From several thousand letters, written over fifty years - from 1928, when she was seventeen, to the day of her death, in Boston in 1979 - Robert Giroux has selected over five hundred and has written a detailed and informative introduction. One Art takes us behind Bishop's formal sophistication and reserve, displaying to the full the gift for friendship, the striving for perfection, and the passionate, questing, rigorous spirit that made her a great poet.
is the best biography we have of the elusive Elizabeth Bishop. Robert Giroux, her editor and friend, has chosen well--and discreetly--from among the poet's several thousand letters. The collection begins with correspondence she wrote while still at Vassar in the '30s and ends with a letter written on the day she died, October 6, 1979. ("Well, I could go on--but I won't!" Bishop writes.) Still, we now have more than 600 pages of witty, well-mannered missives that often shade into deep emotion. Seemingly casual observation is a staple of Bishop's art and a delight in the letters: writing to Marianne Moore in 1938, she asserts that an unappealing stray she is nonetheless feeding looks just like Picasso's Absinthe Drinker
. Nor is she any less irreverent when it comes to the lifestyles of the poetic and famous. In 1950, she tells Robert Lowell that she's reading Yeats's A Vision
--"or trying to. Have you? Sometimes it's Jungian. The picture of Yeats going 'Woof! Woof!' in a lower berth, in the dark, in California, in order to wake up his wife, who was dreaming she was a cat, is very pleasing, I think."
Bishop often hid her sadness behind charm, but she could also be astonishingly frank. In addition to the personal revelations, there are discussions of poems' origins. "Quite a few lines of 'At the Fishhouses' came to me in a dream," she tells U. T. and Joseph Summers. "And the scene--which was real enough, I'd recently been there--but the old man and the conversation, etc., were all in a later dream." One caveat: Robert Giroux has kept commentary and notes to a minimum, so it's worth reading his introduction for deep background before you begin.