On Elizabeth Bishop: “The laughter is quick, sharp, deep. No way to transcribe it.”


“You know what we used to do with peppermint sticks? You stick it in half a lemon, and you suck it. Very good.”

Elizabeth Bishop was a sucker for candy canes. Who knew?

Ploughshares has republished its 8,000 word interview with the poet George Starbuck, first published in 1977.  The interview feels pretty much unedited, replicating the twists and byways a conversation can take, as if the editors were reluctant to let even the tiniest bit go. And some things couldn’t be described: “The laughter is quick, sharp, deep. No way to transcribe it.”

My favorite bit is about her friendship with Marianne Moore, dating back to Bishop’s collegiate days:

EB: Actually, I didn’t tell her I wrote for a long time. … I guess she must have known by the time I graduated. Even then—I suppose this was a little odd even then—we called each other Miss for about three years. But I admired her so much.

She had a review of Wallace Stevens that I don’t think she ever reprinted. I went over there, to Brooklyn. She waved me through the back door (the elevator wasn’t working). And she had two of those baskets for tomatoes, just filled with papers. Two bushel baskets. And these were the first drafts of this rather short review. You can see how she worked.

She asked for rhymes. (Photo: Carl Van Vechten)

She had a clipboard that she carried around the house to work on a poem while she was washing dishes, dusting, etc.

Now all her papers, or almost all, are in the Berg Museum in Philadelphia. … the exhibit of manuscripts was marvelous. If ever you want to see examples of hard work, it’s just perfect.

She wrote a poem about the famous racehorse, Tom Fool. The man who arranged the collection had done a beautiful job, in glass cases: dozens of little clippings from the newspapers and photographs of the horse. And then the versions of the poem. It goes on and on and on. The work she put in!

GS: I’d be fascinated to see how she did those inaudible rhymes—whether that came first or kept changing. How that figured.

EB: She was rather contradictory, you know. Very illogical. She would say, “Oh—rhyme is dowdy.” Then other times, when she was translating La Fontaine, she would ask me for a rhyme. If I suggested a rhyme, she would be very pleased. She liked that ballad of mine [“The Burglar of Babylon” –ed.] because it rhymed so well. She admired the rhyme Many Antennae. You could never tell what she was going to like or dislike.

GS: That was the other thing about “The Moose.” There’s that nice casual little six-line stanza, but you establish different interlocking ways of making at least a couple of pairs of rhymes out of the six lines.

EB: I thought it would be regular, but that turned out boring. It seemed almost like a ballad. The first stanza was what I thought of first, and then it just seemed to go. It was so funny, Octavio read it when it was published somewhere. He talks about rhyme a lot. Then he read the first stanza aloud and he said, “Oh, it rhymes! Oh it rhymes some more! Rhymes and rhymes and rhymes!” Robert Lowell is always saying, “I like rhyme.” He tries to go back to rhyme but doesn’t. Says he can’t seem to do it any more. His first poems violently rhymed. You—you’ve written sestinas. Rhymes. I’ve always thought I’d write a villanelle.

GS: But you did

EB: Finally did. Never do it again.

He loved mice. (Photo: Walter Albertin)

And this tidbit about E.E. Cummings:

GS: You seem to write more and more kinds of poems but without exhorting yourself to be suddenly different.

EB: Ha. I know I wish I had written a great deal more. Sometimes I think if I had been born a man I probably would have written more. Dared more, or spent more time at it. I’ve just wasted so much time.

GS: Would it have been extra works in other genres?

EB: No.

GS: Long poems?

EB: No. One or two long poems I’d like to write, but I doubt that I ever will. Well, not really long. Maybe ten pages. That’d be long. I read Robert Penn Warren’s Collected Poems. He wasn’t lazy. And Cummings.

Oh. I did know Cummings. When I lived in the Village, later on, I met him through a friend. He and I had the same maid for two or three years. “Leave a little dirt, Blanche,” he used to say to her. Blanche finally left them. They wouldn’t put traps down for the mice. Mrs. Cummings told her a story about how there was a little mouse that would come out and get right on the bed. They would lie in bed and watch her roll up little balls of wool from the blanket, to make her nest. Well, Blanche was appalled.

GS: Was he sparing the mice on humanitarian, vegetarian principles?

EB: Oh no. Cummings just loved mice. He had several nice poems about mice. He adored them. He used to…

Well, I haven’t said anything profound.

I have, among my books somewhere, I have the Time-Life book she was commissioned to write about Brazil, in which, according to Starbuck, she writes “such wonderful bright clear stories from the history of Brazil.” I’ll have to find it.

The rest of the Ploughshares interview here.  And my own post on Bishop, as remembered by Dana Gioia and Thom Gunn (as well as my own visit to her Brazilian home) is  here.

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One Response to “On Elizabeth Bishop: “The laughter is quick, sharp, deep. No way to transcribe it.””

  1. Office Removals Says:

    I find E.E. Cummings one of the most inspirational men of all times. His style of writing is so influential and realistic.