Elizabeth Bishop published her first book of poetry in 1946 and wrote until her death in 1979. "The Fish" is one of her most famous poems.
Bishop is considered one of the best American poets of the 20th century, and she was close buds with poetry all-stars Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. She wrote tons and tons of letters to both of them (they're published in books now, so you can read all the juicy details), which is good for us because we would otherwise know very little of her personal life. Bishop's poetry is sometimes considered objective and cold because it reveals almost nothing about the poet or her life, but we prefer to think of her poems as extremely attentive and detailed, sharp and beautifully formed – nothing sloppy about them. It's as if she was using the highest pixel digital camera in an era when most other writers were still using washed out and grainy black and white film.
Her life was pretty colorful, though. She was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1911. Her dad died when she was just a baby and her mom never recovered from the loss; she was institutionalized when Bishop was five. Bishop went to live with her grandparents in Nova Scotia (and Nova Scotia actually does make it into some of her writing). Eventually Bishop attended Vassar College, where she began to write poetry. At Vassar she also discovered Marianne Moore's poetry and met "Ms. Moore" (as Bishop called her for years before finally relaxing enough to call her by her first name) and began their life-long friendship. She later met Robert Lowell; though their communication was mostly through letters, Lowell fell for Bishop and proposed to her! She refused.
Bishop was pretty wealthy, having a hefty inheritance which allowed her to spend her time writing. She lived in Key West, Florida for a while, where she met and befriended Pauline Pfeiffer Hemmingway (Ernest's ex) and eventually headed to Brazil with fellowship money. She ended up staying for fifteen years! There she met poets Octavio Paz and Carlos Drummond de Andrade, and the love of most of her life, Lota de Maceado Soares. Their relationship soured and, after fifteen years, Bishop moved back the US. Bishop met Alice Methfessel in 1971 and stayed with her until her death eight years later.
For someone so guarded about her personal life, Elizabeth Bishop sure had some juicy moments. You know we wouldn't leave you out of the loop!
Why Should I Care?
Elizabeth Bishop would spend years working on a single poem. Her poems are not the result of hasty scribbling on napkins while eating Cheerios in the morning, these are finished products. Thoroughly thorough. Finely cut gems. Over a lifetime of writing, she only published about 275 pages of poetry, and about forty of those are translations. She would pin drafts of poems to her bulletin board and obsessively revise them until they were as close to perfect as she could get them.
"So what?" you're thinking. "Just because she thought they were good doesn't mean they are good."
Fair enough, but trust us. Reading Elizabeth Bishop is like being transported to the very place, the very moment she's writing about. She leads us to a microscope so we can see every atom and every grain of the scene. It's like being there with her, but even more intense than that. It seems she's constantly asking us to notice more, notice more until the poem is so clear in our minds it's almost painful – like a light that's too bright. It might take your eyes a while to adjust, but once they do, you'll like what you see.