Life and background
Elizabeth Bishop was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her childhood was blighted by the death of her father when she was hardly a year old and by her mother's mental illness. She was raised by her grandmother in Nova Scotia. She received little formal education in her childhood years, but she read widely at home. Later she attended boarding school and went on from there to Vassar College, near New York. She published her first poems as an undergraduate, and these attracted the attention of the poet Marianne Moore. Moore later persuaded Bishop not to go on for a medical career but to dedicate herself to writing.
Bishop travelled a great deal. She visited Europe often, she lived in Brazil for many years, and at different stages of her life she also lived in Canada, Florida, New York, and San Francisco. She acquired a considerable reputation as a poet, and she received many awards and other forms of recognition, most notably the Pulitzer Prize in 1956 and the National Book Award in 1970. She was poet-in-residence in a number of universities, and she lectured at Harvard. She died in 1979.
Bishop's poetic voice is very distinct. She combines a fine-tuned sense of poetic formality with an elegant lightness of phrase, and she is never afraid of striking a conversational tone. The "Oh, but it is dirty!" with which Filling Station begins and the phrasing throughout In the Waiting Room are evidence of this. Also, her work is replete with vivid imagery and striking metaphors, and the keenness of her perception of the details of the world about her is remarkable.
Many of her poems concern childhood, but there is little to suggest nostalgia or the desire to return to an idyllic life. Bishop's own childhood was far from happy; it was filled with uncertainty.
This is reflected in the unnerving images she so often employs in her poetic accounts of her youth. Sestina, for example, is dominated by images of rain,...