Vassar Today

Celebrating Elizabeth Bishop

By Peter Bronski
As Vassar celebrates its sesquicentennial year, it will also celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of the late poet Elizabeth Bishop ’34. Each year, Vassar hosts its Elizabeth Bishop Poetry Series, but this year is different. A library exhibition, “From the Archive: Discovering Elizabeth Bishop,” will be co-curated by 10 Bishop scholars and run from August 30 through December 15. In addition, Vassar will hold a Bishop mini-conference September 24, with former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky as the keynote speaker.

Considered one of the great American poets of the 20th century, Bishop came to Vassar in 1930, the contemporary of other Vassar women who would similarly go on to become literary heavyweights, including Mary McCarthy (The Group) and Eleanor Clark (The Oysters of Locmariaquer). Together, they established themselves as literary pioneers, even before they left Vassar’s campus.

Facing a hostile editorial board at the Vassar Review, the campus’s established literary magazine, which rejected their work, Bishop, McCarthy, Clark, and three others founded Con Spirito, a short-lived, rogue literary magazine. It was “an attempt to startle the college and kill the traditional magazine,” Bishop wrote to fellow poet Donald Stanford in a December 1933 letter. The gambit worked. After three issues of the magazine, the Review suddenly welcomed Con Spirito’s founders into its ranks with open arms.

In 1934, during Bishop’s senior year, Vassar librarian Fanny Borden introduced her to poet Marianne Moore, who became an early mentor and lifelong friend. Moore showed Bishop that poetry could be a legitimate career path for a woman.

Bishop’s break-through moment came in 1946, when Moore suggested Bishop for the Houghton Mifflin Prize for Poetry. Bishop won against more than 800 entries. The honor resulted in her first book of poetry, North & South, published that same year. A Guggenheim Fellowship followed one year later, in 1947, and two years after that, Bishop became Poet Laureate of the United States (1949-1950). It was a remarkably fast rise to poetry super-stardom, but Bishop didn’t stop there.

The Pulitzer Prize followed in 1956; the National Book Award for Poetry in 1970; and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1976 (Bishop was the first woman to win the award, and remains the only American). Along the way she published three additional collections of poetry: A Cold Spring (1956), Questions of Travel (1965), and finally, Geography III (1977).

Despite much professional acclaim during her lifetime, popular fame didn’t come until after Bishop’s death in 1979. The 1983 publication of her collected works, The Complete Poems: 1927-1979, as well as 1994’s One Art: Letters, a collection of her correspondence with friends and colleagues, vaulted Bishop into the literary limelight. “Commonly, a poet’s posthumous star dims for a while,” wrote Vassar College professor emeritus of English and Bishop scholar Barbara Page, “but Bishop’s has risen steadily.”

For more information about the Elizabeth Bishop conference and exhibition, visit the Archives & Special Collections website.