• What Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore Learned From Each Other

    Rachel Cohen on an Epistolary Friendship Between Two Giants of American Poetry

    Elizabeth Bishop was quite sure she was going to be late. She fidgeted on the train in from Vassar, took a book from her handbag, tried for a few minutes to read, and replaced it. She pulled out the notebook in which she had written her questions, a notebook she would keep all her life; she added to the list of things she might mention “Book on Tattoo” and underlined the name of one of her favorite poets, “Hopkins.” At last, she gave up and stared out the window. The landscape seemed a little ambiguous; whether the trees were encouraging or daunting she couldn’t quite tell.

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    As the train pulled in, she ran her fingers through her bushy hair, which a friend had recently described as looking “like something to pack china in,” and pulled her hat down upon it. She took up her gloves and her bag and walked out into Grand Central Terminal. It was three blocks from the station to the public library. As she passed a corner tobacconist, she was relieved to see from its clock that she was unusually, surprisingly, on time.

    She made her way between the great marble lions, up the rest of the stairs, through the heavy doors, and along the sweeping staircase, until at last she arrived at the right-hand bench outside the main reading room, and there, wearing a white shirt and a tie—“vaguely Bryn Mawr 1909,” as Bishop recalled—was Marianne Moore.

    The meeting had been arranged by Fannie Borden, niece of the infamous Lizzie Borden. Fannie Borden was the librarian at Vassar and had known the whole Moore family a long time. When, having read every poem by Marianne Moore that she could track down, Elizabeth Bishop had asked at the college library how she might get a copy of Moore’s book Observations, the librarian had surprised her by having one, knowing Moore, and offering to arrange a meeting.

    Bishop was glad that she hadn’t realized at the time that Borden had sent Moore a number of young women to whom Moore had decidedly not taken a fancy. Moore must, however, have had an intimation that Bishop would be different than these others, or she would have suggested her other favorite meeting place, the information booth at Grand Central Terminal, where conversation was nearly impossible, and one could always make a quick getaway.

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    Neither Bishop nor Moore ever broke with people, and both worked hard at friendship.

    Marianne Moore began to talk. “It seems to me,” Bishop wrote in her essay on Moore, “Efforts of Affection,” “that Marianne talked to me steadily for the next thirty-five years, but of course that is nonsensical. I was living far from New York many of those years and saw her at long intervals. She must have been one of the world’s greatest talkers: entertaining, enlightening, fascinating, and memorable; her talk, like her poetry, was quite different from anyone else’s in the world.” Bishop was so absorbed by Moore’s conversation that, when she went back to write about this first meeting, she couldn’t remember if she’d told Moore about seeing Four Saints in Three Acts two weeks before, or what she’d said about Hopkins or whether she’d mentioned tattoos then or later; she wished she’d kept a diary.

    That same spring, of 1934, Marianne Moore was at work on her essay “Henry James as a Characteristic American.” Moore might have told Bishop the story she had liked so much in James’s memoir and retold in her essay, the story of Thackeray and the small Henry James, the coat with too many buttons, and his feeling “somehow queer,” a feeling of being an outsider with which Moore seems to have identified. Her close friends T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens, her correspondents for decades, were staking out various American traditions of their own. Moore—who did not follow William James in thinking examples better than descriptions—cared to have Henry James for her American project.

    Elizabeth Bishop spent her early childhood in Canada and was often away from the United States; she was less invested in the difficulties of defining herself as an American. Bishop, though, was interested in what she called “poetic psychology,” particularly the innovations of Hopkins, who she felt had succeeded in the project outlined by the scholar M.W. Croll of capturing in poetry “not a thought, but a mind thinking.” In her work toward this end, Bishop, too, claimed an inheritance from Henry James. That day, on the bench at the public library, Bishop talked a little bit herself. At the end of the meeting, she was visited by an inspiration and asked Moore if she’d like to go to the circus, not knowing that Marianne Moore never missed the circus.

    Her friends thought Bishop’s account of this second meeting hilarious. Moore arrived with two large paper bags containing brown bread to feed the elephants; they were fond of brown bread, she explained. (Bishop later wondered if they might not have liked white bread just as much, and if “Marianne had been thinking of their health.”) Moore had a prized elephant-hair bracelet that her brother had given her; a hair had fallen out. Her plan was that Bishop would give some of the bread to the adult elephants, thereby creating a distraction, while Moore went to feed the babies and got them to bend over so that she could cut a few hairs off their heads. Bishop drew the attention of the guard with her offering for the larger elephants—they did turn out to like brown bread very much—and while they were all trumpeting and waving their trunks and fighting and beating one another away, Moore sawed away at the hairs on the babies’ heads, returning victorious with enough to mend her bracelet.

