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Wednesday’s woman

January 29, 2014

Elizabeth Bishop

During sad and unsettled times over the last days in an attempt to alleviate my impotency and grief I have dipped into book that got left behind in the recent return  to Brazil.  It is a beefy tome and may have increased the ‘baggage a little too much. Still Brazil’s loss is my gain; there is always space for a book in my book case (s) by or about Elizabeth Bishop. This one, One Art is a selection of letters written over 50 years; from 1928 when she began her career as a poet at 17 years old until she died in 1979.  I have read a little about her and some of her poems; but these letters, a fraction of several thousand are an intimate reflection of a very private woman while keeping in touch with her friends.  We learn about the great love of her live which lasted 15 years and ended in tragedy.  The name of the book stands for the art of poetry to which she devoted her life. She said, we understand, that ‘man is forced to choose perfection of life or work’ she choose the latter. Her battle for perfection in verse was renown She began writing one of her most famous poems the Moose in 1956, promising her Aunt Grace a copy when it was completed . Sixteen years later it arrived in the post. The poem one of many that received critical acclaim but Bishop remained always modest about her achievements.

One art also stands for the art of letter writing; which Bishop clearly practiced perhaps more easily and with increased results.  However, while she was a good letter writer she also enjoyed reading them.

Her library contained many books of letters; those of Lady Mary Wortley Montague, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and others. She even gave a seminar on letter writing called Letters – readings in personal correspondence, famous and infamous, from 16th to 20th centuries discussing people she said ‘like Mrs Carlyle, Chekhov, my Aunt Grace, Keats and a letter found in the street’.   

I cannot do justice to the book in a few words but I will continue dipping in until I return the book to it rightful owner in July.

Further reading One art, letters, selected and edited by Robert Giroux

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