Elizabeth Bishop 'disappoints' Bennington
In an article in the June 1978 issue of The New Paper, Bennington’s campus newspaper for a meteoric two-year run that began in 1976, a student by the name of Judith Berman gives an unimpressed review of a reading that the poet Elizabeth Bishop (b. February 8, 1911 – d. October 6, 1979) gave in the Carriage Barn on May 4th. Berman complains at the outset that Bishop’s reading was marred by her “poor enunciation,” and that it was extremely difficult to hear her read over the coughs and creaking in the seats. She dismisses Bishop’s poetry as being “merely” descriptive—a surprising critique, at first glance, of a poet whose work is almost universally adored and whose lines are packed with precise complexity. Wordplay is woven into nearly every description: “the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”
After listening to an old recording of one of Bishop’s public readings, though, I can understand some of Berman’s complaints. Her voice is often muffled and she reads so timidly that her strongest lines sound deflated. Still, finding criticism like this in a time-capsule from 1978 raises some intriguing questions about such a highly regarded poet.
Thankfully, I was able to raise these questions with Megan Marshall, an award-winning literary biographer and Charles Wesley Emerson College Professor at Emerson College. Marshall, who won the Pulitzer Prize in biography for her last book, Margaret Fuller: a New American Life, is currently working on a new biography of Bishop. Marshall studied literature and music at Bennington for two years, and she was later a student of Bishop’s at Harvard College, where she received her BA. My Q&A with Marshall, posted below, sheds light on the multi-dimensional aspects of Bishop’s life as well as the journey her biographer made in order to tell the story.
Literary Bennington: During your time at Bennington, was there a specific professor that greatly influenced your writing? Did you have any other influences that contributed to your becoming a literary biographer?
Megan Marshall: When I was at Bennington I was a double-major in literature and music. The class that most influenced my later work in biography was Stephen Sandy’s course on Puritans and Transcendentalists, taught from the anthologies by Perry Miller (it’s possible that Stephen studied with Miller at Harvard, I’m not sure). That’s where I first learned about Margaret Fuller, and got a sense of the intellectual history that led up to the Transcendentalists’ rebellion, which was really a natural outgrowth of Puritan introspection and sense of accountability—to God for the Puritans, to the self for the Transcendentalists. I also took a rarely taught course by the pianist Lionel Nowak in 16th-century counterpoint, and appreciated the opportunity to delve into history and form, which wasn’t otherwise part of the music department curriculum. Later when I studied poetry (the writing of it) at Harvard, I was also attracted to verse forms and enjoyed practicing them. At Bennington the students taking writing courses seemed very sure of themselves, they already thought of themselves as poets or writers of fiction, and I wasn’t confident enough to compete for entry into those classes. I was only 17 when I started as a freshman (19 when I left Bennington in the middle of my junior year), and had lots of intellectual curiosity and a fair amount of confidence as a musician, but none as a creative writer.
LB: Why Elizabeth Bishop as the subject for your biography? What in particular drew you to her?
MM: I hadn’t planned to leap into the 20th century, but an editor asked me to write a short biography of a subject of my choosing for a series of brief lives, and I thought of Bishop because she’d published only 100 poems in her lifetime, and I’d studied with her at Harvard. It seemed like a good prospect for a short book. I didn’t know a whole lot about the subject, but I had a point of view, and maybe I could get in and out quickly. Of course (as with the Fuller biography, which I’d also planned as a short book), things got more interesting, I had more to say, and I’ve ended up working with my usual publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and will be writing a book that may not be quite as long as the Fuller biography, but is already more than twice the length of what the brief biography was supposed to be and I’m not finished yet. I’m very grateful that I ended up with this project, because it’s been an interesting challenge to write about a more recent historical period, one that I lived through partly, and re-acquainting myself with the poetry world that I once aspired to be part of has been quite meaningful.
LB: I’ve heard that this biography includes reflections of your own. Does any of this personal writing reflect back on your time at Bennington in particular, or is it related to Bishop when you were her student at Harvard?
MM: The autobiographical portions of the book, which are brief interludes between longer chapters on Bishop, cover the time from when I left Bennington through my graduation from Harvard, roughly January 1974-June 1977. There is some looking back and I may write a present-day section at the very end, tying things up. I’m not there yet! So a little bit of my Bennington experience is covered in flashback.
LB: Bishop was a noted recluse. Was there something that prompted this lifestyle, or did she always shy away from publicity?
MM: That is a very big question in writing about Bishop’s life, and in some ways to answer it would be to tell her whole life story! She was constitutionally shy, but also suffered childhood traumas that caused her to withdraw perhaps even more (or possibly they were the cause!). She was also attracted to girls and women, not much at all to men, from an early age, and that created a sense of difference and need for secrecy in the time during which she was growing up. She began to drink to excess in college, and really never stopped having a problem with this too, which became a source of shame. But through all this she had a great love of life, of language, of travel, and a rare talent as a poet, which gave her pride and confidence in a quiet way—and she really needed quiet places in which to work, so there were also positives that led her to retreat too.
