Female American Poets: Archival Connections

February 27, 2019

By Rachel Kaufman

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

Last time, we found the face of Gwendolyn Brooks on a postage stamp as part of “The Twentieth-Century Poets” series made by the postal service. Also featured on one of these stamps was our next female American poet, Elizabeth Bishop.

In 1979, Robert Fitzgerald wrote about Bishop: “The large subject of Elizabeth Bishop’s work is Geography, that of the world and the human imagination. Places, lives, the sea, ships, animals, and works of art interested her; causes, fashions, movements, and programs did not.” (http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/7722681 YCAL MSS 222, Box 4, Folder 131)

Critic Helen Vendler wrote in Bishop’s New York Times obituary on October 8, 1979: “Miss Bishop’s poetry, famous for its exquisite sense of place and reticent expression of deep feeling, brings to life, with a painter’s touch, moments of sharply individual vision and perception, frequently touched with a sympathetic humor or an ironic astringency.” (http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/4569169 Louise Crane and Victoria Kent papers, YCAL MSS 473, Box 1)

Insomnia / Elizabeth Bishop (http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/8263382 BrSides Box 2008 47)

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) spent her life in Massachusetts, Nova Scotia, New York, the Key West, San Francisco, Cambridge, and Brazil. She published only 101 poems during her lifetime. Her first book, North & South, published in 1946 won the Houghton Mifflin Prize for poetry. She won a Pulitzer Prize for an expanded book, Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring, in 1956. Bishop won a National Book Award for The Complete Poems (1969) and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature for Geography III (1977). She was the first woman and first American to win the Neustadt prize.

Researchers will find in the Beinecke collections Bishop’s intimate and sometimes exquisite correspondences, as well as many first editions of her books. Her poems and letters explore geography, friendship, first-wave feminism, animals, the literary world, mental illness, and music. Researchers may also be interested in her travels to Brazil and the ways in which she depicted and discussed her neighbors.

(Top picture: Elizabeth Bishop, Victoria Kent, Louise Crane in 1974 on the deck at Louise Crane’s house)

(http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/4569169 YCAL MSS 473, Box 1)

1926-27 The Owl / A Collection of Poems, Stories, and Other Articles written by the Boys and Girls of the North Shore Country Day School 1926-1927

At age sixteen, Bishop published five pieces in a high school publication. These pieces included Commūtātiō Opīniōnis,” written entirely in Latin, a poem entitled “The Ballad of the Subway Train,” a short story entitled “Slightly Warmer with Heavy Rain,” and two literary reviews entitled “The Idylls as a Whole” and “Women in ‘Idylls of the King’ ” of Tennyson’s poem. Highlights include:

  • “Long, long ago when God was young, / Earth hadn’t found its place. / Great dragons lived among the moons / And crawled and crept through space.” (from “The Ballad of the Subway Train”)
  • “At three o’clock exactly Mr. Murphy took up his stand. To say that he was splendid is not enough—he was magnificent! His white leather harness gleamed as do pearls; his uniform was speckless, pressed to the last degree; his brass buttons were golden stars; and his gloves were as chastely white as fresh milk….[The square] resembled nothing more than a Roman amphitheatre, and the resplendent Mr. Murphy was the winning charioteer—standing erect in his white chariot with the light of triumph in his eye and all other competitors two laps behind….” (from “Slightly Warmer with Heavy Rain)
  • “The idylls form a double allegory showing both the struggle of sense and soul and the cycle of the year.” (from “The Idylls as a Whole”)
  • “Therefore, unlike a modern book in which the men are few and women dominate the scene, in the ‘Idylls of the King’ that we have studied there are only three women whose actions stand out and whose characters make strong impressions….All women of noble birth in those days were surrounded by the same influences. They spent their lives behind walls ten feet or more in thickness, swathed in voluminous clothing and surrounded by ladies in waiting. Their only occupations were spinning and embroidering; their only excitements, an attack on the castle where they lived, or being kidnaped and then rescued by some dashing knight.” (from “Women in ‘Idylls of the King’ ”)

(http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/12251589  Za B536 +927P)

1943 Bishop and Muriel Rukeyser (the first poet of this series) were both published in Tom Bogg’s American Decade / 68 Poems for the First Time in an Anthology  (http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/1209944 Za1 943d)

1946 Publication of North & South

“More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors” (“The Map”)

(http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/1182083 Za B536 946Na)

January 26, 1949 Letter from William Rose Benet to Elizabeth Bishop

“Thank you for saying that if the New Yorker sends back any of your poems you will let me see one or two. By the way, I should like to include you in a new edition of The Reader’s Encyclopedia and, although I have material about you, I have no birth-year date. I know that some women don’t like to give their year, but if we can get the information we’d like to use it….”

(http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/13107816 YCAL MSS 1100, Box 5, Folder 177)

1955 Publication of Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring

1960 Letter from Brazil: Bishop to her friend, Louise Crane

“I love deference and having people struggle with grammar to use the 3rd person for me - and I dislike the free, democratic feeling here….”

