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 Elizabeth Bishop

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Brief Bio

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), poet, was born on 8 February 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father died before her first birthday, and her mother suffered a series of nervous collapses and was committed to a mental hospital when Bishop was five, thus being permanently removed from the life of her only child. From ages three to six, Bishop lived in Great Village, Nova Scotia, with her mother's parents, and was then taken in by her father's family in Worcester and Boston. She attended Walnut Hill School near Boston during her high-school years, followed by four years at Vassar. By way of the Vassar librarian, in New York Bishop met the poet Marianne Moore, twenty-four years her senior, and their friendship quickly flourished. Her earliest work, which was influenced by George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Moore, appeared in the Vassar undergraduate magazine she had helped to found.

Having briefly considered a career in medicine, she turned to poetry with the encouragement of Moore, who published a handful of her poems in an anthology called Trial Balances in 1935. In residence in New York for a year, she wrote her first mature poems, including "The Map" and "The Man-Moth." She then lived intermittently in Europe for three years before purchasing a house in Key West, Florida, in 1938. After being rejected by several New York publishers, the first of her four volumes of poetry, North and South, was finally published in 1946. The next year she was introduced by Randall Jarrell to Robert Lowell, who became a lifelong friend.

In 1951, the geographical displacement in her life continued when she took ill on a trip to South America; left behind by a freighter in Brazil, she made that country her home for the next eighteen years. Her lesbian relationship with Lota de Macedo Soares gave her life stability and love, and she established residences in Rio de Janeiro, nearby Petrópolis, and, later, Ouro Pręto. A Cold Spring, her second volume of poetry, appeared in 1955. Brazil became the setting for many of the poems that were collected a decade later in Questions of Travel (1965).

After the suicide of Lota de Macedo Soares, Bishop increasingly began to live in the United States, and became poet-in-residence at Harvard University in 1969. A close friendship with Alice Methfessel began in 1971 and continued until the time of Bishop's death in 1979. Her final poetry volume, Geography III, was published in 1976,

Bishop often spent many years writing a single poem, working toward an effect of offfhandedness and spontaneity. Committed to a "passion for accuracy," she re-created her worlds of Canada, America, Europe, and Brazil. Shunning self-pity, the poems thinly conceal her estrangements as a woman, a lesbian, an orphan, a geographically rootless traveler, a frequently hospitalized asthmatic, and a sufferer of depression and alcoholism. "I'm not interested in big-scale work as such," she once told Lowell. "Something needn't be large to be good."

Manuscript holdings are at the Houghton Library, Harvard University; the Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; the Vassar College Library; and the Washington University Libraries.

Poems - 10 in all

Elizabeth Bishop

One Art
Filling Station
The Shampoo
Letter To N.Y.
The Unbeliever
Large Bad Picture
At the Fishhouses
Suicide of a Moderate Dictator

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