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  • Elizabeth Bishop’s Social Conscience
  • James Longenbach

In “Contradictions: Tracking Poems,” the long sequence that makes up the second half of Your Native Land, Your Life, Adrienne Rich meditates on Elizabeth Bishop’s late villanelle, “One Art”:

acts of parting trying to let go without giving up yes Elizabeth a city here a village there a sister, comrade, cat and more no art to this but anger. 1

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” Bishop said, and Rich’s response to the line cuts two ways. On the one hand, she admires Bishop’s artistry, feeling that she herself has not mastered the art — “only badly-done exercises.” On the other hand, Rich is uncomfortable with Bishop’s reticence, preferring the anger of the badly-done to the artistry of a villanelle.

Although Bishop has always been championed by male poets — from Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell to John Ashbery and Mark Strand — she has (until recently) presented a difficult example to female poets, especially those of Rich’s generation. In an essay on Bishop written around the same time as “Contradictions,” Rich explained that for a long time she “felt drawn, but also repelled” by Bishop’s poetry. “Miss” Bishop — that is, Bishop as she was championed by Lowell — was part of the problem.

Women poets searching for older contemporaries in that period [of the 1940s and 1950s] were supposed to look to “Miss” Marianne Moore as the paradigm of what a women poet might accomplish, and, after her, to “Miss” Bishop. Both had been selected and certified by the literary establishment, which was, as now, white, male, and at least ostensibly heterosexual. Elizabeth Bishop’s name was spoken, her books reviewed with deep respect. But attention was paid to her triumphs, her perfections, not to her struggles for self-definition and her sense of difference. In this way, her reputation made her less, rather than more, available to me. 2

Here, as in “Contradictions,” Rich wants less art and more anger, and I sense that she is talking about her earlier self while addressing Bishop. In the 1950s the precocious Rich was also selected and [End Page 467] certified by the literary establishment, and Bishop seemed to Rich the poet she could too easily become — the poet who was considered, in Robert Lowell’s phrase, the author of “the best poems... written by a woman in this century.” 3

Bishop herself despised that kind of praise, and she suffered under the reputation of “Miss” Bishop. “Most of my writing life I’ve been lucky about reviews,” she admitted to George Starbuck. “But at the very end they often say ‘The best poetry by a woman in this decade, or year, or month.’ Well, what’s that worth?” Bishop’s feminism rarely seemed this pronounced or undivided. In the same interview she dismissed the “tract poetry” of feminist writers like Robin Morgan, and she insisted that she “never made any distinction between” male and female poets. But she also made this provocative remark: “I was in college in the days — it was the Depression, the end of the Depression — when a great many people were communist, or would-be communist.... I never gave feminism much thought, until....” 4

Unfortunately, George Starbuck interrupted at this point. But the historical context that Bishop emphasizes for her early career — the 1930s — is pertinent to an understanding of her relationship to feminism. Living in Brazil in 1966, Bishop claimed that she was “much more interested in social problems and politics now” than she had been in the thirties. 5 She even went so far as to attempt a poem about the suicide of Getúlio Vargas, the elected president and former dictator of Brazil. 6 But Bishop never completed “Suicide of a Moderate Dictator,” her most overtly political poem; its progress was hampered by her long-standing distaste for tract poetry. Responding in 1938 to Marianne Moore’s sense of the “tentativeness” of her poems, Bishop wondered if the problem were her unwillingness to delineate a coherent political position — though she hastened to add, “I’m a ‘Radical,’ of course.” 7 The problem for Bishop, early and late, was not...

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