In the Times Literary Supplement, Michael Hoffman puzzles me with a review of Megan Marshall’s “A miracle for Breakfast,” a biography of the much-celebrated poet Elizabeth Bishop. I understand that Bishop must have been good at the business of writing; otherwise, there is no easy explanation why so many people praised her work. She’s been dead for 38 years, after all, so she won’t be sending thank you notes or recommendations that the New Yorker has another look at your stuff.
The trouble with Hoffman is that he’s a incompetent admirer: given 4,000 words to explain Bishop’s greatness as depicted in Marshall’s biography (which, by all accounts, is praiseful of the subject), he just doesn’t do much.
In the Wall Street Journal you may get 1,500 or 2,000 words, at most, to explain the underlying reasons for the multi-annual collapse of a business or a country, and this only for Page One stories (“leders” is the internal name) of which there are exactly 365 in a natural year: 4,000 words should be enough to give us evidence in support of Bishop’s claim to greatness. But, in all of that space, Hoffman only includes three pieces of Bishop’s creative writing, and very little to no discussion of their impact, style or merit.
Again, I haven’t read much of Bishop but I’m sure she’s great. I’m sure she’s totally fantastic. She’s the kind of writer that reminds me of the old Chinese saying (very much in vogue in Singapore) that if fifty people are queuing in front of a restaurant that’s where you should go. She was heavily celebrated in life, to the point that she had a biographer in the 1960s, over a decade before she actually died, and she did ponder which literary generation she belonged to, according to Marshall: “It is odd how I often feel myself to be a late-late Post World War I generation member, rather than a member of the Post World War II generation”, she’s quoted as saying (you know, the WW II generation “to which technically she belonged,” Hoffman helpfully adds). No writer uncertain on her station thinks much about which generation she belongs to; I certainly never did it. Hoffman goes on to drop names:
She sends Marianne Moore mangoes from Miami, along with careful instructions as to how to peel and eat them salubriously… “You know what I want, Richard?” Bishop remarked to Richard Howard, showing her fellow poet and fellow homosexual round her unfinished dockside apartment, “I want closets, closets, and more closets!”… Since her death in 1979, Bishop has been so universally and I think often falsely or sentimentally championed by us, we don’t see the contrariness or the heroic effort of living against her time and culture; we like to think of her in San Francisco, blithely passing a joint to Thom Gunn or accepting one from him, and generally letting it hang out after all, all or some. In 1967, in Greenwich Village, she teased her friend Robert Lowell: “I never appear without earrings down to my bosom, skirts almost up to it, and a guitar over my shoulder. I am afraid I am going to start writing FREE VERSE next”.
ALL CAPS, doing drugs with Thom Gunn! Signs of genius, as we all know in the early 21st century. I think she once danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales. The pianist Arthur Gold is later marshalled in remembrance of Bishop; his comments are tailored-made to be appreciated by a London-based publication, like the TLS is:
There was something physically graceful and very elegant about Elizabeth. She had what I call genius hair (vibrant, very alive hair); a delightful smile, when she was familiar with you; and a very warm, rather sad, half-shy and half-loving air. She was very, very soignée, always going to the hairdresser, always looking terribly neat, extremely put together, and her clothes were very, very thought out. Elizabeth loved clothes. They weren’t distinguished clothes but always suggested a tiny bit of English elegance – not American jazzy elegance… Another astute observer, the future Dostoevsky biographer Joseph Frank, notes: “There was not this kind of American casualness about her at all as a person”.
By this point it’s clear to all well-bred readers that Bishop wasn’t one of those ghastly Midwest Americans who, like, vote for Trump and stuff. She had, in fact, “terribly light wit and ineffably light charm and love of laughter and love of domestic pleasure, and all the cozy things that I like in people,” Gold is again quoted as saying.
Indeed, Bishop was likeable to the well-bred; she didn’t go about borrowing money. She didn’t much care about extracting money from the hard-working masses either. Hoffman quotes her:
“The good artist assumes a certain amount of sensitivity in his audience and doesn’t attempt to flay himself to get sympathy or understanding.”
