“I was in a trance with poetry that made it as distasteful to listen to” the famous Shakespearean, George Lyman Kittredge, talk about poetry, “as it would have been to read Freud or Havelock Ellis or Kraft Ebbing when I was in love.” Never mind that when the complainant was in the mood for it, he could do a pretty good imitation of Harvard’s good professor-Robert Frost’s point is well taken. Well, this is not a book for poets. It is a book intended for those who like to talk about poetry and poets-the Kittredges among us, if you will. I am mindful, too, that poems invite multiple readings and various interpretations. What Elizabeth Bishop said about translation-“it is impossible to translate poetry, or perhaps only one aspect can be translated at a time, and each poem needs several translations”-holds true for commentary on poems, as well as their interpretation.
The year 2011 marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the poet Elizabeth Bishop’s birth. She shares this centenary with William Golding, Terrence Rattigan, and Tennessee Williams. “Each of these names has had its heyday,” reports the TLS, “but all now appear as hares lagging behind the tortoise Elizabeth Bishop… who published a modest book of verse once a decade from the mid-1940s onwards,” but “is now more fashionable than any of those mentioned above.” In the literary history of the United States perhaps only Emily Dickinson’s case offers a rough parallel to Bishop’s. In each instance, an enormous critical reputation and great overall popularity has come after their deaths. There have been dozens of editions of Bishop’s poetry and prose, a selected edition of her letters, a beautifully illustrated edition of her amateur’s drawings and paintings, a collection of her unpublished (largely unfinished) poetry, and collections of the correspondence she exchanged with Robert Lowell. In the works is a collection of her correspondence with her fellow-poet May Swenson. And of course there have been biographies, introductions, and monographs, special editions of journals, several symposia and colloquia-with proceedings publications, and, last but not least, at least thirty critical works-I count that many on my shelves and I do not have them all. She is represented by a volume in the Library of America series (2007). New, enlarged volumes of her Prose and her Poems have marked her publisher’s celebration of her centenary year.
There is little risk in saying that she has emerged as the poet of her generation, outstripping erstwhile rivals such as Theodore Roethke, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and-what was unthinkable in 1980 to most readers of American poetry-Robert Lowell. And, in the ways that matter, she has caught up with (some would say surpassed) the redoubtable Sylvia Plath.
Bishop once said in an interview conducted by the poet George Starbuck that “it takes probably hundreds of things coming together at the right moment to make a poem and no one can ever really separate them out and say this did this, that did that.” If one is doomed to failure when one tries to separate out some of the things that come to make a given poem, the scholar interested in sources and analogues makes the effort nevertheless to find such nascent things. His only justification for doing so is that often such knowledge enhances a reader’s understanding of a word, an image or a line in a poem, if not the poem’s overall purpose or intention. Anything, in my opinion, that tells us something about the way the writer’s imaginary works in the making of his poem is ipso facto of value. Identifying sources (sometimes broadly fundamental, sometimes indirectly allusive) has its further justification in the way it contributes to a deeper understanding of the biographical poet herself. Wallace Stevens had just been talking about two poets of his acquaintance-William Carlos Williams and Bishop-when he generalized: “The fact remains that we are always fundamentally interested in what a writer has to say. When we are sure of that, we pay attention to the way in which he says it, not often before.” Sometimes, however, we do not know what the poet is saying exactly until we attend to the way in which she says it. In Bishop’s case this is often at the essence of her poems, especially those that start out “obliquely,” with “the fire balloons, the Nova Scotia Picture, the hen in New York,” as Robert Lowell observed, “something beside the point and unimportant (seemingly) but is not.”
“[T]he drinking and the working both seem to have improved miraculously,” wrote Bishop to Anny Baumann, her doctor and friend, on September 6, 1952. “Well no, it isn’t miraculous really-it is almost entirely due to Lota’s good sense and kindness. I still feel I must have died and gone to heaven without deserving to, but I am getting a little more used to it.” Elizabeth Bishop: Brazil and Other Places is intended to be, not a comprehensive or exhaustive overview of the sentiments that Bishop suggests in her message to Dr. Baumann, but an account of the instances and ways in which Bishop’s direct and literary experience in Brazil influenced her work both while she was in Brazil and in the decade following her return to the United States (permanently, it turned out). As a result, I have not felt required to deal comprehensively with Bishop’s work prior to 1951, except in poems such as “The Prodigal,” “Faustina; or Rock Roses,” or “The Bight,” to select only three examples, which can be seen now to have anticipated specific attitudes, images, and major themes in Bishop’s work after 1951. And I have not commented on Bishop’s translation, The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’, which deserves to be studied on its own as a translator’s odyssey through the intricacies of the Portuguese language as it expresses Brazilian culture, or a poem such as “The Riverman,” which re-works closely material from Amazon Town: A Study of Man in the Tropics (1953), the anthropologist Charles Wagley’s book. (To Robert Lowell, Bishop confided that Lota did not like the poem and she herself “didn’t approve of it.”) Rather I have limited myself to considering those poems and stories about which I think I have something useful to say.
