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Elizabeth Bishop: the Life and Influences Behind the Prolific American Poet

Elizabeth Bishop is considered one of the most important poets in the 20th century who led the end of modernism, or at least the opposition to modernist poetry. This presentation seeks to highlight the influences that birthed her distinct style.

Kelly Peterson

on 27 November 2013

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Transcript of Elizabeth Bishop: the Life and Influences Behind the Prolific American Poet

Lota offers her a

cashew fruit nut;

she has a nearly fatal allergic reaction and must stay for several weeks to get better.

. Bishop is no longer welcomed in Brazil by Lota’s friends;
the story ends.
Main Influences
numbed senses
'art of losing'--mocking failure
illustrates losses in her life
ironically confessional of her pain by being nonchalant
depressed, hopeless undertone
'One Art' encapsulates her cynical view
"It was understandable that Bishop, forty-seven, a sensitive poet who had published two books, got drunk so as not to feel too lucid." (pg. 822)
She "wanted to numb all feelings" (pg. 823)
Mary McCarthy
met at Vassar College wrote literary magazine with; love interest
Robert "Cal" Lowell

fellow poet
"confessional" style
Marianne Moore

met year Bishop's mother died;
lover; convinced Bishop women could pursue poetry; dissuaded her from medical school
recommended her for Pulitzer Prize;

wealthy Brazilian architect; Mary's former lover
muse; independent woman figure; empowering idol; lover; polar opposite
NYU student
lover after Lota; younger.

The End Years of her Life
While in Rio
In Rio, Bishop lived with her lover in a modern house in the hills of the lush rainforests. Bishop wrote most of her poems while in Rio, and these were the poems that won her the Pulitzer. She learned a lot about herself in Rio.
Post-Rio: A Rocky Relationship
Lota was engrossed in politics of Rio & a potential military coup, so Bishop took a leave of absence to teach at UW. Lota must stay in Brazil because she has been enlisted to make a beautiful park, Flamengo Park, by the governor.
similar to Central Park in NY
Bishops returns; they travel.
Then, both were hospitalized. Bishop released sooner & leaves to teach at NYU.
She thought Lota would follow when she got better.
Bishop leaving made Lota’s mental state worsen.
Now separated,
Bishop is the star of the states, receives much attention. She has an affair with a student at NYU, and 'completely' forgets Lota.
Lota tries to send letters to Bishop never gets them.

Poems, Books, & Awards

North & South

(1946) - first book, won Houghton Mifflin Prize for poetry

The Fish
o The Man-Moth

Poems –North & South –A Cold Spring

(1955) – included her first book plus 18 new poems; won Pulitzer Prize for this book in 1956

Questions of Travel
o a lot of influence from living in Brazil (but also some poems set in other places e.g. Nova Scotia) ;
o about travels and reflection on childhood
In the Village
First Death in Nova Scotia

The Complete Poems

(1969) – won her National Book Award

Geography III

(1979) –last book of poems she would publish in life. Won Neustadt International Prize for Literature. First woman to win that prize and still the only American to win.
o In the Waiting Room
o One Art
• Posthumous:

Complete Poems, 1927-1979

The Collected Prose
(1984) short stories, essays

A Brief Bio
Born February 8, 1911 Worcester, Massachusetts as an only child.
Father died when she was 1 year old (1911). Her mother was institutionalized for depression and mental health issues when she was 3-5 years old.
From then on, she shifted living with relatives; for this reason she had trust-issues and an improper childhood.
Lived with maternal grandparents but moved to live with her father’s wealthier parents.
. She was unhappy there, too. She developed chronic asthma and was sent to live with her mother’s sister.
. Received little formal education when young due to frequent illness (asthmatic)
Attended Vassar College in 1930-1934;
o Met and wrote literary magazine with lover Mary McCarthy.
. Met poet Marianne Moore in Vassar Library; Moore influenced Bishop’s career; encouraged her not to go to med school.
Moore recommended her for Pulitzer Prize, showed her poet = viable profession for a woman
Had a period of restless traveling (New York, Key West Florida, Paris, Mexico, etc.). Pilgrimaged to Nova Scotia (important psychologically and creatively)
. Decided to travel to Brazil to recreate nostalgia of Nova Scotia:
told friend, Lowell: “What I am really up to is re-creating a sort of de luxe Nova Scotia all over again, in Brazil”
Returned to US in 60’s.
Had several teaching jobs (Columbia, NYU, Harvard, MIT), no more writing.
. In 1967, her infamous lover, Lota, committed suicide, in Bishop's apartment.
Bishop died of an aneurysm in Oct 1979

