on Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast by Megan Marshall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

In 1973 Elizabeth Bishop wrote a blurb for Sandra McPherson’s first book Radiation. She described her former student’s poetry as “a delight and refreshment in the tedium of irony, confession and cuteness of contemporary verse.” According to Brett C. Miller’s 1993 biography of Bishop, she was “appalled by her students’ emphasis on self-expression over craft … and by their insistence on writing about madness and suffering, even though, as far as she could see, they had no experience with either.”

MarshallCover_0.jpgBishop refused merely to transfer her own anguish to her readers. She preferred that we hover over her prose memoirs and poetry, waiting for her to appear at the margins. Instinctively, she turned withholding into enticement. The first-person in her work is both transient and tasked. In his recent brief study on Bishop, Cólm Toibín writes, “She used a calm system for pretending that nothing, or nothing much, was going to happen, that she was going to stick to the known facts and add no flourishes.”

Perhaps taking its cue tonally from the poet, Megan Marshall’s companionable biography, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, also sticks to the facts and adds no flourishes. William Logan remarks in his essay “Elizabeth Bishop at the New Yorker” that “there is a peculiar infantilism in Bishop, and I fear that is what we love.” While not minimizing the loneliness, tensions, fears of insanity, and alcoholism in her subject, Marshall takes a maternal attitude toward Bishop.

In 1935 at age 24, Bishop wrote “The Map,” perhaps the first piece to manifest her notion that a poem must enact a mind thinking. It is a poem of questions. Marshall aligns herself with Bishop by mimicking the inquiry:

“Had Elizabeth asked herself ‘The Map’’s questions as long ago as the days in Great Village School, when she’d gazed at Canada’s meandering outline and envied the older children their study of geography: Are those shadows or shallows? Is the land tugging at the sea? An imaginative girl who could not ask what was most on her mind – will my mother come back? – might have let her mind wander this way.” Brett Miller is sharper on “The Map”: “The task of the mind devoted to accuracy is to be continually aware of perspective; no angle on a subject can be taken for granted, not even that of a map.” The latter tells me more about Bishop than does Marshall’s empathic speculation.

Bishop_2.jpgBishop’s admirers often take her work as a provocation to pursue a phantom. The engagement with her poetry never ends. We keep attending to her provisional presence. Although published in 1993 before some of Bishop’s letters had surfaced, Miller’s 600-page biography offers almost all of the minutiae one could want or abide. (Where Marshall says Bishop preferred jazz to her lover’s rock, Miller can tell us that Bishop liked Janis Joplin and Donovan.) No one has exceeded David Kalstone’s On Becoming A Poet (1989) for its shrewd assessment of relationships with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell and its perceptive readings of the work in that light. What is it we want from a new biography? What else do we want to know?

In general, I expected more penetration – some evidence that Marshall had absorbed the most acutely observed criticism and meshed it with a fresh take on how and why Bishop lived and wrote the way she did. Yet Marshall’s book may suffice for those with a passing interest in the life and work. She is more attuned than Miller to the sexual abuse Bishop endured as a child, as well as to Bishop’s sexuality as it clashed with her times. But Marshall’s lack of ambition disappoints me. Her Bishop comes across as a repetition of narrowly considered behaviors. Similarly, she picks at individual poems, but the accumulative significance of Bishop’s work never finds its center of gravity. For instance, you will find nothing like Heather Treseler’s summation, below, from her August, 2016 essay in Boston Review:

Alongside the confessionals’ striptease, Bishop appeared reliably clothed …
Yet her poems are unflinchingly, unceasingly modern. With more subtlety and nuance than many of her peers, Bishop explored the marketplace of love and the homely accident of happiness; the arrogations of empire and ego; beauty’s unlikely appearance in the ugliness of a child’s death, an electric storm, or a blood-splattered armadillo; and art’s frail attempt to answer to life’s dinning disasters. A poet of broad sensibility and exacting technique, she excelled in classical forms, but she also riffed on blues songs and nursery rhymes, folk ballads and news broadcasts, building poetic structures of uncanny paradox, urbane surrealism, and figurative experiment. Few twentieth-century poets have been so proudly, possessively claimed by both new formalists and anti-lyricists, by the so-called establishment and the avant-garde.

BishopOld.jpgLike McPherson, Marshall was Bishop’s student, a fact apparently so essential to the portrayal of her teacher that she inserts autobiographical chapters along the way. (In the future, everyone will be a memoirist for 15 minutes. A memoirist is a person who has been flattered into memoir by her publisher.) But you will find more incisive material on Bishop-as-teacher in Miller’s book. In one chapter, Marshall recalls attending Bishop’s writing class at Harvard -- and her teacher’s strict prohibition against handing in poems that had been discussed in other classes. But Marshall violated this rule. She had submitted a piece to another instructor, Robert Fitzgerald, which had not yet been returned to her with critique – so she jumped the gun, handed it in to Bishop, and was stung by her cold displeasure. Well, that’s cheating, Ms. Marshall, who protects herself on the slant. This is called a tell where I come from. Later, she seems to blame Peter Davison for snuffing out her poem-writing spirit because he fired her for incompetence at The Atlantic. Perhaps her Houghton Mifflin editor thinks all of this makes the book more "marketable"?

Cólm Toibín said, “It was an essential aspect of [Bishop’s] talent, indeed of her gift, that she did not manage to confront what mattered to her most. Instead, she buried what mattered to her most in her tone, and it is this tone that lifts the best poems she wrote to a realm beyond their own occasion.” In my ear, that tone is sometimes too anemic to lift anything. At other times, all I hear is fussiness. And yet, I keep reading to get at what James Merrill called “her intense difference as a poet.” There is more to be told and celebrated.

[Published February 7, 2017. 350 pages, $30.00 hardcover]