"The Work!" : A Conversation with Elizabeth Bishop
A gray late afternoon in winter. Elizabeth Bishop, dressed casually in a Harvard jersey, welcomes the interviewer and answers his polite questions about a gorgeous gilt mirror on her living-room wall. Yes, it is Venetian, those little blackamoors are Venetian, but it was picked up at an auction in Rio de Janeiro. The interviewer, sure in advance this is nothing to have asked one of his favorite poets to do, squares away with his cassette recorder on the coffee table and pops a prepared question. A wonderful expanse of books fills the wall behind the sofa. Before long there is laughter. A good memory, the thought of a quirk or extravagance in someone she knows and likes, sets Miss Bishop off. The laughter is quick, sharp, deep. No way to transcribe it.
The original interview was cut and occasionally corrected by Elizabeth Bishop.
GS: I did some research. I got out the travel book you wrote on commission for Time-Life Books. There’s geography too. You tell such wonderful bright clear stories from the history of Brazil.
EB: I can’t remember too much of that book; rather, I choose not to. It was edited by Time-Life Books and they changed a lot of it. I wanted to use different, and more, pictures. There’s one—the one of Dom Pedro [the last Emperor] and his official party taken in front of Niagara Falls? Well, there were more of that trip. But that one, I think, is really ironic. He traveled quite a bit in this country. And yet in Brazil he had never been to the Falls of Iguassu, which are—how much—ten times bigger than Niagara Falls...This was in 1876 and he went to the Philadelphia Centennial. Alexander Bell was there, with his telephone—a very young man, whose invention hadn’t been used at all then. And Dom Pedro ordered telephones for his summer Palace, in Petropolis. He also thought that the ladies of his court didn’t have enough to do, so he took each of them back a Singer sewing machine—which they didn’t like very much. Did you read in that Brazil book how Longfellow gave a dinner party for him in Cambridge?
GS: Yes, and that Dom Pedro was fond of Whittier and translated some of his poems into Portuguese.
EB: I looked up those translations. I thought they would be Whittier’s abolitionist poems, because Dom Pedro was very much against slavery. [Slavery existed in Brazil until 1888.] But they weren’t those poems at all. They were poems about birds, nature poems.
Whittier was very shy and at the Longfellow dinner party, Dom Pedro, who was over six feet tall, strong and handsome, tried to give the Brazilian abraco, twice—and poor Whittier was frightened to death.
GS: You take a set task, like that Time-Life book, and make it wholly your own. [EB: Not wholly; say two-thirds.] It always seemed that you were bursting to tell those stories. You’re that way with translations. I discovered something. I went into Geography III without stopping off at the Table of Contents, and so I went into the Joseph Cornell poem without realizing it was a translation from Octavio Paz.
EB: It’s a wonderful poem in Spanish.
GS: And in English! That’s what I thought: I was reading your poem about Cornell. Paul Carroll has a beautiful poem about Cornell’s “Medici Slot Machine.” And here I’m thinking, Elizabeth Bishop has done an even better poem about Cornell, and I turn the last page and see it’s a translation.
EB: Well, I thought, of course, I should put Octavio Paz’s name at the beginning, and I had it that way at first, but it didn’t look right. There was the title, and then the dedication line, and the author’s name seemed like too many things under the title, so I decided to put it at the end.
GS: Well, you do good poems about paintings and such. The one in Geography III about noticing a little painting that has been looked at but not noticed much before...
EB: In my first book there is a poem called “Large Bad Picture”; that picture was by the same great-uncle, painted when he was about 14 years old. They were a very poor family in Nova Scotia, and he went to sea as a cabin boy. Then he painted three or four big paintings, memories of the far North, Belle Isle, etc. I loved them. They’re not very good as painting. An aunt owned several of them. I tried to get her to sell them to me, but she never would. Then Great-Uncle George went to England, and he did become a fairly well-known “traditional” painter. In 1905, I think it was, he went back to Nova Scotia for the summer to visit his sister, my grandmother. He made a lot of sketches and held “art classes” for my aunts and my mother and others. I eventually fell heir to this little sketch (“About the size of an old-style dollar bill”), the one I describe. Helen Vendler has written a wonderful paper in which she talks about this poem. Do you use this tape machine to record music, readings, things like that?
GS: This is only the second time I’ve used it for anything.
