Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79) was a poet laureate (then called “consultant in poetry”) of the United States, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and for 17 years a resident of Brazil, which allowed her to keep her distance from the “lit biz” while staying in close touch with The New Yorker and selected literary friends. As a poet and onetime copy editor, I read every word of this book, including all the footnotes describing in detail who made what change in which line in which poem.
It is hard to know who else might be interested in this volume. Scholars, I suppose. From the letters collected in this volume, scholars might glean the poet’s travel plans, living arrangements, financial concerns, illnesses, her reluctance to publish too soon and her importance to other poets; but surely this information, most of it not terribly consequential, appears elsewhere.
I suspect the real reason for this book’s existence is a desire on the part of people with a vested interest in Elizabeth Bishop’s literary standing to add bulk to a significant, exact and lovely but fairly slender body of work.
Bishop was certainly a very fine poet, well regarded by literary types and institutions. Was she a great poet? It is still too soon to say. There are at least two good reasons for allowing a century or two to come and go before answering that question. One is that art must be seen separately from its creator before it can be seen accurately. The other is that even after an artist has departed our world, there remain friends, colleagues and students who have every reason to promote and polish said artist’s reputation. The New Yorker published many of her poems. Farrar, Straus and Giroux has published Bishop’s poetry collections.
A lengthy and entertaining introduction by Joelle Biele, who compiled this volume, explains that “the kind of commentary [Bishop’s editors at The New Yorker] provide their writers is unparalleled in American literary history.” That may be true, though I don’t know how it is to be proved. The New Yorker indeed flattered, cajoled, comforted and aided Bishop, who could be needy and demanding—but also adventurous and self-critical. I am not saying that Bishop did not deserve such adulation, only that the kowtowing can seem embarrassingly overdone—encountered all at once, anyway—at least until we can bring a disinterested eye and ear to the work.
Bishop and Katherine White, who soon became her editor, progressed from formal salutations and farewells to expressions of affection and first names. Yet we learn from the book that White was Bishop’s “self-described ‘whipping boy,’” and by the end Bishop seems almost to be epistolarily avoiding White. When the poet Howard Moss becomes her editor, a welcome note of humor lightens the tone of the letters and lifted this reader’s spirits.
Moss described his job as an editor modestly and insightfully thus:
My most important function is to spot irrelevance, that point when an idea, or motif, or a tone wanders off course. An irrelevance is not a leap of the imagination, but an editor has to be very careful in discriminating between them, because sometimes, it is the very stuff we read poetry for—the surprising elevation, the rug pulled out from under our feet, the illumination by a second reference, another subject....
Bishop held one of The New Yorker’s fabled “first look” contracts, according to which she received, in addition to the fees for her work, an annual payment with cost-of-living adjustment. She was a careful curator of her own work, wanting to see it in only the most prestigious places—Partisan Review and The New Republic were on her list—but she lived off a small inheritance and was constantly obliged to reckon her income against expenses. Of course most writers do that, even without trust funds or first-look contracts. And on occasion she would forgo the contract in order to be able to send work elsewhere if she did not think The New Yorker would take it.
She was not naïve about the literary world. From connections she made in college at Bryn Mawr—Marianne Moore got Bishop her start—to friendships with James Merrill, Robert Lowell, Frank Bidart and many other celebrated poets and writers, she was the star around whom other planets revolved. Showered with prizes and honors, by the time she won the National Book Award for The Complete Poems she was blasé enough, or wise enough, to write to Moss that “[t]hese things are nice here, because they make a big impression—unfortunately you and I know too much about them.” “Here” was Brazil. Her love for Brazil is evident in her letters, but there is not much about the women she lived with or her inner self. Nor would we expect there to be; her relationship with The New Yorker was professional, as was she in the conduct of her career and in her observant, subtle, nonconfessional poetry.