One hundred years after her birth in Worcester, Mass., in 1911, Elizabeth Bishop stands as the most highly regarded American poet of the second-half of the 20th century. She is admired in every critical camp -- from feminists to formalists -- who agree on little else. Such immense regard would have astounded the author. Bishop (1911-79) had a high regard for her own work, which she crafted with scrupulous care, but she never courted a broad public. She wrote slowly and published little. She disliked giving readings or interviews, and she generally avoided public literary life.
What makes her pre-eminence particularly remarkable is that she wrote so little. She published only five volumes of verse and a short illustrated book on Brazil. Her final collection, "Geography III" (1976), included only 10 poems. Indeed, the contents of all five books, excluding translations, total 88 poems. If one gathers in all her other uncollected original verse, the published oeuvre rises to 105 poems. In other words, across her adult life Bishop wrote, on average, only two or three poems a year.
The New Yorker played a central role in Bishop's career. She published the vast majority of her work in the magazine, whose editors had recognized her special talent from the start. Already in 1946, just as her first book appeared, the New Yorker offered her the elite status of a "first reading" contract -- giving Bishop a higher per-word rate and the magazine right-of-refusal on all her poems. Her editors adored her, especially Howard Moss, who eagerly accepted almost every poem she submitted, usually with lavish praise and a prompt check. "I love your flattery," Bishop responded, "and wish I could believe 25% of it." Bishop would sometimes complain, but she rarely discarded the changes when her poems appeared in books.
Critics have a hard time describing the special quality of Bishop's poetry. Bishop simply wrote so well that she never needed to raise her voice for emphases or effect. While poets such as Allen Ginsberg shouted slogans or rumbled with prophetic noise, she spoke to us calmly as equals.
What animates Bishop's poetry is the deep authenticity of a writer who knew exactly what she was and never tried to seem otherwise. Her work is never pretentious or inflated. Preternaturally observant, quietly inventive, detached but compassionate, Bishop created poems that seem unnervingly real. We see the place, the person or the thing as if we were truly there, and we feel emotions that the author doesn't state overtly but slyly awakens inside us.
One reason that Bishop's work feels so real is that most of it grew directly out of her life, though she characteristically presented it indirectly. The author rarely stands center stage in the poems. Bishop acted mostly as a surrogate for the reader, underplaying her own emotions and inevitably viewing the scene with provocative ambiguity.
There is a special irony that Bishop has come to be the signature poet of late ...