by Robert WeibezahlFebruary 2011
A poet's letters reveal glimpses of literary life
February marked the centenary of Elizabeth Bishop’s birth, and her longtime publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, commemorated the occasion with a delightful collection of 40-odd years’ worth of correspondence between the great poet and her editors and friends at The New Yorker. The magazine, of course, holds a special place in the literary history of 20th-century America, and Bishop was one of its most valued contributors up until her death in 1979. These letters, ably compiled and annotated by Joelle Biele, beautifully capture the sui generis culture at the venerable periodical, as well as Bishop’s own idiosyncrasies and sensitivities.
Most of the correspondence is between Bishop and two key editors: first, the legendary Katherine White, who was second only to founder Harold Ross in shaping the personality of The New Yorker, and later poetry editor Howard Moss, himself an eminent poet of the age. Some letters get bogged down in editorial minutiae (it becomes clear Bishop was notoriously, though one might argue charmingly, loose with the rules of punctuation, a syntactical profligacy that the magazine’s rigid copyediting department could not abide), but even in these, the evidence of two long and affectionate literary friendships always lurks between the lines.
What strikes the reader in our era of dashed-off emails is the inherent politesse of this correspondence. Bishop and White did not address each other by their Christian names until fully five years into their working relationship, for example, and personal details are rare, especially in the earliest letters. Bishop’s life was not without its drama—orphaned young, she battled depression and alcoholism—but the reader of these letters catches only a fleeting glimpse of the darker side of the poet’s life. Indeed, the suicide of her longtime female lover is mentioned only in the most elliptical manner; similarly, Moss’ apparent homosexuality is hinted at, but never openly acknowledged.
Writers in particular will be interested in the back and forth between Bishop and her editors as they discuss her poems or prose pieces. A long correspondence about “In the Village,” for instance, shows the rigor that went into making the classic story the jewel it is. Time and again these letters underscore the fact that writing did not come easily for Bishop—she produced a relatively small body of work, holding onto and fiddling with manuscripts (she mentions a number of intriguing pieces that never saw the light of day). In her case, quality trumps quantity, for what she did publish in her lifetime is often luminous.
Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker provides a charming entrée into the lives of Bishop, White and Moss, as well as a dose of nostalgia for a leisurely literary lifestyle that has become a casualty of the Information Age. It seems downright quaint that Bishop, living in Brazil, often waited weeks for proofs of her poems to arrive from the magazine for checking. Sometimes they never arrived at all. Perhaps the snail’s pace by which she lived and wrote colored her work, giving it its gentle grace. For those who want to revisit the work itself, FSG is also reissuing her poems and prose in a two-volume boxed set in time for the birthday celebration.