“The whole shadow of Man is only as big as his hat.”–Elizabeth Bishop
She was an only child whose father died when she was 8 moths old. Her mother suffered a series of mental breakdowns and was “permanently committed to an institution when Elizabeth was only five years old.” [Poetry Foundation]Bishop, who went to live with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia, never saw her mother again. After several years her paternal grandparents took her to live with them in Massachusetts. The Bishops were well to do and could afford a first class education for the little girl. They sent her to “Walnut Hills School for Girls and to Vassar College.” [Ibid]
After graduating Vassar Bishop, who was independently wealthy traveled extensively in Europe and North Africa. She lived for four years in Key West Florida where she wrote of her travels. In 1946 those poems were compiled into her first book, North and South. (The book won a Pulitzer Prize.) In 1951 she received a traveling fellowship and decided to circumnavigate South America. She made it as far as Santo, Brazil. Her intended stay of 2 weeks lasted over fifteen years. Upon returning to the United States she lived in New York, San Francisco, and New England.
Her style “focuses … with great subtlety on her impressions of the physical world… Her images are precise and true to life, and they reflect her own sharp wit and moral sense.” [Poets.org] The New York Times Called Bishop “One of the most important American poets” of the 20th Century. Bishop wrote slowly and precisely. She didn’t write a huge volume of poems, but each was measured perfection.
Here is my favorite Bishop poem, The Map:
Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?
The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
-the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.
Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,
lending the land their waves’ own conformation:
and Norway’s hare runs south in agitation,
profiles investigate the sea, where land is.
Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
-What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.
More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.
Bishop died at age 68 in October of 1979 in Boston. Besides her Pulitzer she won a National Book Award for Poetry in 1970, the Neustadt Internaional Prize in 1976 and two Guggenheim Fellowships (1947 & 1978).Other Bishop poems I highly recommend:
- Poet of the Week: Elizabeth Bishop (elizabethegeorge.wordpress.com)