Do we need to know about Elizabeth Bishop’s private life in order to appreciate her poetry? Claudia Roth Pierpont, in her absorbing “The Island Within,” a review of Megan Marshall’s new biography, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, in this week’s issue, appears to answer no. Discussing the lines “The name of seashore towns run out to sea, / the names of cities cross the neighboring / mountains / – the printer here experiencing the same / excitement / as when emotion too far exceeds its cause,” in Bishop’s “The Map,” she mentions that Bishop’s previous biographer, Brett C. Millier, linked them to thoughts that Bishop confided to her notebook (“Name it friendship if you want – like names of cities printed on maps, the word is much too big, it spreads all over the place, and tells nothing of the actual place it means to name”). But then Pierpont says, “Of course, any such biographical explanation is a cheat: the reader cannot be expected to supply these facts; the poem means what it means, on its own.” I agree. My sense of who Bishop was arises from her meticulous poetic details. Take, for example, her exquisite description of fog in “The Moose”:
Who’s right – Pierpont (“odd but compelling structure”) or Garner (“thee slices short of a loaf”)? The only way to decide, I guess, is to read Marshall’s book.