Highlights » Lifestyle » Vol. 58

A masterful biography of a gifted Worcester poet

Paul Collins

Elizabeth Bishop was, across her 68 years of life, a commanding presence and a detail-oriented Pulitzer Prize-winning wordsmith. Sadly, she only published 100 of her rather short and concise poems by the time she died in 1979. In the grand scheme of things, a rather small body of published work. However, her poetry was compelling and often grounded – not in lofty flights of poetic fantasy but a reflection of looking at the life, and the world, through the lens of reality.

Biographer Megan Marshall, herself a Pulitzer Prize-winner for Margaret Fuller: A New American Life and winner of the Francis Parkman Prize for The Peabody Sisters: Three Woman Who Ignited American Romanticism, has penned an insightful and well-written book that explores, in detail, the life and works of Bishop. Truth be told, when one reads this captivating book, one can’t help being gripped by the thought that it begs to be made into a movie. For the life of Elizabeth Bishop is indeed the grist for Hollywood’s mill and the stuff of which movies are made. With this biography, Marshall succeeds in putting an all too human face on her subject. In A Miracle for Breakfast (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), the author makes the poet come alive again, leaving readers with a sense of, and feel for, Bishop’s talent and her vulnerabilities as well.

In a raw and unvarnished examination of Bishop’s life, Marshall – who was one of Bishop’s students when she was, along with the poet Robert Lowell, a lecturer in a poetry writing workshop at Harvard in 1975 – deftly mixes narrative together with brief snatches of memoir in exploring intimate details of Bishop’s personal life. She takes readers by the hand and walks them down the path of a harrowing and traumatic childhood that the storied poet endured. Her account presses on through Bishop’s sexual orientation that saw her in a long and secret affair with Brazilian modernist designer Lota de Macedo.

Right from the outset, Elizabeth Bishop’s life was a daunting challenge. Bishop was born in Worcester, and her father died when she was only 8 months old. When Bishop was 5, her mother was hospitalized for insanity. She remained hospitalized until two weeks before Elizabeth graduated from college. Bishop was raised by aunts and uncles in Massachusetts and Nova Scotia, Canada.

Asked why she wrote this very personal and human biography, Marshall, a college professor, grandmother and Belmont resident, said, “A few years ago, thinking back over my work as a biographer, I began to realize that the years when I was studying poetry in workshops with Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell at Harvard had been formative, not just in making me a better writer.

“I was in the presence of these eminences, witnessing their behavior and seeing them in different contexts. Lowell brought family members to class; Bishop visited Lowell’s class as a friend. I began to realize that my experiences then led toward biography rather than poetry. That’s one of the reasons I decided to include a brief account of those years in the book. Readers can see Elizabeth Bishop as I did.”

It’s no secret that biographies are challenging to write. They require an enormous amount of research and verification and fact-checking – a long slog for the most accomplished of writers. That said, what comes through in this one is that it reads as a labor of love. The care that was taken shines through on virtually every page. Asked about the time involved in crafting it, Marshall said, “This book was much faster than the two previous two biographies. I wasn’t raising kids, and I had three straight semesters off from teaching because of a fellowship, and I’d figured out how to write a biography.

“There was also a great deal of Bishop correspondence and manuscript drafts in print to work from. There was great new material at Vassar in the Bishop papers – love letters, letters to a psychoanalyst – but it was all typed, and that was never the case with my 19th-century subjects. So this book took three years, whereas The Peabody Sisters took 20 years and Margaret Fuller took seven.”

A Miracle for Breakfast is a thoughtful, human and compelling look at a master poet that many people today don’t know all that much about. Megan Marshall not only shines a light on the life of Elizabeth Bishop, she also illuminates even the darker corners of her world. This is a biography that draws a reader in and doesn’t disappoint.

Paul Collins is a freelance writer from Southborough.

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