By Troy Jollimore
“I’m not interested in big-scale work as such,” Elizabeth Bishop once told an interviewer. “Something needn’t be large to be good.”
True to this statement, Bishop spent her career producing finely designed, precisely executed poems, elegant and exquisite miniatures, few in number and subtle, albeit significant, in their impact. Her work brought acclaim and awards, and since her death in 1979, her reputation has continued to climb. But during her life, she often felt insecure about her career, and there is no denying that next to the flamboyant, larger-than-life personalities that tended to dominate American poetry in the second half of the 20th century, Elizabeth Bishop often struck one as — the characterization is practically mandatory when discussing this poet — a modest figure.
At the head of this pack of outsize personalities was Robert Lowell, with whom Bishop had an intimate and complex relationship, a friendship that included romantic elements despite the fact that she preferred women. Compared with Lowell’s elite Boston Brahmin background, her origins and early life — a mostly unremarkable childhood spent largely in rural Nova Scotia, a landscape to which her imagination returned again and again — were indeed strikingly modest. As her inclination against “big-scale work” suggests, a certain sort of modesty was a central element of her attitude toward art. Her output, too, was modest; during her life she published only about a hundred poems.
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A very early reminder that we’ll be discussing the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28.