In her lifetime Elizabeth Bishop was appreciated as a writer’s writer (John Ashbery once called her “the writer’s writer’s writer”). But since her death in 1979 her reputation has grown, and today she is recognized as a major twentieth-century poet. Critics and biographers now habitually praise Bishop’s mastery of her art, but all too often they have little to say about how her poetry does its sublime work—in the ear and in the mind’s eye.
Elizabeth Bishop at Work examines Bishop’s art in detail—her diction, syntax, rhythm, and meter, her acute sense of place, and her attention to the natural world. It is also a study of the poet working at something, challenging herself to try new things and to push boundaries. Eleanor Cook traces Bishop’s growing confidence and sense of freedom, from her first collection, North & South, to Questions of Travel, in which she fully realized her poetic powers, to Geography III and the breathtaking late poems, which—in individual ways—gather in and extend the poet’s earlier work. Cook shows how Bishop shapes each collection, putting to rest the notion that her published volumes are miscellanies.
Elizabeth Bishop at Work is intended for readers and writers as well as teachers. In showing exactly how Bishop’s poems work, Cook suggests how we ourselves might become more attentive readers and better writers. Bishop has been compared to Vermeer, and as with his paintings, so with her poems. They create small worlds where every detail matters.