Elizabeth Bishop

Hailed today as one of the most important poets of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Bishop was a meticulous and observant poet, publishing only 101 poems over the course of her lifetime. She was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1956.

Photo: Elizabeth Bishop, 1956, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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    Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, Bishop’s father died less than a year after her birth, and her mother was institutionalized because of mental illness when Elizabeth was five years old. Orphaned, Elizabeth’s maternal grandparents took her into their home in Nova Scotia, Canada, where she remained for several years. Then, her paternal grandparents gained custody of her, and she was forced to move back to Massachusetts. Because her paternal grandparents were wealthy, they could afford to send Elizabeth to the prestigious Walnut Hill School.

    After graduating from the Walnut Hill School, Bishop attended Vassar College. At Vassar, she co-founded Con Spirito, a rebellious literary journal, and met poet Marianne Moore, who played her crucial role in her development as a poet.

    Because of an inheritance from her deceased father, Bishop was independently wealthy from early adulthood until her death. Therefore, she could travel extensively throughout Europe and then settled in Key West in 1938, the same year that her volume North and South was published (and won the Pulitzer Prize). She left Key West in 1944.

    Upon receiving a travel grant in 1951, Bishop decided to travel South America. However, two weeks in Brazil turned into fourteen years in the town of Pétropolis with her lover, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares. After the relationship soured and Soares committed suicide in 1967, Bishop moved back to the United States permanently and lectured at Harvard University, winning numerous major awards throughout the rest of her life.

    Bishop’s poetry is characterized by her keen observation and distance from what is being documented in her poem. Unlike the confessional poetry of her good friend Robert Lowell, Bishop’s verses do not expound on personal emotions, but rather give impressions of the world surrounding her.

    –Christie Finn

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