    Shortly after this, Bishop wrote to a friend describing Miss Moore. (They called each other “Miss Moore” and “Miss Bishop” for another two years.) “I’ve seen her only twice and I think I have enough anecdotes to meditate on for years.” Poetry was from the beginning central to the relationship. “Why,” Bishop later wrote of the early revelations of Moore’s work, “had no one ever written about things in this clear and dazzling way before?” For her part, Moore was writing to her brother that she and her mother liked “Miss Bishop better than any of our friends—of the friends we have adopted, & are not beating off. But my whole feeling of enthusiasm is tempered by her tendency to be late.” Marianne Moore was never late; she wore two watches to be sure.

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    Moore lived with her mother, the redoubtable and devout Mrs. Moore, at 260 Cumberland Street in Brooklyn, and Bishop soon began taking the subway out to visit them together. Bishop was very often friends with women and their mothers. She had grown up motherless; her own mother had been institutionalized when Bishop was five, and Bishop had never seen her again. Mrs. Bishop died in May of 1934, two months after Miss Bishop met Miss Moore.

    *

    In high school and college, her friends called her “Bishop” and “the Bishop,” and, when Marianne Moore proposed that they switch to their given names, Bishop was relieved to finally have someone calling her Elizabeth. She was pleased by the way Moore did it, too: “She came down very hard on the second syllable, Elizabeth. I liked this, especially as an exclamation, when she was pretending to be shocked by something I had said.” Bishop said Moore and her mother were “what some people might call ‘prudish’; it would be kinder to say ‘overfastidious.’” Bishop had her own sense of privacy and didn’t publish some of her love poems for women during her lifetime, but her poetry had a more robust sensuality.

    Marianne Moore was Bishop’s earliest advocate and one of the most staunch, placing nearly all of her early poems for publication in magazines and writing an introduction for her work, one of remarkable understanding, that appeared with Bishop’s poems in an anthology of work by younger poets. In this introduction, Moore praised Bishop for her “methodically oblique, intent way of working,” and she stated the principles she could sense coming in Bishop’s poems, though they weren’t yet visible to too many other readers: “One would rather disguise than travesty emotion; give away a nice thing than sell it; dismember a garment of rich aesthetic construction than degrade it to the utilitarian offices of the boneyard. One notices the deferences and vigilances in Miss Bishop’s writing, and the debt to Donne and to Gerard Hopkins.”

    Elizabeth Bishop had what Sarah Orne Jewett had called “a wide outlook on the world.” She was unusual among her friends in writing poetry that attended, in its method of conveying landscape, animals, and travel, to the work of British poets and naturalists, and she had, also, a vivid sense of French surrealism and a growing interest in the writing of Latin America.

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    In the years after she first moved to New York, Bishop used to go to the public library every day, past the lions and the bench at which she’d first met Marianne Moore, and through to the reading room, where she sat for hours upon hours. Reading was virtue and solace for Elizabeth Bishop; when she was reading, she knew she was doing her job. She went out to concerts with friends; she came to know Billie Holiday casually; she went one day to hear Gertrude Stein deliver her lecture on “Portraits I have Written and What I think of Repetition, Whether it Exists or No,” but mostly she read.

    Sitting at the library, she went through all the late novels of Henry James, and she read Charles Darwin, George Herbert, John Donne, and Sigmund Freud. She read herself into an education, and in this, too, she had a model in Marianne Moore.

    *

    After they had been friends for six years, Bishop sent Moore a new poem, “Roosters”—“At four o’clock / in the gun-metal blue dark / we hear the first crow of the first cock.” Bishop described her roosters “marking out maps like Rand McNallys” with: “glass-headed pins, / oil-golds and copper greens, / anthracite blues, alizarins.” Marianne Moore and her mother were so upset by “Roosters” that they stayed up until three o’clock in the morning rewriting it, taking out everything that smacked of vulgarity, particularly a most objectionable reference to a “water-closet.” Bishop kept the poem as she had written it, but she and Moore remained close friends—testament to how loyal and sure they both were. They shared a quality a little different than taste or erudition, something that was not quite tenacity or confidence. Despite many downcast moments, terrible anxieties, protracted illness, and, in Bishop’s case, serious trouble with alcohol, each woman knew what she was looking for.

    Neither Bishop nor Moore ever broke with people, and both worked hard at friendship. They wrote several letters each day, to friends nearby and half a world away, for their entire lives, and they were constantly on the lookout for books and articles and films and art shows and seashells and details of landscape that might be of interest to their friends and particularly to each other.

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    There were literally hundreds of letters between them, and they tried to include something special in each one: “Dear Miss Bishop…what you say of Brittany and the blue nets and the circus seems like pure fairytale.” Bishop always invited Moore to things—invitations were her gesture in the relationship: “I wonder if you would care to go with me one afternoon this week” to see “Martin Johnson’s moving picture Baboons?” They talked of books. Bishop wrote, from Florida, “We have been reading Henry James’s Letters (the autobiographic ones) all week, a very good hot weather influence. I am particularly impressed with the War letters—and do you remember when he had shingles?” They admired each other’s language.

