Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Bishop!

Elizabeth Bishop 
When I first began writing again after a ten year hiatus, I wrote a poem about maps. "You should read Elizabeth Bishop's "The Map" " my teacher at the time advised. I did. And then I went on to read every other poem, story, essay, and letter that I could find. I took Ms. Bishop on as my dead mentor. I admired not only the incredible poems --- born of observation and a hidden self --- but also a life lived outside the confines of the American poetry establishment. How did she manage to be an insider and an outside all at once I wondered?

Elizabeth Bishop at Vassar College
Perhaps this two-way status began with Bishop loosing both parents at a very young age and being shuffled between grandparents -- one set in Canada -- the other in New England. Bishop's childhood home in Nova Scotia has been preserved and for the last year the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia has been celebrating Bishop's centennial with a conference, readings, and festival banners.  Nova Scotia is where Bishop seems to have been happiest -- at least as a child. After her father died and her mother was committed to a sanatarium, Bishop was sent to live with her grandparents in Worcester, Massachusetts. This arrangement did not please her, but it did bring her into society.

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

What I want to say is this: Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Bishop! Thank you for showing me an alternative way to be a poet in the world, for forming deep lifelong friendships with other poets and for caring about language and observation above all. Bishop spent six months teaching at the University of Washington and living in the University District at an apartment building that still exists today called The Brooklyn. At a time in my life when I needed a poet to follow, a woman poet who had lived outside the conventional East Coast society, Bishop was my choice; she has yet to disappoint. 

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