EB: I tried doing a lot of letters in Brazil on tape, but I gave up.
GS: I’ve ever heard of people trying to write on them. Richard Howard trained himself to translate using a tape recorder. He was doing DeGaulle’s memoirs and all those nouveaux romans. Book after book, for a living. He says he disciplined himself to do the whole job in two, or at most three, headlong runs through, reading the French and talking the English into the tape, having a typist transcribe it, running through again.
EB: I didn’t know that was the way he did it. What was it, a hundred and twenty-seven novels? I translated one fairly long Brazilian book, a young girl’s diary. It’s probably full of mistakes, because it was one of the very first things I did. I had just started reading, trying to learn Portuguese. Someone suggested it, and I began. It was painful. I began writing in a big notebook, but a third of the way through I finally caught on to the child’s style or thought I did. Then I began to translate directly on the typewriter, the rest of it. It took me about three years, as it was. Some people can write poetry right off on a typewriter, I think. Dr. Williams did, I’m told.
GS: Some poets write it out so easily it scares you. We have a neighbor who was a very young nurse working in Boston, at Mass. General Hospital, maybe forty years ago. She told me the story one time, asking me if I’d ever heard of this strange person she worked for. A weird doctor there used to give her poems that he had scribbled on the back of prescription forms, toilet paper, anything, and ask her to type them up. She’d have to go sit on the stool in a small toilet off the hall, the only place she could be out of the way, and with the typewriter on her knees she’d type the thing.
EB: Was it—?
GS: Yep, it was Merrill Moore. And he also used to dictate sonnets into a Dictaphone while he was driving. I mean he had a hundred thousand sonnets to get written. Wasn’t that the total finally?
EB: Did she like the poems, the sonnets, when she got them?
GS: She didn’t know. She didn’t presume.I don’t know how you could rush onto tape in translating poems. There’s one in which you seem to have discovered something Brazilian that comes out perfectly in early English ballad style. The “Brothers of Souls! Brothers of Souls!” poem.
EB: Oh, yes. That “Severino” poem is only a few parts of a very long Christmas play. I saw it given. I’ve never done very much translation, and I’ve almost never done any to order, but every once in a while something seems to go into English. There’s one poem in that book, “Traveling in the Family” (Carlos Drummond de Andrade) that came out very well, I think. The meter is almost exactly the same. Nothing had to be changed. Even the word order. Of course word order will naturally have to come out different, but this one happened to come out well. I wrote and asked Dr. Drummond if I could repeat one word instead of writing the line the way he had it, and he wrote back, yes, that would be fine. Portuguese has a very different metrical system, very like the French. But every once in a while a poem does go into English.
GS: I’m curious about one of your own that seems to go so easily. “The Moose.”
EB: I started that, I hate to say how many years ago, probably twenty. I had the beginning, the incident with the moose, it really happened; and the very end; and the poem just sat around.
GS: Did that partial version of it have the other major movement or topic in it: the dreamy conversation, leading you back to the pillow-talk of grandparents?
EB: Yes. Yes, I’d always had that. I had written it down in notes about the trip. I’m sure it’s happened to you, in planes or trains or buses. You know, you’re very tired, half-asleep, half-awake. I think probably in this case it was because they were all speaking in Nova Scotian accents, strange but still familiar, although I couldn’t quite make out much of what anyone was saying. But the Moose: that happens. A friend wrote me about an encounter like that, with a buck deer. He did exactly the same thing, sniffed the car all over. But in that case, instead of disappearing the way the moose did, he chased the car for about a mile.
GS: You obviously do like to know and use exact geographer’s knowledge about things. You’ve got the language down pat, and the knowledge of particular things, but let me embarrass you: I admire the philosophy of the poems, the morals.
EB: I didn’t know there were any...
GS: OK, OK. But the aubade that ends the book—“Five Flights Up.” The way the “ponderousness” of a morning becomes, lightly, our ancient uninnocence: the depression of having a past and the knowledge of what’s recurring: “Yesterday brought to today so lightly! / (A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.)”
EB: Yes, quite a few people seemed to like that poem...
GS: I’m a sucker for that.
EB: It must be an experience that everybody’s had. You know, about my first book one fairly admiring friend wound up by saying, “But you have no philosophy whatever.” And people who are really city people are sometimes bothered by all the “nature” in my poems.
