Study Guide

In the Waiting Room Introduction

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In the Waiting Room Introduction

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?

What is In the Waiting Room About and Why Should I Care?

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.

In the Waiting Room Resources


National Geographic
Check out how the magazine looks today.

The Martin and Osa Johnson Museum
Take a trip to Kansas and see what all the fuss is about.

Modern American Poetry
This wonderful site has tons of great info on Bishop, including readings of "In the Waiting Room" by a number of poetry critics. You can check out some of her letters there, too.


An Appreciation of Bishop
Critic David Orr and editor Alice Quinn talk about Bishop's work and life.


Bishop Reads
Listen to Bishop read her poem "The Armadillo," which she wrote for poet Robert Lowell.


Young Liz
Looking good!

Older Liz
Now slightly more pensive.

Historical Documents

For Sale
You can buy the February 1918 issue of National Geographic! Get it while you still can!


The Complete Poems 1927-1979 (1984)
The title says it all.

Words in Air (2010)
This book collects the complete correspondence between Bishop and Lowell. It's great if you like eavesdropping on other people's conversations about life, love, and literature.

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