Elizabeth Bishop was one of the most important American poets of the 20th century. She worked almost obsessively on her poems, and would spend years perfecting each one. As a result, she didn't write that many poems, at least not compared to a lot of other 20th-century poets. But, because she labored so intensely, her poems are totally awesome.
Bishop had a long and colorful life. Her father died when she was very young, and her mother was mentally ill and spent most of her life in an institution. Bishop had some long love affairs with women (which were a little scandalous for her time), and was proposed to by a friend of hers, poet Robert Lowell. She refused him, but they still wrote some amazing poems for each other. (If you're interested in their relationship, you might want to check out our guide on Lowell's poem "Skunk Hour.") Bishop had family money, so she didn't have to work much on anything other than her poetry. She loved to travel, and spent much of her life overseas; she lived in Brazil for many years and translated a number of Portuguese poems into English.
Even though she had a really interesting life, Bishop wasn't too interested in writing about it. That's what makes "In the Waiting Room" unique. This poem is one of the few in which Bishop actually talks directly about herself and her emotions, instead of talking about, say, geography, or animals (two of her favorite topics). In "In the Waiting Room," we get a glimpse of Bishop's childhood self, and we find out about her biggest fears. But knowing what we do about Bishop's life and writing, we have to ask ourselves: how much of "In the Waiting Room" is truth? How much is fiction? Is the poem's "Elizabeth" the real Elizabeth Bishop?
Were you ever a kid?
Okay, that was kind of a dumb question. Of course you were – we all started out that way. But this simple fact of our common childhoods is why you should care about this poem.
"In the Waiting Room" is about how growing up can be scary sometimes. When you're just a kid, strange noises at the dentist's office are scary. Naked people in magazines are scary. Wars are really scary. "In the Waiting Room," in some ways, is about how scary it is to not understand the world around you. In other ways, though, it's about how the world becomes even scarier once you do begin to understand it.