Observing with Joy: Megan Marshall’s Elizabeth Bishop

Reviewed in this essay:
Megan Marshall, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
February 7, 2017
$30.00; 384 pp.

Loneliness is a great affliction of writers. Part of this has to do with workplace conditions: most writing is done alone, sitting in a chair. With poets things can get even spookier, because for many inspiration arrives inconsistently, leaving one with a less rigid work schedule than a novelist and a lot more time to kill. That, said W.H. Auden, tends to lead either to literary busywork—he claimed that Tennyson was guilty of writing too much—or heavy drinking, or both. Mix this with the well-documented susceptibility of poets to depression and anxiety, and you could generate a painful life indeed. In many ways this was Elizabeth Bishop’s lot.

She published just four volumes of new verse during a half-century career; only Philip Larkin was a harsher judge of his own work. Nonetheless her influence has been immense ever since she first garnered critical acclaim in the 1940s: her peers imitated her, no subsequent generation of American poets has gone untouched, and besides (maybe) Robert Lowell or Kay Ryan, after Wallace Stevens there is no greater American lyricist. Almost forty years past her death, one has little need to defend Bishop’s rep to literate English readers. I even know non-poets who like her! That just doesn’t happen much anymore.  

So who was Elizabeth Bishop, and where did her magic poems come from? Megan Marshall (who won a Pulitzer for her biography of the nineteenth-century activist Margaret Fuller) makes both inquiries in her wonderful Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, the title of which is taken from an early lyric of the poet’s. Like all great biographies, this one reads something like a novel, with a depth of characterization, intensity of description (especially of inner states), and vigorous narrative momentum that are literary in their own right. A deeply humane critic, Marshall prudently leaves the latter question—the precise alchemical origin of Bishop’s work—somewhat open, admitting the limited extent to which anyone can explain how an artist makes what she makes. (Most poets don’t even like talking about their own inspiration, because they rarely understand it either.) Nonetheless, her readings of Bishop’s lyrics are astute (and mercifully concise), while her portrait of the poet as a human being left me feeling as though I’d met her, even struck up a friendship. Pulling deeply from Bishop’s archives, especially the treasure chest of letters and drafts at Vassar College, Marshall demonstrates how the poems bubbled up and evolved in the writer’s notebooks, and manages to elucidate without becoming tendentious. She never subjects Bishop’s life or work to a monolithic, final interpretation; nor is either truly background or foreground, but both at once in Marshall’s deft handling. It is the best biography of Bishop available and will be for a long time.

Often the book makes for painful reading. Bishop’s life from childhood on was a tapestry of losses: her father died when she was a baby, her mother was confined to a psychiatric institution until an early death, and young Elizabeth shuttled between maternal and paternal relatives. After college at Vassar, she received an angry missive from a would-be lover who refused to accept that she preferred women sexually; it was his suicide note—“Elizabeth, Go to hell.” The psychiatrist who helped Bishop first confront her demons in her thirties died young and suddenly. Her longtime partner, the Brazilian landscape architect Lota de Macedo Soares, either committed suicide or accidently overdosed on tranquilizers right in front of Bishop in 1967. Bishop had no shortage of lovers and friends—she was radiant, kind, brilliant—but often found herself lonely and depressed, and she self-medicated with alcohol and pills, neither of which she was ever able to give up. Worst were the days, weeks, months, sometimes years when poetry would not coalesce into publishable form, when often it didn’t come at all. These fallow periods left her worried she would never write again. “It is hell to realize one has wasted half one’s talent through timidity,” she said in a letter, despite being famous. These droughts always broke beautifully in showers of poems, but they were terrifying. Still, she tried to embrace the slow reality of how her gift worked, admitting that “I’ve always felt that I’ve written poetry more by not writing it than writing it.”

Bishop preferred to keep the midcentury American poetry scene at a distance. She didn’t go full Salinger—she still traveled widely, accepted awards, gave readings, helped the careers of younger poets, taught at various schools (Harvard the longest), maintained an intense, rewarding friendship with her contemporary Robert Lowell, “Cal,” who also struggled with booze and mental instability—but she was never an enthusiastic participant like Lowell, who got invited to the White House on the strength of his antiwar activism. This is part of Bishop’s allure. It is tantalizing to think of a major poet who didn’t care much about worldly acclaim and instead kept herself abroad in luxuriant Brazil or tucked into a quiet Boston loft. 

Every artist is a kind of hero in capitalist modernity, which doesn’t have much use for things that don’t pay well. Bishop’s devotion to poetry—to finding perfect language in the muck of experience—made her heroic, and the heart of her gift consists in her powers of unexpected description. “Observation is a great joy,” she told an interviewer, and her slightly, marvelously off-kilter constructions of and responses to the world are always moments of intense observation shot through with a strangeness that sometimes, especially in her early work, borders on surrealism. And all of it rests on an astonishing command of language and poetic form.

In a letter from the mid-1960s, she speaks of the “surrealism of everyday life, unexpected moments of empathy” when one catches “a peripheral vision of whatever it is one can never really see full-face.” Consider the much-anthologized “The Fish” (1940), where a creature is simultaneously ordinary and bizarre, hideous and beautiful, explicable and mysterious, bodily material and aesthetic device:

While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.

Certainly this poem evinces what Bishop later called “a way of thinking with one’s feelings.” It relies on associational, intuitive, aesthetically adventurous cognition rather than sequential logic or scientific categorization. An object of intense human study, the fish is nonetheless a sentient Other, one the speaker cautiously empathizes with and sets free again. He visits our world like a royal alien. He meets one of our better emissaries.

My one mild critique of A Miracle for Breakfast is that I would like to read more of Marshall’s autobiography, perhaps in a full memoir. Here she uses interludes between chapters to explore her growth as a writer, which included classes at Harvard with Bishop, and the material merits expansion. She is a sensitive observer of herself and the world. But that book, like most, waits for another time. This one’s good enough.

—Ryan Boyd