Elizabeth Bishop: Biography & Contribution as American Poet

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      Elizabeth Bishop was an extremely admired American poet, quite popular for her striking sense of witty and descriptive poems. Bishop was the Poet Laureate of U. S from the year 1949 to 1950. During her lifetime, she was honored with a Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for her 1955's "North and South" and a National Book Award for poetry in 1970. Additionally, she was also bestowed upon with a National Book Critics Circle Award as well as two Guggenheim Fellowships and an Ingram Merrill Foundation grant. The poetry of Bishop contained a remarkable finish and charming imagination. Eventually; her works gained ultra fame and in the recent years, they have been greatly attracting readers as well as critics. Also "Elizabeth Bishop House" is an artists retreat located in Great Village, Nova Scotia which is dedicated to this great poet of the 20th century. Bishop's short stories and poetry were first published in "The New Yorker".

Elizabeth Bishop Childhood, and Early Years

      Elizabeth Bishop was born on February 8, 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts. She was the only child of her parents. Her father was a successful builder and died when Bishop was just eight months old. After the demise of her father, her mother suffered from mental illness and in 1916, was committed in hospital where she stayed till her death in 1934. Therefore, Bishop more or less became orphaned during her early life only. She then resided with her maternal grandparents on a farm in Nova Scotia. A lot of works of Bishop contained a mention of this period. Also, she never met her mother after the latter got admitted in an asylum. Afterward, in her late childhood, her paternal grandparents won her custody and she has moved away from her maternal grandparent's house to the wealthier father's family in Worcester, Massachusetts. But Bishop was not happy living in Worcester and felt quite lonely in the absence of her maternal grandparents. Eventually, she encountered a lifetime chronic asthma. She described her time in Worcester in her work "In The Waiting Room". She went to the Walnut Hill School in Natick, Massachusetts and learned music there. In the school, her first poems were published by her friend, Frani Blough in a student magazine. Later, she got admission in Vassar College in 1929, briefly prior the crash of stock market and thought of becoming a composer. But she quitted music due to the terror of performance and took English where she chose subjects like 16th and 17th century literature and the novel. Bishop's work got published in "The Magazine" when she was in her senior year. In 1933, she became co-founder of "Con Spirito" which was a rebellious literary magazine at Vassar accompanied by writer Mary McCarthy Margaret Miller; and the sisters Eunice and Eleanor Clark.

      The following year, Bishop graduated. Introduced to Marianne Moore by a librarian at Vassar in 1934, Bishop got too much influenced by her. Moore, on the other hand, too took deep interest in the poems of Bishop and also at one time dissuaded Bishop from going in Cornell Medical School, in which she had taken admission when she shifted to New York after getting graduating at Vassar. In 1947, she got introduced to Robert Lowell by Randall Jarrell. The two influenced each other's poetry. Also, one of the last published poems of Bishop was written in Lowell's remembrance in 1978.

Travel and Success

      Bishop had enough money from her father's inheritance that did not run out even until her death. Therefore, having this inheritance, she had no worry of employment and kept on journeying different places. She resided in several cities and countries which are mentioned in her works. In the mid-1930s, she resided in France for many years accompanied by a friend she met at Vassar, Louise Crane. Crane was a paper-manufacturing heiress by profession. Bishop and Crane bought a house in 1938 at 624 White Street in Key West, Florida. In 1940, she acquainted with Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway. Marianne Moore suggested the name of Bishop for the Houghton Mifflin Prize for poetry in 1946 and then she became its receiver too. Bishop's first book titled "North and South" was published in 1946 in thousand copies. In 1951, she gained a traveling
fellowship of $2,500 from Bryn Mawr College and traveled to South America by boat. She reached in Santos, Brazil in November 1951 with a plan of two weeks stay but amazingly resided for fifteen years. She resided in Petropolis with architect Lota de Macedo Soares who was from an eminent and famous political family. During his stay in Brazil, she received the Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for a collection of poetry. She also gained great interest in the languages and literatures of Latin America. Bishop translated into English and took deep interest in the works of South and Central American poets, also Mexican poet, Octavio Paz and Brazilian poets Joao Cabral de Melo Neto and Carlos Drummond de Andrade. Soares, in 1967, committed suicide and Bishop later spent much of her time in United States.

Later Career

      Bishop became a proud receiver of the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award as well as two Guggenheim Fellowships and an Ingram Merrill Foundation grant. Bishop also became the first woman to gain the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1976. For several years, she gave lectures in higher education in the 1970s, when her inheritance started running out. Briefly, she taught at the University of Washington and then at Harvard University for seven years. She frequently used to spend summers in her summer house in the island community of North Haven, Maine. Bishop taught at New York University, prior completing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1971, she commenced a relationship with Alice Methfessel. The last book of Bishop got published in 1977 called the "Geography III".

      Among women, the poets of the ‘idiosyncratic group’, Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich have garnered the utmost respect in recent years. Following the early death of her father and her mother by mental illness, she was raised by her grand parents in Nova Scotia and in her birthplace of Worcester, Massachusetts. Her collection Questions of Travel (1965) contains a number of poems about her experiences in Brazil, where she spent 16 years. Poems: North and South: A Cold Spring (1955) won her the Pulitzer prize.

      Another product of her time in Brazil is a translation from the Portuguese of The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’ (1957), the diary of a Brazilin young girl at the end of the 19th century whom Bishop met when she was an old woman. The Complete Poems (1969) won her National Book Award. Geography III appeared in 1976. Bishop’s crystalline intelligence and interest in remote landscapes and metaphors of teasel appeal to readers for their exactitude and subtlety. Like her mentor Marianne Moore, Bishop, who never named, wrote highly crafted poems in a cool, descriptive style that contains hidden philosophical depths. The description of the ice-cold North Atlantic in “At the Fish houses” could apply to Bishop’s own poetry: “It is like what we imagine knowledge to be dark, salt, clear, moving utterly free.”

Awards and Honors

• 1945: Houghton Mifflin Poetry Prize Fellowship
• 1947: Guggenheim Fellowship
• Exchanging Hats: Thirty-nine Paintings, edited by William Benton, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1996.
• (With George Monteiro) Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop (interviews), University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1996.
• (Editor, with Joel Conarroe and Theodore Roethke) Eight American Poets: An Anthology, Vintage Books, 1997.
• Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop (edited by Saskia Hamilton), Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.
• Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence (edited by Joelle Bispiel), Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
Also translator, with others, of Travelling in the Family by Carlos Drummond. Contributor of poetry and fiction to periodicals, including Kenyon Review, New Republic, Partisan Review, and Poetry. Co-founder of Con Spirito.


      Bishop died on October 6, 1979, of a cerebral aneurysm in her apartment at Lewis Wharf, Boston. She was interred in Worcester, Massachusetts.

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