Twentieth Century Poetry: Selves and Situations

By Peter Robinson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
Elizabeth Bishop’s Art

I

The words ‘One Art’ appear both at the head of a villanelle by Elizabeth Bishop and on the title page of her selected letters. Their editor, Robert Giroux, explains that the title of this book ‘stands for the art of poetry, to which she devoted her life’ and that ‘One Art also stands for the art of letter writing, which she practiced more casually and with more prolific results’.1 Bishop’s devotion, though, involved keeping poetry at a certain unbiddable distance. During 1967 she writes, worrying about Lowell’s recent production rate: ‘He has so much better things to give the world (as his wife said) than hasty reactions to all the pressures here in N.Y.’. Bishop herself could not be hurried. Soon after the beginning of their relationship, Lota Costellat de Macedo Soares writes to Arthur Gold and Robert Fitzdale: ‘You should see the mail she gets asking, begging, etc. and nope, she is cooking a cake! Like now!’2 Bishop’s villanelle in fact addresses another art, one which lies behind the arts of poetry, letter writing, the memoir, short fiction, and literary translation, all of which she practised: ‘The art of losing’.3 The word ‘art’ appears without inverted commas in my title because I want to address an issue suggested by Colm Tóibín in his review of her correspondence:

the book is important for two main reasons, the first of which is the fact that
some of the letters, in themselves, are written with wonderful wit and skill;
secondly, they tell a great and tragic lesbian love story, documenting, along the
way, in tentative tones, a quintessential gay sensibility.4

1 Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: Selected Letters ed. R. Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), p. viii.

2 Ibid. 481, 264.

3 Elizabeth Bishop, Complete Poems 1927–1979 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983), 178.

4 Colm Tóibín, ‘The South’, London Review of Books, 16/15, 4 Aug. 1994, 8.

-99-

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