1938 she and Crane bought a house together in Key West, and from her Florida base she kept sending poems and flirting with publishing houses about a book project.

Notable successes include acceptances of her work in 1938 by Partisan Review and The New Yorker, and by 1940 Bishop-who had until then accepted Moore's tutelage and revisions of her poetry-had a now famous rebellious impulse against Moore's corrections of her poem "Roosters", generally interpreted as an early sign of independence. From the Key West home Bishop regularly wrote to Moore and other friends, and developed a lively correspondence that would eventually amount to several thousand letters. When the U.S. opted for intervention in World War II Bishop joined the optical department of the Navy for a short period, but continued to travel, and in Mexico met Pablo Neruda, Chilean consul there at the time, who would become a longtime friend. Back in New York in 1942, through common friends, she met Lota de Macedo Soares, a sophisticated Brazilian woman, of wealthy family and European education.

In 1945 she finally submitted a book manuscript to the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, supported by Moore, of course, as well as by Edmund Wilson and John Dewey. By June of that year she was awarded the $1,000 prize, and the book was published under the title North & South in 1946. With this volume began a series of uncomfortable tensions with publishing houses, surely no more serious than the average writer's, but in her case determined by her slow production and endless redrafting, which prompted her to delay the publication dates of her always-too-thin books in order to be able to sell the poems to magazines first.

In 1949 Bishop succeeded Lowell as Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress, and the following year she was awarded a Bryn Mawr $2,500 fellowship for poetry that enabled her to travel to South America in 1951.

In Brazil common friends directed her to the house of Lota de Macedo Soares. In this new meeting Bishop, allegedly due to an intoxication after the ingestion of cashew nuts, had to prolong her stay, and eventually they found themselves involved in a romantic affair that lasted until Lota's suicide in 1967. The piano duo Arthur Gold and Robert Fitzdale had met Bishop through Lota in New York, and in an interview provided a most revealing description of the couple:

One has to understand Lota to understand Elizabeth because Lota was the most volatile, outgoing, almost exhibitionist Latin type. She was very small, not particularly good looking, but immensely vivacious, and in a sense, everything Elizabeth wasn't. She was Elizabeth's south, the Latin side of her character. Elizabeth delighted in all the exuberance that Lota had, all the enthusiasms in anything from a gadget from the five-and-ten to the great modern house that she built. Lota had all the poetic insights into the details of life that Elizabeth had, but in the Macedo sense, not the Marianne Moore sense. (Fountain and Brazeau 136)

They lived together in a designer's house that formed part of a detached hacienda, a sort of writer's paradise where Bishop at last had a home where she felt she could belong, and write. She cherished the exotic wildlife and now crowned her tradition of pet keeping with the addition of a toucan. In 1955 she published Poems: North & South-A Cold Spring, which won her a Pulitzer Prize the following year.

During the Brazilian period her life was all traveling and writing and attending to the everyday duties of the house, as Lota's public involvement in Brazilian politics intensified with the design of a "People's Park" in Rio, an almost utopian project in a city where acute social inequity was the norm. Her next book of poems, Questions of Travel appeared in 1965, now published by Farrar. The tensions-political and personal-arising from Lota's energy-consuming project, divided the couple and deteriorated Lota's health, so Bishop accepted a six-month stint in teaching (the first time for her) in Seattle. There she developed a romantic relationship with a younger woman [In her biography of Bishop, Brett Millier has chosen the pseudonym Suzanne Bowen for this woman, and subsequently other writers have respected her decision to avoid confusion.] Back in Brazil, Bishop plunged deeper into alcoholism as Lota was diagnosed with arteriosclerosis. Finally, in 1967, Lota followed Bishop to New York where she died, apparently from an overdose of Valium.

 

 

Bishop's attempts to recover her past happiness in Brazil with Bowen failed due not only to her friend's poor health but also to the painful realization that many of her Brazilian acquaintances blamed Bishop for Lota's suicide. In 1969 her collected poems appeared as Complete Poems (an incorrect title resulting from her distracted proofreading), and-after it received the National Book Award-she invested the money from the prize into the restoration of an old house in Ouro Prêto (Brazil), a much-cherished project that was fulfilled only too late for her, as local hostility forced them to leave the country shortly after.

