From the Archive: "The Work!" - A Conversation with Elizabeth Bishop
Reprinted with newly restored content from Issue 11 of Ploughshares,
Spring 1977 (guest-edited by Jane Shore and DeWitt Henry)
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.
[Editor’s Note: The original interview was cut and occasionally corrected by Elizabeth Bishop. For this reprint, we have used the original typescript, restoring all of the cuts and keeping the text closer to the recorded conversation. We have, however, left in any content that Bishop added to the typescript to elaborate a story or clarify her meaning, so the version that follows is a hybrid of the two versions. Many thanks to Lloyd Schwartz for telling us about the typescript and sending us a copy, as well as to Frank Bidart, Bishop’s executor. The original version of the interview, with all of Bishop’s changes, can be found on our Web site, pshares.org. Select Read by Issue and then navigate to Spring 1977.]
George Starbuck: 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.
Elizabeth Bishop: I can’t remember too much of that book. At least I choose not to. A lot of it was a catalog. It was edited by Time-Life Books and they changed a lot of it. And I have a lot more pictures. There’s one—I think the one of Dom Pedro [the last Emperor –ed.] and his official party taken in front of Niagara Falls? Well, there was another pair of those. But that one, I think, is really ironic. He traveled all around this country. And yet he had never been to Iguassu, which is—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. And Dom Pedro ordered telephones for his summer palace, in Petropolis. He also thought that the ladies of his court didn’t have much to do, so he took them all back Singer sewing machines—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: So I looked up some of these translations and I thought it would be poems about slavery because Dom Pedro was so very much against slavery. [Slavery existed in Brazil until 1888. –ed.] But they weren’t about slavery at all. They were poems about birds, nature poems.
Poor Whittier was so shy and at the Longfellow dinner party, Dom Pedro, who was over six feet tall, strong and handsome, tried to give the Brazilian abraço, twice—and poor Whittier was frightened to death.
GS: You take a set task, like that Time-Life book, and you make it wholly your own. [EB: Not wholly; say two-thirds.] It always seemed that you were just 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: I think 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 that it’s a translation.
EB: Well, I thought I should put Octavio Paz’s name at the beginning, and I tried it that way first. 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 before…
EB: In my very first book I had a poem called “Large Bad Picture,” and that picture is by my same great-uncle when he was about fourteen years old. It was a poor family in Nova Scotia, and he went to sea as a cabin boy. He painted three or four big paintings, memories of the far North, Belle Isle, etc. I loved them. They’re not very good paintings. An aunt in Montreal had one. 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 fairly well known as a “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, held “art classes” for my aunts and my mother and others. So I have this little sketch (“About the size of an old-style dollar bill”), and that’s the one I describe. Helen Vendler has written a very nice paper in which she talks about this newer poem. It hasn’t appeared yet.
Do you use this tape machine to play music, 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 just gave up.
GS: I’ve even heard of people trying to write on them. Richard Howard trained himself to translate using a tape recorder. He was doing De Gaulle’s memoirs, 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 still full of mistakes, because it was one of the very first things I did. I had just started reading, learning Portuguese. Someone suggested it, and I began. It was painful. I can see I had this big notebook, and about a third of the way through I finally caught on to this child who was writing. So I began to translate directly on the typewriter, all the rest of it. It took me about three years, as it was. Some people write right off with a typewriter, I think. Dr. Williams did.
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 things.
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, 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 just every once in a while something seems to go into English. There’s one poem in there, “Traveling in the Family” [Carlos Drummond de Andrade –ed.], that came out very well, in which the meter is almost exactly the same. Nothing had to be changed. Even word order. Of course word order will naturally come out a little bit different, but it just came out well. I asked Drummond if I could repeat one word instead of doing it the way he had it, and he said Oh yes, that would be fine. Portuguese has a very different sense of rhythm, more like the French. But every once in a while a poem goes.
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 noted it, written it down in the diary from that 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 familiar, although I couldn’t quite make out most 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.
