A look back at the life, work and legacy of Elizabeth Bishop ’34

Juliette Pope/The Miscellany News.

Inscribed on each of the granite benches outside of the Deece is a quote from Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. The quotes center around themes of love, time, nature, war and change. The benches, designed by conceptual artist Jenny Holzer in honor of Vassar President Frances Daly Fergusson’s 20-year anniversary, were made from the Laurentian Mountain in Canada and invite students to take a peaceful moment and reflect on the words of one of their predecessors. 

A member of the Vassar College Class of 1934, Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet and short-story writer whose vibrant poetry propelled her to nationwide fame. Born in Worcester, MA, Bishop endured a difficult childhood; her father died when she was eight months old, and her mother was admitted to a mental hospital when she was five. After her mother’s admission, Bishop constantly moved between family members, first to her maternal grandparents, then to her paternal grandparents and then finally to her maternal aunt, whose husband Bishop described as “sadistic.” During the years spent with her paternal grandparents, Bishop fell very ill with asthma and an unspecified skin disease, from which she came very close to dying. Throughout her childhood, Bishop developed a sense of being unanchored, which would later become a common theme in her poetry.

Bishop began writing poetry when she came to Vassar in 1929.  While she originally wanted to be a composer, Bishop ultimately decided on  an English concentration because of her shy nature and fear of performance. She co-founded “Con Spirito” (1933), a rebellious campus literary magazine, alongside Mary McCarthy; McCarthy would later write “The Group,” one of the most famous literary depictions of Vassar women. In Bishop’s senior year, a Vassar librarian connected her to fellow poet Marianne Moore. Moore helped Bishop publish her poems in the “Trial Balances” anthology, from which they developed a close relationship.

After Vassar, Bishop traveled the world and continued writing poetry. She eventually took up permanent residence in Europe with a Vassar classmate and wrote poems based on her travel experiences, including “Paris, 7 a.m.” and “Brazil, January 1, 1502.” Bishop deeply admired and advocated for Brazilian poets. She translated Brazilian poems into English and often drew inspiration from the Brazilian landscape for her own work.

Bishop did not cover her personal life or socialist politics in her poetry, and favored older, more traditional styles like the 39-line sestina structure. She approached topics like death, childhood and identity with a detached and detailed voice. Because Bishop was highly advanced in both technique and ear, critics found her to be among the most naturally talented poets of her generation. 

Though an ardent feminist, Bishop refused publication in anthologies that only featured women’s poetry.  She found such a gender-based division condescending, preferring to be published alongside other top poets, regardless of gender. In the end, Bishop did become one of the leading poets of her generation. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1956 for her collection “Poems: North & West—A Cold Spring,” which featured detailed, realist poetry set in easily identifiable geographical locations from her travels. She won the National Book Award in 1970 for her complete anthology, and received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1976 for her lifetime achievements. Bishop died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1979. While not a household name, her legacy looms large among scholars of American poetry and, perhaps, among Vassar students looking for a place to sit.

Former Professor of English Barbara Page and poetry editor of the New Yorker Alice Quinn advised the project to feature Bishop’s poetry on Vassar benches. They honor a celebrated alumna of Vassar College, and remind Vassar students of their connection to one of the greats.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this article about the Jenny Holzer benches! Students may also be interested to know that Bishop’s personal papers and manuscripts of her work are housed in Vassar’s Special Collections Library, and are open for research. Details available online…

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