Back to teaching in 1970, now at Harvard, Bishop met her last companion, Alice Methfessel, a member of the housing staff there. Accompanied by her, Bishop finally visited the Galápagos Islands, a fond naturalist's dream trip. The 1970s brought her complete professional success with the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1976, and the National Book Critics Circle Award the following year, but also a series of personal losses which greatly affected her: the deaths of Marianne Moore (1972) and, more unexpectedly, of Robert Lowell (1977). Although she was definitely consecrated as an important American poet by the publication of Geography III (1976), she still could not afford to give up teaching, which she continued until she died from a cerebral aneurysm in 1979. Her Complete Poems, 1927-1979, and Collected Prose were posthumously published by Farrar.

So far, the best sources of biographical information about Elizabeth Bishop are Robert Giroux's chronology and introduction to One Art: Elizabeth Bishop's Letters, Brett C. Millier's critical biography, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It, and Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography, by Gary Fountain and Peter Brazeau.

***************

The amount of critical and biographical publications on the work of Elizabeth Bishop since her death in 1979 testifies to what Thomas Travisano has called, in 1995, the "Elizabeth Bishop phenomenon." The rather incomprehensible critical neglect that was the norm until her death has been corrected in the last two decades with the enormous attention paid to almost every single aspect of her production, be it poetry, prose or painting. Her increasing public recognition and relevance in the American poetry canon may seem to have arrived overnight, but in fact there are two clearly differentiated stages, at two different paces.

Bishop's mentorship and progressive introduction in the literary circles by Marianne Moore, and the regular apparition of her poems in prestigious magazines, made the much awaited publication of North & South in 1946 some sort of event for her intimates, a varied group of New York intellectuals. Beyond that circle, the book reported Bishop a good amount of success, especially when it was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize. In spite of such warm reception, North & South was accused of merely containing two kinds of poems: "bizarre fantasies which can be interpreted pretty much as the reader chooses" and "straight descriptive verse [...] to which she has added a moral or emotional fillip," wrote Edward Weeks in an August 1946 review (148). Ambiguous praise but in a tone of decided admiration came a few months later from Seldon Rodman in the New York Times Book Review: "If the author of the thirty-two remarkable poems in this book used paint, she would undoubtedly paint 'abstractions.' Yet so sure is her feeling for poetry that in building up her overall water-color arrangements she never strays far from the concrete and the particular" (18). The early development of a school of condescending Bishop reviewers was pioneered by "North but South," a 1946 piece by Oscar Williams, who finds in the poems "exquisite detail" and "charming little stained-glass bits": "The free verse is delicate and not too free, the preciosity is not unpleasant, the sestina is modern, competent and digestible, the influences from a half-dozen sources are handled with gloves, any thumbprints have been wiped from the shining legs of the poetic furniture at least twice in every other poem" (525). She entered a long period of critical approval led mainly by patronizing reviews that confined her to description. By the late 1940s she had turned away from the fantastic creations of the earlier poems of North & South, and was focusing on real subject matter, mostly landscape and description of places, and so she feared that her poetry was becoming simple description. Criticism reassured her that such description was by no means "simple", but could not comfort her beyond that point. Randall Jarrell's "all her poems have written underneath, I have seen it" (181) must have done justice to her descriptive accuracy guided by a sort of moral realism, a compulsive need to be true to her observations, but Jarrell's compliment perhaps arrived at a time when she was already feeling it insufficient:

When Lowell chose to point out the apparent "triviality" of a couple of poems in his review of North & South, Elizabeth felt her worse fears confirmed, and it was years before she got over this invidious comparison with Lowell-that he wrote "real" poems and that hers were "solid cuteness" or simple description. (Millier 180)

The fact that "At the Fishhouses" (1947) was welcomed as her best poem yet did not really clarify the situation, for the poem is much deeper than mere description, but one is entitled to wonder whether critics truly appreciated its complexity or remained on the surface. Luckily this predilection for "At the Fishhouses" was shared by her poet-friends, too, who certainly realized its merits. There was a more or less general perception, however, that she was emotionally distanced, even defensive, when dealing with the external world in her poetry and so, as early as 1938, Marianne Moore had written her to very tactfully point out: "I can't help wishing you would sometime in some way, risk some unprotected profundity of experience [...] I do feel that tentativeness and interiorizing are your danger as well as your strength" (Keller, "Words" 418).

