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About this poet

Elizabeth Bishop was born on February 8, 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts. When she was less than a year old, her father died, and shortly thereafter, her mother was committed to a mental asylum. Bishop was first sent to live with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia and later lived with paternal relatives in Worcester and South Boston. She earned a bachelor's degree from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1934.

Bishop was independently wealthy, and from 1935 to 1937 she spent time traveling to France, Spain, North Africa, Ireland, and Italy and then settled in Key West, Florida, for four years. Her poetry is filled with descriptions of her travels and the scenery that surrounded her, as with the Florida poems in her first book of verse, North & South (Houghton Mifflin), published in 1946.

She was influenced by the poet Marianne Moore, who was a close friend, mentor, and stabilizing force in her life. Unlike her contemporary and good friend Robert Lowell, who wrote in the Confessional style, Bishop's poetry avoids explicit accounts of her personal life and focuses instead with great subtlety on her impressions of the physical world.

Her images are precise and true to life, and they reflect her own sharp wit and moral sense. She lived for many years in Brazil, communicating with friends and colleagues in America only by letter. She wrote slowly and published sparingly (her Collected Poems number barely one hundred), but the technical brilliance and formal variety of her work is astonishing. For years she was considered a "poet's poet," but with the publication of her last book, Geography III (Chatto and Windus), in 1977, Bishop was finally established as a major force in contemporary literature.

She received the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for her collection, Poems: North & South/A Cold Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1955). Her Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), won the National Book Award in 1970. That same year, Bishop began teaching at Harvard University, where she worked for seven years.

Elizabeth Bishop was awarded an Academy Fellowship in 1964 for distinguished poetic achievement, and served as a Chancellor from 1966 to 1979. She died in Cambridge, Massachussetts, on October 6, 1979, and her stature as a major poet continues to grow through the high regard of the poets and critics who have followed her.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (Library of America, 2008)
Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)
The Complete Poems 1927-1979 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983)
Geography III (Chatto and Windus, 1977)
Poem (Phoenix Book Shop,1973)
The Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969)
The Ballad of the Burglar of Babylon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968)
Questions of Travel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965)
Poems (Chatto and Windus, 1956)
Poems: North and South/A Cold Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1955)
North & South (Houghton Mifflin, 1946)

Prose
One Art: Letters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994)
The Collected Prose (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984)
The Diary of Helena Morley (Ecco Press, 1977)
Brazil (Time, inc., 1962)

Anthology

Anthology of Twentieth Century Brazilian Poetry (with Emmanuel Brasil) (Wesleyan University Press, 1972)

At the Fishhouses

Elizabeth Bishop, 1911 - 1979
Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses
an old man sits netting,
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
a dark purple-brown,
and his shuttle worn and polished.
The air smells so strong of codfish
it makes one's nose run and one's eyes water.
The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches, 
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls.
The big fish tubs are completely lined 
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered 
with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
Up on the little slope behind the houses,
set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass,
is an ancient wooden capstan,
cracked, with two long bleached handles
and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,
where the ironwork has rusted.
The old man accepts a Lucky Strike.
He was a friend of my grandfather.
We talk of the decline in the population
and of codfish and herring
while he waits for a herring boat to come in.
There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
the blade of which is almost worn away.

Down at the water's edge, at the place
where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
descending into the water, thin silver
tree trunks are laid horizontally
across the gray stones, down and down 
at intervals of four or five feet.

Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me.  He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
I also sang "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."
He stood up in the water and regarded me 
steadily, moving his head a little.
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
as if it were against his better judgment.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,
the dignified tall firs begin.
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
a million Christmas trees stand
waiting for Christmas.  The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: 
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

From The Complete Poems 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

CAUTION: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, LLC.

From The Complete Poems 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

CAUTION: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, LLC.

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop

The technical brilliance and formal variety of Elizabeth Bishop's work—rife with precise and true-to-life images—helped establish her as a major force in contemporary literature.

by this poet

poem

This is a day when truths will out, perhaps;
leak from the dangling telephone earphones
sapping the festooned switchboards' strength;
fall from the windows, blow from off the sills,
—the vague, slight unremarkable contents
of emptying ash-trays; rub off on our fingers
like ink from the

poem

For Grace Bulmer Bowers

From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,

where if the river
enters or retreats 
in a wall of brown foam
depends on if it meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home
poem
I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn't fight.
He hadn't fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of