In May 1975 Elizabeth Bishop replied to a letter from a complete stranger called Miss Pierson asking her a series of questions about how both to write and understand poetry. Bishop kept up a lifelong correspondence with numerous friends and fellow poets, including Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell and May Swenson, but she didn’t usually reply to fan letters or letters from students. She made an exception in this case because “You enclosed a stamped, self-addressed envelope (this happens very rarely)” and “You think that poetry discussion groups are ‘a bloody bore’—and, although there are exceptions, in general I agree with you completely.”
Letters like this are not essential to understanding Bishop’s poetry—later on in the letter she wonders whether Miss Pierson is “reading too much about poetry and not enough poetry”—but they do provide an important frame for understanding the poets Bishop liked and/or were inspired by, the importance of her sense of humour, and, not incidentally, the significance of letter writing as an important art form she practised alongside and sometimes in tandem with her poems and stories.
Elizabeth Bishop in Context is addressed, in the same spirit as Bishop’s letter to Miss Pierson, to curious readers who want to know more about how her poems and stories came to be written and why she is held in such high regard by contemporary poets and scholars. Consisting of thirty-five ground-breaking essays by an international team of authors, including biographers, literary critics, poets, and translators, the book addresses the biographical and literary inception of Bishop’s originality, from her formative upbringing in New England and Nova Scotia to long residences in New York, France, Florida, and Brazil. Her poetry, prose, letters, translations, and visual art are analyzed in turn, followed by detailed studies of literary movements such as surrealism and modernism that influenced her artistic development. Bishop’s encounters with nature, music, psychoanalysis, and religion receive extended treatment, likewise her interest in dreams and humour. Essays also investigate the impact of twentieth-century history and politics on Bishop’s life writing, and what it means to read Bishop via eco-criticism, postcolonial theory, and queer studies. Many are informed by archival research, including analysis of unpublished drafts, notebook entries and letters.
In her endorsement of the book, Susan Rosenbaum comments on how, after reading it, “Bishop’s work emerges as more complex, multi-faceted, and surprising than even long-term readers might expect. This book is a must-read for readers new to Bishop and for those that thought they knew her.” For Canadian short-story writer Alexander MacLeod, “This volume is a miracle of composition. Simultaneously intimate and vast, local and distant, formally precise and wildly inventive, Cleghorn and Ellis pull off a nearly impossible trick. Their collection really does provide a ‘context’ for one of the twentieth century’s most purposefully unsettled poetic voices. Framing and reframing Bishop’s work against dozens of different shifting backgrounds, the collection somehow manages to pull it ‘all together’ to make ‘just one’. I guarantee: anyone who has ever appreciated Bishop will appreciate this.”