With the Pulitzer Prize for A Cold Spring (1956) came more reviews celebrating her move "away from thought and towards vision" (Nemerov 179), again a very ambiguous reason for praise, but they also welcomed a more "confessional" tone (Eberhart, qtd. in Millier 255) until, of course, a critic censured in her what she found objectionable in confessional poetry, namely "trivial subjects" (Honig 115). It is significant that North & South had also been listed for the Pulitzer in 1946, and had lost against Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle. A Cold Spring could have succeeded precisely for Bishop's increased confessional tone. When Questions of Travel appeared in 1965 the customary praise was already "cleareyed observation, absolutely lovely simplicity, and a gentle flickering humor" (Davison 85). It is easy to understand Langdon Hammer's indignation when in 1994 he reviewed previous scholarship and expressed the concern that such adjectives as (in this case) "lovely" and "gentle" and "simple" were not the terms used to praise male, serious poets of her time.1

A door was opened to public considerations of careful redrafting and elaboration when in 1966 Phillip Booth pointed out her "deceptive casualness" (10)-which suggested awareness of more work than met the general eye-but the deceptiveness of her simple subjects was yet to be discovered by the public. Even much later, the poet Frank Bidart, commenting on Randall Jarrell's praise for Bishop's formal perfection, felt forced to specify "I think this is true; but I want to emphasize the pain and tremendous struggle beneath this 'perfection'" (214). Still, there were complaints at that time as well from critics who found her "miniaturist" perspective no better than "merely peculiar and tiresome" (Smith 91). This reception certainly recalls the kind of criticism that welcomed Jane Austen in her days, and surely some must have perceived the annoying parallelism, which aligned Bishop with a tradition of women writers whose success in the male canon was determined by male perception of their work as "pretty" and non-challenging.

The fact that both praise and criticism of Bishop's poetry used the same arguments does not only reveal natural discrepancies among critics; it also underlines the more or less general inability to go beyond the surface of her poems, a step critics would not take until the late 1970s, aided by Bishop's own evolution toward emotional openness.

Geography III was acclaimed from the beginning as Bishop's most accomplished collection. While she was again terribly anxious over the reduced number of poems, and no less over their quality, it received the 1977 Book Critics' Circle Award. Prizes, however, had never quite managed to overcome her instinctive insecurity and self-demand. Apart from the-often much needed-money, they were a source of embarrassing social obligations for a terribly shy poet who hated public readings and avoided "society". "Crusoe in England" and "The End of March" achieved masterpiece status right from the beginning, and definitely consecrated her new poetic mode. Praised now beyond mere descriptive skill, her stoic existential attitude and the more open expressions of empathy toward suffering (and admission of her own) translated immediately as maturity in her career: "a perfect transparence of expression, warmth of tone, and a singular blend of sadness and good humor, of pain and acceptance-a radiant patience few people ever achieve and few writers ever successfully render" (Corn 533). Humor, as a gifted activity of the intellect, is at least a constant acknowledgement in this late stage, but that mention of "patience" is remarkably similar to other "feminine" spiritual virtues she had been praised for, as was her demonstration of "that kind of survival that neither blurs nor romanticizes its cost" (Jefferson 73).

Thomas Travisano, co-founder and current president of the Elizabeth Bishop society, distinguished in his 1988 book two different schools in Bishop studies. First, the objective school, which emphasizes "visual accuracy and formal control", and sees her as an "objective observer whose main value lies in the exactitude of her descriptions. Because her poems have an air of cool detachment, the adherents of this school see little or no subjectivity in her writing." It is easy nowadays to agree with Travisano that such kind of criticism misreads Bishop and misses the possibility of fair analysis of her poetry. Moreover "it cannot account for the imaginative play and passionate undertones that color Bishop's precise observations", nor can it explain her "dreamlike early work, which is overly fantastic and subjective" (Travisano, Development 9). The other school "rightly finds Bishop's work permeated by controlled subjectivity and recognizes that she consistently explores the border ground conjoining imagination and fact" (10). Beyond what he calls neoclassical descriptive accuracy, he points that this second school appreciates Bishop's romantic "attachment to nature and her experiments with the limits of the imagination", noticing how "conscious control is persistently undermined by the lure of dreamlike visions and by the seductions of empathy" (11).

