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Elizabeth Bishop Biography | Poet

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Elizabeth Bishop, an American poet, was born on February 8, 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts, and died on October 6, 1979, in Boston Massachusetts, at the age of 68. She is considered one of the most distinguished American poets of the 20th century, and was probably one of the most adorned in her achievements, receiving many awards and commemorations.

Major Achievements

She was a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and a consultant in poetry for the Library of Congress from 1949 to 1950. She was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1976. Bishop's first book, North & South, won the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Award in 1946, and was reprinted in 1955 with additions, as North & South: A Cold Spring, winning Bishop a Pulitzer Prize For Poetry. Her next collection of poetry, Questions of Travel, won the National Book Award in 1965. In 1967, Bishop was awarded two Guggenheim fellowships. The Complete Poems won the National Book Award in 1969. Geography III (1976) was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1976, Bishop became the first American and the first woman to win the Books Abroad/Neustadt Prize for Literature. Bishop also was given a number of honorary degrees from Adelphi, Amherst College, Brandeis, Brown, Dalhousie, Princeton, and Smith College.

Educating Elizabeth

Bishop had an inconsistent primary school and high school attendances because she suffered from severe illness during her childhood, so she missed a lot of school. However, she entered Vassar College in the fall of 1929, majoring in music composition and piano, but changed her mind the next year, switching her major to English. It was as a Vassar student that Elizabeth Bishop met Marianne Moore in 1934, in the New York Public Library. Moore played a significant role in the following year in Bishop's decision not to enroll in Cornell Medical School. Moore had discouraged her from attending medical school. Bishop graduated from Vassar College in 1934, earning a bachelor’s degree in English Literature.

Family Life

Elizabeth Bishop spent part of her childhood living with her grandparents in Nova Scotia, Canada, right after her father's death and her mother's hospitalization. Her father, who was a successful builder, died when she was eight months old, and soon after her mother became mentally ill and was committed to a mental asylum in 1916. Bishop's mother remained institutionalized until her death in 1934, and they never reunited. Bishop lived with paternal relatives in Worcester, Massachusetts, for a short time. While living in Worcester, she developed chronic asthma that afflicted her for the rest of her life. She established permanent residency with her mother's older sister in Boston, until 1951. In 1951, Bishop was given a $2,500 traveling fellowship from Bryn Mawr College, so she traveled to South America by boat. In November 1951, she arrived in Santos, Brazil, and that was the beginning of the fifteen years that she would reside in Brazil. She lived in Pétropolis with architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Near the end of the fifteen years, their relationship deteriorated, becoming unstable and tumultuous, plagued by depression and alcoholism. Soares took her own life in 1967, and that prompted Bishop to stay in America. In 1971, Bishop began a relationship with Alice Methfessel. She published her last book in 1976, Geography III. Three years later, Bishop died of a cerebral aneurysm in her apartment at Lewis Wharf, Boston. She was buried in Hope Cemetery in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Work Facts

Bishop was influenced by the poet Marianne Moore, who was her close friend, mentor, and a grounding force in her life. Unlike her good friend and peer, Robert Lowell, who wrote confessional poetry, Bishop focused instead on her impressions of the world around her. Bishop traveled extensively so her poetry depicted her travels and the scenery that surrounded her, as in her first book of poems, North & South. Questions of Travel (1965) and Geography III (1976) were collections that were also based on her traveling experiences. The Geography III includes Bishop’s most well-known poems such as, In the Waiting Room, Crusoe in England, and One Art. A collection entitled The Complete Poems was published in 1969. Aside from writing poems, she taught poetry at the University of Washington, Harvard, and New York University. She taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, just prior to her death in 1979. Her poetry collections that were published posthumously include: The Complete Poems, 1927–1979 (1983), The Collected Prose, a volume of fiction and nonfiction (1984), and Edgar Allen Poe & the Juke-Box (2006) and Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (2008), which is a collection of her published and unpublished work.

The Significance of Elizabeth Bishop

The images that she depicted in poems are distinctive and realistic, painting a picture for the reader so that they could see through her eyes, reading her poems. She wrote slowly and published prudently, for the sake of preserving the technical brilliance of her poems. With the publication of her book, Geography III, Bishop finally established herself as a predominant influence in contemporary literature. Bishop did not view, or label herself as a "lesbian poet" or "female poet", even though she considered herself to be "a strong feminist". She wanted to be judged on the quality of her writing, not on her gender or sexual orientation. Bishop avoided the confessional style of writing poetry, because she liked to be discreet and private about her personal life. Bishop struggled with alcoholism and depression throughout her adult life, but she never wrote about this struggle, because she did not favor self-exposure. 

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