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This article is taken from PN Review 122, Volume 24 Number 6, July - August 1998.

Burin and Brush: Elizabeth Bishop's Poetry and Painting David C. Ward

Elizabeth Bishop was notoriously finicky when it came to writing her poems. Most of them were a long time in the making and she frequently worked over lines for years before even circulating, let alone publishing, them. Bishop's great friend Robert Lowell wrote in exasperated admiration, 'Do/ you still hang your words in air, ten years / unfinished.' Some poems took even longer. Bishop worked on 'The Moose' for over twenty-five years from its initial sketching out to completion; even then Bishop probably only finished it because she had committed herself to reading it at Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa ceremony in 1972. Yet 'hating' that public version, Bishop continued to revise 'The Moose' for its publication in The New Yorker and when the poem was collected three years later in Geography III she had made more changes from the first 'final' version given at Harvard. 'The Moose' is an extreme but not untypical example of Bishop's craft. James Merrill, 'adoring' some new poems, chided Bishop affectionately, 'How can you not write at least one a month, for all our sakes?' But Bishop didn't change her ways. She wrote slowly, published infrequently and her total output is small for a major writer.

Didn't change or couldn't change? This is an unanswerable, presumptuous question given the quality of Bishop's work. But it's not irrelevant to ask it when considering Bishop's biography, poetry, and the paintings collected in Exchanging Hats. Hyper-perfectionism (Bishop was also extremely demanding of her editors and ...


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