I should also add that I am largely in agreement with the view expressed by C. M. Doreski in one of the early works of criticism devoted to Bishop: “She was not very successful in empathizing with people of distinctly different ethnic or racial backgrounds, and the voices and personae derived from her observations of the inhabitants of Brazil, for example, are not always convincing or effective.” But I am less inclined to agree with Doreski when she continues on to say: “However, this is a particular aesthetic failing, and does not negate the principle involved, which is Shakespearian, Keatsian, and at the very heart of the metaphor of creativity as Bishop understood it.” It seems to me that in these aesthetic failures what is most apparent is that behind them are the poet’s personal failures of sympathy or empathy with those “others,” sometimes seen as exotic, at other times as social or cultural inferiors.
“The entire corpus of her work [Bishop’s] has to be understood as the record of one hypersensitive person’s cautious, watchful, self-conscious inching towards the truth,” writes Anne Stevenson. “It asks to be read as autobiography, but as an autobiography told from the ‘inside looking out.’ Instead of a year-by-year chronicle of a life, we are given a series of impressions or ‘looks’-a slide-show of places, people, creatures and small events, all of which have been seen, enacted and carefully noted down to be carried ever afterwards in the clear mirror of the writer’s memory.” To this thoughtful characterization of Bishop’s aesthetic life, I would add only that one must be willing to accept the idea, especially so in Bishop’s biography, that the experience of encountering a literary text (or, for that matter, any text) also contributes to one’s overall life-experience-even, or, especially, perhaps, when one is also interested in the biography of a writer.
The Notebooks of Robert Frost, ed. Robert Faggen (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 487.
“The Manipulation of Mirrors” (1956), in Elizabeth Bishop, Prose, ed. Lloyd Schwartz (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), p. 270.
J[ames] C[ampbell], “X-rated,” Times Literary Supplement (January 7, 2011), no. 5623, p. 32.
 “A Conversation with Elizabeth Bishop,” Ploughshares, nos. 3-4 (1977), 3: 11-29;reprinted in Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, ed. George Monteiro (Jackson: UniversityPress of Mississippi, 1996), pp. 82-97. (Quotation is from page 88 of the latter.) On Bishop’ssense of the mystery of just what goes into the making of a poem, see also her letter to JeromeMazzaro, April 27, 1978 (One Art: Letters, ed. Robert Giroux [New York: Farrar, Straus andGiroux, 1994], p. 621).
 Wallace Stevens to José Rodríguez Feo, December 19, 1946, Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Knopf, 1967), p. 544.
 Robert Lowell to Elizabeth Bishop, February 22, 1974, in Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, ed. Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), p. 758.
 One Art: Letters, 246.
 Words in Air, 315.
 C. M. Doreski, Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language (New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 1993), p. xii.
 Anne Stevenson, Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop (London: Bellew, 1998), pp. 109-10.
George Monteiro is Professor Emeritus of English and Portuguese and Brazilian Studies, Brown University, and he continues as Adjunct Professor of Portuguese Studies at the same university. He served as Fulbright lecturer in American Literature in Brazil–Sao Paulo and Bahia–Ecuador and Argentina; and as Visiting Professor in UFMG in Belo Horizonte. In 2007 he served as Helio and Amelia Pedroso / Luso-American Foundation Professor of Portuguese, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Among his recent books are Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature, The Presence of Pessoa, The Presence of Camões, and Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop and Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Among his translations are Iberian Poems by Miguel Torga, A Man Smiles at Death with Half a Face by José Rodrigues Miguéis, Self-Analysis and Thirty Other Poems by Fernando Pessoa, and In Crete, with the Minotaur, and Other Poems by Jorge de Sena. He has also published two collections of poems, The Coffee Exchange and Double Weaver’s Knot.