EB: Some people don’t like that. I’ve been accused of description. I was reading some new things of Lowell and he said—we’ve been having this thing for years—he said, “Oh I know, you’re going to say I’m inaccurate.” The funny thing is that the first poem I read was describing a table his wife had bought, one of those white modern plastic tables I suppose, and he said it was “a dice.” And I said: you can’t say that. So we spent quite a lot of time getting out a dictionary and looking up things.
GS: You’ve got the language down pat, and the knowledge of particular things, and 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: People seem to like that poem.
GS: I’m a sucker for that.
EB: I guess it must be an experience that everybody’s had. You know, on my first book I got one rather favorable review that wound up saying, “she has no philosophy whatever.” People who are city people are often bothered by all this “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. –ed.]
EB: It’s a mixture of several islands.
GS: And the deliberate anachronisms too—like the Wordsworth reference.
EB: Oh The New Yorker wrote me about that. They sent the proof back and beside that line was the word anachronism, and also some other place in the poem, I think. But I told them it was on purpose. But the blue snail shells, the shells are true.
GS: Are there snails like that on—what was his island—Juan Fernandez?
EB: No no no, they’re in the Ten Thousand Islands in Florida. Years and years and years ago, I went on a canoe trip around the Keys and a lot of them, but I just remember how fantastic—I think they were tree snails, and I have many of the shells. They were very frail and broke easily, and they were just all over everything.
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.” [“In the Waiting Room,” in Geography III. –ed.]
EB: Yes, yes, that one. Something’s funny about that poem and I thought perhaps that no one would ever know. But of course they find out everything. My memory had mixed up 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 that year, just as I say, there was an article, “The Valley of 10,000 Smokes,” about Alaska, that I’d remembered too. But the other things, it turns out, were in the next issue, in March. When I sent the poem to The New Yorker, I wrote Howard Moss and said I must confess to you that this is a little wrong. They were very nice and said yes we think it will be perfectly all right. But, since then, two people have discovered that it isn’t the right issue. They’ve gone 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 does 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. I use the book in class and practically every footnote is wrong. I finally wrote him a note. He has three or four mistakes just in the few poems I have there. Dates. Just everything.
GS: Maybe he’s found a way of having a wonderful collection of letters from all the important poets in America.
EB: Well, he wrote me a very nice letter back. But it was funny. We were reading something in class and I hadn’t taken the anthology—I had taken the book itself—one of Robert Lowell’s. I was reading from my own copy and two or three students said, “Well, it says right here…” It finally got to be a joke and everything I’d ask they’d read his footnotes in chorus and sometimes they were right and sometimes they were wrong.
GS: Poets are really seriously interested in places, in travels, in discoveries about the world…I’ve been rereading Lowes [The Road to Xanadu, John Livingston Lowes –ed.] 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 so many thousands of things coming together at the right moment just to make a poem that no one could ever really separate, 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 long-ago visit to Aruba—long before it was a big 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, Thoreau, 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: That was Auden. All through my college years, Auden was publishing his first books, and me and my friends, quite a few of us, would be very much interested. His first books made a tremendous impression.
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: “12 O’Clock News.”
EB: That’s just recent, all right. I think I tried so hard 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, “12 O’Clock News,” was something else that had started years and years before. In a different version. With rhymes, I think. Yeah, I got stuck with it and finally gave up. It had nothing to do with Vietnam or anything when I first wrote it, it was just pure 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—if you want me one way, I go the other way, so I stand up for T. S. Eliot. 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.” [“The Woodlark” –ed.] She quotes that, and she quotes another two or three lines. I was absolutely smitten with 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. Well, that was a terrific advantage to me. Marvelous. And I wrote some very bad imitation Hopkins. And tore some of them up.
GS: Did it seem important to notice what women poets were doing?
EB: No, I never thought of it. 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. There were special issues of magazines or little get-togethers of women poets and I suppose this was the feminist attitude. I didn’t think much about it but I just thought that that was a lot of nonsense. And this was from, I suppose, feminist principles.
