I should not admit this during National Poetry Month, but I somehow managed to go through four years of college – as an English major, no less – without taking a single poetry course. I read fiction, I wanted to write novels, so what use was poetry to me? But all that changed when I discovered Elizabeth Bishop during my senior year. I was visiting a friend who had Bishop's salmon-colored "Complete Poems" in her room. Intrigued by the cover, I picked it up and soon began reading, fixating, especially, on her sestinas. Not having taken a poetry course, I had never seen such a thing before and immediately wanted to figure out how she did it. When I went home, I bought my own copy.
For me, Elizabeth Bishop was the right poet at the right time. In the months that followed, I developed what I can only call a crush on her: I read about her life, I read the "Collected Prose," and I watched a documentary about her.
I was 22, about to graduate from college, and I desperately wanted to go to India. I was a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey and had no connection to India at all, and yet that was what I wanted.
Bishop, somehow, gave me courage. That she had spent so many years in Brazil was a comfort and an inspiration – she had picked up, moved to another country, and not only survived but thrived. No matter that Bishop was over 40 when she went and that her long stay did not end well. That she went was what mattered to me.
The summer after graduation, my friends were kind, even solicitous, about my Bishop obsession. We all wrote bad sestinas – about the weird dog we lived with, about mountain biking, about cars. Mine were all about the passage of time, which concerned me. The boy I had a romance with that summer was less supportive – the flaws in his character should have been obvious to me the moment he called Bishop an "arcane woman poet." (Several years later, to his credit, he apologized.)
When I finally left for India that fall, I took just a few books with me, and Bishop's poems were among them. I had moved beyond the sestina by that point and especially liked her poems about Brazil from "Questions of Travel."
A particular favorite was "Arrival at Santos." ("So that's the flag. I never saw it before./ I somehow never thought of there being a flag,/ but of course there was, all along.") Bishop made me think about my own first encounter with a foreign culture, and she made me think about how I would write about India, when the time came.
Bishop is often called "a poet's poet," as if her spare verse speaks only to those who already love poetry. That wasn't true for me. I was fascinated by the details of Bishop's life – her traumatic childhood, her friendships with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, her long stay in Brazil – but I also loved her words, which are what I still go back to.
Bishop is in the news these days because of the publication of a volume of her previously unpublished works, the intriguingly titled, "Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box." There is some debate about whether the private and perfectionist Bishop would have wanted these fragments, these poems she chose not to publish, out in the world.
I may be biased, but I am glad there is more of her writing for others to discover. I know firsthand how a chance encounter can transform you from a person who doesn't read poetry to one who does.
Seventeen years after I was first introduced to Bishop, my copy of the "Complete Poems" is dog-eared and grubby – and I wouldn't want it any other way. That's what I'm thinking about as this year's National Poetry Month unfolds. I'm hoping this is the month that someone else will find an Elizabeth Bishop of her own.