The Poetry Porch: Poetics

Approaching Elizabeth Bishop:
An Interview with Lloyd Schwartz

In June 2008, Joyce Wilson conducted this interview via email with Lloyd Schwartz on the occasion of the publication of Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters by The Library of America earlier that year. With Robert Giroux, Schwartz selected the contents and wrote the notes for the volume.

JW: What drew you to the work of Elizabeth Bishop? I understand that you wrote about her for your graduate thesis at Harvard University. Why Bishop? Did you choose her as the best among the modernists? Were you advised to concentrate on her because many felt that her time had arrived in the mid-twentieth century? Did you feel that she was being overlooked?

LS: I discovered Elizabeth Bishop when my undergraduate mentor at Queens College, Mary Doyle Curran, read a group of us “The Man-Moth.” We would follow her home on the subway—she lived in Greenwich Village—and we would sit on the floor while she read us contemporary poems she loved. The poem blew me away. And moved me to tears. It was such an original and powerful work, utterly surprising, and riveting. I started following Bishop’s work ever since. I was excited to learn that she would be replacing Robert Lowell at Harvard. Frank Bidart, who had met her through Lowell, introduced us after her first reading that year—1970. I was thrilled to meet her, but all I could say to her was that I loved her poems and that ended the conversation. She didn’t like to talk about her own work. Another poet came up to her and dropped down on his knees in front of her. It gave me the creeps. But she treated him as graciously and distantly as she treated me. After several years we got to be friends. I’d been working—or not working—on a dissertation on complexity of tone in Yeats. But I’d been assigned an advisor who was unsympathetic to my project, and after seven years, I gave up on it. I’d been teaching at Boston State College, and when it looked as if the school would be shut down (which it eventually was), and that I might not be able to get another teaching job (they were scarce in the mid ‘70s), I couldn’t bear the thought of giving up my academic career without a Ph.D. It occurred to me that I might actually do the work if I had a different topic, and then it occurred to me to work on Bishop, who was writing some of her best poems, and who had not been widely studied. I asked her how she would feel about my writing about her, fully expecting her to say that it would make her uncomfortable. But I think I underestimated her maternal instinct. She’d make herself do even something as unappealing to her as discuss her poems if it would do her young friend some good. She agreed and even offered to meet with me regularly. It was a great time. I must be one of the few people who was sad to complete a dissertation, because it meant we couldn’t talk about her poems anymore. That was the story—I had no other motive than that it would be a subject I’d enjoy writing about.

JW: Bishop was a regular figure at Harvard until she died in 1979. What was it like having her so close, giving classes and readings, living in Cambridge? Or was she removed from general traffic patterns even as she lived and worked nearby?

LS: She lived a pretty retiring life. She hated to give readings. And liked teaching only because she liked her students. Aside from that, she spent almost all her time with her closest friends, went to concerts and movies (we heard Maria Callas’s only Boston recital because I had an acquaintance who could get us good seats, also Ella Fitzgerald at the Boston Pops). She gave dinner parties and was a great cook, especially Brazilian food. And of course she continued to do a lot of traveling.

JW: When I worked under Stratis Haviaras at the Woodberry Poetry Room, he told of her request to destroy the recordings of her early readings, a request which he politely forgot to fulfill. Was she a difficult person? Was her wish to control the publication of her work excessive? I’m thinking also of her first book of complete poems, which was not very complete at all.

LS: I wouldn’t call her “difficult.” She was very shy. She cared a lot about her work, but wasn’t really sure that even the best of it amounted to anything worthwhile in the world. She thought she was a terrible reader—and she was largely right. Her early readings were extremely stiff, although by the end of her life, she was reading with a kind of quiet intimacy that transcended her shyness. She refused to have most of these readings recorded. Now even the bad ones are precious. No, she wasn’t a control freak, but for the most part, she knew what her best work was, and left some weaker poems out of her “complete” volume. But she could also be intimidated—by The New Yorker, for example. Howard Moss talked her out of using capital letters for the Shakespearean flowers in her Robert Lowell elegy, “North Haven.” And dashes at the beginning of a line. But the second she saw the poem in the magazine, she knew she had made a mistake to give in and wanted to get her original version of the poem into print as soon as possible. She gave it to The Advocate for their Lowell memorial issue and was even eager to do a broadside. The revelation about her “unfinished” and unpublished poems is that some of them are marvelous, and that for some reason—that they weren’t quite finished to her satisfaction or that they were too personal—she wasn’t ready to publish them. There are some wonderful poems in Alice Quinn’s edition (Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box), and even the ones that are clearly not finished are fascinating and expand what we know of her range.

JW: Is it significant that the Library of America has turned to Bishop as the first American woman poet to include in their series? They have published women novelists, Stowe, Wharton, Cather, Jewett, Stein, Alcott. Did you pursue them to publish this book of Bishop’s work, or did they approach you?

LS: They actually approached Robert Giroux, and he asked me to be his co-editor. I’d been one of the informal advisors for his editions of Bishop’s poems, prose, and letters, but I had a number of different ideas for this Library of America volume and hoped that I could incorporate them into the contents and structure of this edition—especially restoring the order of Bishop’s books to the way she first published them. There was a lot of uncollected prose—essays, reviews—some dazzling pieces dating back even to her undergraduate days; and some amazing translations that had virtually been forgotten. They’re now all in the book. I think the Library of America already knew that she was a major figure and didn’t have to be persuaded.
      No one would be more surprised than Bishop about her phenomenal posthumous reputation.

