ROBERT LOWELL ONCE SURMISED that the publication of his friend Elizabeth Bishop’s letters would lead to her being recognized “as not only one of the best, but also one of the most prolific writers of our century.” That day does not seem far off. One Art, the first selection of Bishop’s letters, appeared in 1994 and was nearly seven hundred pages long; her correspondence with Lowell himself, Words in Air, stretched across nearly nine hundred pages. Now Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker, the chronicle of her forty-five year relationship with the weekly magazine, has arrived and it is over four hundred pages.
The once well-guarded secrets of Bishop’s personal life are now exhaustively bare. Her early feelings of abandonment, her struggles with alcoholism and depression, her romances with various women—most notably her partner of fifteen years, Lota Costellat de Macedo Soares—and her careful stewardship of her own career have all shaped the reception and reading of Bishop’s slim output of poems. Bishop admitted she enjoyed writing letters because doing so is “kind of like working without really doing it,” and her letters focus attention on her fluid, relaxed style. Here, for example, is Bishop describing some Brazilian post office travails to Katherine White, an editor at The New Yorker:
It is such a job to mail things here—the stamps have no glue, or not enough, and you have to stand in line at a glue machine, and get all covered with it—if you trust stamps to begin with; they say they are stolen in the PO often, and the mail just thrown away. (A newspaper editor friend of mine here found a cache of thousands of pieces of mail for the paper that that had happened to—imagine.) So if you don’t trust stamps you have to go to the central office where there is a stamping machine—and in any case you have to go to one of the few post offices, since the mail boxes are never collected—haven’t been for years. No one ever dreams of writing a letter within the country—they just vanish. Fortunately air-mail in and out is considerably better … If you do receive this, it is an [sic?] earnest of more. I never used that expression before & I don’t think I like it—I also rather doubt you’ll be able to use this short poem [“The Shampoo”], but there are more coming.
We will be reading and discussing the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28