I didn’t read this biography because of the poem One Art. Not exclusively. But the extraordinary power of this poem certainly was a stimulus. One asks oneself: whom did she lose to write such a poem? In what circumstances? Why? That is, of course, how the biographical curiosity starts.
And indeed, Elizabeth Bishop’s was a life of losing. She lost her father very young, she was only eight months old. Then she lost her mother — who never recovered from her husband’s death — to mental illness. Then she had to leave the idyllic life of her maternal grandparents (in Nova Scotia) when her richer paternal grandparents took charge of her education.
She went to Vassar, which became something of a home to her, so much so that she dreaded the holidays.
When she left this college she dreaded the emptiness of her future life. She already knew that she wanted to write poetry in a serious way, but that hardly fills a life. Thanks to her father’s provisions she could live a leisurely life. But the fact that she did not have to work to earn a living may have done her more harm than good.
Many, many years she suffered from loneliness, alcoholism, depression, and asthma. She also had some difficulty to detect and accept her homosexuality.
And while she had the makings of a great poet and was enthusiastically supported by Marianne Moore, it took her too many years to publish her first collection of poems.
Eventually she found happiness in Brazil, where she met and lived with Lota de Macedo Suares. This seemed the relationship of a lifetime. And so it was, for a good many years. But a dwindling fortune obliged Lota to take on a high profile job with a lot of stress, with the inevitable strain on their relationship. Elizabeth started drinking again. They stayed together, although with some difficulties.
The difficulties of their relation and the isolation in Brazil — isolated from American literary life — made her decide to return to the USA. Because the yield of her father’s investments wasn’t enough any more to live her kind of life, she had to take up teaching poetry on universities. Ultimately Lota joined her in the States and died there.
With a deep sense of loss, and hindered by alcoholism and illnesses, Elizabeth continued giving poetry reading and writing courses. She had two long relationships with younger women. When her last love threatened to leave her, she wrote a penetrating poem about the art of losing, One Art. I made two attempts to translate it in Dutch.
Brett C. Miller wrote a very fine, sympathetic biography. I do not think that you have to read a poet’s life to understand his or her poetry. It shouldn’t be necessary. But in this case, reading the biography helped me gain an insight into her marvellous poetry.