My Search for Elizabeth Bishop

An academic mentor suggested I follow the tracks of the poet whose work and life got more interesting — and relevant — at every turn.

Author: Heather Treseler ’10Ph.D.

With a tactical wisdom I would not understand until I myself was an English professor, my undergraduate mentor at Brown University began his office hours at 7:00 on Friday mornings. He concluded them at 8:55 sharp, minutes before the parking meters required quarters. Yet Professor Michael S. Harper — a poet, Roman Catholic and African American — brought such intellectual intensity and pastoral concern to his teaching that there was often a line of students queued at the door by 6:30.

Harper did not work with everyone who sought his tutelage, and his demands of students were bracing. In my first month of his Advanced Poetry Workshop, he had me read all of John Keats’ poems and letters, followed by the poems of Sappho, Adrienne Rich and Muriel Rukeyser and a geological survey of New England, and watch three films about the tango. The next semester, he had me assemble my own anthology of American poetry and defend each of my choices in essays. Harper, who had joined the Brown faculty in 1970, had earned a reputation for guiding poets, novelists and scholars to their subject matter, helping them find their life’s work. He was, by all accounts, a literary polymath with the sidelong gifts of a fortune teller.

For that, I was willing to get up early. He was, as I would later joke with him, the oracle of Wilbour Hall, which housed the university’s distinguished professors of English and Egyptology in spacious, book-lined offices. As a scholarship kid at an Ivy League university, I couldn’t believe my luck, and I wasn’t going to let it go.

Months into what would become a decadeslong friendship, Harper asked me if I had read the poems of Elizabeth Bishop.

“A couple,” I said.

“In an anthology?” he asked sarcastically.


“Treseler, please get your head out of anthologies!” he shouted with a football-coach vehemence that I would, in time, understand as earnest affection. “Unless it’s one of your own! Why let editors pick poems for you? Don’t you trust your own taste?”

I nodded, hoping that was the right answer. The following semester, I read all of Bishop’s published work, intrigued by a poet with both classical and modern affinities who was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, an hour from my birthplace in Boston. But I sensed that Harper had “prescribed” Bishop to me for reasons aside from shared geography. After all, she had lived with her grandparents in rural Nova Scotia and, as an adult, traveled widely, spending two decades with a lover in Brazil, living in Key West and Greenwich Village and visiting Western Europe and northern Africa. Her imagination was cosmopolitan. And her life seemed to have followed none of “the rules,” as I thought of them, that governed the lives of the women among whom I’d grown up.

Recipes for achieving a middle class life and family were familiar to me and yet foreign to what I felt I wanted but could not name as freedom, anonymity or adventure. My post-adolescent restlessness surprised me, since I had followed an orthodox path for most of my young life. Sitting in a doctor’s office one day, listening to the receptionist and nurses chat about Chihuahuas and varieties of coffeecake frosting, I realized with horror and exhilaration that I did not want a typical life — and what I wagered it would cost me in time and attention that could be spent on ideas, on art, on things that mattered to me.

Before I had officially left home for adulthood, I was in exile, finding myself at odds with those suburban rituals of perms and proms, brunch and baseball, that were seemingly intended to settle one into a life of predictability or, as Bishop writes, one “lulled within, a family with pets.” In her work, I sensed a fellow traveler, a genteel renegade, someone who lived for her art.

Bishop only published about a hundred poems in her lifetime, but they were of such high quality that she received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, a triple crown that intimated her work’s longevity. She wore her laurels lightly. Praised for her “famous eye” at a reading she gave at the Guggenheim Museum in 1969, the poet noted, assuming the podium, “The ‘famous eye’ will now put on her glasses.”

Elizabeth Bishop
Center for Creative Photography

Bishop’s poetry is popular, in part, because it is full of surprises. So, too, her letters. Her correspondence with the poet Robert Lowell includes everything from her admiration for Charles Darwin’s observations and Saint Teresa of Avila’s mystical ecstasies to the dietary habits of Uncle Sam, her pet toucan, who made quick work of bananas. One summer she wrote to Lowell of her encounter with a hairdresser in Wiscasset, Maine, who noted that Bishop — as an orphan and unmarried woman — was just “ploughing through life alone,” a phrase Bishop regarded with humor. “So now,” she wrote jokingly to Lowell, “I can’t walk downstairs in the morning or upstairs at night without feeling I’m ploughing. There’s no place like New England.”

Wanting to read more of Bishop’s droll, gossipy letters, I applied for a research grant to work in archives where more of them were housed. At Harvard in 2001, using a groaning microfiche machine, even then a technological mastodon, I read Bishop’s description of herself in one memorable letter as a “New-Englander-herring-choker-bluenoser.” A bluenoser, I learned, refers to someone from Nova Scotia, where, presumably, long winters make for blue noses, but the term can also denote a Presbyterian, a schooner or a soft-shell clam — entities Bishop knew well, having spent most of her childhood and adolescence along the New England and Nova Scotia coastlines.

