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Elizabeth Bishop’s Writings Honored by Library of America

February 14, 2008 at 6:45 PM EST
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The Library of America is publishing the collected works and letters of celebrated poet Elizabeth Bishop -- marking the first time it has done so for a woman poet. Two of Bishop's friends discuss and read her work.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, today marks the release of a new volume honoring an American master, poet Elizabeth Bishop. Jeffrey Brown has our report.

JEFFREY BROWN: Elizabeth Bishop was known to take years or even decades to complete a poem and published only about 90 of them in all in a handful of volumes that included “North and South,” “Questions of Travel,” and “Geography III.”

But each poem, each volume further cemented her renown among her peers. And since her death in 1979, her reputation in the wider public has only grown.

Bishop was born in Worcester, Mass., in 1911, but was sent at an early age to live with her grandparents in Nova Scotia after her father died and her mother was hospitalized for mental illness. That began a lifetime of travel punctuated by moments of personal loss, as well as achievement.

Her poetry was first published while she attended Vassar. Bishop lived for several years in Key West, Fla., and many more in Brazil, before spending most of her last years teaching and living in the Boston area.

Now the Library of America is publishing a collection of Bishop’s poems, prose and letters. Only nine poets have been so honored, including Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, and Bishop is the first woman.

The new Library of America volume was put together by Bishop’s long-time editor, Robert Giroux, and her friend and fellow poet, Lloyd Schwartz, who joins me now. He’s a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and music critic for the Boston Phoenix.

Welcome to you.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, Co-Editor, “Elizabeth Bishop”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Elizabeth Bishop has long had a reputation as a poet’s poet. Why was she so beloved by people who write and read poetry?

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Well, at first partly because she was such a meticulous writer. She had a wonderful eye when she was able to get into her poems. She saw the world, and she saw it in a very clear and vivid and interesting way.

People at first, I think, thought she was a kind of miniaturist, but also the perfect miniaturist.

And then, also, her poems were very moving, and full of feeling, full of a way of looking at the world that was both very precise, but also not pompous, questioning, rather than giving answers to what she saw.

Addressing the human condition

JEFFREY BROWN: It's still kind of mind-boggling to talk about a major poet who only published some 80 to 90 poems in her lifetime. I hear the word "perfectionist" used all the time.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Right. She wanted to get it right, but it was not so much for the art. It was for the complexity of feeling and a way of dealing with the dilemmas of being a human being.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that the subject matter of Elizabeth Bishop in her poetry?

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: I think, in some way, it really is, that she writes about memory, but she writes about how important it is to have memories and how awful it is to remember some things.

She talks about how important it is to be an individual and have an individual identity and, in some ways, how lonely that is or what a nightmare it is to be an eye, an Elizabeth, as she says, in one of her most remarkable poems.

Posthumous renown

JEFFREY BROWN: What can you tell us about her? She had a lot of sadness and sorrow in her life. What was she like as a person?

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: She did, but she was also -- she had a great sense of humor. She did not like talking about poetry. She did not like the whole poetry business.

She liked movies. She liked Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. She even wrote a couple of poems that she was hoping someone would set to music for Billie Holiday to sing. That never happened in her lifetime.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did she care much about a wider readership? Because we started off talking about her as a poet's poet. She was not well-known to the public, at least in her lifetime.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Right. Well, of course, she lived in Brazil for many, many years, 15 years. And when she won her Pulitzer Prize, she was in Brazil when it happened. So she was very much out of the public eye.

She told me a story about being in the hospital once, when an intern came in for what she described as an embarrassing procedure, and looked at her name on her chart, and said, "Oh, are you Elizabeth Bishop, the poet?" And that in some way thrilled her more than getting an award from a poetry society.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you now define her influence or her legacy?

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Well, it's amazing that she has become, I think, since her death, really, has become a much more popular figure. And she is a kind of role model of how to write a good poem and to take art seriously, but not pretentiously. And there are these wonderful poems.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the new volume is "Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters." Co-editor Lloyd Schwartz, thank you very much.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Thank you.

Bishop's poem "One Art"

JIM LEHRER: And here now is one of Elizabeth Bishop's best-known poems. It's read by poet Jane Shore, who knew Bishop as colleague and friend. She's now a professor at George Washington University.

JANE SHORE, Poet: "One Art."

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 names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

-- Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident

the art of losing's not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

JIM LEHRER: You can hear Jane Shore and Lloyd Schwartz read several more of Elizabeth Bishop's poems on our Web site. Just go to PBS.org.