Rio de Janeiro's culture was polar opposite to US east coast's
More open, less conservative
More emotional, sensual, and free
Affection more publicly accepted (and encouraged).
Brazilians wore brighter colors; celebrated nearly everything.
This really helped Elizabeth’s depression, forced her to look outward and positively in light of everyday events.
Bishop started dressing in brighter colors (no longer drab, dark).
Confident to express herself via actions/ appearance(instead of hiding)
Become more passionate, expressive, emotional
she blew up part of mountainside so Elizabeth could have beautiful view, be inspired to write.
saved the trees around the studio and they even grew through the wood deck.
We have Lota to thank for providing an inspirational setting for Elizabeth’s writing.
polar opposite to Bishop
her inspiration and muse
strong, opinionated, decisive
wealthy (by inheritance); architect
intertwined in Brazilian politics
"If she made a mistake, she made it with great fluency. She showed up in a sportscar and was building an ultra modern house in the middle of the woods. Peculiar."
Lota, Bishop, & Death

Finally, in 1957, Lota visits NY, only to find Bishop has completely moved on from her and has a new love interest, fame, and success.
Lota takes Valium; commits suicide in Bishop’s NY apartment, in front of Bishop.
Bishop then goes onto Harvard a little, and teaches 6 weeks at MIT.
She wrote
Geography III
, then 2 years later died of cerebral aneurysm.

Rare and Common Place Flowers
In 1951, Elizabeth Bishop had finished her term as Poet Laureate, & was

She decided to travel the world; headed to Cape Horn.
While docked at Santos, Brazil, she decided to visit old friends, including
dancer Mary Morse.
Morse was living with lover
Maria Carlota Costallat Macedo de Soares (Lota).


She ends up

falling in love

with Lota, and staying in Brazil, living in Rio de Janeiro and Petropolis.
Lota oversees

building a very modern house
in the mountains of Petropolis; Bishop translates Portguese books and writes poems. Bishop buys an 18th century house in Ouro Preto; spent 20 years in Brazil.

A friend of Lota's, Carlos Lacerda, became governor of Guanabara (1960s name for Rio de Janeiro). He appoints Lota to supervise one of the most important architectural projects for Brazil; converting a landfill into and extensive waterfront park,

Parque de Flamengo.

Lota becomes
with the project; opposing bureacrats and politicians try to undermine her and the project.
Bishop is abandoned, isolated; Lota’s friends unwelcoming. She takes a 6 month teaching spot at
University of Washington
& relapses into alcoholism.
Bishop is released before Lota, moves back to New York to teach at NYU. She has an
with a younger, married woman, Adrienne who is also her student.

11. She visits Lota in Brazil for a bit; Lota finds love letters from Adrienne to Bishop. On edge and neglected by Lota, Bishop returns to NY.

, Lota flies to NY to visit Bishop. They go on a dinner date. Later, Bishop stumbles upon Lota falling to the ground after taking a bottle of
Valium to kill herself.

