One Art – Letters of Elizabeth Bishop

Just when I became aware of American Poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) it’s hard to say.  I can say with absolute clarity however that my obsession with her began after reading her well-known villanelle “One Art”.  To call the villanelle a complicated verse form is an understatement at the very least and yet I remember how strikingly simple it seemed to me upon first reading of this poem.  To be quite honest, this poem haunts me and has been inside my head since the day I read it.  The many letters in this collection, which takes it title from the poem, are illuminating, not just to the structure of the poems themselves but to the structure of the poet behind them … a woman who guarded her privacy closely but who, in her private correspondence, began at least to reveal a little of the life she led.  Although Bishop gave us only around 100 poems in her lifetime there are over 500 letters in this collection (selected from over several thousand) to close friends and fellow poets alike including  Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, James Merrill and many others.  Today, World Book Day, I find myself turning to my dog-eared collection once again, reading at random, happy to be a fly on the wall while one of the greatest poets of the 20th century shares her hopes, dreams, struggles, and joy for life and art.

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