Like Bishop, I spent most of my young life within 20 miles of the Atlantic Ocean and lived, for spells of summer, with grandparents in a rustic cottage by the sea, where the tides provided an alternative clock, one older than human history, and continually altered how the ocean appeared to those ashore. As Bishop would write in her great poem “At the Fishhouses,” the ocean is “like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, / drawn from the cold hard mouth / of the world.” In her metaphor, what we think we know for certain is ultimately contingent, time-bound and mutable, a fluent tide. “Our knowledge,” the poem concludes with a flourish, “is historical, flowing, and flown.”

In the 1960s and ’70s Bishop, I learned, had largely stood against the current of Confessional poetry, which traded on the shock of blunt revelation. In contrast, her poems’ coded metaphors hide secrets in plain sight: They are seascapes, teeming with life submerged beneath the surface. Or, as she writes of a friendly Atlantic seal, who enjoyed her singing of Baptist hymns: “like me [he is] a believer in total immersion.” How much of Bishop’s style, sometimes termed “reticent” or “reserved,” was attributable to her identity as someone from New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces, a person with a tidal sense of time, more attuned to littoral shale than the politics of personality?

Wondering how profoundly place might shape a poet’s persona, I posed the question to Professor Harper, who said enigmatically, “Geography is identity, even for the inveterate traveler. Maybe you need to go up to Nova Scotia and take a look around.”

It would be 20 years before I took his advice, venturing to Great Village, now a coastal town of about 600 people, where Bishop’s maternal family resided across the street from a gas station and a large Presbyterian church, its nave shaped like a schooner’s hull in homage to the region’s shipbuilding. There, alongside Great Village River and Cobequid Bay, Bishop spent summer months in her grandparents’ care, honing ways of observing that shaped how she would portray the world. As she writes in “Manners,” a poem ostensibly about her grandfather, getting along in Great Village entailed neighborly civility. “‘Be sure to remember to always / speak to everyone you meet,’” the grandfather counsels his grandchild, advice that finds its comic limitation when cars, spewing dust, speed past the grandfather’s horse-drawn carriage.

Bishop’s mature poems have an unhurried intimacy, an over-the-back-fence style of rumination. “Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!” she writes in “Poem” about a relative’s painting of Great Village, her meditation yielding to a moment of conversational immediacy. She staunchly believed that a poem’s completion happened on its own clock. In a 1978 interview, the year before her death, she said she could carry a poem in her head for “10 minutes to 40 years” before putting it to paper. “I don’t think,” she explained, “a good poet can afford to be in a rush.”

Elizabeth Bishop Home

I took to heart Bishop’s conviction that durable art couldn’t be hurried. As college concluded, I applied to journalism jobs and thought about graduate school in literature: two “sensible” paths for a writer. But I was also aware, in 2002, that the internet was reshaping both print news and academia. It was alarming to think that a writer might need to debut a first book and intellectual identity before she was 25. When I asked Harper, he told me this was silly fiction, a pressure manufactured by the steroidal growth of MFA creative writing programs. In an age of communicative speed and relentless self-promotion, he counseled patience, even obscurity.

“Look,” he said prophetically one rainy morning when I returned to his office to pick up a forgotten umbrella, “you might not write the poems you want to write or wish to publish for 20 years. But in the meantime, you can get productively lost in the library. You can write in different genres. You can cultivate the underside of your umbrella.”

The month I graduated into the great unknown, I won a monetary prize for a novella. When I called Harper to tell him, he was delighted, but he also urged me not to spend it on something practical. “No utility bills,” he said, “or student loans. Go to Paris!”

Instead I used the funds to lease a bright red car.

When Harper, unmistakable in his towering height, khaki jacket and black beret, saw me in my new wheels on the streets of Providence, Rhode    Island, he flagged me down.

“So, is that your prize money?” he asked, smiling.

“Yes,” I said sheepishly.

“It’s not Paris, but I approve. Be safe. Go someplace interesting.”

I was heartened by Harper’s blessing. My Volks­wagen ferried me between three jobs that year, writing copy for an architecture firm, teaching kindergarten and working as a nurse’s aide on weekends while I applied for graduate school. For a brief interval, I thought about applying to medical school instead, as medicine seemed another path for someone shy but observant, wanting to be of use to others. I discovered that Bishop had also considered medicine after her graduation but ultimately had chosen to be a poet — and in the middle of the Great Depression, no less.

