75 at 75: Megan Marshall on Elizabeth Bishop
A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Megan Marshall writes about a reading by Elizabeth Bishop. It was recorded live at 92Y on May 1, 1974.
Posted on Mar 27, 2014
As a student poet at Harvard in the mid 1970s, I heard Elizabeth Bishop read from her own work on two occasions, both in intimate surroundings. The first was a guest appearance in Robert Lowell’s workshop in the spring of 1975. The setting was a drab conference room near the top of Holyoke Center, Harvard’s concrete-and-glass administrative building, which also housed on its lower floors the university’s health services and Stillman Infirmary. There, few of us students knew, Miss Bishop had spent long weeks during two previous semesters recovering from a brutal asthma attack and an injury sustained in a drunken fall. In the dismal winter months at the start of the term, we’d felt secure in Stillman’s proximity, believing that our famously erratic professor could seek help there in the event of a breakdown. Robert Lowell missed several classes that spring due to an imbalance of his medications, we were informed by his protégé Frank Bidart when he arrived one afternoon to teach in Lowell’s stead.
But on this day, perhaps in April, our professor was merely tousled, not alarmingly distracted, and the focus of his attention was Miss Bishop, a small white-haired woman, composed and smiling, dressed in an elegant black wool suit and seated halfway down the conference table with the picture window at her back, red brick dormitories and the campanile of St. Paul’s Church visible in the distance. I don’t think she ever stopped smiling. We’d been handed photocopies of the New Yorker page proofs of “Poem,” her meditation on her great-uncle’s small Nova Scotian landscape—“About the size of an old-style dollar bill”—and she read it out to us. “Life and the memory of it” floated in the air with a subtle expressiveness that somehow called up both the simple virtues of a rural Canadian childhood and the refinement of boarding school and Vassar. Cal, as none of us dared address him but Miss Bishop did, pressed his friend to read another poem—“Crusoe in England”—and she opened a black three-ring binder containing the typed pages that would become Geography III and read some more. We were as enthralled as children at story hour.
Nearly two years later, in January 1977, I found my way to Lewis Wharf on Boston’s waterfront for a semester’s end party at Miss Bishop’s apartment, along with ten other students from that year’s advanced “verse writing class.” (I doubt Miss Bishop knew the term “workshop,” and she hated the word “creative” when applied to anything pedagogical.) Reading Bishop’s correspondence decades later, I learned that she had been particularly fond of our class, the last writing students she taught at Harvard; she had turned 65 the previous February and the authorities refused to make an exception to the mandatory retirement age for non-tenured faculty. The party was a first and a last.
Miss Bishop had invited a handful of friends as well, some of them real grown-up poets—Bidart, Lloyd Schwartz and Ricardo Sternberg. We gathered in a wide circle of chairs in the living room under the gaze of a painted figurehead from a Brazilian river boat, and Frank pressed her to read from Geography III, published just the month before. He took her reading glasses—“My god, Elizabeth, these lenses are almost opaque!”—and wiped them clean before handing them back so she could read “One Art.”
Was Alice Methfessel in the room, too? The beloved younger woman with “the joking voice, a gesture I love,” whose loss Elizabeth had feared and prepared for by writing this poem (“The art of losing isn’t hard to master”) during a tortuous six months following her appearance in Lowell’s class. None of us students would have known then of the private drama that fueled the poem read that night in a wise storyteller’s voice by a smiling woman among close friends.
I’ve listened to recordings of Elizabeth Bishop’s public readings, and none of them sounds like the poet I knew just well enough to have felt her personal warmth. The dull, dutiful voice unable to capture the music on the page sounds a bit like the grim-faced professor we met on the first day of “advanced verse writing,” who announced without apology that she didn’t believe poetry could be taught. There was little warmth in the weekly meetings that followed, but we all sensed her shyness; this was not the real Elizabeth Bishop.
One afternoon something—perhaps an amusing line in a student’s poem—prompted Miss Bishop to tell a story about Marianne Moore, her mentor and friend. Bishop, Lowell and Moore shared a connoisseur’s interest in the “great line” that might make a poem, or even exist independently of a poem. Bishop had come up with one of these in the early years of her acquaintance with Moore, while checking into a Manhattan hotel after a stay on Cape Cod. She’d watched a porter carry her luggage, which included three glass “buoy balls” in nets, to her room. “The bell boy with the buoy balls,” Elizabeth had thought to herself, and she repeated the line to Moore a few days later. Our class laughed at the line, its easy alliteration and jivey rhythm, and gasped when Miss Bishop told us that Moore had stolen it! Used it in her own poem without asking! The classroom was alive, as it almost never was, with our teacher’s rare display of emotion, the grudge she still seemed to carry, and the fellow-feeling that mitigated but didn’t entirely erase the sting of theft.
I read the story again in greater detail in Bishop’s memoir of their friendship, “Efforts of Affection,” published four years after Bishop’s death. Bishop biographer Brett Millier traces the beginnings of the essay to 1962, when Bishop wrote an appreciation of A Marianne Moore Reader for the Bryn Mawr Review. After Moore’s death in 1972, Bishop drafted the longer work and read from it on several occasions. When I listened to the Y’s recording of Bishop’s 1974 reading, I understood why she had never “finished” the essay, never published it. Her reading stops short of the story she told our class and several other anecdotes that reveal more complicated feelings for her subject than she may have wished to expose to an audience—whether in an auditorium or at home in arm chairs. What this recording does capture, as almost no other Bishop recording does, is the congenial storytelling voice I heard on several magical occasions, the vivid personality activated in the company of friends, in this case a friend conjured from the past. Listen as the audience begins to catch her jokes and Miss Bishop warms to the response. There she is, giving us
. . . life itself,
life and the memory of it so compressed
they’ve turned into each other.
Megan Marshall is the author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life. She is at work on a short biography of Elizabeth Bishop. She would like to thank Bill Sorensen for sharing his memories of Miss Bishop’s class party.