GS: I suppose Crusoe was a city kid. It’s such fun, the accuracy with which you borrow flora and fauna for his little island. (“Crusoe in England,” in Geography III.)
EB: It’s a mixture of several islands.
GS: And the deliberate anachronisms too—like the Wordsworth reference.
EB: The New Yorker sent the proof back and beside that line was the word anachronism, and also at another place in the poem, I think. But I told them it was on purpose. But the snail shells, the blue snail shells, are true.
GS: Are there snails like that on—what was his island—Juan Fernandez?
EB: Perhaps—but the ones I’ve seen were in the Ten Thousand islands in Florida. Years ago, I went on a canoe trip there and saw the blue snails. They were tree snails, and I still may have some. They were very frail and broke easily, and they were all over everything. Fantastic.
GS: He’s an Adam there and you have this wonderful little penny-ante Eden with “one kind of everything: / one tree snail...one variety of tree...one kind of berry.”
EB: The water spouts came from Florida. We used to see them. You know, I am inaccurate, though. And I get caught. The poem about being almost seven, in the dentist’s office, reading National Geographic?
GS: “You are an I, / you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them.”
EB: Yes, that one. Something’s wrong about that poem, and I thought perhaps that no one would ever know. But of course they find out everything. My memory had confused two 1918 issues of the Geographic. Not having seen them since then, I checked it out in the New York Public Library. In the February issue there was an article, “The Valley of 10,000 Smokes,” about Alaska, that I’d remembered too. But the African things, it turned out, were in the next issue, in March. When I sent the poem to The New Yorker, I wrote to Howard Moss and said I must confess that this is a little wrong. The magazine was nice about it and said it would be all right. But, since then, two people have discovered that it isn’t right. They went and looked it up! I should have had a footnote.
GS: Well, all the critics are poets and all the poets are critics, but if there’s a difference I believe in, it’s that, as personalities, critics tend to be more focused on mere literature. And so compendious Richard Ellmann can do that big fat anthology, loaded with literary information, but when he has to footnote a place name, he puts the Galapagos Islands in the Caribbean.
EB: He did it to me. I say “entering the Narrows of St. John’s” and he has a footnote saying that’s an island in the Caribbean, when it’s St. John’s, Newfoundland.
GS: Poets are really seriously interested in places, in travels, in discoveries about the world...I’ve been rereading Lowes and there’s nothing at all stupid about that book, but he pretends Coleridge had utterly unaccountable, just out-and-out screwball taste in light reading. Travel tales! One of Lowes’ tropes is to astonish the reader with what Coleridge got from this obviously frivolous miscellaneous grubbing around in things that nobody in his right mind would read.
GS: It serves his point, but here was an age when actual marvels were being discovered. Coleridge went after those books for the best possible reasons.
EB: And how do they know? 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.
GS: What got the Crusoe poem started?
EB: I don’t know. I reread the book and discovered how really awful Robinson Crusoe was, which I hadn’t realized. I hadn’t read it in a long time. And then I was remembering a visit to Aruba—long before it was a developed “resort.” I took a trip across the island, and it’s true that there are small volcanoes all over the place.
GS: I forget the end of Robinson Crusoe. Does the poem converge on the book?
EB: No. I’ve forgotten the facts there, exactly. I reread it all one night. And I had forgotten it was so moral. All that Christianity. So I think I wanted to re-see it with all that left out.
GS: When you were very young, which were the poets you started with?
EB: When I went to summer camp when I was twelve, someone gave me an anthology—one of the first Harriet Monroe anthologies. That made a great impression. I’d never read any of those poets before. I had read Emily Dickinson, but an early edition, and I didn’t like it much. And my aunt had books like Browning, Mrs. Browning, Tennyson, Ingoldsby’s Legends...
GS: But later, when did you begin looking around and say to yourself “Who, among the poets in the generation ahead of me, are poets I’m going to have to come to terms with?”
EB: I don’t think I ever thought of it that way, but perhaps that was Auden. All through my college years, Auden was publishing his early books, and I and my friends, a few of us, were very much interested in him. His first books made a tremendous impression on me.
GS: I don’t see Auden rife in your earlier poems. In fact, it struck me that the closest I had seen you come to an early Auden manner or materials was a recent poem, in the new book: “Twelve O’Clock News.”
