Sunday, February 13, 2011

Marianne Moore's influence on Elizabeth Bishop

On March 16, 1934 Elizabeth Bishop, then a senior at Vassar College, met the poet Marianne Moore through the Vassar librarian.   By April 26th (the date she wrote a letter to Donald E. Stanford, a graduate student at Harvard) Bishop enjoyed a visit to the circus with Miss Moore: "The most interesting thing I've been doing lately is taking Marianne Moore to the circus. ....[She] really is so nice--and the most interesting talker; I've seen her only twice and I think I have enough anecdotes to meditate on for years..."  (ONE ART, Elizabeth Bishop LETTERS  by Robert Gioroux, p. 23.) 

Marianne Moore not only acted as a mentor to the young poet, she also filled the maternal void created when Bishop lost her mother to a mental hospital at age five.  Once Bishop's mother entered the hospital, the two never made contact and her mother died shortly after Bishop met Marianne Moore.

Brett C Millier, in his book Elizabeth BISHOP, LIFE and the Memory of It, (p.76) explains what the early mentoring accomplished:  "'The Map' was a breakthrough for Elizabeth. ...It presents such a contrast to those mannered, imitative college poems that the reader wishes for an explanation.   The example of meaning generated through contemplation of a single object, the familiar object reseen, the commitment to accuracy, the reach of a simile, the wisdom of tone, the naturalness of diction--these are gifts Marianne Moore gave Elizabeth as well as infinite subjects less hackneyed than "sorrow" and "love" and the ability to trust her own instinct in handling those subjects.  This is the first "Elizabeth Bishop" poem we have, and Elizabeth knew that well enough to place it first in North & South and first in her collected poems of 1969."  "The Map" is printed in a separate Post on this blog.

"Bishop's poem, 'The Fish' [also] exemplifies these characteristics of Moore's influence. ... Every minute detail that Bishop shares about the experience of catching a fish, and examining it builds to her throwing it back into the water." (Laura Ebberson, "Elizabeth Bishop's Poetic Voice: Reconciling Influences," p. 3)

When Bishop first sent "The Fish" to Marianne Moore she wrote: "I am sending you a real 'trifle'... I'm afraid it is very bad..."   (ONE ART, p. 87)  After Marianne Moore critiqued the poem, Bishop wrote back, "And thank you for the marvelous postcard, and the very helpful comments on 'The Fish.'  I did as you suggested about everything except 'breathing in' (if you can remember that), which I decided to leave as it was."  (ONE ART, pp. 87-88)   "This early poem largely depended upon Moore's critique.  Without Moore's suggestions and approval, Bishop could have continued to believe it a 'trifle,' and she may not have published what would become her most anthologized piece."  (Laura Ebberson, p. 4)


  1. The influence of Marianne Moore is so interesting, especially since Moore had a poem, "The Fish" as well: The comparison is really interesting to make. As you know, Moore worked with syllabics, patterns of syllables/line. It's a very subtle form to use, one which affects more the body of the reader than the mechanics of the writer.

    Thanks for including this interesting influence.

  2. Yes, I read that in our text, Writing Poems, and I want to learn more about that style. Thanks for the comment.