A stunning collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s (1911–1979) professional and personal letters, which span more than four decades.
A volume like this is both a time capsule and an artifact. Opening it, readers encounter fresh evidence of the marvelous poet as a compelling human being; closing it, they realize that in this digital age such a book may not longer be produced. In the letters, Bishop continually complains about her typewriter, carbon paper, the erratic snail-mail deliveries and the inability to see her poems in print because her magazines were piling up in San Francisco. At the New Yorker, editors Katharine White and Howard Moss became her principal correspondents, and both would become Bishop’s dear friends and champions as well. The individual letters are dazzling. The principals debate about the placement of commas, hyphenated words, dedications, typography, diction and what sorts of things do and don’t belong in the magazine. The New Yorker accepted Bishop’s first work (prose) in late 1934; they were copyediting her last (a poem) when she died in October 1979. Early in her tenure as a contributor, the magazine began offering her an annual first-reading agreement, which she terminated in 1961; she requested reinstatement in 1967. Initially, Bishop accepted with grace and equanimity the rather frequent rejections (she submitted fiction, nonfiction and poetry), but near the end she enjoyed a steady stream of acceptance and encomium. Personal details begin to appear very early in the correspondence—we hear about illness, loss, frustration and failure, not just from Bishop but from her editors. She was difficult and dilatory at times—losing letters, asking favors—but her poems were peerless. Following her long, luminous introduction, editor and poet Biele (White Summer, 2002), with consummate humility and profound respect for her subject, stays far in the background, appearing only in spare but necessary footnotes.