Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography by Gary Fountain and Peter Brazeau - review by David Utterson

David Utterson

Privacy Was an Obsession

Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography


University of Massachussetts Press 408pp £31.50 order from our bookshop

Elizabeth Bishop’s life, forever moving from place to place, unhappy in love, struggling with depression and alcoholism even when she was already recognised as one of America’s finest poets, has all the ingredients necessary for a sensational biography. How pleasing, therefore, to report that this is an ‘oral biography’, still an unusual form, in which relations, friends, fellow writers and former students recall, in chronological order, their memories, views and impressions of Elizabeth Bishop. Most of these interviews were carried out by the late Peter Brazeau; co-author Gary Fountain added a second narrative stream to provide further context.

From the very beginning Bishop seemed ill-fated. Her father died when she was eight months old; as a result her mother spent long periods in mental institutions. Elizabeth was cared for by various relatives, and from this uncertain position, punctuated by the usual childhood illnesses, the germ of a poetic sensibility began to emerge:

Bishop’s lifelong struggle between affirmation and denial, ultimately between life and death, took root in Great Village. She did not inherit ... religious faith ... In its place she developed a trust in beauty and art ... something crafted and attractive relieved the gloom.

Amongst her earliest favourite poets, however, were two of the most demonstratively religious in the language: George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins (Herbert’s influence being quite clear in such poems as ‘Wading at Wellfleet’ and ‘The Weed’).

After high school, Bishop arrived at Vassar in September 1930 to study music. One

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