But now, you see, now in these last few years when there’s just been this flood of things and I get about sixteen invitations in one year—well I didn’t think I could change because I still don’t think it’s a good idea. I wrote to some of those lady editors and explained. It wasn’t that I wasn’t all for them and so on, but if I’d had that stand from the very beginning I didn’t think I could change. A couple of them reacted rather badly. There was one anthology by Ann Stanford. I must see it. I’ve seen the table of contents and she found a lot of stuff I’ve never heard of from the sixteenth, seventeenth, fifteenth century. But when I wrote and explained, she was rather cross. I’ve tried to argue this with Adrienne [Rich] once or twice. I still think I’m right. It’s one of the few things I think I’m right about.
GS: With Ann Stanford’s thing, it was a question of whether you’d let yourself be included?
EB: Yes. I said I couldn’t possibly, I never had. And it would be very unfair to others whom I’d already turned down. I told her that hers sounded much better, but even so.
GS: I can imagine a strong feminist argument which says don’t be an idealist, be practical.
EB: Adrienne was here and we’d never really argued about it before and there were several other people—old, old friends of mine—and she kept saying “don’t you want to be read?” and yes I want to be read, but not to that extent.
GS: Well, she convinced me in a related argument one time. I don’t think I needed much convincing because I had seen the same 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 said—this is when we were talking about her possibly coming to BU—she 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 this sexual thing in class. Not very often. Once or twice last year with one boy. But they never even talk about it. I don’t know but I’ve never felt it. Maybe I’m blind. Or maybe my classes are more formal.
GS: A novelist at the Radcliffe Institute sat in on Fitzgerald’s class. Grace Motjabi. I don’t know if you’ve met her.
GS: She told me how astonished she was—she hasn’t taught for a few years, she’s been a librarian—at how deferential…
EB: Oh really?
GS: All Fitzgerald’s students seemed to be.
EB: Well, maybe mine are. They don’t argue much. This year I’ve had such a good class I can’t believe it. I had them here night before last. I’ve never done that before—and Frank Bidart came, and a few others. They all read some poems. Well, I’ve never been to other people’s workshops, so maybe I should go and see what they’re like.
GS: May I try that for you? I don’t want one. [A peppermint candy cane, fiendishly sealed in plastic, is in question.] I should carry a pen knife but I don’t.
EB: I carry a Swiss Army knife which is defeated most of the time in emergencies.
GS: Do you approve of all the creative writing classes?
EB: No. I shouldn’t say this, I suppose. No. I always try to discourage them. I tell students they’d be doing much better if they were all studying Latin. Latin, Greek. They are useful for verse writing.
It’s a waste of time. I have a feeling that if there is a great poet at Boston University or Harvard now, he or she is sitting off somewhere writing poetry and not coming to my class or your classes or anybody’s classes. Well, I’ve had some students who have done very well (two or three “geniuses,” I think, and several very talented) but that’s how many I’ve had. I think the only thing I hope for is that when they get through college, they’ll continue to read poetry for the rest of their lives. What can you teach, really teach? I’m a fiend. I assign. I find it awfully hard not to rewrite their things. I try very hard not to say, “This is what should be done,” but sometimes I can’t resist it.
GS: What happens then?
EB: Well, sometimes they agree with me. Usually 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 changes lines?
GS: Yeah. There was this stuff on the student’s easels and he changed it.
EB: One boy I had two years ago wanted to write very badly, was very bright, but didn’t show too much talent actually. We had some assignments, very strict. When we read some of them out, I was trying to be kind and I said, “Well, after all I don’t expect you to do brilliantly on this,” and he got furious and said, “You shouldn’t say that to us! Any assignment isn’t just an assignment, it’s a poem!” Well, maybe he’s right. Actually in the last two or three years I think they’ve become more sensible.
I’m thinking about this feminist thing.
I think my friends, my generation, were at women’s colleges mostly (and we weren’t all writers). You get so used to being put down that very early, if you’re intelligent or have any sense of humor, you develop a tough, ironic attitude. You just try to get so you don’t even notice it.
