I should not admit this during National Poetry Month, but I somehow managed to go through four years of college - as an English major, no less - without taking a single poetry course. I read fiction, I wanted to write novels, so what use was poetry to me? But all that changed when I discovered Elizabeth Bishop during my senior year. I was visiting a friend who had Bishop's salmon-colored "Complete Poems" in her room. Intrigued by the cover, I picked it up and soon began reading, fixating, especially, on her sestinas. Not having taken a poetry course, I had never seen such a thing before and immediately wanted to figure out how she did it. When I went home, I bought my own copy.
For me, Elizabeth Bishop was the right poet at the right time. In the months that followed, I developed what I can only call a crush on her: I read about her life, I read the "Collected Prose," and I watched a documentary about her.
I was 22, about to graduate from college, and I desperately wanted to go to India. I was a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey and had no connection to India at all, and yet that was what I wanted.
Bishop, somehow, gave me courage. That she had spent so many years in Brazil was a comfort and an inspiration - she had picked up, moved to another country, and not only survived but thrived. No matter that Bishop was over 40 when she went and that her long stay did not end well. That she went was what mattered to me.
The summer after graduation, my friends were kind, even solicitous, about my Bishop obsession. We all wrote bad sestinas - about the weird dog we lived with, about mountain biking, about cars. Mine were all about the passage of time, which concerned me. The boy I had a romance with that summer was less supportive - the flaws in his character should have been obvious to me the moment he called Bishop an "arcane woman poet." (Several years later, to his credit, he apologized. …