She returns to Brazil, but Lota is still absorbed in project. They
travel together
to rekindle love, but catch a foreign flu and are
. Bishop is mostly hospitalized for alcoholism, however.
"An exotic love story becomes an empowering portrait of two highly gifted women who defy social convention."
translated by Neil Besner,
originally by Carmen Oliveira
Brazil- Inspired Poems
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or next-to-last, of three loved
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost
two cities
, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it
wasn't a disaster

—Even losing
(the joking voice, a gesture I love)
I shan't have lied
. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop
“Song for the Rainy Season"
love poem
she and Lota in “open house” with glass walls, wrapped in a “private cloud”;
"Not as an architectural monument, but as a house permanently open to nature, where fog came in through the window and indolently crossed the room in the middle of a conversation. She called the poem” Song for the Rainy Season.” (pg. 765)
“The Shampoo”
inspired by Lota
“It spoke of lichens, rings in the moon, of shooting stars and patient heavens…Lota was hasty and now she had to wash her hair.” (pg. 722)
moving love poem;
Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring
"The Armadillo"
“Animals Bishop observed appeared in the new poems she created in the studio. " (709)
"The armadillo fleeting from flames in the forest were caused by a fire balloon. The lizards circling, red hot, the female, her wicked tail straight up and over. The sandpiper running obsessed along the beach, looking for something, something, something. “ (pg. 709)

For Robert Lowell

This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,

rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.

Once up against the sky it's hard
to tell them from the stars--
planets, that is--the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,

or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it's still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,
The still explosions on the rocks,
lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet
the rings around the moon,
within our memories they have not changed.

And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you've been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.

shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
ome, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.
receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.

Last night another big one fell.
It splattered like an egg of fire
against the cliff behind the house.
The flame ran down. We saw the pair

of owls who nest there flying up
and up, their whirling black-and-white
stained bright pink underneath, until
they shrieked up out of sight.

The ancient owls' nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,

and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft!--a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry! O falling fire and piercing cry and panic,
and a weak mailed fist clenched ignorant against the sky!

Hidden, oh hidden
in the high fog
the house we live in,
beneath the magnetic rock,
rain-, rainbow-ridden,
where blood-black
bromelias, lichens,
owls, and the lint
of the waterfalls cling,
familiar, unbidden.

In a dim age
of water
the brook sings loud
from a rib cage
of giant fern; vapor
climbs up the thick growth
effortlessly, turns back,
holding them both,
house and rock,
in a private cloud.

At night, on the roof,
blind drops crawl
and the ordinary brown
owl gives us proof
he can count:
five times--always five--
he stamps and takes off
after the fat frogs that,
shrilling for love,
clamber and mount.
House, open house
to the white dew
and the milk-white sunrise
kind to the eyes,
to membership
of silver fish, mouse,
big moths; with a wall
for the mildew's
ignorant map;

darkened and tarnished
by the warm touch
of the warm breath,
maculate, cherished;
rejoice! For a later
era will differ.
(O difference that kills
or intimidates, much
of all our small shadowy
life!) Without water

the great rock will stare
unmagnetized, bare,
no longer wearing
rainbows or rain,
the forgiving air
and the high fog gone;
the owls will move on
and the several
waterfalls shrivel
in the steady sun.
motivator for unfocused Bishop
Cookie, go work"
helped Bishop
fight alcoholism
Lota strove hard to prolong the periods of abstinence...Bishop was grateful for this loving protection.
" ( 665)

culture & confidence
"Bishop never tired of admiring Lota's cache of cultural lore. At each moment she'd make opportune and well-informed comments." (602)
inspired Bishop to write '
The Wit"
independence, tenacity
"she [Lota] wasn't afraid of work" (177)
opposite of subdued, fearful
"then she paid the bills of the lawyers who had taken care of legalizing the house. Both houses were full of unexpected and creative solutions that were Lota's signature." (176)
offers stability; like 'family'
gave Bishop 'family'
she never had a family figure to lean on,
Lota had "lineage," "brusque manners" and sophistication
object of admiration
Bishop, to Lota: “
No one is as confident as you are.

Bruno Baretto
Elizabeth Bishop:
Miranda Otto
Gloria Pires
Reaching for The Moon
released Nov. 8, 2013
Thanks for listening!
by Kelly Peterson
Reaching for the Moon
Historical Bio
Book Overview of

Rare and Commonplace Flowers
Poems & Awards
Key Influences
Brazil-Inspired Poems: Analysis
One Art
Full transcript