Training her eye on everything from wasps’ nests to modernist paintings and her ear on both baroque music (she bought and learned to play a clavichord) and jazz, she embraced novel experiences: traveling down the Amazon in a riverboat, visiting Darwin’s Galapagos Islands and volunteering in a U.S. Navy binocular shop during World War II. When in her early 40s she published her first story in The New Yorker, she bought a secondhand sports car. Coyly, she wrote to Lowell: “I only like speedy looking cars that I can drive very slowly,” a joke that contained, in a Freudian sense, the kernel of a greater truth.

I thought of that line while putting my red car on the road from Boston to South Bend the following August. I was motoring 16 hours away from New England, on my own, for a 6-year doctoral program at Notre Dame. As familiar coastline and inland hills fell away, I was conscious of obeying the speed limit while “driving to the interior,” as Bishop had written of her productive years in Brazil, a foreign country where she finally felt at home. There, she and her romantic partner shared a library of thousands of books in a mountainside villa. “What I am really up to,” she wrote to Lowell, “is recreating a sort of deluxe Nova Scotia. . . . And now I am my own grandmother.”

Reading, for me, has always been a trapdoor to elsewhere, a mode of adventure, a means of apprehending a wider world that, as a child, allured and terrified me, often at the same time. In her great poem “In the Waiting Room,” Bishop describes a young girl reading a National Geographic magazine in a crowded dentist’s office. “I read it right straight through,” the narrator boasts. “I was too shy to stop.” Surrounded by news of World War I, the adults in the waiting room and her aunt’s cry of pain from the dentist’s chair, Bishop’s narrator confronts the accidents of fate that result in her identity and provisional safety: “you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth,” she notes with a wonder that borders on horror. Studying the photos in the magazine, she locates herself in person, in place and in relation to historic catastrophe: “The War was on. Outside, / in Worcester, Massachusetts, / were night and slush and cold.”

In graduate school, I read to my heart’s content and wrote a dissertation on Bishop’s poems and letters, following up on a study I began as Harper’s student. Then in a cosmic joke (or rhyme) I landed a tenure-track job at a state university in Worcester, where Bishop was born and buried. Indeed, the dentist’s office that Bishop had likely visited with her Aunt Florence is less than a mile from where I now sit, waiting for students, in my own early morning office hours.

These reflexes — of imagination and reflection — ensure we are thinkers, not simply information consumers whose interests are carefully mapped and mercilessly merchandised. 

Driving to work, I pass Our Lady of the Angels Catholic Church, which bought Bishop’s paternal grandparents’ house and orchard in 1922. Today, there is little more than a bronze plaque to indicate that it was once the home of Elizabeth Bishop. Her legacy is elsewhere: Since her death in 1979, she has become one of the most celebrated poets of her generation and an outsized influence on contemporary poetry. Harper, who knew Bishop personally, had been right that she was writing in modes — and about concerns — that were ahead of her time. With 21st-century hindsight, she is undeniably one of the major poets of the 20th century. In his typically prophetic manner, Harper had arrived at an estimation of her stature before literary critics caught up. And he had steered me toward a writer who would inform my path as a poet, critic and teacher.

At the university where I have up to 150 students and advisees each year, I have learned that getting my students to write better is, in part, a matter of helping them figure out what to read. In a world of clickbait and newsfeeds, I want them to have the necessary pleasure of rapt absorption, deep engagement that comes from being “too shy to stop” in books and the worlds they open. These reflexes — of imagination and reflection — ensure we are thinkers, not simply information consumers whose interests are carefully mapped and mercilessly merchandised.

The last time I saw Harper, before his death in 2016, was at a symposium dedicated to his legacy, held in 2013. I was teaching and working on what I hoped would become my first book of poems. Harper seemed pleased that, as he had forecast, my “getting lost in the library” had been a viable way forward for me as an artist.

“You’re thriving,” he pronounced. “But have you made that trip up to Nova Scotia?”

Though I had joined the professoriate, my homework was still due.

I was nearly 40 and on my third Volkswagen when I finally drove from my apartment in the efficient suburbs of Boston up to Great Village, where I had a fellowship for a week’s stay at the Elizabeth Bishop House, the very house Bishop had written about and grown up in with her maternal grandparents. Motoring along the rocky coast of Maine, crossing into Canada at the tiny checkpoint in Calais, I stopped for dinner and a night’s rest in the port city of Saint John, New Brunswick, where an alt-rock concert in the shipyard and dense fog off the harbor made me feel as though I’d slipped into a ’90s music video. A fishing and shipbuilding port, the city’s harbor remains its hub. Cheerful brick buildings line the uptown, offering tourists galleries, theaters and restaurants in what were once warehouses and processing plants.

