Saturday, January 7, 2012

Elizabeth Bishop: Background and Biography

Life, Education, & Career

Elizabeth Bishop was born as an only child born in Worcester, Massachusetts on February 8, 1911.  Since her father died when she was only eight months old, she was orphaned in 1916 when her mother became mentally ill and was institutionalized.  Her mother remained in the asylum until her death in 1934; she and Ms. Bishop never reunited.  At this point she moved to Great Village, Nova Scotia, Canada, where she lived with her maternal grandparents on a farm and developed into a first-class fisherwoman.  When she was six or seven years old, her paternal family gained custody.  She was removed from the care of her grandparents in Nova Scotia and lived with her father's wealthier family in Worcester, Massachusetts, who worried about the limited financial and educational resources available in Nova Scotia.  Ms. Bishop was unhappy in Worcester, however, and separation from her maternal grandparents made her lonely.  She also developed chronic asthma when living in Worcester, which she suffered with for the rest of her life.

It was under the care of her paternal grandparents however that she boarded the elite Walnut Hill School  for Girls (now the Walnut Hill School for the arts) in Natick, Massachusetts.  Here, her friend Frani Blough published her first poems in a student magazine.  In the fall of 1929, she entered Vassar College, intending to study composition.  She quit music after her first year however due to fear of performing in public (she played piano) and changed her focus to English.  In this concentration her studies included sixteenth and seventeenth century literature as well as the novel.  In her senior year she published her work in The Magazine and in 1933 she co-founded Con Spirito, a Vassar rebel literary magazine, with Mary McCarthy, Margaret Miller, Eunice Clark, and Eleanor Clark.  Ms. Bishop graduated Vassaar College in 1934.  

After college, Ms. Bishop traveled extensively throughout Spain, Italy, Ireland, France, and North Africa.  Much of her poetry is filled with descriptions of her experiences in these countries.  In 1938, she stopped travelling and settled in Key West, where she wrote many of the poems which would be collected in her Pulitzer Prize-winning North and South.  In 1944, she left Key West and lived in Brazil for fourteen years with her lover, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares.  The two became a curiosity in the town of P√©tropolis.  After Soares took her own life in 1967, Bishop spent more time in Massachusetts, New York, and San Francisco, and took a teaching position at Harvard in 1970.  Also in 1970, Ms. Bishop received a National Book Award in Poetry for her The Complete Poems.  Her reputation increased exponentially in the years before her death, especially after the publication of Geography III in 1976 and her winning of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

Ms. Bishop worked not only as a poet but as a painter, and her poetry is known for its ability to capture scenes.  Though independently wealthy and thus able to experience a fairly privileged life, she fills her poetry with images of working-class settings (perhaps inspired by her significant time in Nova Scotia) such as farms, fishing villages, and busy factories.

Ms. Bishop died on October 6, 1979.  A new edition of her The Complete Poems (1927-1979) was published in early 1983, and The Collected Prose was published in 1984.


Poetry Collections by Elizabeth Bishop

  • North & South (1946)
  • Poems: North & South / A Cold Spring (1955)
  • A Cold Spring (1956)
  • Questions of Travel (1965)
  • The Complete Poems (1969)
  • Geography III (1976)
  • The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 (1983)
  • Edgar Allen Poe and The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments (2006)
Other Works by or about Elizabeth Bishop
  • The Diary of Helena Morley, by Alice Brant, translation & introduction by Elizabeth Bishop (1972)
  • The Ballad of the Burglar of Babylon (1968)
  • An Anthology of Twentieth Century Brazilian Poetry, edited by Elizabeth Bishop and Emanuel Brasil (1972)
  • The Collected Prose (1984)
  • One Art: Letters selected and edited by Robert Giroux (1994)
  • Exchanging Hats: Elizabeth Bishop Paintings, edited and with an introduction by William Benton (1996)
  • Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, edited by George Monteiro (1996)
  • Poems, Prose and Letters, edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz (2008)
  • Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowel, edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton (2008)
Awards and Honors
  • 1945: Houghton Mifflin Poetry Prize Fellowship
  • 1947: Guggenheim Fellowship
  • 1949: Appointed Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress
  • 1950: American Academy of Arts and Letters Award
  • 1951: Lucy Martin Donelly Fellowship (awarded by Bryn Mawr College)
  • 1953: Shelley Memorial Award
  • 1954: Elected to lifetime membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters
  • 1956: Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
  • 1960: Chapelbrook Foundation Award
  • 1964: Academy of American Poets Fellowship
  • 1968: Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 1968: Ingram-Merrill Foundation Grant
  • 1969: National Book Award
  • 1969: The Order of the Rio Branco (awarded by the Brazilian government)
  • 1974: Harriet Monroe Poetry Award
  • 1976: Books Abroad/Neustadt International Prize
  • 1976: Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters
  • 1977: National Book Critics Circle Award
  • 1978: Guggenheim Fellowship

Helpful Links (and where I obtained the above information)

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