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Elizabeth Bishop, MFA Idol

I’d be remiss if I let 2011 slip by without a tribute to Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979), who was born a century ago and who now looms larger over contemporary poetry than any other writer of her generation. That’s saying something, considering that her generation also included Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Dylan Thomas.

Over the past two years we’ve seen new editions of Bishop’s complete poems and prose, her complete correspondence with Lowell, and even her major paintings (she was an accomplished artist whose whimsical style resembles that of Eric Anderson, Wes’s brother). The combination of her centenary and her widening influence has made 2011 the high-water mark of Bishopmania.

In fact it’s my pet theory that Bishop is now the central poet of what Chad Harbach has called—in reference to fiction—the “MFA canon.” Harbach describes this canon as having “a less masculine tone and a more overt interest in cultural pluralism” than the “NYC canon” dominated by bestselling novelists. These same factors work to some extent in favor of Bishop, a lesbian poet (though not one whose poems are heavily “gendered”) and a cosmopolitan woman who lived variously in Canada, the United States, France, and Brazil. It helps, too, that she was one of the most celebrated poets alive in America during the 1970s, when many of today’s MFA faculty came up the ranks.

Still, the real key to her importance within the modern MFA program is the exceptional variety of her work. Though she published barely over 100 poems in her lifetime, they succeed across a broad range of forms, from the sonnet to the sestina, vers libre to the villanelle. That formal versatility, combined with the ease of her voice—which is flexible too, but consistently charming and unpretentious—makes for an ideal teaching model. Read ten collections by recent MFA grads and you’ll find at least five of them striving for that same balance; you’ll find, for example, quite a few conversational-sounding sestinas.

And yet precisely because of her versatility, her influence isn’t stifling: she straddles nearly every aesthetic faction from the ultra-conservative to the avant-garde. The rigorous formalist James Merrill said he loved her poems best “of all the splendid and curious works belonging to [his] time,” while the free-flowing postmodernist John Ashbery has called her a “writer’s writer’s writer.”

As an MFA student I’m happy to breathe the air of the landscape Bishop dominates. At the same time, I wonder how the modern MFA would have grown up differently without her example in the previous generation. What if the greatest poet of her time had been someone like Emily Dickinson: a writer who worked obsessively within a narrow range of forms? Instead of being urged toward formal experimentation and variety, would today’s poets be encouraged to find a single form, a single style that suits them, and stick with it until it gains the fluency of a private language?

The contrast becomes clearer if you imagine both of these poets in a modern MFA workshop. (Assume for the sake of argument that either of them would show up to one.) Bishop would be the star pupil, turning in a perfect “persona poem” for one assignment, an expertly crafted villanelle for the next, and so on. Dickinson, on the other hand, would frustrate the hell out of everyone by working in the same weird mode from poem to poem. Then again, Dickinson, unlike Bishop, would turn in her assignments on time. Dickinson produced 1,775 poems—a poem every day or two at her peak. Bishop, in switching forms so often, had to eke out her tiny corpus over the course of a lifetime. Where Dickinson composed in a “White Heat,” Bishop said that “I’ve always written poetry more by not writing it.”

Whether the narrow-range approach will ever regain favor, or is even compatible with workshop pedagogy, shifting tastes and generations will have to decide. As Bishop’s centenary wanes, it’s enough to recognize that this shy oddball who spent much of her adult life abroad has become the chameleonic queen of the American poetry jungle. Her understated wryness is a lingua franca bridging nearly every school—literal and figurative—on the contemporary scene. And her poems remain magnificent. Read them, read them.

[Image: Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, Library of America, 2008. Courtesy B&]


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