Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence edited by Joelle Biele | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 496 pages, $35.00
“Of course nobody wants to send them anything really ‘good,’” wrote Elizabeth Bishop to a friend in 1945, just after selling The New Yorker another few poems. Her quip was at least half sincere. The magazine, especially in its first few decades, was notoriously fussy, and for poetry it sought a very particular quality: clear, polished, prim, sleek—teapots, not tempests. This made for a small overlap between what the great poet wrote and what the great weekly would publish. A style too “remote,” as the editors put it, from the general reader, or a subject too personal—or with the faintest blush of eroticism—was, as they were used to writing, “not for us.”
Yet many of Bishop’s finest poems and stories landed in The New Yorker, perfected, in their way, after rolling through the beautifully engineered car wash that was the magazine’s editorial staff. Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker collects nearly forty years of letters between Bishop and the magazine, largely a correspondence with two of Bishop’s formidable editors, Katherine White and Howard Moss. It was more than a partnership. In letters to Moss and White over the years, her valedictions warmed from “Sincerely” to “Affectionately” to “Love.”
Bishop’s accepted work was a huge favorite among the New Yorker staff, partly because her writing was even more buttoned up than the magazine’s style guide. Her career took shape against the rise of confessionalism—the explicit, intensely personal outbursts of troubled souls like Robert Lowell, W.D. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. Compared with the howling candor of that movement, feeling in Bishop’s poetry comes with a chilly coyness, a tense ulteriority. The import of her poems is most often submerged beneath a pretense of description—a bird, a festival, a fish, a childhood memory inlaid with details. Her years in Brazil during the 1950s and ‘60s were especially well suited to this approach: She often wrote as though sending dispatches to the anglophone world, idle letters from a keen-eyed observer in an exotic country. Her style was casual but crystalline.
Even a thumbnail biography, however, reveals she had plenty to howl about. Her father died in 1911, when she was eight months old; about four years later her mother was confined to a mental asylum for life, leaving Bishop to a lonely childhood with relatives in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. Adult life brought morbid depression, binge drinking, and continual anxiety over her productivity. Later she lost her great love Lota de Macedo Soares, a lively, charming Brazilian aristocrat she lived with for about twelve years in Brazil: In 1967, shortly after a lapse in Bishop’s fidelity, Lota trailed Bishop back to the States and killed herself with pills in Bishop’s New York apartment. She was both anguished in life and amiable in letters, both self-destructive and marvelously creative, a combination she hinted at in the last lines of “The Bight,” written for her 37th birthday: “All the untidy activity continues, / Awful but cheerful.”
Bishop did have a scenic life, however. Outfitted with a large inheritance from her father, she traveled widely, from France and Spain to South America and North Africa. She needed the remove from bustling, restless New York. Mostly she confined her relationship with publishing to the mailbox, and that was enough. She wrote to Moss that seeing her poetry in the New Yorker’s pages gave her “a very pleasant sensation of actually being a live American poet.”
Bishop signed a first-reader agreement in 1946, requiring her to first submit any new poems, stories, and travel writing to the magazine. “I understand perfectly that you feel that much poetry you have written would not be for us,” White wrote at the time. Though Bishop renewed the contract for years, her more difficult or provocative poems were often passed on to Partisan Review, The New Republic, and small literary magazines. The New Yorker editors were more eager to receive submissions than to accept them. Frustrated, Bishop suspended the agreement from 1961 to 1968. Overall, though, their pickiness suited the exacting, meticulous poet who revised poems for years. In fact, Bishop published only around ninety poems in her lifetime: Whether she published didn’t count nearly as much as whether she deemed something worth publishing.