Elizabeth Bishop died in 1979 and immediately ascended to the heaven inhabited by dead poets—George Herbert, John Keats, and Emily Dickinson—whom everyone venerates. In a review of Alice Quinn’s edition of Bishop’s unfinished poems, William Logan put the following question apropos of Bishop’s ascendancy: “Why has our age become so enamored of a poet who almost to the end of her life required a special taste?” Logan doesn’t quite answer that question, though he does suggest what is probably undemonstrable—that readers “adore themselves for adoring her.” Nor can I demonstrate that the poets listed above are indisputably ones whom everyone venerates; but they share a winning vulnerability to the assaults of life, a vulnerability that many sorts of readers find deeply appealing, indeed irresistible. By contrast, two poets who ascended to another part of heaven, John Donne and Robert Lowell, for all their dramatizing of vulnerability (“Batter my heart three-personed God”; “I hear my ill spirit sob in each blood cell”) beat—in Lowell’s words from a letter to Bishop—the “big drum” so forcefully that they seem scarcely in need of our sympathetic concern. At any rate, it’s undeniable that Bishop’s reputation has been untouched by anything like adverse criticism, and it is no surprise that she is the first twentieth-century woman poet to be included in The Library of America.
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