For a writer who lived when experimentation in art had great cachet, Elizabeth Bishop was in some ways radically conventional. When Abstract Expressionism was the dernier cri in painting and the representational was accorded little respect in any art form, she dared place description at the center of her approach to writing. Some critics belittled her poetry as “mere description,” while among her admirers she became known for her “famous eye.” The literary life in her time abounded with flamboyant personalities: During the early part of Bishop’s career, Dylan Thomas fit the public’s idea of what a poet should be. Later Bishop lived and wrote through the heyday of what came to be called Confessional Poetry. Her close friend Robert Lowell was a key figure in that movement on which she commented trenchantly, “You just wish they’d keep some of...


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