Even to themselves, the poets of the mid-twentieth century seemed cursed. “I’m cross with god who has wrecked / this generation,” wrote John Berryman in “Dream Song 153.” “First he seized Ted, then Richard, Randall, and now Delmore.” Some years after he joined this list himself, his long-suffering first wife Eileen Simpson would write: “Many—I, too, at moments—blamed the suicide on John’s having been a poet. The litany of suicides among poets is long. After a while I began to feel that I’d missed the obvious. It was the poetry that had kept him alive.”
For the host of critics, biographers, and memoirists who have approached these poets since, the question Simpson seeks to answer here has not always been easy to settle or even to pose. One stance, which at least has the virtue of consistency, is to say: the art goes in one box, and everything else—the alcoholism, the mental illness, the broken marriages, the violence, the suicide—goes in a different box. If you won’t do the hard work required to discuss what’s in box number one intelligently, you can open box number two. However, your interest in doing so is voyeurism and you should, probably, feel bad about it.
As with most “big” questions, “What is the relationship between Life and Art?” is answered by a fat and unsatisfying “it depends.” Most of us wobble, looking at things one way, then another. Two new books, Kay Redfield Jamison’s Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire, (Knopf, $29.95, 560 pp.) and Megan Marshall’s Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30, 354 pp.), take aim at this separation of life from work and poet from reader. In so doing, they illustrate the best and the worst case scenarios for their approach.
Like Lowell, Jamison suffers from what is now called bipolar disorder, about which she has written extensively both personally and professionally (she is also a psychologist [*] who teaches at Johns Hopkins University). Marshall, who has written two other biographies of American women of letters, identifies with Bishop strongly enough to alternate chapters of biography with chapters of memoir. Her grounds for doing so are shaky. What she does have is, in its way, worse than nothing at all.
Elizabeth Bishop’s life contains enough material to make at least seven confessional poets, but she refused to give herself away so easily. Her careful poetry, neither personal nor impersonal, spoke and saw through an “I” that strove to dissolve itself into its own observation. Though she sometimes tried to write poems directly from life, these attempts did not often result in publication.
She certainly had, if she had wanted to use it, the material. In 1967, Bishop woke in the night to find that her partner of more than twenty-five years, Lota de Macedo Soares, had swallowed most of a bottle of Valium. She slipped into a coma and died a few days later. Yet Lota was not even the first person in Bishop’s life to commit suicide as an act of revenge. Bob Seaver, a college boyfriend, shot himself and sent her a postcard that said only “go to hell, Elizabeth” when she refused to marry him.
Indeed, Bishop entered the world losing things. Her father died when she was eight months old. Her mother, Gertrude, apparently unhinged by grief, would become unstable, at one point sleeping with her young daughter while holding a knife. After a suicide attempt when Bishop was five years old, Gertrude would be institutionalized and disappear completely from her daughter’s life. Bishop spent her childhood bouncing from relative to relative—among them her Uncle George, who sexually abused her and once held her by the hair off a second-story balcony. The only security that her family would provide was financial—the inheritance that funded her life as a poet.
One way of understanding Elizabeth Bishop is that walling herself in was the price she had to pay to come out of her childhood alive. Some of the people who knew her say as much. “Elizabeth had a place she could go in which she was all alone as a kind of frigid little girl,” recalled the critic Helen Vendler in an interview. “She could be enticed out of it, but then she would go back into it, back into her own aloneness.” How can a biographer scale that wall and understand the person beyond it? One trick is to begin mapping Bishop’s interior by heading into your own, hoping, as Bishop wrote in “Maps,” you can provide the color that “suits the character or the native waters best.” This is Marshall’s approach. She has some secret weapons. First, hitherto unknown letters from Bishop to her therapist, Dr. Ruth Foster. Second, the archive from which she retrieved these letters, unsealed only in 2009. Third, she took Bishop’s poetry class at Harvard.
The letters to Ruth Foster contain shocking information about Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood, but though the details of her abuse are nauseating to read, they disappear almost as soon as they are mentioned and Marshall never really ties them to other aspects of Bishop’s work or life. As for the other letters, Marshall claims in her last chapter they contain new information “never revealed…even to close friends”—namely that Alice Methfessel, the companion of Bishop’s final years, the woman with whom she lived and traveled, was not merely a very good friend.
Though Marshall’s willingness to write frankly about Elizabeth Bishop’s romantic relationships is both refreshing and commendable, the relationships themselves are not news. Methfessel and Bishop’s relationship was clearly known to some of their friends: they are referred to explicitly in Remembering Elizabeth Bishop, an oral biography from 1994, as lovers. If Bishop thought she had kept the relationship a secret, she was mistaken.
The poetry class takes up most of the space, even shaping the structure of the book. Yet Marshall did not really know Bishop, was not mentored by her, and does not seem to have had any serious conversations with her. Because the personal connection with Bishop is not strong, Marshall’s decision to publish her own life story as a biography within a biography is not always easy to understand. When she writes that “newly divorced, I found myself looking for a teaching job in my mid-fifties, as Elizabeth Bishop had after her marriage ended”—thus analogizing her divorce to Lota’s suicide—it is, frankly, offensive.
In dealing with Bishop herself, however, this treatment produces an image of the poet that is indistinct and far away; the writing about her is overawed and overfamiliar—which is how we often relate to teachers who have meant much to us. Bishop’s flaws, missteps, and unfashionable qualities are airbrushed or replaced by wishful thinking. Much is made of a car trip with Adrienne Rich, but one car trip cannot replace Bishop’s general indifference to politics and frequent hostility toward feminism.
To relate the facts of Bishop’s life, Marshall leans heavily on speculative questions. Sometimes these questions are simply confusing:
Was it imagining that distance, the land and the water to be crossed by carriage or automobile from Great Village to Dartmouth, N.S., that made Elizabeth love the two glossy maps—one of Canada and one of the whole world—that hung on her classroom wall, though she was too young to learn geography?
Cumulatively, however, these questions undermine her authority: If Marshall doesn’t know, who does? Similarly, to provide interior detail in a moment when archives cannot, Marshall sometimes will pull from the poetry as if it were a direct transcription of events—quoting “In the Waiting Room,” written toward the end of Bishop’s life, as a simple description of an experience Bishop had when she was five. Treating women writers as stenographers rather than artists is a common trap, and Marshall, who should know better, falls into it frequently.