BECOMING A POET: Elizabeth Bishop, with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell by David Kalstone

BECOMING A POET: Elizabeth Bishop, with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell

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At his death in 1986, professor-critic Kalstone (Five Temperaments, 1977) left be. hind the first draft (without introduction or final chapter) of this fascinating study of Elizabeth Bishop's poetic career--a career that, with time, has proven far more enduring and significant than those of her more celebrated contemporaries. Not quite ""an excellent vade mecum for writers,"" as editor Robert Hemenway claims, Kalstone's study does succeed as ""an exacting (though informal) inquiry into the workings of friendship between poets and the steady growth of an extraordinary mind."" The first, and for a long time, only poet-friend of Bishop's was her mentor, Marianne Moore, whom she met in 1934, when Bishop was 23. In her late 40s, Moore served also as something of a replacement for Bishop's long-absent mother. The ""complicated, instinctive affinity"" of the two poets derived from a similar regard for the thing observed, for a poetry of description. Moore prodded the younger poet on, editing her work, promoting it to magazines, and lifting her spirits when Bishop considered giving up. The relation was full of ""little dramas of disobedience and dependency"" that led to a major break when Moore (with help from her mother) completely rewrote Bishop's ""Roosters."" Stepping into Moore's place, in 1947, was Robert Lowell, whom Bishop met after they'd both published their first books. Though Lowell's myth-making and Bishop's particularizing seemed at odds. the two became intense admirers of each other--an admiration that had amorous overtones despite Bishop's sexual preference for women. Bishop's drinking problems and Lowell's madness made for lots of personal difficulties, but the professional relation seldom faltered. Kalstone rightly sees Bishop's evolution as a poet as an effort, inspired largely by Lowell, to expand into narrative, and to incorporate ""self-presentation"" into her art of describing. With its engaging combination of biography and close reading, this is how poetry criticism should be written, so that nonacademics as well might enjoy it.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1989
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux