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"The Bishop / Moore


Lynn Keller

… Bishop seems to have recognized that she,

like Moore, was far more observant than most people. Once she even assumes a tone of smug

complicity, implying "you and I see what others carelessly overlook," when

commenting on the obtuseness of those who label museum exhibits: "Some of their

inscriptions baffle me – a perfectly sensible crystal fish, for example, something

like a perch, labelled ‘Porpoise.’ And a young man on a Greek vase who is

obviously cutting the ends of his hair with his sword, called ‘Boy Washing Hair

(?)’" (letter of 25 January 1935). Bishop seems also to have been always

conscious that the women she was writing to was not only "the World’s Greatest

Living Observer" (a title Bishop used in her contribution to the Marianne Moore issue

of A Quarterly Review of Literature, 1948) but one of its greatest describers as

well – and therefore the most qualified judge of Bishop’s own descriptive

achievements. …

… As early as 1935 Bishop demonstrates the

knack for narrative, the interest in colorful human characters, and the playful humor that

are distinctly hers. … The following vignette … contains surprising images and

an understated, half-serious moral that bring to mind Moore’s writing, but the

casual, anecdotal manner could only be Bishop’s:

I must tell you about the beautiful tree down the

street – covered with fine yellow blossoms and the most delicate, wire-like, of green

leaves – it scarcely looks like a tree at all, but some sort of transcendental

lighting fixture. An old Negro with white hair was sitting underneath it reading the

‘Congregational Record’ and I asked him the name – Jerusalem Thorn. I said

isn’t it beautiful, and he answered me very severely, ‘It’s worth-while

looking at.’" (letter of 5 March 1938)

Yet despite the obvious differences between their

descriptive styles (and the temperaments determining them), Moore’s writing clearly

provides Bishop’s standard for successful description, the standard against which she

measures her own achievement.


The care Bishop apparently took composing her

early letters and the descriptions they contain reflects, then, not only her desire to

share with Moore intriguing or delightful experiences, but also her awareness that this

correspondence provided a unique opportunity for monitored practice in writing skills.

After all, Moore was the ideal audience: well disposed and genuinely interested,

possessing rigorous literary standards and reliable judgment; her praise, when earned, was

significant. Without in any way diminishing the genuine affection binding these two women

and the mutual rewards of their correspondence, it seems fair to regard Bishop’s

letters of the ’30s as a format for literary exercise and experiment, as vehicles for

locating her own voice and manner, for testing her audience’s response in preparation

for more public forays. The activity of composing them seems to have been part of

Bishop’s self-imposed training.

From Lynn Keller, "Words Worth a Thousand

Postcards: The Bishop / Moore Correspondence," American Literature 55.3

(October 1983), 411, 413-414.

Correspondence on "The


1. Elizabeth Bishop to

Marianne Moore: January 14, 1939

The other day I caught a parrot fish, almost by

accident. They are ravishing fish – all iridescent, with a silver edge to each scale,

and a real bill-like mouth just like turquoise; the eye is very big and wild, and the

eyeball is turquoise too – they are very humorous-looking fish. A man on the dock

immediately scraped off three scales, then threw him back; he was sure it wouldn’t

hurt him. I’m enclosing one [scale], if I can find it. …

From One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop,

Ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), 79.

2. Elizabeth Bishop to

Marianne Moore: February 5, 1940

I have one Key West story that I must tell you.

It is more like the place than anything I can think of. The other day I went to the

china closet to get a little white bowl to put some flowers in and when I was rinsing it I

noticed some little black specks. I said to Mrs. Almyda, "I think we must have

mice" – but she took the bowl over to the light and studied it and after a while

she said, "No, them’s lizard." …

I am so much longing to see some of your new

poems. I am sending you a real "trifle" ["the Fish"]. I’m afraid

it is very bad and, if not like Robert Frost, perhaps like Ernest Hemingway! I left the

last line on so it wouldn’t be, but I don’t know …

From One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop,

Ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), 87.

3. Marianne Moore to

Louise Crane: February 14, 1940

[Bishop was romantically involved with Louise

Crane and shared a house with her at Key West.]

I had a letter from Elizabeth a day or two ago,

which I am thinking of having tattooed on me – in which she tells of Mrs.

Almeyda’s identifying certain little specks in a white bowl, as "Them’s

lizard." And she enclosed a very valorous and concentrated poem about a fish. I

thought of your somewhat pensive statement, "Elizabeth is writing some poems: she is

working hard and will have more things" – when we were pondering the probability

of enough to make a book; I wondered where th fish had begun to be written, and if I have

missed any companion piece to it.

From The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore,

Ed. Bonnie Costello; Assoc. Eds. Celeste Goodridge and Cristanne Miller (New York: Alfred

A. Knopf, 1997), 397.

4. Elizabeth Bishop to

Marianne Moore: February 19, 1940

I have been reading and rereading your letter

ever since it came … And thank you for the marvelous postcard, and the very helpful

comments on "the Fish." I did as you suggested about everything except

"breathing in" (if you can remember that), which I decided to leave as it was.

"Lousy" is now "infested" and "gunwales" (which I meant to

be pronounced "gunn’ls" ) is "gunnels," which is also correct

according to the dictionary, and makes it plainer. I left off the outline of capitals [for

the first word of each line], too, and feel very ADVANCED.

From One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop,

Ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), 87-88.

5. Marianne Moore to

Elizabeth Bishop: March 17, 1940

I am glad the Partisan Review wants the

article, and since the canoe trip gives a picture of Florida, you could surely send it.

And if you ask if I "could bear" to see it again and if I "have the

time" to read it, I’ll tell you a fib and say when I said I liked "The

Fish" that I meant merely the title, not the poem itself. I don’t feel I am any

real help to you and should so like to be. But in anxiety to protect the work I scrutinize

every detail.

From The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore,

Ed. Bonnie Costello; Assoc. Eds. Celeste Goodridge and Cristanne Miller (New York: Alfred

A. Knopf, 1997), 398.

6. Elizabeth Bishop to

Marianne Moore: March 14, 1940

Partisan Review has asked me to write a

"Florida Letter." … They are printing "The Fish" this month, I


From One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop,

Ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), 89

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