    “‘Nicey nice’ is perfect. How accurate you are, Elizabeth. This is just how I have felt.” Dear Marianne, in your Wallace Stevens review “your remarks on ‘bravura’ and ‘the general marine volume of statement’ have kept me in an almost hilarious state of good cheer.” They borrowed phrases from each other, sometimes consciously, sometimes without realizing it—Bishop wrote in her essay on Moore “perhaps we are all magpies.” The letters were among their most treasured possessions. Moore once wrote to their mutual friend Louise Crane: “I had a letter from Elizabeth a day or two ago, which I am thinking of having tattooed on me.”

    In all the correspondence between Bishop and Moore, there were no pauses or breaks.

    They shared an interest in the far away, though it was Bishop’s method to go and live next to it for years and come to know it, while Moore preferred to stay at home and receive reports from various correspondents, living and long gone, to sift her researches very thoroughly, and to somehow intuit the characteristic qualities of a place. Bishop started going to Key West in 1936 and was there for many winters over the fifteen years that followed. Moore imagined Key West as “a kind of ten commandments in vegetable-dye color printing.” Bishop wrote back from Florida that it wasn’t fair that Moore sitting there in Brooklyn should “hit the Key West lighthouse right on the head.”

    By way of news, Bishop sent observations and books of her poems: North & South, A Cold Spring, and Questions of Travel. Her poems documented landscape and people in a way that had something in common with the Maine stories of Sarah Orne Jewett. At one point, Bishop considered editing a new collection of Jewett’s work—she had always loved The Country of the Pointed Firs—but in the end she decided that she wouldn’t do better than Willa Cather had.

    In all the correspondence between Bishop and Moore, there were no pauses or breaks, the only one being recorded inside a letter itself. It was after Marianne Moore’s mother had died, and Moore was suffering very badly. Bishop sent her most loving invitation to her friend. The opening line of her poem, “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore,” leaned on Crane, and Whitman, and Pablo Neruda: “From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning, please come flying.” Bishop invited Moore to the public library, giving her the honorific “for whom the agreeable lions lie in wait.” Writing to Bishop after she had received a copy of the poem, Moore’s salutation read: “Words fail me, Elizabeth.”

    *

    Elizabeth Bishop lived in Brazil for fourteen years that were among the happiest and most productive in her life. Her lover in those years was Lota de Macedo Soares, an architect and a Brazilian aristocrat who eventually had a series of nervous breakdowns but who, before that, was always building a house, or a park for the city of Rio de Janeiro, and who, like Bishop, measured life in travel. The two women lived in a beautiful house on a hill outside the city; clouds sometimes floated through the windows.

    From Florida and Brazil and her travels in Europe and Latin America, Bishop sent Moore a paper nautilus that became the subject of a poem, grapefruits, alligator teeth, Mexican slippers, and her own translation of a book popular in Brazil—the diary of a Brazilian girl, Helena Morley, which charmed Moore as it had Bishop. Bishop also sent postcards of Argentina, descriptions of toucans, and unusual feathers. Some of these objects and images turned up in Bishop’s paintings and collages, as well as in a couple of box assemblages reminiscent of the work of Joseph Cornell.

    Later, needing to separate a little from Macedo Soares, Bishop also acquired her own house, in Ouro Prêto, and this house, perhaps her favorite house of all, she named for her old friend, the Casa Mariana. She had four photographs of Marianne Moore hanging inside. Bishop used regularly to invite Moore to visit Brazil, but for many years Moore wouldn’t leave her mother, and after her mother died, she was a bit old herself to make the trip.

    *

    Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares sometimes got up in the morning and made what Bishop referred to as “gallons of coffee.” The cats strolled through, and the toucan, Uncle Sam, hopped around on the floor, and the two women settled down to read. They read Flannery O’Connor and Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution and Donne and Keats. They read Coleridge’s letters, Octavio Paz, the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, Henry James and La Fontaine. There were times, Bishop wrote to a friend, when they read from seven in the morning until they went to bed at one.

    Sometimes, reading, Bishop thought, I have to tell Marianne about this, and she made a little note, and a letter would start itself. Three weeks later, at home in Brooklyn, Marianne Moore would find something of Brazil or of nineteenth-century England in her mailbox. Silently commending Elizabeth for her diligence, she would tear the letter open impatiently.

    __________________________________

    From A Chance Meeting: American Encounters by Rachel Cohen. Copyright © 2024. Available from New York Review Books.

    Rachel Cohen
    Rachel Cohen
    Rachel Cohen is the author of three books of nonfiction, most recently Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels, which was published by FSG in 2020 to critical acclaim. Her essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian, The London Review of Books, and The New York Times, among other publications, and her work has been included in Best American Essays and Pushcart Prize anthologies. She is Professor of Practice in the Arts in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Chicago.





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