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Elizabeth Bishop poetry speaks to modern women, old times

(john jay cabuay for the boston globe)

When Elizabeth Bishop mentioned her hometown in one of her poems, there was no celebration. In the unambiguously dreary “In the Waiting Room,” she recalls reading a National Geographic magazine as she waits for an aunt to endure a dentist’s appointment “in Worcester, Massachusetts.” Outside the dentist’s office, Bishop wrote, “were night and cold and slush.”

Bishop (1911-79), the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and onetime poet laureate of the United States, had no fond feelings for the place of her birth. Her father died when she was an infant and she was raised in her early years in her mother’s native Nova Scotia. When she was 6, and her mother had been institutionalized with mental illness, she was sent back to Worcester to live with her paternal grandparents,.

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(AP File Photo)

Yet despite long stretches in Key West, Fla., and Brazil, she was an unmistakable product of New England, says the novelist Colm Toibin, whose book-length essay “On Elizabeth Bishop” has just been published as part of Princeton University Press’s “Writers on Writers” series. Bishop’s pensive, finely detailed poems, which have grown steadily in reputation since her death, were notable in their consistent avoidance of her own personal story and her deeper emotions. Bishop, Toibin says on the phone from Dallas, showed “how to write about loss by implication.”

Four years after Bishop’s centenary, there’s another wave of interest in the poet that seems to be cresting. Two new scholarly biographies are underway. On Aug. 8, the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia will host a daylong festival with readings and musical performances. Also that month, the island community of North Haven, Maine, where Bishop kept a late-life second home, will host a symposium with guest speakers including the inaugural poet Richard Blanco.

And this month the Museum of Fine Arts screened “Welcome to This House,” filmmaker Barbara Hammer’s feature-length documentary about Bishop, as part of the Boston LGBT Film Festival. It will screen from May 26-June 1 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The film focuses on the poet’s various homes, her lovers, and “the anxiety of making art without full self-disclosure.”

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Bishop’s reluctance to reveal herself, says Toibin, was one mark of her inescapable pedigree as a stoic New Englander. Like Toibin’s native Ireland, Bishop’s New England was “a place where people tend to be very polite,” he says, “where emotional display is considered a form of bad manners. You get on with things.”

If there are serendipities of language in Bishop’s work, there’s not much pure pleasure — by design. She haunted readers with the sense that things are always left unresolved.

“She began with the idea that little is known,” Toibin writes in his book, “and that much is puzzling.”

The mysteries of what she had to say, and what she left out, are big reasons her shadow has grown much longer than it was during her lifetime, says Toibin, professor of comparative literature at Columbia University whose novels include “The Master,” “Brooklyn,” and “Nora Webster.” While contemporaries such as John Berryman and Randall Jarrell were writing “important” poems about war, death, and infidelity, Bishop was “sort of this ‘lady’ poet,” Toibin says, “writing whimsical poems about things she’d seen.”

Today, he says, “I don’t know anyone at the moment who’s teaching Jarrell. But Bishop is on everyone’s course.”

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There are depths of complexity to Bishop’s poems that betray their surface simplicity, says Blanco, the Maine-based poet who wrote his poem “One Today” for President Obama’s second inauguration. The first time you read Bishop, he says with a laugh, “you might say, ‘Eh, that’s a nice poem about a moose.’ Then you read it again and there are layers and layers of complexity there.

“That’s something I strive for in my poems. On the surface, they’re very accessible and evocative. They have a lot of face value. But within the lines, there’s tremendous emotional complexity. That takes a lot of work.”

For Sandra Berry, who serves as secretary of the Bishop Society of Nova Scotia and is part-owner (with nine others) of the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, Nova Scotia, “Bishop is becoming — I don’t want to use the word ‘mainstream’ — but we’ve seen a definite spike.”

She cites several feature films that have referenced the poet, including “In Her Shoes” (2005) and last year’s “Still Alice,” in which Julianne Moore’s character (like Cameron Diaz’s in the previous movie) recites Bishop’s “One Art.” Berry laughs as she recalls a review in which the critic — as it happens, the Globe’s Ty Burr — noted the poem’s appearance and suggested that it might be time to retire it from the big screen.

Julianne Moore in “Still Alice.”
Julianne Moore in “Still Alice.”(Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Berry, who has written two books on Bishop, says she and her fellow devotees have noticed a glut of the poet’s work making its way into unlikely hands, in blogs and social media and on YouTube.

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“There’s a video of a fellow in a hoodie, reciting one of her poems as a rap,” she says. “The average person is finding something concrete there, and they own it.”

Bishop was born in 1911, the only child of a building executive (her grandfather founded the prestigious construction company J.W. Bishop and Co.) and a schoolteacher. Unhappy living with her grandparents in Worcester, she was sent to live with her mother’s older sister and her family in a tenement in Revere. After boarding at the Walnut Hill School in Natick, she was accepted into Vassar College. There she cofounded a literary magazine and was introduced to the poet Marianne Moore, an inspiration.

The other great influence on Bishop was her friend Robert Lowell, the Boston Brahmin with whom she conducted a long correspondence. Toibin thinks it was their sense of a shared New England — “his being grander than hers” — that helped fuel their mutual admiration.

Bishop published her first book in 1946. She served from 1949-50 as the consultant in poetry for the Library of Congress (later known as the United States Poet Laureate), and in 1956 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her collection “Poems: North and South / A Cold Spring.”

By then she was living in Brazil, where she would stay for 15 years, alongside one of the two loves of her life, the architect Maria Carlota Costallat de Macedo Soares. “Lota,” as she was known, committed suicide in 1967. In 1971 Bishop began a relationship with Alice Methfessel, to whom the poet dedicated her last book , “Geography III” (1976). It won the National Book Critics Circle award.

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Bishop at Harvard in 1972.
Bishop at Harvard in 1972.(Jack Sheahan/Globe Staff/File photo)

Living on Boston’s Lewis Wharf during the last years of her life, Bishop taught for a time at Harvard. The poet Dana Gioia, in a 1986 article for The New Yorker, recalled taking Bishop’s Studies in Modern Poetry class: She asked the students to recommend the poets they would study, required them to memorize lines as if they were in grade school and frankly admitted, “I’m not a very good teacher.”

“People exchanged knowing glances, as if to say, ‘We’re dealing with a real oddball,’ ” Gioia recalled.

But Toibin says he can sometimes relate to Bishop’s ambivalence toward teaching, especially in writing classes.

“There are moments when you think, ‘This student might better be left alone, to get on with their talent.’ Coming into class is a way of confining them.”

After Bishop’s death, Methfessel served as her literary executor until her own death in 2009. Curiously, for all the poet’s apparent misgivings about Worcester, she is buried there, beneath a headstone that quotes from her poem “The Bight”: “All the untidy activity continues, awful but cheerful.”

“She was a funny mixture of things,” says Toibin, noting that he would have expected his subject to be buried in Nova Scotia. “You can never judge where people’s loyalties really lie.”


James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.