Conversation: Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Prose’
In the years since Elizabeth Bishop’s death in 1979, her work has garnered far more attention and acclaim than it ever did during her life, vaulting her to be widely recognized as one of the 20th century’s greatest poets.
Although publishing relatively little, roughly 100 poems, she wrote volumes, and over the last decade nearly all of her unpublished work has been made public, including a comprehensive Library of America collection. Last week, two new books were added to Bishop’s canon, titled simply “Poetry” and “Prose.”
“What animates Bishop’s poetry is the deep authenticity of a writer who knew exactly what she was and never tried to seem otherwise,” writes poet Dana Gioia in a recent review of the books. “Preternaturally observant, quietly inventive, detached but compassionate, Bishop created poems that seem unnervingly real. We see the place, the person or the thing as if it were truly there, and we feel emotions that the author doesn’t state overtly but slyly awakens inside us.”
Bishop’s poetry is by far the best known and most lauded of her work, but “she was nevertheless always a vastly more prolific prose writer than poet,” writes Lloyd Schwartz in the editor’s note for “Prose.” Schwartz was a friend of Bishop’s and also co-edited the Library of America collection.
Listen to Lloyd Schwartz discuss “Prose”:
“Of course, she wrote a million letters,” Schwartz said in a recent phone conversation. “I’m not sure she was thinking of that as prose, but they are very eloquent and funny, poignant and really capture her voice.”
Among the pieces in “Prose” never before published is Bishop’s original text for the Life World Library book on Brazil, which was heavily edited by Life editors. “The telltale sign is that on the title page of the book it says ‘The World Library, Brazil by Elizabeth Bishop and the Editors of Life,’” said Schwartz. “They rewrote wholesale things she had written and she hated the book.”
Schwartz went to Vassar College’s extensive collection of Bishop’s personal papers. There he found her original draft of Brazil, with just one chapter missing. At Harvard’s library he discovered Bishop’s copy of the book with her notes and comments on the changes. Between the two sources, Schwartz put together the bulk of what Bishop intended. “This is the closest we can get to what she wanted, and it is really quite remarkable,” he said.
Another newly published item is Bishop’s review of a biography that claims its subject, a woman, was the sole inspiration for Emily Dickenson’s love poems. “Bishop writes this scathing review about how there is never just one reason for a great poet to write her poems,” Schwartz said. “I thought that was a little gem.”