Though I love poetry, few poems are always in my head. Yet, “One Art,” the witty, but heartbreakingly sad poem by Elizabeth Bishop (with its repeating line “the art of losing isn’t hard to master”) is part of my DNA.
I’m far from alone. While Bishop was alive, only 100 of her poems were published. Yet few poets, queer or hetero (Bishop was lesbian) are so beloved or famous, even outside of poetry circles. Her work was set to music by composers Ned Rorem and Elliott Carter. Michael Sledge’s 2010 novel, “The More I Owe You” and the 2013 movie “Reaching for the Moon” are about her relationship with her Brazilian lover Lota (Maria Carlota de Macedo Soares). Bishop’s been on a U.S. postage stamp. A new biography “Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast” by Megan Marshall sheds new light on the poet’s life.
Bishop, who lived from 1911 to 1979, received many awards — from a Pulitzer Prize to a National Book Award. From 1949-1950, she was the consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (the post is now called poet laureate). Yet, she was as well known for her love of privacy as for the many honors bestowed on her. It’s hard to imagine that she’d be pleased to have more of her personal life revealed. She famously said that she believed in “closets, closets, closets.”
If only, I (and the rest of her aficionados) could respect her wishes and not want to know more about her personal life and how she went about making art. I don’t hanker after intimate details of Bishop’s love life or want to put her in a box as a lesbian or woman poet. Yet, it’s the 21st century. It’s time to claim Bishop, though she wasn’t open about her sexuality in her lifetime, as part of our LGBT literary team. Marshall’s bio illuminates both Bishop’s story and what it was like to be a queer author in the mid-century cultural landscape.
Marshall was a student of Bishop’s at Harvard in the 1970s. She draws on previously unknown letters from Bishop – most notably to her psychiatrist and to Alice Methfessel, her lover during the last years of her life.
Bishop, who was born in a small Nova Scotia town, endured many hardships. By the time she was five, her father had died and her mother had been permanently committed to a mental institution. Bishop felt like she’d been “kidnapped,” when she was sent to live with relatives in Worcester, Mass. After developing asthma, she went to live with her aunts and her Uncle George outside Boston. In 1947, Bishop wrote to her psychiatrist about how her uncle had abused her. “Maybe lots of people have never known real sadists at first hand,” she wrote.
Methfessel was some 30 years younger than Bishop. “I hope I die first,” Bishop wrote to her fearing that the younger woman would leave the relationship.
It’s easy to wonder why Bishop’s poetry is so restrained about sexuality or to carp at her refusal to have her work published in a women’s poetry anthology. But this is forgetting what it was like to be gay during Bishop’s time. From 1952-1973, the American Psychiatric Association characterized homosexuality as a mental illness. LGBT authors were among those targeted by McCarthyism in the 1950s. Bishop contributed regularly to The New Yorker. But in her day, the magazine didn’t publish poems with a queer perspective.
Yet, Bishop wasn’t a wilting lily. She and Adrienne Rich liked each other. “I’ve always considered myself a strong feminist,” she told The Paris Review. In her later years, Bishop chafed at being described as looking like a grandmother. They’d never say an older man looked like a grandfather, she told interviewers.
Art is needed in our time as never before. Check out the new Bishop bio “A Miracle for Breakfast” and Bishop’s dazzling poetry.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.