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Elizabeth Bishop and Sacrificial Feminism

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Photo by J.L. Castel, 1954, Images courtesy of Vassar Archives and Special Collections, Vassar College Library, New York.

As a young poet, Elizabeth Bishop refused to be published in what would be an otherwise all-male anthology; she didn’t want to act as the book’s ‘sex-appeal’. This aversion to the separation of the sexes – which some see as premature frumpiness, others as sacrificial feminism – was something Bishop held dear throughout her poetic career. Her additional stipulation not to be included in all-female poetry anthologies is still adhered to today.

Lumping together artistic work according to gender was, in Bishop’s opinion, detrimental to women’s writing. In a letter to Jean Keefe, she writes: ‘undoubtedly gender does play an important role in the making of any art, but art is art, and to separate writings, paintings, musical compositions, etc., into two sexes is to emphasize values in them that are not art.’

And in a famous Paris Review interview, in which she was called on to defend her position, she stated: ‘I’ve always considered myself a strong feminist. Recently I was interviewed by a reporter from the Chicago Tribune. After I talked to the girl for a few minutes, I realized that she wanted to play me off as an ‘old fashioned’ against Erica Jong, and Adrienne (Rich) whom I like, and other violently feminist people. Which isn’t true at all.’

The ideas that surround Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry should be far from cloudy. Every single word of her limited poetic output has been dissected, disassembled and edited. ‘to separate writings, paintings, musical compositions, etc., into two sexes is to emphasize values in them that are not art.’ Yet her belief that writer could stand on its own as a title, with little need for the preface of lesbian, alcoholic, manic depressive, orphaned or woman is unquestioned, even though these character traits are often pinned to Bishop and credited with having affected her output, with little consideration to her reticence to talk about her personal life. Critics still see the poet inside the poem, pressing the characters of the orphaned daughter with the absent mother and the lesbian alcoholic onto Bishop’s restrained, modest and graceful poems.

This often leads to the conclusion that Bishop was not a particularly ‘feminine’ poet. Indeed, there is evidence of her writing poorly on sex and the self – two traits commonly associated with women’s writing – and preferring to keep her poetry objective, often genderless. Her most prominent poem on gender, ‘In The Waiting Room’, recognizes the subject only to reject it. After seeing some quite horrifying breasts, she suggests ‘Why should I be my aunt,/ or me, or anyone?’, while her famous love poem, ‘Shampoo’, is intimate but genderless, the lover in question a ‘friend,/ precipitate and pragmatical.’

So was it her belief that ‘female poets’ were automatically turned into ‘others’, outside of the canon? Or was it that she associated femininity with sentimentality, openness: things she strove to avoid in public spaces? Whichever is true, her definition as a poet surely rises above any labels.

And what of all-female anthologies? There is an ongoing debate about prefacing a writer with his or her gender, and it is, irrefutably, a one-sided practice. Yet growing up with The Bloodaxe Modern Women Poets anthology, edited by Deryn Rees-Jones didn’t do me any harm (except for Bishop’s omission), and served only as encouragement. These anthologies attempt to emphasize the prominence of poets who, because of their gender, were secondary in the past. All-female collections give these writers an opportunity to be read on their own terms, and with their own prerogative. ■

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Also on The F Word Online:

‘The Old Fuel’: A new poem by Emily Berry, and an interview with her, here.

‘Your world doesn’t exist anymore’: Four women and one revolution in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, January 2011.

You’re a what kind of feminist? A Treatise on Political Philosophy at the Apex of American Empire, or a new poem by Megan Levad.

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