(http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/4569169 YCAL MSS 473, Box 1)

August 25, 1964 Bishop letter to Rio de Janeiro

“Just about everything I see in the English & US papers and reviews about Brazil is wrong, apparently wild and superior-virtuous-condescending-sounding guesses….Do you have any idea of how condescending the tone of English journalism is? - about all foreign countries, not just Latin American - & the U S is bad enough! I think it’s unconscious.”

(http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/4335075 YCAL MSS MISC Grp 254, Item F-1)

1965 Publication of Questions of Travel

(http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/1182084 Za B536 965Q)

1968 The Ballad of the Burglar of Babylon by Bishop, Woodcuts by Ann Grifalconi

Foreword by Bishop: “The story of Micuçú is true. It happened in Rio de Janeiro a few years ago….I was one of those who watched the pursuit through binoculars, although really we could see very little of it: just a few of the soldiers silhouetted against the skyline of the hill of Babylon. The rest of the story is taken, often word for word, from the daily papers, filled out by what I know of the place and the people….At the time, people said that the name Micuçú was short for Mico Sujo, or Dirty Marmoset, but finally it was decided….that it is the colloquial name for a deadly snake….A young man trying to be a real gangster, like in the films, would certainly prefer to be called by the name of a deadly snake. Also, the poor people who live in the slums of Rio have usually come from the north or northeast of Brazil and their nicknames are apt to be Indian words, or the common names (frequently derived from the Indian) used for things or creatures in those far-off regions.”

1969 Letter from Brazil: Bishop to Louise Crane

“The other night the church of St. Iphigenia celebrated her 250th anniversary here - a black “Brotherhood” - it was the slaves’ church - and we could hear the bands playing and see all the fireworks. I can also hear two clocks, or three if the wind is right, strike - usually at quite different times, since Time is rather vague here.”

(http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/4569169 YCAL MSS 473, Box 1)

April 3, 1969 Letter from Bishop to Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale

“If S F and its really idiotic new skyscrapers and everything else vanish in the sea fairly soon - I think I shall just vanish along with them, quietly and indifferently.”

(http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/4791038 GEN MSS 1012, Box 1, Folder 11)

1969 Publication of The Complete Poems    

(http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/1197793 Za B536 C969)

June 15, 1970 Letter from Bishop to Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale

“Dearest young men-in-the-prime-of-life….[about her friend Roxanne:] I certainly should know enough about schizophrenia by now, but I never seem to learn….I seem to be thriving on suffering. I have done a lot of work….[writing my] first poem in 3 years.”

(http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/4791038 GEN MSS 1012, Box 1, Folder 11)

1973 Poem by Elizabeth Bishop

“dim, but how live, how touching in detail / —the little that we get for free, / the little of our earthly trust. Not much.”

Number 93 of 100 copies, signed by Bishop

(http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/1197794 Za B536 973P)

1977 Publication of Geography III

(http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/107489 Za B536 976G)

March 1, 1979 Letter from Bishop to Penny and Robert Fitzgerald

“That dismal year [in Washington, ‘49-50] I used to drop in at the [Phillips] gallery on my way home from the library - it was much smaller then and more informal. There was a sofa in front of the Renoir Bathing Party - no one was ever there - you could sit for hours and pretend you owned it.”

After reading some of Flannery O’Connor’s letters: “I now think I understand the point of some of the stories better - or I’m trying to - I do find her theological essays a bit too much for me.”

“I have to walk up to Government Center & have a passport picture taken. My last 2 readings I’ve been referred to as “looking like someone’s grandmother” and - in a N.J. newspaper - as “looking like a great-aunt.” (Lady poets are supposed to die young, I think.) They’d never refer to you, Robert, as a grandfather or great-uncle I’m sure. It makes one very feminist…”

(http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/7722681 YCAL MSS 222, Box 4, folder 131)

1979 North Haven: in memoriam, Robert Lowell

(http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/3363812 BrSides 1992 61 (YCAL))

October 6, 1979 Bishop passes away in Boston, MA

1987 All These Cafes Have Lots of Tourists on Week-Ends: A letter from Elizabeth Bishop to Robie Macauley

Words of advice—little notes about what each shop in the neighborhood sells, who has the best canolis, noodles, flute breads.

(http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/11381031 Za B536 987A)

1995 Sunday Collection: Thirty twentieth-century poems about Sunday edited by Ann Rosener

“The world seldom changes, / but the wet foot dangles / until a bird arranges / two notes at right angles.” (“Sunday, 4 am” by Bishop”)

(http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/4231920 Za1 995su)

1995 Major League poet cards / Hall of Fame Series

A series of “Poet cards” with paintings of the poet on one side and career stats and major works published on the flip side. On the back of Bishop’s card is the definition of a ballad.

2014 Dear Elizabeth / A play in letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and back again by Sarah Ruhl

“They see each other in Maine.

Suddenly the stage is full of water and a rock.

They stand waist high in cold water, holding hands, looking out.

A silence.

She turns to him.


‘When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”’

(http://hdl.handle.net/10079/bibid/12324202 Zac R852 D34 2014)

We will be venturing onwards and backwards, returning to Gwendolyn Brooks as a means of connection to our next female American poet, Margaret Walker.

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