poem index

November 29, 1977Guggenheim Museumfrom the Academy Audio Archive

About this poet

Elizabeth Bishop was born on February 8, 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts. When she was less than a year old, her father died, and shortly thereafter, her mother was committed to a mental asylum. Bishop was first sent to live with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia and later lived with paternal relatives in Worcester and South Boston. She earned a bachelor's degree from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1934.

Bishop was independently wealthy, and from 1935 to 1937 she spent time traveling to France, Spain, North Africa, Ireland, and Italy and then settled in Key West, Florida, for four years. Her poetry is filled with descriptions of her travels and the scenery that surrounded her, as with the Florida poems in her first book of verse, North & South (Houghton Mifflin), published in 1946.

She was influenced by the poet Marianne Moore, who was a close friend, mentor, and stabilizing force in her life. Unlike her contemporary and good friend Robert Lowell, who wrote in the Confessional style, Bishop's poetry avoids explicit accounts of her personal life and focuses instead with great subtlety on her impressions of the physical world.

Her images are precise and true to life, and they reflect her own sharp wit and moral sense. She lived for many years in Brazil, communicating with friends and colleagues in America only by letter. She wrote slowly and published sparingly (her Collected Poems number barely one hundred), but the technical brilliance and formal variety of her work is astonishing. For years she was considered a "poet's poet," but with the publication of her last book, Geography III (Chatto and Windus), in 1977, Bishop was finally established as a major force in contemporary literature.

She received the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for her collection, Poems: North & South/A Cold Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1955). Her Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), won the National Book Award in 1970. That same year, Bishop began teaching at Harvard University, where she worked for seven years.

Elizabeth Bishop was awarded an Academy Fellowship in 1964 for distinguished poetic achievement, and served as a Chancellor from 1966 to 1979. She died in Cambridge, Massachussetts, on October 6, 1979, and her stature as a major poet continues to grow through the high regard of the poets and critics who have followed her.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (Library of America, 2008)
Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)
The Complete Poems 1927-1979 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983)
Geography III (Chatto and Windus, 1977)
Poem (Phoenix Book Shop,1973)
The Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969)
The Ballad of the Burglar of Babylon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968)
Questions of Travel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965)
Poems (Chatto and Windus, 1956)
Poems: North and South/A Cold Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1955)
North & South (Houghton Mifflin, 1946)

Prose
One Art: Letters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994)
The Collected Prose (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984)
The Diary of Helena Morley (Ecco Press, 1977)
Brazil (Time, inc., 1962)

Anthology

Anthology of Twentieth Century Brazilian Poetry (with Emmanuel Brasil) (Wesleyan University Press, 1972)

The Armadillo

Elizabeth Bishop, 1911 - 1979

For Robert Lowell

This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,

rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.

Once up against the sky it's hard 
to tell them from the stars—
planets, that is—the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,

or the pale green one.  With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it's still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,

receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.

Last night another big one fell.
It splattered like an egg of fire
against the cliff behind the house.
The flame ran down.  We saw the pair

of owls who nest there flying up 
and up, their whirling black-and-white
stained bright pink underneath, until
they shrieked up out of sight.

The ancient owls' nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,

and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft!—a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!

From The Complete Poems 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Used with permission.

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop

The technical brilliance and formal variety of Elizabeth Bishop's work—rife with precise and true-to-life images—helped establish her as a major force in contemporary literature.

by this poet

poem
In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist's appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist's waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long
poem

This is a day when truths will out, perhaps;
leak from the dangling telephone earphones
sapping the festooned switchboards' strength;
fall from the windows, blow from off the sills,
—the vague, slight unremarkable contents
of emptying ash-trays; rub off on our fingers
like ink from the

poem
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and