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Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast Hardcover – February 7, 2017
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From the Publisher
Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil, 1955
Courtesy of Elizabeth Bishop Papers, Special Collections, Vassar College Library.
Megan Marshall, 1975, the summer after she first met Elizabeth Bishop
Courtesy of the author.
This photograph of Elizabeth Bishop, taken in 1955 while she lived in Brazil, was her favorite portrait. She was annoyed that the photographer skipped the country, taking the negatives with him, and she was never able to make more prints. When I began researching Elizabeth Bishop’s life, I started to sense some eerie connections, as often happens with biographers and their subjects. One was realizing that I had a photo of myself from the time that I knew her, in which I was posed in exactly the same way against a rock wall, wearing the same kind of blouse with the sleeves rolled up! At the time, I hadn’t seen her photograph, which had been taken twenty years earlier. There was no way I was consciously imitating her.
Although I took a writing workshop with Elizabeth Bishop at Harvard, where I was a scholarship student, I didn’t know her well at all. Her classes, called 'Advanced Verse Writing,' were quite structured and formal, and she was very shy, not comfortable holding forth or dispensing wisdom. Some of her students became her friends, but I wasn’t one of them. In fact there was a little problem between us that plays out in the brief autobiographical sections that alternate with the longer biographical chapters of the book.
How well do we know the people in our lives? How well can a biographer know her subject, relying only on primary documents and remembered accounts? The alternating chapters of Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast—biography followed by memoir followed by more biography—take on these questions indirectly. The reader sees Elizabeth Bishop as I knew her in real time, at the end of her life, alongside Elizabeth Bishop as she experienced her own life, going through it from birth to death.
One of the surprising results is that the reader gets closer to Elizabeth Bishop, experiencing her vicariously through my eyes. The essential mystery of what enables a person of genius to realize her talent is still there, but we see Elizabeth Bishop at first hand struggling to solve that problem. And it was a problem I struggled with too, how to make use of my own lesser capabilities and manage my fledgling ambitions as a student poet. We’ve all been there.
I learned so much from Miss Bishop, as we called her, that wasn’t on her syllabus, and that I’ve come to appreciate more powerfully since college and while writing this book. Miss Bishop taught by living her life, and so it seems natural that I would one day write her biography. Although lives aren’t pre-determined, they take their own course and may not really have a coherent shape, there was something miraculous about the reverberations in our lives, and a coincidence that seemed to bring us together at the end.
Objectivity is always a relative matter in biography—the writer is either sympathetic to or in disagreement with her subject, or she wouldn’t put in the time. In this book, the stakes are clear, which made the work fascinating and draws back the veil for readers.
"I really don't know HOW poetry gets to be written," Elizabeth Bishop once lamented, proposing some combination of mystery, surprise, and hard work. In a life marked by regular loss, inspiration would prove as elusive as happiness; the verse seemed to sneak up on her when she least expected. Megan Marshall here coaxes the self-conscious poet out of her shyness, her genius into words. She proceeds as did Bishop in her best verse, by description paired with astute reflection. And Marshall is daring, stepping out from behind the biographical curtain, effectively, ingeniously, and with a lovely twist at the end. A sure-handed, beautifully constructed book that captures the color of Elizabeth Bishop's life–melancholy and ecstatic, anchored by whiskey and words, by turns New England grim and toucan-vibrant–on the page. Megan Marshall performs her own miracle: Here is how poetry gets written.”
—Stacy Schiff, author ofThe Witches, Cleopatra, and Véra
"Elizabeth Bishop, the quietest, most elusive, and among the greatest of modern American poets, has since her death become a cultural icon, much studied, much quoted, and even a character in films and fiction. Now we have a remarkable book—part biography, part memoir—by a writer whose life actually intersected with hers. Megan Marshall, like her subject, has an unerring eye for the telling detail and the illuminating story. She succeeds in bringing Elizabeth Bishop vividly to life in all her poignant complexity.”
—Lloyd Schwartz, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, co-editor of Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters
“[An] elegant, moving biography . . . [It] has more to recommend it than shocking revelations. It is a shapely experiment, mixing memoir with biography . . . [Marshall’s] experience as a young woman and aspiring writer casts Bishop’s struggles in fresh light . . . This new biography fuses sympathy with intelligence, sending us back to Bishop’s marvelous poems.”
—Wall Street Journal
"Marshall’s account is lively and engaging, charged with vindicating energy . . . [A] compelling structure . . . the reader watches the two women’s lives converge, and it allows for some closeup glimpses of Bishop as a teacher. Marshall seems still sensitive to having given up poetry, the one great thing that Bishop, for all her losses, never let go. There’s an emotional undertow even in Marshall’s treatment of poetic forms . . . and in her unwavering reverence for the magic that form cannot explain. The book is ultimately about how words ordered on a page may supply some order for one’s life, may assuage and even redeem tragedy."
—The New Yorker
"A sharp portrait of the tragedies and other influences that shaped Bishop’s life and career . . . . Best of all are Marshall’s analyses of Bishop’s poems . . . This fine biography demonstrates the magnitude of Bishop’s achievements without ignoring her flaws."
"Marshall expertly shows this charmed and sometimes sad life in intelligent, clear, and beautiful prose . . . A generous, enjoyable piece of work."
"Marshall brings the sometimes elusive writer . . . to life, offering a cohesive and novel look at the ways in which subject and biographer are intertwined and the value of understanding a poet's biography while reading their work. VERDICT: This study opens up a new way of looking at Bishop's life and her place in American letters."
"Enlightening . . . A biography of Bishop is long overdue, and Marshall illuminates the poet’s life with fascinating and inspiring details and insights."
"In prose that reads with the intrigue of a novel, the author reveals previously unknown facets of Bishop's life, from her troubled childhood to a clandestine love affair."
"An extraordinary book about how Elizabeth Bishop moved people in her life and her poetry."
“Using a wealth of new material, including the poet’s letters to her lovers and psychoanalyst, Marshall has crafted the most intimate and accurate biography yet available. Anyone interested in Bishop’s life and work will need to read this moving and often revelatory new account.... Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast is the rare sort of book that will expand the audience for contemporary poetry.”
—The American Scholar
"This compelling blend of biography and autobiography offers readers a portal into Bishop's life, situated among her poems and prose, friendships and geographies, love affairs and grievous losses, while also telling the story of Marshall's beginnings as a writer: the training she received in poetry - a grasp of story, careful details, the nuance of character and language - that led to dexterity as a biographer . . . A riveting account of Elizabeth Bishop's artful life, told in connection to the story of her own literary vocation, Marshall's book details two lives whose ‘precipitate and pragmatical’ intersection in the late 1970s was a windfall for American letters."
“A skillful and judicious performance . . . without any of the stiffness, the blockiness or monumentality that sometimes afflicts biography.”
About the Author
MEGAN MARSHALL is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for Margaret Fuller, and the author of The Peabody Sisters, which won the Francis Parkman Prize, the Mark Lynton History Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. She is the Charles Wesley Emerson College Professor and teaches narrative nonfiction and the art of archival research in the MFA program at Emerson College. For more, visit www.meganmarshallauthor.com.