By Daniel D’Arezzo
Among poets writing in English in the mid-twentieth century, Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979) has emerged as one of the most influential—an influence not only on later generations of poets but on her contemporaries as well. Her oeuvre was not large: she published only a handful of books in her lifetime, and the poems were usually short; a longish poem like “Manuelzinho” has only 145 lines. She often wrote in recognizable forms, and her poems are loosely formal, with meter and rhyme, although she was not a slave to rhyme schemes.
Many readers will be relieved to know that Bishop’s poems make sense: she tells stories that are emotionally affecting; she doesn’t lecture the reader; she is witty, shrewd and tender without being sentimental. Bishop’s clear writing stands in opposition to popular notions of poetry as an abstruse art of vague, ambiguous language that invokes hazy ideas and inchoate feelings (which is actually a pretty good description of much consumer advertising). Poetry differs from prose in being more compressed; and when we read prose that is similarly compressed—dense with imagery, studded with active verbs and free of qualifiers, connectives and dependent clauses—we may feel that it is “poetic.” But what makes any writing, whether poetry or prose, especially vivid is its ability to make the world appear to the reader freshly seen, and that is achieved through accuracy.
Howard Moss (1922–1987) was a poet and poetry editor of The New Yorker from 1950 until his death, so he worked very closely with Bishop, who had a first-reading agreement with The New Yorker. Moss was a great admirer of Bishop and championed her poems at the magazine, although not always successfully. Moss did not have the last word on accepting poems, and for reasons peculiar to The New Yorker, the vote sometimes went against a particular Bishop poem, which she was then free to publish elsewhere.
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Please note that we have tentatively scheduled a session on Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry for September 28, 2017.