From the Country to the City: Vassar Days and the Move to New York
By her senior year at Vassar (1934), Bishop had begun to make a name for herself as a young poet and intellectual. In her junior year, she had joined the school newspaper, the Miscellany News, and had the opportunity to interview T.S. Eliot on his visit to campus that spring. Most importantly, though, Bishop and several other socially conscious literary friends (including Mary McCarthy) started their own literary magazine, Con Spirito, in an effort to break away from the stuffily conservative Vassar Review. This liberal magazine only came out with two issues, but Bishop published four poems and two stories (“Three Sonnets for the Eyes,” “Hymn to the Virgin,” “The Flood,” “A Word with You,” "Then Came the Poor," and "Seven Days Monologue"). After the first issue of Con Spirito, Bishop claims: "the Vassar Review came around and a couple of our editors became editors on it and then they published things by us" (quoted in Millier 50). With the inclusion of these editors, the Vassar Review became less conservative, and Bishop gladly became a frequent contributor. During her junior year, Bishop started to send out her poetry to smaller magazines for publication, but by her senior year, she was publishing stories and poems in national journals and earning money for her writing. It was during this year that she began to seriously think about a career as a writer (Miller 48-58).
In February of 1934 (Bishop's senior year), she discovered that the Vassar librarian, Fannie Borden, was a childhood friend of the poet Marianne Moore, whom Bishop had been reading in magazines and anthologies. Borden set up a meeting between Bishop and Moore outside the reading room of the New York Public Library on March 16. This meeting would start a lifelong literary friendship between the protégé Bishop and the mentoring Moore. Bishop was thrilled to meet this well-established female poet, which is revealed in the following excerpt from a letter Bishop wrote to a friend about the meeting:
she is simply amazing—she is poor, sick, and her work is practically unread, I guess, but she seems completely undisturbed by it and goes right on producing perhaps one poem a year and a couple of reviews that are perfect in their way—I have never seen anyone who takes such ‘pains.’ She is very impersonal and she is a little like Miss Borden—speaks just above a whisper, but at least five times as fast. I wish I could tell you about her…She is really worth a good deal of study…I hope she will let me take her to the circus—she’s very fond of them & it’s in N.Y. now. (quoted in Millier 59)
After this first joyful meeting, Bishop soon followed through with her invitation to Moore to go to the circus. Surprisingly, Moore accepted, and Bishop saw this as a good sign that their friendship would grow (Millier 59).
As Bishop was trying to make post-graduation plans at the close of her senior year, she received news that her mother (who had been living in a mental hospital for the past eighteen years) had died. Although Bishop seemed relatively unaffected by her mother’s death (she hadn’t seen her mother in the past eighteen years), this loss most likely influenced Bishop’s move to New York City after graduation. Bishop took a room in the Hotel Brevoort in the city, most likely because Vassar friends, Margaret Miller and Louise Crane, as well as her new mentor, Marianne Moore were all in the city. After being in the city a few weeks, Bishop found an apartment at 16 Charles Street with the help of fellow Vassar graduate and writer, Mary McCarthy, and husband, Harold Johnsrud. Bishop notes that the apartment (a one bedroom) was “on the verge of the Village, unfortunately” (quoted in Millier 62). She was settled by August and got back in touch with Moore, who began to fully take on the role of mentor for this burgeoning poet (Millier 66).
Moore the Mentor:
From 1934 through 1940, Moore exerted considerable influence on Bishop as
a young poet. Bishop saw Moore as a remarkable example of a female poet with a well-established career who nevertheless did not have to hold teaching positions or go on reading tours. At least
during this early stage of their relationship, Moore was able to subsist on her writing alone, which the shy Bishop was glad to see (Millier 68). Bishop also saw in Moore the mother figure that she had lost with the death of her own mother that same year. Critic, David Kalstone, describes the allure of Moore’s world—it was: “in apart a vanished sustaining maternal world transposed into another key; it nourished Bishop’s writing life, yet could be contradicted with impunity. It was as if Bishop had in Moore both and model and a point of departure, an authority against which she could explore, even indulge, her more anarchic impulses” (5). Bishop was attracted to the rather old-fashioned manners and domesticity of Moore, that reminded her of her own relatives in Nova Scotia. Through their frequent correspondence and visits, Moore became crucial to Bishop’s early development in the literary world of New York.
Moore nurtured in Bishop a strong work ethic and confidence in her poetic talent. Moore lived with her mother at 260 Cumberland Street in Brooklyn, and Bishop visited the two frequently during her early days in New York. Bishop noted the strict rules that Moore and her mother seemed to have when it came to writing poetry. Bishop would later buck against these rules as she sought Moore out less and less for her critical feedback starting in the 40s. Moore had an almost Puritanical devotion to her writing, which Bishop could never quite match. Still, Bishop always felt uplifted after a visit to Cumberland Street. She wrote: “I never left…without feeling happier: uplifted, even inspired, determined to be good, to work harder, not to worry about what other people thought, never to try to publish anything until I thought I’d done my best with it, no matter how many years it took—or never to publish at all” (quoted in Millier 69).