EB: Yes, that’s recent. I think I tried not to write like him then, because everybody did.
GS: It’s as if, all of a sudden, decades later, there’s “On the Frontier”—something you could use in it.
EB: Actually that poem, “Twelve O’Clock News,” was another that had begun years earlier. In a different version. With rhymes, I think. Yes, I got stuck with it and finally gave up. It had nothing to do with Viet Nam or any particular war when I first wrote it, it was just fantasy. This is the way things catch up with you. I have an early poem, a long poem, written a long time ago. The second world war was going on, and it’s about that, more or less. “Roosters.” I wrote it in Florida, most of it. Some friends asked me to read it a year or so ago, and I suddenly realized it sounded like a feminist tract, which it wasn’t meant to sound like at all to begin with. So you never know how things are going to get changed around for you by the times.
GS: But that makes some sense. Let’s see, if I can find it in the book—Sure:
where in the blue blur
their rustling wives admire,
the roosters brace their cruel feet and glare
with stupid eyes
while from their beaks there rise
the uncontrolled, traditional cries.
I’m afraid it’s their banner now. You’ll never get it away from them. By the way, I’ve heard your “Filling Station” poem used as a feminist tract.
GS: In a nice apt way, by Mona Van Duyn. She read, at Bread Loaf, in lieu of a lecture, one poem each by about eight American women, with a few words in between the poems. There were a couple of poems which she seemed to want to demonstrate were too tract-y to be of any use. A Robin Morgan poem...
EB: Oh heavens, yes.
GS: In that context, yours did seem a nice wry study of the “woman’s touch.”
EB: But no woman appears in it at all.
GS: But the pot, the flowers, the...
EB: Crocheted doily, yes.
GS: The woman who is “not there,” she’s certainly an essential subject of the poem.
EB: I never saw the woman, actually. We knew the men there...
GS: But the evidence is...
EB: I never...Isn’t that strange? I certainly didn’t feel sorry for whoever crocheted that thing! Isn’t that strange?
GS: Well, which are your feminist tracts?
EB: I don’t think there are any. The first part of “Roosters,” now, I suppose. But I hadn’t thought of it that way. Tract poetry...
GS: What about back in college...
EB: I was in college in the days—it was the Depression, the end of the Depression—when a great many people were communist, or would-be communist. But I’m just naturally perverse, so I stood up for T. S. Eliot then. I never gave feminism much thought, until...
GS: You started to name poets important to you with a man, Auden. Did...
EB: When I was given that anthology when I was twelve or thirteen, in the introduction to it, Harriet Monroe, I suppose it was, talked about Hopkins, and quoted an incomplete fragment of a poem—“tattered-tasseled-tangled,” and so on. I was immensely struck by those lines, and then when I went to school, in 1927 or 1928, the second Bridges edition of Hopkins came out and a friend gave me that. I wrote some very bad imitation Hopkins for a time, all later destroyed—or so I hope.
GS: Did it seem important to notice what women poets were doing?
EB: No, I never made any distinction; I never make any distinction. However, one thing I should make clear. When I was in college and started publishing, even then, and in the following few years, there were women’s anthologies, and all-women issues of magazines, but I always refused to be in them. I didn’t think about it very seriously, but I felt it was a lot of nonsense, separating the sexes. I suppose this feeling came from feminist principles, perhaps stronger than I was aware of.
GS: I had seen the sexist thing going on when I was a teacher in a poetry class where there happened to be some good young women poets who were, yes, exploring, systematically, trying to find positions for themselves or placements for themselves as women poets. Adrienne Rich said she had gotten to the point where she just didn’t want to waste the time, in amenities and dues-paying and awkwardness, that it took, she felt, in a mixed class of male and female students...
GS: Yes. To allow the women, of whom she obviously felt protective, to begin to talk openly and be fully and aggressively participating.
EB: I’ve never felt any sexual warfare in classes. Almost never. Only once or twice, perhaps, and with one boy. Maybe I’m blind. Or maybe my classes are too formal. The students are almost always polite, even gentle, with each other; they seem to treat each other as friends and equals...they don’t argue much. The past two terms I’ve had outstandingly good classes. I had a “party” for one class here the night before last and I think we all had a good time. I’ve never visited other people’s workshops. Perhaps I should go and see what they’re like.