Travisano regards North & South with a special emphasis on the ampersand, finding the book divided into two clearly differentiated stages. To "the hermetic early phase" belong the poems published in journals around the period 1935-38. These are set in the North and constitute a group of "probing, enigmatic fables of the curious rewards and penalties of the inward life". Very much against his own previous criticism of schools that ignore the merits of North & South, he describes Bishop in terms of craft: "a keen ironist, a master of intricate verse forms, and a deft handler of understatement and ambiguity" (17). This early phase he calls "Prison" in opposition to the second, "Travel". Although the imprisonment of the early stage takes place "within walls that are ultimately psychological rather than physical", this middle phase is called "Travel" for Bishop's turn of the gaze toward "external facts observed in transit." For Travisano, Bishop's "catalytic" discovery of Florida (celebrated in her poem of the same name) marks the beginning of the Travel phase: the "freedom and immediacy of her observed South redresses the loneliness and vulnerability of her imagined North." (18) As he hints, but does not develop, introspection would suggest autobiographical confidence, but in Bishop they seem to remain opposite poles; her early introspective phase deals very obliquely with events of her life. (It is precisely her departure from this mode and into "maturity" that he praises). Nonetheless, Travisano acknowledges the high originality of North & South: "Altogether, while they show affinities to elements of symbolist, surrealist, and New Critical thought, the atmosphere of these early pieces is hard to find elsewhere in literature" (18-19). But, as I have said before, he fails to appreciate them in all their complexity because he too is concerned with Bishop's evolution away from this mode and these "dreamlike alternative worlds" (19), rooted for him in childhood traumas: "she moved away from exclusively introspective poetry as quickly as she could find a way [...]" (21).

The new, second generation studies Travisano refers to are by authors today considered seminal in Bishop's criticism: Helen Vendler, David Kalstone, Bonnie Costello, and several others who appeared in the 1977 World Literature Today Elizabeth Bishop Special Issue. The publication date of Geography III and Bishop's death are separated by only three years, so it is hard to distinguish what triggered post-1979 studies, homage to the whole oeuvre or criticism of her last volume, but one thing is certain, as Schwartz and Estess point out: her death was not followed by a long period of neglect as has happened with other authors, but rather on the contrary her reputation in the canon has risen dramatically, in spite of her own ambivalent pretensions of anonymity (xvii). The early 1990s have witnessed a proliferation of publications of all sorts of formats and orientations, sometimes even departing from the strictly artistic or literary and entering the dangerous proximity of gossip. Travisano's 1988 book was the second ever written on Bishop, two decades after Stevenson's, and the first to consider her entire poetic production. It was followed at an increasing pace by another ten in the following five years, including her first biography (1993). In 1994 One Art: Elizabeth Bishop's Letters, a selection of her letters to a surprising variety of addressees, was edited by Robert Giroux and published in a volume twice the size of her complete literary production. This provided easy access to aspects of her private life and complemented Millier's 1993 biography. It looks as though the voracity for Bishop material could not be satisfied by the poetry itself, and so today biographical criticism has advanced to what seems a point of no return.

Langdon Hammer's lucid and insightful assessment of the early 1990s boom in Bishop scholarship warns against the risks of complacency about the correction of her long neglect, suggesting that criticism may well have removed the "geographer" label from Bishop, but is now in danger of labeling her an "autobiographer" due to its pretension that Bishop's "ostensibly impersonal poetry of description constitutes a subtle form of self-investigation that culminates in the poems of personal memory in Geography III [...]" (137).

Hammer has called these biography-based studies "therapeutic" narratives because they read Bishop's career as the progress of a writer toward her true voice and her true self, from the influence of Moore's impersonality toward Lowell's confessional poetry (140). The "therapeutic" threefold structure of these books would represent Bishop's evolution away from an early escapist stage (North & South) where she was moved to uncontrolled fantasy and dream as she could not face the traumas of her orphan childhood. A second stage would show Bishop opening a window to the real world outside and focusing on landscape as a preliminary move toward integration. This would cover A Cold Spring (1955) and Questions of Travel (1965), although Travisano and Millier see its origins as early as Bishop's trip to "Florida" in the second half of North & South. The final and most celebrated phase would only arrive with Geography III (1976), where she was able to openly embrace the world at large and feel part of it, after she had managed to face the reality of her personal losses and to share her suffering with her readers. Hammer reads this threefold pattern in at least four of the monographs (Travisano, Goldensohn, Parker, Millier), and points out its deficiencies. To begin with, although it provides a solid narrative structure to organize poems and biographical events (or maybe poems around events), "critics who claim that Bishop moves from fantasy to realism over the course of her career discuss her early symbolist work as if a realist poet were hidden in it, wanting to come out" (146). This is an important observation, and its main implication is naturally that few critics nowadays are being fair in their appreciation of North & South.

