An Introduction to the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

Poems by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop (1911 – 1979) was recognized with numerous awards during the course of her career, including the Pulitzer Prize. Here you’ll find a brief introduction to the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, the noted American poet.

Not a particularly prolific writer, Bishop published only 101 poems during her lifetime. Her literary reputation has grown since her death, with  poems like “One Art,” “A Miracle for Breakfast,” “Sestina,” and “The Fish.”

As a poet, Bishop took great care to rewrite and revise her work. She didn’t give the reader much of a glimpse into her own life, but instead, her poems contained intimate observations of the physical world. She often expressed themes of loss and the struggle to find one’s place in the world in universal rather than personal way.

Her poetry stood in contrast to her contemporaries, including Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, who, among others, were writing confessional poetry. She preferred to avoid personal disclosure in her work.

Here are some of the poems for which Elizabeth Bishop is best known:

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One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

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In his 2015 book, On Elizabeth Bishop, Irish author Colm Tóibín introduced her work:

“Writing, for Elizabeth Bishop, was not self-expression, but there was a self somewhere, and it was insistent in its presence yet tactful and watchful. Bishops writing bore the marks, many of them deliberate, of much re-writing, of things that had been said, but had now been erased, or moved into the shadows.

Things measured and found too simple and obvious, or too loose in their emotional contours, or too philosophical, were removed. Words not true enough were cut away. 

What remained was then of value, but mildly so; it was as much as could be said, given the constraints. This great modesty was also, in its way, a restrained but serious ambition … In the poetics of her uncertainty … there was something hurt and solitary.”

Learn more about Elizabeth Bishop’s life and work at Poetry Foundation; there you’ll find a sampling of several of her poems as well.

Elizabeth Bishop’s concise yet significant body of work is collected in The Complete Poems, 1927 – 1979.

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Elizabeth Bishop, 1964

Learn more about Elizabeth Bishop
Photo of Bishop (1964) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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For analysis of the poems of Elizabeth Bishop, in addition to the above slim volume by Colm Tóibín, these critical biographies are enlightening:

  • Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast by Megan Marshall (2017)
  • Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss by Susan McCabe (1994)
  • Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell
    by David Kalstone (1989)

One Response to “An Introduction to the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop”

  1. Bishop’s mastery of form and language is evident in her meticulous attention to detail and her exquisite imagery. Each poem is crafted with care, with every word chosen thoughtfully to evoke a precise mood or atmosphere. Her use of vivid imagery and sensory language creates a rich tapestry of sights, sounds, and sensations that immerses readers in her world.

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