GS: Do you approve of all the creative writing classes?
EB: No. I try to discourage them! I tell students they’d be better off studying Latin. Latin or Greek. They are useful for verse writing. I have a feeling that if there is a great poet at Boston University or Harvard now, he or she may be hiding somewhere, writing poetry and not going to writing classes at all. However, I have had some students who have done very well (two or three “geniuses,” I think, and several very talented). I think the best one hopes for is that after students graduate, they’ll continue to read poetry for the rest of their lives. What can you teach, really teach? I’m a fussbudget, probably a fiend. I give assignments. I find it hard not to rewrite poems or prose. I try hard not to say, “This is what you should do,” but sometimes I can’t resist.
GS: What happens then?
EB: Well, sometimes they agree with me—often they meekly agree with me!
GS: Why does that seem so dangerous and almost forbidden to do? I know it does and I agree with you. But look at painters. I was shocked the first time I went to an art class and saw the professor walking around picking up a brush, a palette knife.
EB: Just to change lines?
GS: Yes. There was this stuff on the student’s easels and he changed it.
EB: One student some years ago wanted badly to write. He was very bright, but didn’t show too much talent. I gave assignments, very strict. When he read the results out loud, trying to be kind, I said, “Well, after all I don’t expect you to do brilliantly on this; it’s just a rather impossible assignment.” He grew angry and said, “You shouldn’t say that! Any assignment isn’t just an assignment, it’s a poem!” Well, now I think he was right and I was wrong.
Again, about “feminism” or Women’s Lib. I think my friends, my generation, were at women’s colleges mostly (and we weren’t all writers). One gets so used, very young, to being “put down” that if you have normal intelligence and have any sense of humor you very early develop a tough, ironic attitude. You just try to get so you don’t even notice being put down.
Most of my writing life I’ve been lucky about reviews. But at the very end they often say, “The best poetry by a woman in this decade, or year, or month.” Well, what’s that worth? You know? But you get used to it, even expect it, and are amused by it. One thing I do think is that there are undoubtedly going to be more good woman poets. I’ve been reading Virginia Woolf’s letters. Have you read them?
GS: No. I’ve been reading a collection of Marianne Moore letters.
GS: Published by the University of Rochester Libraries.
EB: Oh, I have that. Anthony Hecht sent it to me. But those aren’t such good letters. I mean, of course, they’re fascinating. The woman she wrote them to, Hildegarde Watson, who died recently, was probably her best friend. But most of them have to do with clothes, and chit-chat like that. I have quite a few of her letters, and some of them, especially the gossipy, personal, literary ones, are wonderful. Telling stories, quoting things, describing. It’s very interesting, that little book, but I’m sure she wrote better letters than these.
GS: And you’ve been reading Woolf’s?
EB: I’m reading Volume Two. And this is much more interesting. The first volume, I thought, was rather boring, but this is where she and [Leonard] Woolf start the Hogarth Press. And you see how she ran into prejudice. She doesn’t complain about it much, but you sense it. When she wrote Three Guineas, her first “feminist” book, she was rather badly treated.
Many times she’ll say how unhappy she is about reviews...You know she could get very cross. Have you ever read Three Guineas? A wonderful little book. I think I have it here. (I need a librarian.) This section down here should be Geography and Travel, and...Oh, here’s Woolf. But not Three Guineas.
I haven’t had one of these things for years. [Christmas candy canes on the coffee table.] Peppermint sticks. You know what we used to do with peppermint sticks? You stick it in half a lemon, and suck the lemon juice through it.
I think I’ve been, oh, half-asleep all my life. I started out to study music, to be a music major. And somehow I got into trouble with that. I liked it; I gave it up; I wasted a great deal of time; I studied Greek for a while; well I wasn’t very good at that; then, when I got out of college, I thought I’d study medicine. At that time, I would have had to take an extra year of chemistry and study German. I’d already given up on German once. I actually applied to Cornell Medical College. But I’d already published a few things, and friends—partly Marianne Moore—discouraged me. Not just discouraged me.
GS: Had you submitted things to The Dial, or...
EB: The Dial had ceased to exist. There were other magazines...
GS: Well, how had Miss Moore found out about you in order to discourage you from going into medicine?
