Classmates referred to the budding poet as “The Bishop,” neighbors in Brazil called her “Saint Elizabeth of Petrópolis,” and Ezra Pound, housed in a Washington, D.C., hospital for the mentally and criminally insane, took to addressing her on her visits as “Lis Bish”—this last an example of Pound’s wit that she did not appreciate. Had I been at the point of meeting Elizabeth Bishop, I would have addressed her as “Miss Bishop,” though I am not certain that she would have entirely liked that either.
When I taught American literature at the University of São Paulo under the aegis of the U.S. Fulbright program in 1969–70, I cannot claim that I knew much about Elizabeth Bishop or very many of her poems. In the past I had come across the occasional poem in the New Yorker, of course, and had even used those perennial favorites, “Roosters” (the poet-teacher John Berryman’s favorite) and “The Fish,” in courses, particularly those designed to teach students how to analyze poems, something we were sure we could do in those days. But she hadn’t even made the cut when I worked up the syllabus for the year-long seminar in American poetry for a half-dozen students from all over Brazil that I taught as a favor to the Fulbright Commission in Rio.
But my interest in Bishop—curiosity, rather—was piqued when in May 1970, in the midst of a lecture tour, I found myself in Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais, while on a lecture tour, with a day to spare and just a couple of hours by car or bus from Ouro Prêto, the famous colonial town where Elizabeth Bishop was then living in Casa Mariana, a somewhat rundown house she had dared to buy and had bravely undertaken to restore. She had named it after her mentor and friend, the poet Marianne Moore, and because, fortuitously, the house, on the outskirts of Ouro Prêto, was located right on the road to Mariana, the next town.
In May 1970, I told my host, George Seay, the U.S.I.S. officer in Belo Horizonte, that on the next day I planned to take a bus to Ouro Prêto to see [End Page 79] the town where Elizabeth Bishop was living. He responded enthusiastically that he could do better by me, that he would take me there and, for good measure, introduce me to Miss Bishop. I was of course delighted. But at the last minute something came up at the consulate that needed immediate attention and George was unable to take me; so I did not get to Ouro Prêto that day. That was the first time I missed seeing Bishop, and I have sometimes thought about what that visit could have been like. But I don’t any longer. You see, just this year I read something in Bishop’s letters to the New Yorker, her primary magazine publisher for most of her adult life, that gave me pause. In 1970, just about the time I was in Belo Horizonte and planning my visit to Ouro Prêto, Bishop was writing to Howard Moss, her New Yorker editor at the time, about her scarcely concealed annoyance at George Seay himself:
The “cultural attaché,” US, from Belo H[orizonte], the capital, dropped in yesterday with two more of them with him, one from Berlin, one from Iran—it is really a strange world, isn’t it—and there we were, playing Janis Joplin to some young Brazilians. (She is in Rio now—was forbidden to sing in a plaza, as she had planned—but not because of her, because of her popularity and the government’s fear of such a large assembly of the young that she’d draw.) The attaché drops in fairly often; I think he displays me as an example of American culture.
What, I wonder, would Bishop have made of me being shown to her as “an example of American culture,” or—worse—an example of some sort of...