On Elizabeth Bishop

On Elizabeth Bishop.

I attended a wonderful event at the Rosenbach Museum a few weeks ago: Colm Toibin talking about Elizabeth Bishop. What's not to love about them both?!  Toibin's love of Bishop's poetry was endearing. I pictured his talk being very academic, but in many ways it became a “preaching to the choir” kind of presentation. I did learn some new things about Elizabeth, though. While I knew that she idolized Marianne Moore and her poetry, I did not know that Marianne and her mother virtually rewrote poems that Elizabeth sent Marianne for her critique! Moore and her mother apparently thought that Bishop's three lines per stanza format was irregular, so they changed the lineation in a poem that Bishop sent her. Even more significant is Moore's and her mother's disapproval of Bishop's reference to a water closet, which they considered uncouth. Speaking of uncouth, they also thought that “Cocks” was preferable to Bishop's title, “Roosters.” Hmmmm... I was happy to hear that Bishop did not adhere to their suggestions and stopped asking them for critiques.

I also learned that when Bishop was five, her mother was taken away to a mental institute and she was fostered out to grandparents and aunts, then taken away to be raised by an aunt. (Bishop's father died when she was very young). However, unlike her contemporaries, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, Bishop did not write Confessional Poetry.  She used “enormous withholding,” according to Toibin, “using tones and rhythm to convey great loss.” Bishop preferred what she called “nothing much” kind of openers, starting her poems with “the language of facts.”  According to Toibin Bishop must declare that something is true first, as in “Land lies in water. It is shadowed green.” Toibin added that Bishop “wanted to register experience, using a rhyme system to make sense of the world.” He cited “At the Fishhouses” as being “very precise and exact, stating facts,” but then “incantatory,” as in “cold, dark, deep and absolutely clear.” Toibin claimed that facts and essentials take precedence in the beginning, and both energy and Bishop's speaker are withheld, that Bishop's power comes more from what is not said.

Lastly, I never knew until Toibin's talk that Robert Lowell used Bishop's poem, “The Armadillo” as a template for his poem, “Skunk Hour.” I love both of their poems, but Toibin reminded me of why.


Kathy Barham moved from Somerset, Virginia to South Philadelphia in 1998, after receiving an MFA degree from Warren Wilson Program for Writers.  Retired from teaching English at Conestoga High School, she spends time traveling and writing, inspired by her cats and the woods outside her log cabin apartment in Rose Valley, PA. Kathy has published poems in American Poetry Review, The Drunken Boat, Spillway, Mad Poets Review, Poetry Ink, and other journals. Her chapbook, From the Familiar, was published by The Moonstone Press in March, 2015.