EB: Oh. Well, I knew her. I’ve written a piece about this that I hope to finish soon: how I happened to meet her through the Librarian in college. I had just read her poems in magazines and a few pieces in anthologies. The mother of a friend of mine had first told me about her, I think. But Observations wasn’t in the Vassar Library.
I asked the Librarian why she didn’t have Observations in the library. She said, “Are you interested in her poetry?” (She spoke so softly you could barely hear her.) And I said, “Yes, very much.” And she said, “I’ve known her since she was a small child. Would you like to meet her?” Imagine! It was the only time in my life that I’ve ever attempted to meet someone I admired. The Librarian had her own copy of Observations and lent it to me, but she obviously didn’t think much of it, because she’d never ordered a copy for the Vassar Library. There were a lot of clippings—mostly unfavorable reviews—tucked into it. And then I went to New York and met Miss Moore, and discovered later that there had been other Vassar girls sent down over the years, and that Miss Moore didn’t look forward to this a bit. But somehow we got along. She met me on the right-hand bench outside the Reading Room at the N. Y. Public Library. A safe place to meet people, since she could get rid of them quickly. But something worked—a stroke of luck—because I suggested that two weekends from then I come down to New York and we go to the circus. I didn’t know then, but of course that was a passion with her. She went every year at least once. So we went to the circus.
GS: Well, what tone did she take when she found out you were seriously considering giving four years of your life to medicine?
EB: Actually, I didn’t tell her I wrote for a long time. Maybe I hadn’t even told her then. I guess she must have known by the time I graduated. Even then—I suppose this was a little odd even then—we called each other Miss for about three years. I admired her very much, and still do, of course.
She had a review of Wallace Stevens that I don’t think she ever reprinted. I went over there (to Brooklyn) and I went in through the back door (the elevator wasn’t working). There were two of those baskets for tomatoes, bushel baskets, filled with papers, inside the back door. These were the first drafts of the rather short review. You can see how hard she worked.
She had a clipboard that she carried around the house to work on a poem while she was washing dishes, dusting, etc.
Now all her papers, or almost all, are in the Berg Museum in Philadelphia. They have everything there; in fact, they’ve reconstructed her New York living room and bedroom. I went to the opening and found it all rather painful. But the exhibit of manuscripts was marvelous. If ever you want to see examples of real work, study her manuscripts.
She wrote a poem about the famous racehorse, Tom Fool. The man who arranged the collection had done a beautiful job, in glass cases: dozens of little clippings from the newspapers and photographs of the horse. And then the versions of the poem. It goes on and on...The work she put in!
GS: I’d be fascinated to see how she did those inaudible rhymes—whether that came first or kept changing. How that figured.
EB: She was rather contradictory, you know, illogical sometimes. She would say, “Oh—rhyme is dowdy.” Then other times, when she was translating La Fontaine she would ask me for a rhyme. If I could give her a rhyme, she would seem to be pleased. She liked a ballad of mine because it rhymed so well. She admired the rhyme Many Antennae. You could never tell what she was going to like or dislike.
GS: But what an extraordinary stroke of good fortune to be a friend of Miss Moore’s before she knew that you had ambitions...
EB: Oh, I didn’t have many ambitions. As I said, I must have been half-asleep. There was an anthology that came out, with ten or twelve young poets—in 1935, I think. Each of us “young” poets had an elder poet write an introduction. With great timidity I asked Marianne, and she did write a few paragraphs. And she disapproved very much of some of my language and said so too. It is very funny. I think only one of those poems was in my first book.
The first reading of hers I ever went to, in Brooklyn, years ago, she read with William Carlos Williams. I think at that time she had given very few readings. It was in a church, I think, in a basement. It was a sort of sloping small auditorium, very steep, and Miss Moore and Dr. Williams were sitting on Victorian Gothic chairs, with red plush backs, on either side of a platform with what looked like a small pulpit at the front. I went over on the subway and was a little late. I had planned to be there early but was late. Marianne was reading. I was making my way down the red carpeted steps to the front—there were very few people there—and she looked up, noticed me, nodded politely and said “Good evening!” Then went right on reading. She and Dr. Williams were very nice with each other. I don’t remember very much else about it, what they read, oh, except a young woman who is editing Williams’ letters sent me a copy a month or so ago of something she had run across: a letter from Williams about this very same evening. And it says, “Marianne Moore had a little girl named Elizabeth Bishop in tow. It seems she writes poetry.” Something like that. Of course I never knew Dr. Williams well.
