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People, Places, Stuff

Elizabeth Bishop: Travel and Poetry

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?

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