I agree with Hammer that the great exception is Bonnie Costello, who handles biographical detail with moderation, structures her book around central issues in Bishop's work and "reveals in Bishop's poetry an intellectual seriousness and complexity [that] keeps [her] from devaluing Bishop's early work. Instead, Costello shows how North & South [...] initiates motifs and problems that persist throughout her writing life. Goldensohn and Travisano treat the same work dismissively, as something Bishop had to get beyond" (143). Therefore, although biographical criticism illustrates a process of atonement with the world and is a valuable tool to deal with Bishop's suffering (to assess her humor, empathy, and other survival strategies), its results are often detrimental to North & South and Bishop's imaginative departures from realism. Another immediate consequence is a systematic neglect of surrealism in her poetry, only mentioned, if at all, in order to emphasize Bishop's early inability to openly face her traumas, as well as her progression toward the final achievement of Geography III.

A curious aspect of Hammer's analysis is that, in spite of all I have found valuable in his review, he hardly accepts the term "surrealism" applied to Bishop's work. He uses "symbolism" and merely adds "some critics call it surrealist" (140). I believe he reads the word "surrealist" when used in biographical criticism as negatively loaded, emphasizing bizarreness and escapism rather than referring to a serious artistic current. However, an important contribution he makes is his indignation at the way reviewers used to address Bishop's poetry in condescending and patronizing terms. The lukewarm image emerging even from second-generation studies is a "gentle" Bishop, who refused to take positions or join parties, which was true, but that was in itself an uncompromising attitude in the days of competing schools and closed groups:

I've gone up and down the East Coast, living everywhere from Nova Scotia to Key West, but I've never seemed to live long enough in one place to become a member of a poetry "group," and when I was in Brazil there weren't any groups handy. I've been a friend of Marianne Moore's and Robert Lowell's, but not a part of any school. ("Book- of-the-Month" 309)

From his writing, it seems clear that Hammer understands and admires her independence while criticizing reviewers who praise "feminine" qualities that would have sounded offensive to any major male poet among her contemporaries, and also complains about later critics who adopt the "therapeutic" approach with an implicit view of Bishop as a patient in the process of healing. Such is the case of Brett Millier, who is patronizingly therapeutic in her assessment of Bishop's earlier poems: "both the man-moth and gentleman are imaginary creatures made by the poet and [...] their situations express anxiety about the dangers of imagination and, it follows, anxiety about being a poet and about what kind of poetry one should write. Hermetic, introspective, fanciful poetry, wholly of the imagination, is dangerous" (101).

At least none other than John Ashbery-admittedly a Bishop "addict" ("Complete" 5)-seems to have liked North & South better than A Cold Spring, finding the latter suffering from precisely the very same landscape orientation that biographical critics celebrate: "Some of the new poems were not, for me, up to the perhaps impossibly high standard set by the first book. Several seemed content with picture-making: they made marvelous pictures, it is true, but not like those in North & South which managed to create a trompe-l'oeil that conquered not just the eye and the ear but the mind as well" ("Complete" 7).

Lynn Keller's account of autobiographical detail in Bishop's poetry is much more focused than most: "Though Bishop's poems are never 'confessional,' the autobiographical content of her poetry grows more apparent as her career progresses" (Re-making 117). She then refers to David Kalstone's theory that Bishop's progress coincides with a pattern of development common to most poets of her generation, according to which the relevance of autobiographical material increases with the poets' maturity (Kalstone, "Questions" 3-11). Dealing with one's memories and past suffering is for these critics a matter of the poet's free will and not a late control over one's life. The Bishop emerging from Keller and Kalstone is not so much a healed patient as a poet whose interests have changed naturally over the course of her life, one who has taken an artistic decision. According to them the early Bishop was not writing as autobiographically as she could, but as much as she wanted. With time, of course, her priorities varied: "distrusting attempts at generalized understanding and suspecting the prevalence of solipsism, the artist focuses on what is closest at hand, what he or she may best hope to know and understand-his or her self" (Keller, Re-making 117).

