Inspiring women: Elizabeth Bishop

Excessive emotion is the tendency I battle most in writing; easy misty-eyed lines and a lyrical turn-of-phrase. It's always a struggle to dance that fine line of expressiveness without suds. And the writers I admire the most are those who maintain the requisite distance not to flail about, while still managing to move me; Beckett, Auster, Toibin, Barry. I don't think it's possible to underestimate the difficulty of this task.


So, it's natural that I admire Elizabeth Bishop's "lifelong impersonations of an ordinary woman," as described by fellow-poet James Merrill. She spares us the fanfare and grandiose confessions of many writers. Her work is descriptive, conversational and discreet. Bishop had a harrowing life (essentially orphaned after her father died and her mother was committed). She was a female poet. She was a lesbian. But she doesn't write about those things.

Yet, her poems have an immense and subtle force. In this excellent article, David Orr describes how "the more one reads a Bishop poem, the greater the sense of huge forces being held barely but precisely in check — like currents pressing heavily on the glass walls of some delicate undersea installation. It doesn't seem as if the glass will break, but if it were to do so, we'd find ourselves engulfed by what Frost (her truest predecessor) called "black and utter chaos."

Bishop won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

William Boyd in the Guardian: Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil
Elizabeth Bishop House, Nova Scotia
Elizabeth Bishop on the Poetry Foundation
Book: Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems, 1927-1979
Book: Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters (Library of America)

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