Of course, like many people who don’t care much about money, the thing with Bishop is that she had plenty. A poor rich girl who was esentially an orphan since a very young age, she hit college with cash to spare:
In many ways, Bishop’s life was favoured. She was left money, had a trust fund (perhaps a future biographer will go into detail, Marshall doesn’t) and didn’t need to work beyond the odd experimental week in the “U.S.A. School of Writing” on graduating from Vassar, or the US Navy optical department in Key West in 1943. She had well-off and generous friends, not the least of them her personal physician over decades, Dr Anny Baumann, dedicatee of her second book of poems, A Cold Spring (1955)… She had the wherewithal to buy at various times a house in Key West, a house in Ouro Preto, Brazil (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and a harbourfront condo in Boston. It was a life that left her time to read, write, draw and play the clavichord. She seems also to have been an ambitious, Northern-inspired housekeeper with a “Nova-Scotian array of jellies, pickles, etc.”, and a great cook; had an important, varied and much-loved record collection; kept male and female friendships going over years, even decades, by letter; lived among children (a domestic in Brazil named one of hers “Elizabetchy” in her honour); had a dearly loved toucan, “Uncle Sam”; took an interest in furnishing and interior design; and followed politics, both in Brazil and in Richard Nixon’s increasingly Brazilian USA. A life that had all the distractions and amenities of colours, textures, fabrics, scents – a life, not the production-geared monotony and worksheets of so many of her peers and successors.
One remembers The Paris Review’s interviewing Malcolm Cowley in 1982, when he was 84; among the first questions the magazine posed was this: “Do you regret not having concentrated more fully on your poetry?” Cowley said yes. His problem, he added, “was the essentially middle-class feeling that I had to support myself.”
Bishop was also lucky with publishers. She never came across the likes of Natalia Ginzburg:
Her writing found champions early and often, and it seems almost without exception (among them Marianne Moore, Edmund Wilson, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, John Ashbery); and was sought after by publishers from James Laughton to Robert Giroux to Ian Parsons to Christopher Reid and Michael Schmidt. She had a preferential “first read” contract with the New Yorker for over thirty years; won a seemingly unending string of prizes and awards; and no doubt profited while living abroad from the ever-strengthening dollar… “I am a little embarrassed about having to go to Brazil to experience total recall about Nova Scotia,” she wrote to Katharine White, who gratefully accepted “In the Village,” Elizabeth’s tale of childhood in Great Village, for the New Yorker.
I do love that detail, how the editor “gratefully accepted” her story for publication. Quoting Henry James, Hoffman refers to the richness of this “envelope of circumstance.” It helps explain why Bishop was never one to meet deadlines (to which, apparently nobody ever objected):
There is actually a whole area of non-performance in Bishop: a book of stories (she wrote barely a couple that were up with her best); reviews (she offered herself to the New Yorker as poetry reviewer following the death of Louise Bogan, and wrote not a single one); non-fiction or travel pieces for the New Yorker (again, no fueran); perhaps weirdest of all, an introduction to Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home (for which in the end she produced a doctor’s letter). She has many poems that mysteriously take her years, which is baffling as in my experience words don’t keep their softness or stay “live” for any longer than clay or oil paint, a day or two, or a week or two at the most. A slow poem, or a delayed poem is a failing poem. And yet there they all are, “A Miracle for Breakfast”, “The Moose”, “Pink Dog” and many more – a process then itself mythologized, as though it were worth anything, or meant anything – or many that were never finished at all… She would never finish the story “Homesickness,” about her mother.
Not for Bishop the concentrated effort and daily dedication of, say, John Le Carré:
She jotted observations and ideas in notebooks she carried with her, so that she seemed to others always to be writing. But the process was never efficient and could be “painful,” she once explained to a friend: “she first wrote a poem in her head, but the act of writing, putting it down, was usually a letdown, so then she either put it away, destroyed it, or rewrote it.” Drafts were covered with cross-outs, often emphatic ones, and severe judgments like “TERRIBLE.”
Hoffman clears his throat: “One hesitates to say whether she was lazy, unfocused, distracted, self-critical, inhibited, perfectionist, or some or all of these, but it colours one’s sense of the kind of poet she was.” He then compares her production levels with Larkin; I’m not sure I would put them in the same sentence for any reason, but Hoffman does. The admirer goes on:
“If I had to choose one branch of her output, I would probably choose the brilliant letters: they at least were written and thought out and sent. They seem like an ideal blend of life and work. Having been mostly pretty indifferent to the unfinished and uncollected poems for several years, I am starting to see things there that I am grateful for.”
One appreciates the sincerity. But sometimes I think the letters are the last refuge of the mediocre writer, so that won’t do. Hoffman does quote the poetry, so here it goes, this 1959 poem about Brazil, the country where she was so kind to her own maids and gardeners:
Meanwhile, you’ve never seen
a country that’s more beautiful
– or this part of it anyway –
the delicacy of the green hills
the new bamboos unfurl the edges
are all so soft against the pink watery skies
below, the purple Lent trees
Shall we change politicians?
An honest madman for a swap the playboy for the honest madman?
And is he really honest? It’s a kind of joke –