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This article is taken from PN Review 200, Volume 37 Number 6, June - July 2011.

Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker Vidyan Ravinthiran
The Complete Correspondence, ed. Joelle Biele. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. £21.62

In a letter of 8 July 1971 to Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, Elizabeth Bishop describes the class she wants to give at Harvard on 'Letters - Readings in Personal Correspondence, Famous and Infamous, from the 16th to 20th Centuries':

Just letters - as an art form or something. I'm hoping to select a nicely incongruous assortment of people - Mrs. Carlyle, Chekhov, my Aunt Grace, Keats, a letter found in the street, etc. etc.1

Although Bishop herself could be forthright about breaking the generic barrier between letters and art, critics trying to follow her lead have found the task daunting. If literary criticism has always found it difficult to wed close stylistic analysis to a broader awareness of the text as produced by and in some sense permanently located within its historical moment, then epistolary prose intensifies the problem, since letters are traditionally seen as entirely of their moment, and the letters of poets are usually only read so as to back up biographical criticism, or to track what Whitman calls those 'go-befores and embryons' 2 later refined within a poem's literary terrain.

Yet the relentless juggernaut of Bishop studies will not be appeased. Thomas Travisano, Langdon Hammer, Zachariah Pickard, Victoria Harrison, Nicola Deane, Tom Paulin and Jonathan Ellis have all tried to engage closely with Bishop's epistolary prose. The problem these critics face is that of getting past ...


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