All my life I’ve had wonderful reviews. And at the very end they’ll say, “The best poetry by a woman in this decade, or year, or month.” Well, ha! What’s that worth? You know? But you just sort of get used to it. One thing I do notice, though, is that there are undoubtedly going to be more and 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 an awful lot of them have to do with clothes, and chit-chat like that. I have an awful lot 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.
GS: And you’ve been reading Woolf’s?
EB: Yes. This is Volume Two. And this is much more interesting. The first volume, I thought, was rather boring, but this is where they [Virginia and Leonard Woolf –ed.] start the Hogarth Press, and it’s all about the 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 things. Reviews. You know she could be very cross. Have you ever read Three Guineas? Wonderful little book. I think I have it here. (I need a librarian.) This section down here becomes Geography and Travel, and…Oh, here’s Woolf. But not Three Guineas. I had a friend helping me stow the books. She’s very good, but she’s made quite a few mistakes. To the Finland Station is over here in Geography, lots of little things like that.
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 you suck it. Very good.
I think I’ve been awfully, oh, 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. Well 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 [“Efforts of Affection” –ed.]: how I happened to meet her through the librarian in college. I had just read her in magazines and a few pieces in anthologies. The mother of a friend of mine, more educated than my own relatives were, had shown me some things. But in the Vassar Library there wasn’t any book.
I asked the librarian why she didn’t have a volume of Marianne Moore. She said, “Are you interested in her poetry?” (She spoke so softly you couldn’t hear.) 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 risked meeting 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. They were all carefully tucked in. 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 New York Public Library. Safer than her place to meet people. She could get rid of them quickly. But something worked—a stroke of genius, I guess—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. But I admired her so much.
She had a review of Wallace Stevens that I don’t think she ever reprinted. I went over there, to Brooklyn. She waved me through the back door (the elevator wasn’t working). And she had two of those baskets for tomatoes, just filled with papers. Two bushel baskets. And these were the first drafts of this rather short review. You can see how 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. The last few years of her life she sold almost everything, arranged through another college friend. It must have been a life-saver because then she was bed-ridden for about three years. And they have everything there; in fact, they’ve reconstructed her New York living room and bedroom. At one point they telephoned and they said, “On her desk, remember she had these two figures that were china. Which side was this one on and which side that one? Do you remember which side?” They had made sketches and photographs. So I went down. Looked at it. Painful in a way. But the exhibit of manuscripts was marvelous. If ever you want to see examples of hard work, it’s just perfect.
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 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. Very illogical. 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 suggested a rhyme, she would be very pleased. She liked that ballad of mine [“The Burglar of Babylon” –ed.] because it rhymed so well. She admired the rhyme Many Antennae. You could never tell what she was going to like or dislike.
GS: That was the other thing about “The Moose.” There’s that nice casual little six-line stanza, but you establish different interlocking ways of making at least a couple of pairs of rhymes out of the six lines.
EB: I thought it would be regular, but that turned out boring. It seemed almost like a ballad. The first stanza was what I thought of first, and then it just seemed to go. It was so funny, Octavio read it when it was published somewhere. He talks about rhyme a lot. Then he read the first stanza aloud and he said, “Oh, it rhymes! Oh it rhymes some more! Rhymes and rhymes and rhymes!” Robert Lowell is always saying, “I like rhyme.” He tries to go back to rhyme but doesn’t. Says he can’t seem to do it any more. His first poems violently rhymed. You—you’ve written sestinas. Rhymes. I’ve always thought I’d write a villanelle.
GS: But you did…
EB: Finally did. Never do it again.
GS: With that one [“One Art,” in Geography III –ed.], did you try it first looking for two complete unvaried refrain lines?
EB: No. That was so fast. That was one of those. You know, I have notebooks in which I have started three or four poems repeatedly over the last thirty or forty years and I never can do them. And this one, I just sat down and did, almost “off.” I shouldn’t say this. But it does happen. At one point I was almost through. There were a couple of lines missing. And Frank Bidart came to call. I said: “Frank! Give me a rhyme for ‘went.’” So he did. I don’t know which line it was, now, but I just put it right in. It was wonderful. Auden has villanelles. “Time can say nothing but I told you so. / If I could tell you I would let you know.” And he just throws in lines now and then. You can see it. And it works.
