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May 1994

One life, one art: Elizabeth Bishop in her letters

by Elizabeth Spires

If an unknown poet were to be offered a sort of cosmic bargain where he or she would live the life Elizabeth Bishop lived in return for the poems she wrote, I doubt there would be many takers. From infancy on, Bishop suffered some of the worst losses imaginable. Her father, a prosperous builder from a wealthy New England family, died in 1911 when she was eight months old. Her Canadian mother then suffered a series of nervous breakdowns that led to her permanent institutionalization in an asylum in Halifax when Elizabeth was five; Bishop never saw her again. Cared for first by her maternal grandparents in Great Village, Nova Scotia, a relatively secure and happy time, she lived briefly and quite unhappily with her paternal grandparents in Worcester, Massachusetts, and then with a favorite aunt until she was old enough to go away to boarding school. From childhood on, she suffered from terrible asthma and allergies; in her twenties and thirties, after ...

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Elizabeth Spires' new book of poems, The Wave-Maker, was published by Norton in July 2008.


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 May 1994, on page 18

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