A partial transcript of Episode 15 of THE ART MOVEMENT. To listen to the full radio show, click here.
Elizabeth Bishop is one of my favorite poets. A fascinating writer with a unique way to describe things that revealed a unique perspective of the world around her, she was also a tragic figure who once famously told the poet Robert Lowell: “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”
That is why in “The Fish,” as she describes the exterior of the title animal, she is able to do so in defamiliarizing terms, alienating the reader from the natural world and making us consider the creature as a predator, prey, food and external object.
In fact, in her poetry we often see the exploration of the idea that humanity is either separate or a part of nature, shifting between these two perspectives seamlessly. This fact alone reflects her own alienation, which may have had something to do with her sexual identity.
In fact, solitude was almost a way of protecting herself in an era where queer love was still very much frowned upon, if not downright illegal. Bishop was born in 1911 and as a child, she lost both her parents and was molested by an uncle. She discovered her love for other women relatively early but hated labels so, much like she resented defining herself as a poet, she avoided being labelled as a lesbian. Both, however, were proof of her own deep insecurity as she longed for constant encouragement from others.
We know of two of her meaningful relationships — one with the Brazilian architect slash landscape designer Lota de Macedo Soares and the other with Alice Methfessel, a younger woman who loved her until she died. In a letter to fellow poet Adrienne Rich, who inspired by the rise of the feminist movement of the 60s had left her husband and come out as a lesbian, Bishop wrote that she too longed to follow her path and write more openly about “the situation of woman.”
One of my favorite poems ever is “One Art.” I take great comfort in it. The poem was written in 1976, in the late stage of her life, and it’s almost as if she were looking back and all she is able to see is a succession of things big and small that she lost.
What I also love about it, and I am not sure whether this has been pointed out in any significant way, is that if you — like me — are into reading poetry out loud, the meaning of the poem changes according to the tone with which you choose to interpret it. If you read it with fiery determination, it is reassuring. If you read it quietly, it is full of contemplation.