It would be truthful to say that Bishop is not neglected any more, even to admit that she is overexploited by the academic establishment and an avid market.

Second-generation Bishop studies coincide with the rise of feminist criticism and have certainly brought about a thorough reappraisal of her work, even though in many cases their critical intention may be biased. In fact, winning Bishop's poetry-not the poet, who repeatedly declared herself a non-militant feminist-for the feminist cause became a great success in the early nineties, shedding new light over her work, away from praise of mere description and into increasingly complex issues of female identity.

The main objection raised against these feminist efforts is that they struggle to read Bishop's poems in the light of her carefully-concealed biography, and with each appearance they almost invariably claim to have found yet another clue to her poetry in increasingly private events of her life. These publications deal with aspects of her life that she tried to keep away from the general public, such as her traumatic, orphaned childhood, her lesbianism, alcoholism, and related pathologies such as the somatic ailments derived from her asthma, and psychosomatic symptoms of nervous crises. While these have indeed illuminated many aspects of her production, I see them collectively as an attempt to read Bishop using the critical strategies and tools one would use with the confessional school. Some of these intrusions in her private life force readings that would align Bishop with Plath or Sexton, and the late hangover of confessional criticism claims Bishop not only as their contemporary, but also as a poet likely to be appreciated in the same terms. Therefore, in my opinion, while adding depth and complexity to a body of poetry that was systematically misread for decades, many of these new critical efforts have to some extent overdone things and shifted the assessment of Bishop from description alone to gradually opening self-exploration, which-in my opinion-is not the case, either.

The belief in biographical criticism has also provoked a shift in emphasis, neglecting some aspects that would otherwise deserve serious consideration. Among these we find the importance of Bishop's surrealist affinities. Generally acknowledged, but not explored in depth, these surrealist affinities are of the greatest importance to understand Bishop's complex visual approach to poetry.

One of the most controversial aspects of the surrealist endeavor was its claim to a number of writers and painters from the past, or at least from before the official birth of the movement: Swift, Sade, Poe, Moreau, de Chirico, Klee, among many others (Breton, Manifestes 38-39). Membership in the group was capriciously granted and withdrawn by Breton, but these rescued authors were chosen with great discernment. I will subscribe Maurice Nadeau's rather romantic statement that "le comportement surréaliste, est éternel" (4), but the question of post-surrealism surrealists remains unanswered. John Ashbery, for example, has referred to the impact of surrealism on twentieth-century culture as having "influenced us in so many ways that we can hardly imagine what the world would be without it" (Reported 5). If we must apply the surrealist extrapolation to contemporary authors who were never militant in the movement, we need first a set of criteria. Style is problematic, knowledge of surrealist theoretical principles is not essential, the will to belong may not suffice, and above all the negation of affinities does not qualify as an impediment.

It is a well-recorded fact that in spite of her affinities with surrealism Bishop had no direct participation in the activities of the surrealist movement. That needs no further commentary, and the few critical incursions exploring whatever relationship between the two have established her rejection of automatic writing as the limit of any possible affinity. But that limit, drawn by Mullen in 1982 and Travisano in 1988, leaves ample margins that have been ignored so far. Bishop's contacts with surrealist art and literature are reported to be intense; and they shared common interests in primitive art, the world of dreams, and children's experience. She has admitted surrealist sources for some of her poems, and lived in France during the late 1930s, the heyday of surrealism. Moreover, she translated the work of several surrealist or protosurrealist authors from three different languages (Portuguese, French, and Spanish), their surrealist poetic orientation being the only evident link.

That Bishop herself rejected public association with surrealism says very little in this debate, since her reasons (as well as the context in which they were voiced) are likely to be foreign to strictly literary considerations. They are biased by a sadly extended prejudice that explains the reductionist concept of surrealism that reached the general public and especially the American public in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

 

 Autor: Ernesto Suárez Toste (Universidad de Castilla la Mancha)


 

1 Alicia Ostriker denounced this recurrent evil in poetry criticism in her Stealing the Language, where she analyzes the terms in which male and female poets were traditionally praised. The attitude most welcome in women poets was self-effacement, and they were seldom praised in terms of "great, powerful, forceful, masterly, violent, large, or true" but rather as "graceful, subtle, elegant, delicate, cryptic, and, above all, modest" (3-4). Later on she would relate the apparent modesty displayed by such poets as Moore and Bishop to their acceptability by a male canon (51-54).