Travels with Susan Spano

People, Places, Stuff

Elizabeth Bishop: Travel and Poetry

July 10, 2012

Tags: Poetry, Brazil, Rio de Janeiro

Poetry and travel are uncommon bedfellows. Like Emily Dickinson who famously wrote “I never saw a moor/I never saw the sea,” versifiers tend to stay home, writing. When the poet’s subject turns to place it‘s generally about what’s outside the front door--the Ireland of Yeats or Wordsworth awakening in the English Lake District.

One noteworthy exception was Elizabeth Bishop, winner of the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and U.S. poet laureate from 1949 to 1950. Born in in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1911, she was orphaned at the age of 15, though left with enough money to do as she pleased, which included going to Vassar and living in New York, France and Key West, the setting for her first book of poetry North and South. It opens with The Map. Land lies in water; it is shadowed green. Followed by fanciful map-gazing that points up the world of difference between cartographic symbol and terra firma reality.

After her debut Bishop struggled with both life and verse, alcoholic and depressive, eking out each of the relatively few poems she produced; as modern and intuitive as her mentor Marianne Moore, as cerebral and fastidious as Dickinson. Her most famous poem One Art pays homage to both her muses and alludes to her secretive back story, opening with the memorable line: The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then more stamps in her passport, culminating in a 1951 trip to Brazil where she stayed for 15 years, living with the architect Lota de Macedo Soares, who designed Flamingo Park in Rio de Janeiro and committed suicide in 1967. Bishop wrote a 1965 article on Rio for the New York Times Magazine and got a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for an, alas, never finished book of travel essays on Brazil.

While there she did complete what I think of as her masterwork, Questions of Travel, published in 1965. It starts with thoughts for the cruise ship passenger in Arrival in Santos--Here is a coast; here is a harbor/here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery-- then deepens in the poem that gives the book its title and rings in my ears whenever I sit here, thinking about going there. I can’t say exactly what it means, only that it asks those of us who travel to compare our preconceptions to what we find when we reach our destinations. And to wonder why we want and need to go anywhere. Here are the last stanzas:

Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there…No. Should we have stayed at home
wherever that may be?

From the first annual SPEAK UP! contest, June 23, 2018, Muhanga, Rwanda

Syracuse Archaeological Museum, Sicily

Proshyan School bathroom with water tank

Takar and Kataro are my favorite Armenia reds

School time in Armenia.

Garni Temple, Armenia

Big Sur from Soberanes Point


Artichoke Pickers by Henriette Shore

On the way to the beach

Jalama Beach, CA

Hello, little sea urchin!

Famous Jalama Beach Burger

Three by Peter Hessler

Spring time on the Big Sur Coast


Jalama Beach, CA

Motya Charioteer. Image from

Laboratory for Atmospheres, NASA

Homesick for Rome

Therme Vals in Switzerland

At Vogelsgang

National Socialist Party poster from Vogelsgang

Palm Springs

Image courtesy of Tylas at English Wikipedia

Vintage Naples Historic District

From Palm Cottage

Borobudur frieze; Buddha's life

Borobudur at sunrise

Shikellamy State Park in Pennsylvania

Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Image courtesy of Politics and Prose

Image courtesy of John Wehrheim.

Lotusland in Montecito, CA

Ganna Walska of Lotusland

Image courtesy of Flickr user ViaMoi.

Conques Church. Image courtesy of Flickr user Seligr.

Weiming Lake, Peking University. Image courtesy of Flickr user ImGump.

The Coral Casino at the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel near Santa Barbara

Agrodome, Rotorua, New Zealand. Image courtesy of Flickr user _gem_.

Vandalized images at Painted Rock

Painted Rock, Carrizo Plain National Monument

Mesa Verde National Park. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons user BenFrantzDale.

A map of Chicago, Illinois, imprinted in 1913 from the United States Geographical Survey’s historical topographic map collection. Image courtesy of the USGS.

Image courtesy of Flickr user hattiesburgmemory.

Cristo Redentor, Rio de Janeiro. Image courtesy of Flickr user alobos flickr.

Image courtesy of Flickr user joiseyshowaa.

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Selected Works

Nonfiction, Travel, Human Interest
A new collection of travel essays by Susan Spano
Tracking Colette in Paris and Burgundy
A draught sinks Lake Powell, revealing lost wonders of Glen Canyon
Rome's Most Roman Neighborhood
Studying Mandarin in Beijing
Around the world and back to New York
Nonfiction Book
Divorce. Why do we do it? And what does it do to us? fourteen prominent writers have pondered these questions and have set down heir thoughts and personal stories, in this gathering of sometimes irreverent and always intelligent essays. "A disarmingly candid, invaluable collection." --Publishers Weekly
"Anyone who doubts that men, too, suffer in divorce should be required to read this." --Glamour Magazine "A rare, unusually focused anthology of original essays that both entertains and instructs." --Publishers Weekly

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