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Book Chapter

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The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop


When Anne Stevenson began the first full-length study of Bishop's poetry in the early 1960s, she wrote to her subject for clarification, and the inquiry yielded almost a decade of epistolary exchange (see Ellis, "Between," for a full analysis). One of Bishop's responses includes an explanation of the poet's aesthetic ideal. "What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it," she writes, "is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration" (Pr 414). Justly famous, the passage reappears in editions of Bishop running from a 1983 volume called Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, when Bishop's fame was only beginning to grow, to the 2011 collection of Prose, when she was recognized as the most important American poet of the late twentieth century (Orr). Changing citations of "the Darwin letter," however, show developments during that span. The 1983 book excerpts a paragraph of analysis, presenting it under a title as if it were a miniature essay (288). The 2011 volume includes the entire letter, presenting it under Bishop's opening notation of place and date and including Stevenson's messages before and afer (Pr 410-417). Correspondence is no longer a negligible medium through which Bishop articulated her ideas; it is a distinct medium that exemplifies those ideas. Letters have moved from secondary source to primary document. This shift helps to constitute a wider development in Bishop criticism, which has gone from analyzing her great but scant output of lyric poems to considering those poems among a full range of her fine art, essays, fiction, translation, and other writing. In the case of correspondence, this attention must assess an ill-defined genre as well as assimilate newly discovered content. Full attention to Bishop's correspondence means clarifying the form of the letter itself, relating the properties of epistolarity to Bishop's aesthetic practice and cultural context.


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