On Discovering Elizabeth Bishop
Joelle Biele is the editor of Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence, to be published by FSG in 2011. We highlighted a few letters from the book earlier this month.
Sitting outside my poetry professor’s door, I noticed that the students from her advanced class were still reading the pink book. I had seen them, seniors probably, carrying the book before, through the corridors of the English department and onto the quad. Clearly, they had read a lot, had sophisticated tastes, and I was a student in the beginning class, hoping to find my way out of the dark and snowy rail stations of the Nineteenth-Century Russian Novel but unsure what to read in its place.
Each week my poetry professor passed out thick packets filled with poems, poems like “My Cat Geoffrey,” “Directive,” and “Howl”—poems that completely floored me, as had the essays by Eudora Welty and E. B. White she'd assigned in Composition the year before. Anything she had us read was good, and these students still carried the book, which meant it was doubly good, so I had to spot the title without being too obvious. There was a certain coolness factor, after all. A student came out of her office, another went in, and we all shifted seats. The girl next to me rifled through her bag, and there it was, the pink book with the light green picture and the plain black letters: Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems, 1927–1979.
Either later that week or the week after, I took the bus to Harvard Square and bought the book I still read now, excited to have what I thought of as my first real book of poems. I was eager to sit down and read, eager to see what I might discover, if it would be the kind of book I would want to read in one sitting, and if I would want to carry it, too.