Naturally, Bishop’s poetic style and material began to evolve as a result of Moore’s influence. However, Bishop did not embrace meter as strictly as Moore. In a letter written to Moore years later in 1954, Bishop responded to a piece in Les Journal des Poetes that pointed out the trace of Moore in Bishop’s poetry:
I don’t know what Les Journal des Poetes is, I’m afraid—you say it says I show your influence…Well, naturally, I am only too delighted to.—Everyone has said that—I was going to say, all my life—and I only wish it were truer. My own feeling about it is that I don’t know very much; that no one does or can at present; that you are still too new and original and unique to show in that way very much but will keep on influencing more and more during the next fifty or a hundred years. In my own case, I know however that when I began to read your poetry at college I think it immediately opened up my eyes to the possibility of the subject-matter I could use and might never have thought of using if it hadn’t been for you—(I might not have written any poems at all, I suppose.) I think my approach is much vaguer and less-defined and certainly more old-fashioned—sometimes I’m amazed at people’s comparing me to you when all I’m doing is some kind of blank-verse—can’t they see how different it is? But they can’t, apparently. (quoted in Millier 68)
Bishop learned through Moore that poetry can be made out of detailed observation and scrutiny of the world around us. While Moore and her 70 year old mother were often beset with illness and did not have the opportunity to travel, Bishop traveled extensively, and she often sent long, detailed letters describing the places, people, and things she encountered. Over the years, Bishop’s descriptive style emerged out of her own travels, experiences, and interactions while Moore tended to explore detail more locally through exhibits, catalogs, and journals. Nevertheless, it was Moore who encouraged her to plumb the depths of observation, which became a hallmark of Bishop’s verse (Kalstone 9-11). Bishop admired what she referred to as Moore’s “architectural method of conversation, not seemingly so much for the sake of what she says as the way in which it is said: indifferent subject matter treated as a problem in accuracy, proportion, solidity, balance. If she speaks of a chair you can practically sit on it when she has finished. It is still life, easel painting, as opposed to the common conversational ‘fade-out’” (quoted in Kalstone 11-12). Bishop was drawn to this detailed observation, but she was looking for something beyond the physical.
Kalstone notes Bishop’s “interiorizing interest” in her writing, her impulse to infuse objects with psychology or spirituality. Here is where she grew away from Moore’s influence. In her early New York poems, Bishop began to embrace surrealism and what she referred to as “a dreamy state of consciousness” (quoted in Kalstone 13). In her notebook, Bishop wrote about this urge to express the spiritual through the material:
It’s a question of using the poet’s proper material, with which he’s equipped by nature, i.e., immediate intense physical reactions, a sense of metaphor and decoration in everything—to express something not of them—something I suppose, spiritual. But it proceeds from the material, the material eaten out with acid, pulled down from underneath, made to perform and always kept in order, in its place. Sometimes it cannot be made to indicate its spiritual goal clearly…but even then the spiritual must be felt. (quoted in Kalstone 15)
Throughout her career, Bishop would continue to be preoccupied with the connections and gaps between the material, natural world and the supernatural or unknown.
Bishop’s poetic style was also influenced by Moore (and even more so by Gerard Manley Hopkins) in her sense of rhythm. In 1935, Moore wrote about Bishop: “There are in her shaping of a poem curbs and spirits that could be known only to a musician” (quoted in Kalstone 36). Bishop was not drawn to a rigid meter in Moore’s verse, but rather a natural rhythm. In college, Bishop copied out T.S. Eliot’s review of Moore’s first book, which she saw as a model:
Rhythm, of course, is a highly personal matter; it is not a verse-form. It is always the real pattern in the carpet, the scheme of organization, of thought, feeling, and vocabulary, the way in which everything comes together. It is very uncommon. What is certain is that Miss Moore’s poems always read very well aloud. That quality is something which no system of scansion can define. It is not separable from the use of words, in Miss Moore’s case the conscious and complete appreciation of every word, and in relation to every other word, as it goes by. (quoted in Kalstone 36-37)
As a trained musician, Bishop was attracted to Moore’s musical verse as well as Hopkins’ sprung rhythm, which she described in an article written at Vassar as: “the releasing, checking, timing, and repeating of the movement of the mind” (quoted in Kalstone 37). Bishop embraced these poetic influences as she continued to hone her own voice.
Moore also helped introduce Bishop to the literary scene in New York in 1935. While Bishop was travelling around Europe with Louise Crane, Moore was dedicated to building Bishop’s reputation back in the U.S. Three of Bishop’s poems (“The Map,” “Three Valentines, and “The Reprimand”) appeared in the anthology, Trial Balances, and Moore lauded the book. “The Man-Moth” was accepted by Life and Letters Today for the March 1936 issue, and Moore tried to get Bishop connected to the literary scene through Edward Aspell of Harper and Brothers. Although Aswell did not publish Bishop that year, three of her poems (“Casabianca,” “The Colder Air,” and “The Gentleman of Shalott”) appeared in the April 1936 issue of New Democracy (Millier 92-93).
Although Bishop’s literary career was off to a fine start, she returned from her European travels depressed and guilt-ridden. The trip had gone disastrously after she, Louise Crane, and a third close friend (Margaret Miller) were involved in a car accident. Margaret Miller ended up losing her arm from the elbow down, and Bishop felt considerable guilt afterwards. Despite publishing success, Bishop began to lose confidence in her writing. Regardless, in the summer of 1936, Bishop took Moore’s advice to buck up and send her work to Morton Zabel at Poetry. Bishop sent “A Miracle for Breakfast,” “The Weed,” and “Paris, 7 AM” to Moore for feedback and guidance in the publication process. From this point on (until Bishop’s literary break with Moore in October 1940), Moore guided Bishop in the literary scene of New York. She introduced the young writer to editors and publishers and offered detailed criticism and editing of her poems. Moore gave Bishop letters of recommendation, which meant a lot given Moore’s foothold in the publishing world. While Bishop took much of Moore’s detailed feedback to heart, she also remained independent and adamant in some of her own poetic choices. In 1940, Bishop casted off Moore after the domineering advisor completely rewrote, retyped, and retitled Bishop’s poem, “Roosters.” Bishop defended her version and ceased to rely so heavily on Moore’s opinions and influence.