Elizabeth Bishop was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts. When she was very young her father died, her mother was committed to a mental asylum, and she was sent to live with her grandparents in Nova Scotia. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College in 1934.
She was independently wealthy, and from 1935 to 1937 she spent time traveling to France, Spain, North Africa, Ireland, and Italy and then settled in Key West, Florida, for four years. Her poetry is filled with descriptions of her travels and the scenery which surrounded her, as with the Florida poems in her first book of verse,North and South, published in 1946.
She was influenced by the poet Marianne Moore, who was a close friend, mentor, and stabilizing force in her life. Unlike her contemporary and good friend Robert Lowell, who wrote in the “confessional” style, Bishop’s poetry avoids explicit accounts of her personal life, and focuses instead with great subtlety on her impressions of the physical world.
Her images are precise and true to life, and they reflect her own sharp wit and moral sense. She lived for many years in Brazil, communicating with friends and colleagues in America only by letter. She wrote slowly and published sparingly (her Collected Poems number barely a hundred), but the technical brilliance and formal variety of her work is astonishing. For years she was considered a “poet’s poet,” but with the publication of her last book, Geography III, in 1976, Bishop was finally established as a major force in contemporary literature.
She also painted.