As I drove my puttering car onto the Trans-Canada Highway the following morning and into agrarian Nova Scotia’s bright sunlight, I was stunned by the rich, red soil, dense forests and stunning vistas over the Bay of Fundy, where the 40-foot daily tides are the most dramatic in the world. Bishop charmingly refers to Nova Scotia as the “home of the long tides, / where the bay leaves the sea / twice a day and takes / the herrings long rides” and, in another poem, notes that the dense pine and fir forests are “Bluish, associating with their shadows, / a million Christmas trees [that] stand waiting for Christmas.” Off the highway, I found farm stands brimming with lowland blueberries, maple syrup, fresh vegetables and local wine: fruits of the landscape in all its hyperbolic color.

I thought of all I knew about Bishop’s childhood and the circumstances that had effectively left her orphaned. In this house, she had last seen her mother. 

Riding the long downhill turn into Great Village, I was flooded with a strange joy in seeing a place that I had, from Bishop’s work, long imagined: the bridge over the burbling Great Village River and, just beyond it, the home she once described as a “homely old white house that sticks its little snub nose directly into the village square.” The tall spire of St. James Presbyterian Church and the flat roof of the gas station came into focus. Pulling into the grassy driveway, I stood on rubbery legs, admiring the one-and-a-half story clapboard house bought by Bishop’s grandfather in 1874, with its bright tin roof. I hauled my suitcase to the front door and saw the skylight over Bishop’s small bedroom, on the second floor, winking in the noontime sun.

I thought of all I knew about Bishop’s childhood and the circumstances that had effectively left her orphaned. In this house, she had last seen her mother, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, and heard the psychotic screams that, among other symptoms, had compelled Gertrude’s permanent institutionalization in 1916, when Elizabeth was 5. In May 1934, the month in which Elizabeth graduated from Vassar College, naming Great Village as her place of residence, her mother died in the Nova Scotia Hospital, where she had resided for 18 years. Archival evidence I had found in graduate school strongly suggested that when Bishop noted the loss of her “mother’s watch” in her great elegy, “One Art,” she meant not just a lost timepiece but also the loss of maternal care and supervision.

Yet Great Village — and this low-ceilinged, cozy, wood-frame house — had also been the place where the natural world, kindly grandparents and the patterns of village life helped Bishop partake of an ordinariness that enabled her to find a substitute mother’s “watch” in a geography that held her imagination. That week, I reread Bishop’s poems in what had been her kitchen, front parlor and tiny bedroom. I walked the road she traveled while guiding Nellie, the wayward family cow, to pasture and the road she’d taken to the post office, delivering packages for her mother, sequestered in a mental ward. I imagined Bishop’s commentary — with her Baptist grandmother — on the hats and dresses of Presbyterian churchgoers on Sunday mornings and her friendship with Mate, the blacksmith, who fashioned her jewelry from his scraps. I hiked to Thomas Cove and stood on the red, tidal mud flats, glittering with mica, as the tide drained below a theater of sunset and seabirds.

In the 20 years since I had first read Bishop’s “Poem,” her meditation on that painting by her great-uncle, I had committed it to heart. The poem could, in fact, be describing the water meadow and cows visible from Bishop’s backyard. As she had written of her great-uncle, I now thought of Professor Harper:

Our visions coincided — visions is

too serious a word — our looks, two looks:

art ‘copying from life’ and life itself,

life and the memory of it so compressed

they’ve turned into each other. Which is which?

Indeed, I thought — which is which? Marveling at the painting but also perhaps at the patient practice of her own art, which drew carefully from experience and its imaginative amelioration, Bishop notes “how touching in detail / — the little that we get for free, / the little of our earthly trust. Not much.” The poem seems to rue the smallness of what is freely given, what is gratefully received.

Yet that week, as I pieced together the poems that would be in my first book, placing them in possible sequences across the lawn where I held them down against the wind with small rocks, I thought about Harper’s gifts to me as his student, and how this pair of literary artists, Harper and Bishop, had lent a desiring student both rudder and direction. When I thought I might have the sequence of poems correct, I climbed the steps and stood on Bishop’s back porch, looking out over the railing at my first book, sprawled across the grass. I could see in the near distance “the munching cows, / the iris crisp and shivering,” features of landscape that Bishop had viewed as a child and had loved enough to immortalize them.

Twenty years before, I had been given a bit of “earthly trust,” or what Harper, in African American idiolect, had called “running space.” And I knew then, if I hadn’t before, that it had been more than enough.

Heather Treseler is a poet and essayist whose first collection of poems, Parturition, received the Munster Literature Chapbook Prize in Ireland and the Jean Pedrick award from the New England Poetry Club. She is an associate professor of literature and creative writing at Worcester State University.