GS: But you knew Lowell, Jarrell, so many of them...
EB: You know I think we all think this about everybody...every other poet. I didn’t know a soul. That is, no one “literary” except Miss Moore at that time.
GS: When did you meet Lowell? I ask this because the way he brought your works into a writing class I visited once at B.U. some years ago, I had the feeling that he had known you and your work...
EB: In 1945 or 1946 I met Randall Jarrell, I can’t remember how or where. He came to New York that winter to take Margaret Marshall’s place on The Nation as book review editor. She left the Jarrells her apartment. I had just published my first book, and Robert Lowell had just published his first book. Randall had known him at Kenyon College. Randall invited me to dinner to meet him and we got along immediately. I’d read Lord Weary’s Castle, but that wasn’t it. For some reason we just hit it off very well. By chance we’d been to see the same art exhibits that afternoon and we talked about those. Almost everybody has this theory that everybody else has a fascinating social life...
GS: Did you meet [Reed] Whittemore? He was so active, as an editor, with Furioso...
EB: I never met him.
GS: Did you meet Berryman?
EB: No, I never met him. I’ve met more writers in the last three or four years than I had in all the rest of my life put together.
GS: And Brazilian writers?
EB: I didn’t meet any of them. I know a few. The one I admire most of the older generation is Carlos Drummond de Andrade, I’ve translated him. I don’t know him at all. He’s supposed to be very shy. I’m supposed to be very shy. We’ve met once—on the sidewalk at night. We had just come out of the same restaurant, and he kissed my hand politely when were introduced.
I do know a few of the others. Vinicius de Moraes, who wrote Black Orpheus. He was a very good poet, a serious one, somewhat Eliot-ish. He still is, but now he writes mostly popular songs, very good ones—“Girl from Ipanema,” for example, an old one now. He plays the guitar and sings well, but without much voice, really. He’s very popular with the young. He’s been a very good friend to me. He gets married rather frequently. He says: “All my wives are such wonderful girls. It’s always all my fault. Of course I’m broke. I leave them everything, and just take a toothbrush and go.” One funny story: I was staying in the little town where I had bought an old, old house. It wasn’t ready to move in to (that took five or six years) and I was staying at a small inn, owned by a Danish woman, an old friend. Vinicius was there too—just the three of us. It was winter, cold and rainy, dreadful weather. We sat, for warmth, just the three of us, in a sort of back-kitchen, reserved for friends, all day long, and read detective stories. Once in a while we’d play a game of cards or Vinicius would play his guitar and sing. He has some marvelous, charming songs for children. Well, every afternoon a Rio newspaper arrived, one with a gossip column we read avidly. So one afternoon the boy came in with the newspaper and there was a big gossip piece in it about the very same little town we were in, how it had become “fashionable with the intellectuals.” And there we were, the only “intellectuals,” if that, within hundreds of miles, handing around our Agatha Christies and Rex Stouts and so on.
GS: You seem to write more and more kinds of poems but without exhorting yourself to be suddenly different.
EB: I know I wish I had written a great deal more. Sometimes I think if I had been born a man I probably would have written more. Dared more, or been able to spend more time at it. I’ve wasted a great deal of time.
GS: Would it have been extra works in other genres?
GS: Long poems?
EB: No. One or two long poems I’d like to write, but I doubt that I ever shall. Well, not really long. Maybe ten pages. That’d be long.
Yes, I did know Cummings some. When I lived in the Village, later on, I met him through a friend. He and I had the same maid for two or three years. “Leave a little dirt, Blanche,” he used to say to her. Blanche finally left them. They wouldn’t put traps down for the mice. Mrs. Cummings told her a story about a little mouse that would come out of the wall and get up on the bed. They would lie in bed and watch her roll up little balls of wool from the blanket, to make her nest. Well, Blanche was appalled at this.
GS: Was he sparing the mice on humanitarian or vegetarian principles?
EB: Oh no. Cummings loved mice. He wrote poems about mice. He adored them. He used to...
Well, I haven’t said anything profound.
GS: You tell a wonderful story.
EB: Oh, in their interviews, Miss Moore always said something to make one think very hard about writing, about technique—and Lowell always says something I find mysterious...
GS: Would you like to say something mysterious?