Bishop, after all

By SVEN BIRKERTS  |  February 5, 2008

To read Bishop’s letters on the heels of the public prose is to shift abruptly from the achieved personal impersonality of the most crafted literature into relaxation of the emphatically personal. I don’t mean “personal” in terms of contents but in terms of address. A poem or an essay is intransitive; it aspires to a universalized reader sensibility. A true letter, no matter how carefully written, is never anything but a one-to-one transitive document. These letters are of interest — how could they not be? — yet they also are valuable not only for the characteristic grace of expression but for the glimpses they offer of a literary time and place. Recipients include Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, Frank Bidart, May Swenson, and editor Schwartz. Bishop comes across as a vigilant, sensitive, engaged correspondent, not afraid to offer literary opinions, or, when need be, to set an editor straight (as a four-page itemized response to an article about her work in the journal Salmagundi attests). Whether a canon-making volume like this needs to reprint letters when they exist in a substantive separate volume is another question.

Finally, Schwartz and Giroux have provided a richly annotated chronology of the poet’s life, almost a mini-essay in itself. Reading it in conjunction with the selections, which are arranged chronologically within their respective genres, we partake in the densely woven to-and-fro between the art and the life. To close the book is to realize how the former has now fully absorbed the latter.

“CELEBRATING ELIZABETH BISHOP” | Lloyd Schwartz et al. reading from her work | MIT Room 6-120, 77 Mass Ave, Cambridge | March 6 at 7 pm | 617.253.7894

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