You know, it’s funny, Anne Sexton had a really wonderful gift for rhyme, which she didn’t use very much later on. In a poem which I really don’t like exactly, a masturbation poem—do you know that one? The last two or three stanzas are just brilliant.
GS: It’s called “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator.” It happens to be one of the other poems that Mona Van Duyn read in her little “anthology” at Bread Loaf.
EB: Well, the last two or three stanzas are just sheer technical brilliancy.
GS: It was about things like that that she would immediately say, before you could say anything, “Oh, I’m so clumsy about form. And rhymes? I don’t know how to handle them.” It was truly the “primitive” part of her art. That is to say, she did it because she really heard it and felt it and owned it. And so she couldn’t feel she understood it. Then she’d stop and get self-conscious, then she would be try to be more muted or irregular.
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 even have 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. Muriel Rukeyser was one of them, I remember. And each of us “young” poets had an elder poet write an introduction. With great timidity I asked Marianne, and she did: she wrote 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 I ever went to, over in Brooklyn, years ago, she read with William Carlos Williams. And she had given very few readings. It was in this strange church, 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. What was so funny—I went over on the subway. I’d never seen a reading before and I was a little late. I had planned to be there early but I was a little 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 that there’s a girl, Emily Wallace, in Philadelphia, who is editing Williams’ letters, and she 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 Williams.
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 bu some years ago, I had the feeling that he had known you and your work…
EB: Oh, it’s been a long time now, but for years there, and living in Paris, I didn’t know a soul, only Marianne Moore. 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. They went to school there together. Randall invited me to dinner. Well, I was scared to death. 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. Most 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’ve never met him.
GS: Did you meet Berryman?
EB: No, I never met him. I went to this awful thing in New York yesterday, hundreds of publishers, milling around together. It made me really aware how I’ve avoided that sort of thing all my life. 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 so many of them. I know a few. The one I admire most of the older generation is Drummond [de Andrade]. I’ve translated him. I don’t know him at all. He’s very shy. I was shy. We’ve met once—on the sidewalk at night. We were at the same big dinner, and he kissed my hand politely.
I do know a few of the younger ones. Vinicius de Moraes, who wrote Black Orpheus. He was a very good poet, a serious poet, to begin with. Somewhat Eliot-ish. He gets married regularly. He writes popular songs, very good ones—“Girl from Ipanema,” for example, an old one now. He plays the guitar, and has no voice at all. Bossa nova. He’s a very good poet, and very popular with the young.
GS: Is marrying eight times a rebellion against the old ways of having recognized mistresses?
EB: I don’t know. He never has any money. He’s a very good friend. He says: “Of course I’m broke. All my wives are such wonderful girls. It’s always my fault. And I just leave them everything and take a toothbrush and go.” One funny story: I was staying in this place where I had bought an old, old house. It wasn’t ready to move into (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, in—I don’t know what you’d call it—a sort of cupboard, a back kitchen for the guests. We just sat there all day, and we were reading detective stories. Once in a while we’d play a game of cards. A terrible stretch. And at night, he’d play his guitar and sing songs. He has some wonderful children’s songs. 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: Ha. 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 spent more time at it. I’ve just wasted so much 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 will. Well, not really long. Maybe ten pages. That’d be long. I read Robert Penn Warren’s Collected Poems. He wasn’t lazy. And Cummings.
Oh. I did know Cummings. 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 how there was a little mouse that would come out and get right 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.
GS: Was he sparing the mice on humanitarian, vegetarian principles?
EB: Oh no. Cummings just loved mice. He had several nice poems about mice. He adored them. He used to…
Well, I haven’t said anything profound.
GS: You tell a wonderful story.
EB: Lowell always manages to say something mysterious…
GS: You want to say something mysterious?