Craig Raine

Sappho in America

Newly discovered archival material enriches our understanding of the American poet

We are gripped by gossip. Curiosity is a tenacious emotion. In her essay on Push Comes to Shove, the autobiography of the choreographer Twyla Tharp, Joan Acocella acknowledges this in an untroubled way. If you want to know what Baryshnikov was like in bed, she advises, look at p. 208 in a bookshop: ‘Tharp gives him better marks than [Gelsey] Kirkland’ in her 1986 autobiography Dancing on my Grave.

On the other hand, we have our settled idea about Elizabeth Bishop, a famously unconfessional poet, marked out from Lowell, Sexton and Berryman by her continence, her wry tone, her meticulous descriptive accuracy and her beautiful containment. Lowell might announce in verse that he was tired of his turmoil — indeed, that everyone was tired of his turmoil — but Bishop’s poetry is unlikely to embarrass any reader, yet isn’t remotely genteel. Cool perfection: the yacht ‘stepped and side-stepped like Fred Astaire’; ‘mildew’s ignorant map’; ‘rooms of falling rain’. The slim, silent perfection of a Swiss watch.

It is no surprise that Iris Murdoch should write in 1948, ‘One of my fundamental assumptions is that I have the power to seduce anyone.’ It is surprising to learn that Elizabeth Bishop boasted to Lowell that she’d ‘never met a woman I couldn’t make’. The boast is even more surprising given that in 1947 Bishop told her psychiatrist, Ruth Foster, ‘I have no clitoris at all.’ (You can find this disclosure on p. 319 of Megan Marshall’s biography, discreetly among the endnotes. Two lovers, Loren MacIver and Marjorie Stevens, had commented on this. Another former lover, Roxanne Cumming, laughs it off: ‘She must have been having a bad day.’)

Bishop’s ravishing poem, ‘Under the Window: Ouro Prêto’, is a collage of conversation overheard as people come to drink at the cold rope of water from an iron pipe.

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