JW: I am often struck by the patience that I sense behind Bishop’s poetry. It has been said that Bishop envied Robert Lowell’s book Life Studies because of its spontaneity, variety, and the many numbers of poems. But wouldn’t you value “The Moose,” a single poem written over seventeen years, as a greater achievement in universality than the particular innovations that characterize Lowell’s poems? Or do you think that Bishop was constrained by a striving for perfection that she had to overcome?

LS: She regarded Life Studies as a great book—and so do I. I’d say its honesty and self-awareness, its tragic sense of human existence and its sly humor, are pretty universal. Lowell repeatedly said how indebted he was to Bishop for the new openness and simplicity in his own new style. He dedicated “Skunk Hour” to her and said he modeled it on her poem “The Armadillo” (which she then dedicated to him). She envied Lowell’s courage, his daring, even while she worried about the risks he was taking. She was a perfectionist, but sometimes—as in “One Art”—that perfection came easily and rapidly. She could take decades to finish some of her poems, especially longer poems like “The Moose,” “Crusoe in England,” “Pink Dog”—but I think they’re more the exception.

JW: I think that what I value the most about her poetry today is her tone. She writes with such confidence, the poems communicate a stillness that suffers no distractions. Yet in many lines, she portrays excitement with exclamation points and italics that suggest an overflow of feeling but never call attention to themselves as being emotional.

LS: Yes, her poetic “voice” is like no one else. I love the passage in her letter to Anne Stevenson about Darwin, the way he lost himself in his work. It’s seems such a self-description.

Octavio Paz called his essay on her “The Power of Reticence.” She was a quiet poet, but that quietness was a kind of surface calm over very deep and powerful, even conflicted feelings. A way of controlling those feelings. But she’s never self-indulgent. Never sentimental. Never melodramatic. Never. There’s always a wit, a sense of understanding, or some deep mysterious, almost inarticulate insight in the poems. That mixture of accuracy, spontaneity, and mystery she said she admired in the poems she liked best. She wasn’t exactly an intellectual, but she was very very smart. There’s something profoundly sane in her poems, even at their most tragic. It’s embodied in that tone of voice.

JW: I have been amused by critics who conclude that, yes, she is writing in free verse, no, she is writing in formal verse. Would you say she is writing in free verse? The music of her poems suggests a mastery of traditional forms that have been so thoroughly absorbed that she can use rhyme, iambic pentameter, fixed patterns as she wishes, perhaps as a starting place, after which she is free to innovate.

LS: She was a traditionalist who was also a Modernist. Her poems are formally breathtaking—incredibly skillful. She wrote sonnets, ballades, villanelles, sestinas. Very accomplished. But she wan’t a slave to tradition. She loved to play with form. Her late “Sonnet” is an inversion of the traditional sonnet. She creates her own rule for villanelles in “One Art.” Whenever she breaks the rules, she does it knowingly and for a good reason, and expands what the traditional form can do. There’s an undercurrent of traditional meter in almost all her poems, and she loves to play with rhyme even though her rhymes don’t always come at the ends of lines. And there’s always the most delicate ear for verbal music and musical rhythms. Think of the opening of “Cirque d’Hiver“: “Across the floor flits the mechanical toy,/fit for a king of several centuries back./A little circus horse with real white hair./His eyes are glossy black.“ Or “Pink Dog,“ which I’m sure is her parody of “The Girl from Ipanema,” with its playful, syncopated rhymes (“be a-/n eyesore,” “see a/dog in máscara”)—rhymes that imitate the rhythm of a samba or bossa nova.

JW: How has Bishop influenced the composition of your own poetry?

LS: That’s hard for me to say. I don’t think my poems are anything like Bishop’s. But I’m concerned with form, with paring language down to an absolute minimum yet still sounding conversational, conveying the sense of living through the experience I’m writing about. But if I get anything from Bishop it’s through absorption, not any conscious effort to use what she did.

JW: Has the work of Bishop influenced the way you see Brazil, the country and the culture?

LS: Oh, yes. I knew Brazil through Bishop’s poems and letters and articles, and when I visit there, as I have on several occasions, I’m both looking for and looking at what she wrote about. Of course, it’s different now and I have friends who let me see their country through their eyes. But it’s always filtered through Bishop.

JW: What is your favorite poem by Bishop? Why?

LS: I guess if I had to choose only one it would probably be “In the Waiting Room.” I remember hearing it for the first time. I was standing in a phone booth in a shopping plaza outside of Santa Fe. I was spending the summer there in 1971. I was talking to Frank Bidart and he asked me if I had seen the new New Yorker. I hadn’t. He asked me if he could read Elizabeth’s new poem to me. It was “In the Waiting Room” and I was profoundly shaken by it. Who in 1970 would have guessed that in 1971 Bishop would have written a poem that said: “You are an I,/you are an Elizabeth./You are one of them./Why should you be one, too?” It’s one of the great poems in English about what it means to have an identity—one has no choice. Without an identity you would fall off the round, turning world into cold blue-black space. One wants to be an individual, has to be. But what a burden that is. And Bishop records with such telling and frightening detail that moment she came to that realization. She was about to turn seven. I love the way she gets the child’s voice into the poem (“I could read”; “The waiting room/was full of grown-up people”). And we’re living through that experience with her—over and over again—as she herself is re-living it. It’s an amazing poem. And it’s got one of the 20th-century’s most chilling line breaks: “It was winter. It got dark/early.”

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