by Jonathan Ellis
American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was one of the most praised poets of her generation. Yet she was never the most read or respected at the time. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956) and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (1965) both sold more copies than any of her collections, while Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959) continues to take the critical plaudits as the key work of poetry for most post-World War II readers. Lowell was godfather to the Confessional poets. His gift was somehow to fuse the radical themes of Beat writers like William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac with the formal ingenuity of poet-critics like Randall Jarrell and Allan Tate. As a teacher at Harvard in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, he also acted as an informal mentor to a new generation of younger poets, including Plath and Anne Sexton. Bishop’s influence, on the other hand, took time to make itself felt and is still something of a well-kept secret. While each of her four collections of poetry gained recognition from her peers in the form of various fellowships and prizes, this acclaim did not immediately translate into much academic interest or popular success. At the time of her death there was just a single critical book on her work, a short introductory study by the poet Anne Stevenson. Poetry readers knew her, if at all, as the author of the much-anthologised piece, ‘The Fish’ (Bishop called it ‘that damned Fish’,  so sick was she of requests to republish it).
Much has changed since the 1980s. Bishop, rather than Lowell, is the poet new writers usually cut their teeth against. She is a favourite poet of authors as diverse as Thom Gunn and Paul Muldoon, Jorie Graham and Louise Glück, Lavinia Greenlaw and Jo Shapcott. In fact, poets have been instrumental in raising Bishop’s profile, as well as providing some of the most acute and intelligent assessments of her work. Adrienne Rich’s 1983 review of Bishop’s Complete Poems is central to this. It was one of the first feminist readings of Bishop’s life and art, connecting ‘her experience of outsiderhood’ with ‘the essential outsiderhood of lesbian identity’.  While other poets disagreed with this assessment – notably Alicia Ostriker, who characterised Bishop in 1987 as one of those ‘poets who would be ladies’  – it laid the groundwork for women poets’ re-reading of Bishop in the 1990s as a more sensual and sexual writer than had previously been thought. The poetry of Deryn Rees-Jones in England, Caítriona O’Reilly in Ireland, and Sandra McPherson in America, all owe something to Bishop’s understated, almost invisible, focus on the human body.
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An early reminder that we’ll be discussing the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28