LB: In an article written in Bennington’s campus newspaper, the student writer was highly unimpressed by Bishop’s reading—was this a common response to the poet’s public readings when they did happen?
MM: Bishop’s extreme shyness made it difficult for her to read in public. She hated to do it, and usually it didn’t go well. You can listen to recordings of readings on Harvard’s Poetry Room and you’ll know just what the student writer was talking about. I’ve heard other poets give great readings of her work, but rarely does she give a “great” reading, although you can learn a lot about what she intended by listening to some of them. It’s great to hear her voice and inflection and hear how unpretentious she was, both as a person and in her writing. Some of it is meant to be funny and occasionally she gives a little laugh that I think only confused her audience, because she otherwise seemed petrified or uncomfortable and very serious. The Bennington student also found Bishop’s apparently “merely” descriptive poetry disappointing—I think it would take a careful ear to catch what she was really up to in these poems, which of course go way beyond mere description. But to hear her read them, you might not think so.
LB: How often did Bishop give public readings? Was there ever a peak in her career where she read a lot publicly?
MM: She gave as few readings as possible! She gave almost none before she returned to the U.S. in the 1970s, and probably not more than a half-dozen each year after that. The one at Bennington was a little over a year before she died, and though she was “only” 67, we would say now, her health wasn’t good, and accounts of her that summer say she wasn’t nearly as active as in previous summers. I’m sorry to say that I haven’t read the documents for this period very thoroughly yet—I’m still writing about the mid-late 1960s.
LB: Bishop was fairly close with the poet Robert Lowell, what was the dynamic of this relationship? Was she close with any other poets or writers during her life?
MM: The relationship with Lowell was very important, they met early on, knew each other’s capabilities and inspired each other to change the way they wrote and what they wrote about. They were equals and knew it. In fact I think Lowell knew that Bishop was the more skilled versifier, and Bishop did too—she resented that she wasn’t recognized in that way in their lifetime. She was very close to May Swenson for many years, and there is a wonderful correspondence between the two of them during Bishop’s years in Brazil. They were almost the same age, but Swenson came to poetry later and didn’t have the education that Bishop did (mostly self-taught) in verse forms—Bishop advised her on books to read, and had to tell her what a sestina was after she’d sent her “Sestina” (which had a different title in draft) and Swenson sensed something was unusual about it! I wonder, having just written that sentence, whether Bishop decided on the new title to be sure readers would know…. Hmm. Marianne Moore had been a mentor in Bishop’s early years, and they were also quite good friends. I think Moore influenced Bishop toward a perfectionism that was of course useful in terms of the poems she finally finished, but harder on Bishop than on Moore, who was a more practical person and a steadier worker and less given to self-doubt.
LB: Your first two biographies are about the lives of women associated with the Transcendentalist movement. Is there something that draws you to the subject of Transcendentalism and/or writing about literary women?
MM: Now that I’ve jumped out of the 19th century, I can see that what draws me to the women I write about is their sense of an inner compulsion to be heard, to make themselves known, to realize their talents, in a time that is not particularly open to accomplishment from women. By the 20th century, Bishop benefitted from having a great women’s college to go to (Vassar), and certainly there were American women poets, quite successful ones. But she never wanted to be thought of as a “woman poet,” and refused to let her poems be published in such anthologies, even when feminism was the reason for them. She wanted to be the best poet, no qualifications—and maybe she was. Certainly one of the best!
LB: Bishop is known for her translation work of both Brazilian poetry and prose, particularly her translation of three stories by Clarice Lispector. From your research, was there anything you found that drew her to these writers’ works?
MM: Bishop felt translation was a nearly impossible task, and only chose to translate poems that she thought would go into English without sacrificing the sense of language or word play that was in the original. So she didn’t do a lot of it, but was masterful when she did. She liked Lispector’s stories much more than her novels, and even was known to say Lispector’s stories were better than Borges’s. But she didn’t think too much of Borges… . As a perfectionist in everything, Bishop didn’t think her skill in foreign language was very good, but she read a lot in original French, and studied Spanish intensely for a while too, not knowing she’d end up in Brazil. She was in her 40s when she moved to Brazil, and it may have been that the French and Spanish got in the way of her fluency in Portuguese, although she read it and translated it well, and practiced the language by means of translating, particularly the beautiful Diary of Helena Morley, which she undertook early on.
LB: What was the most surprising thing you uncovered about Bishop’s life? Was there anything that shocked you?
MM: Yes—but I will leave that for the book!