Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) may well have reached the pinnacle of her fame in our age. In her lifetime, she was eclipsed by Robert Lowell, who dominated the American poetry scene of the 1960s and 1970s with his work and his personality. If one asks American poets today, however, whom they are reading for inspiration, the answer will almost always include "Elizabeth Bishop."
Scholarship on Bishop, however, has remained peculiarly limited in focusing either on close textual studies (as if she were a 20th-century version of Emily Dickinson) or foregrounding biography as an explanatory parameter. In this way, early abandonment, lonely upbringing, alcoholism or sexual orientation seem to be avenues towards understanding her work in both poetry and fiction.
The project entitled “Raw Sensibilities: Elizabeth Bishop and the Philosophy of Beatitude” will result in a new identification and understanding of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetic oeuvre and her place within American literary history by comparing her to poets of the Beat Generation with whom she has never been grouped before. We intend to highlight and analyze in detail the various aspects of Bishop’s work connect her to selected poets of the Beat movement, from Jack Kerouac to Gregory Corso and Gary Snyder. The recognition of these common themes and concerns will allow us to challenge the false inevitability of Bishop’s self-restrained voice and containment.
Generally included under the umbrella term of “Beat,” poets such as Frank O’Hara and Gary Snyder were Bishop's contemporaries and help construct a literary platform where we can place and identify Elizabeth Bishop’s poetic voice. Though Elizabeth Bishop remains separated from Beat poets historically and socially—i.e. they were not directly part of her literary circle—our approach in this comparative study is strictly philosophical in relying mostly on the history of ideas instead of sociological history. We intend to identify the major aspects of Beat philosophy and apply them to Bishop’s work not only to highlight her uniqueness but to break with literary tradition and to redefine her recognized position in American poetry. The philosophy of Beatitude—descending directly from the poetic vision of Beat poets—refers to a specific attitude and perception of the world as well as to a particular kind of relationship between the world and the self. The paradox of being “beat” and “beatific” at the same time is something that applies surprisingly not only to Bishop’s artistic work but also to her personal life. Seeking beatitude is often a reaction one can have in the face of tragedy, loss or pain, and it serves especially to protect oneself from the outside world—paradoxically—by embracing it.
As this project seeks to rewrite American literary history by expanding the ways in which Elizabeth Bishop is connected to its various subcategories, it will challenge existing assumptions about her poetic motivations and enlarge the frame of references within which we read this particular mid-century poet.