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Elizabeth Bishop ’34 starts literary career at Vassar


Published: Monday, January 17, 2011

Updated: Monday, January 17, 2011 19:01

Elizabeth Bishop

Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections

Elizabeth Bishop, above, attended Vassar as part of the Class of 1934. While at Vassar, she was well-known for her involvement in literary publications.

The Office of Residential Life expects incoming freshmen to bring bedding, toiletries, clothing and other necessities to school. Although different people bring different and unique items to school, a pot of arguably stinky Roquefort cheese is not something that's normally packed with one's shoes and towels. The poet Elizabeth Bishop '34, did bring a pot of said cheese with her, however. Although it may have only been her hallmates on the third floor of Cushing House that knew about this addition to her luggage, from her first day at Vassar, she showed herself to be a distinct member of her class, and later, a distinguished Vassar poet.

Bishop brought the cheese to college because she claimed that the best way to develop poems was to record her dreams, and eating cheese before bed made her dreams more vivid and interesting. According to her freshman year English professor at Vassar, Barbara Swan, Bishop was "evidently doomed to be a poet."

By the end of her life, Bishop had published six volumes of poetry and was well known amongst her fellow writers as, according to the acclaimed poet John Ashbery, "a writer's writer's writer." During her lifetime, she was certainly recognized amongst writers and poets for her craft, but it wasn't until after her death in 1979 that her fame escalated following the publication of The Complete Poems: 1927-1979, The Collected Prose, and One Art, a collection of Bishop's letters.

Vassar's Thompson Memorial Library today is the starting point for any scholar wishing to research Bishop; it contains over 3,500 pages of drafts of her poems and prose, correspondence, personal papers, working papers, notebooks, diaries and memorabilia. Ron Patkus, Vassar's head of Archives & Special Collections, wrote in an e-mailed statement, "Since Vassar acquired them in 1981, the Elizabeth Bishop Papers have become the most heavily-used collection in the Archives & Special Collections Library."

Bishop was born in 1911 in Worcester, Mass. She attended the small Walnut Hill School in Massachusetts before arriving at Vassar in 1930. Although she knew she enjoyed poetry, she didn't always see it as her calling. This confusion about what to study reflected her overall lack of direction when she began at Vassar. Her freshman year was quite unhappy; she was overwhelmed by Vassar's large size (1,150 people at the time). Later, her alcoholism would be traced to her college years.

Although Bishop often may have felt she did not fit in at Vassar, she did fit the Princeton Review's bill of the typical Vassar student—in the present, at least—as being "unique." Her behavior was unconventional, to say the least; that fact could be determined simply from the anecdote about her luggage. As well, though, she once slept in a tree, was seen staring at the shadows of a lamp on a wall, and kept a pet duck.

As Bishop's time at Vassar progressed, her humor was put to good use, and she simultaneously found her place at the institution. Although she remained quite introverted, she became admired amongst her peers as an intellectual.

Her junior year, she joined the editorial staff of The Miscellany News. Although the newspaper centered primarily on political discussion at the time, her specialty was the most read part of the newspaper during the 1930s, "Campus Chat," the paper's humor column. That year, she also helped found a literary magazine at Vassar, Con Spirito, when a friend expressed dissatisfaction with the current literary publication: the more conservative Vassar Review. Con Spirito created a sensation on campus and helped Bishop's reputation to disseminate past Vassar's gates: to those at Princeton University and to T.S. Eliot, who complimented the magazine when he came to visit the College.

During Bishop's senior year, she was the editor of the yearbook, and also notably met the poet Marianne Moore, who was introduced to her by a Vassar librarian, and helped her to finally decided to pursue a career in writing. After Vassar, Bishop went on to travel, translate works, win a Pulitzer, and write stories and poems that remain widely visible today.

To celebrate Elizabeth Bishop during Vassar's sesquicentennial year, Patkus said in an e-mailed statement, "the Library will sponsor a mini-conference Sept. 23-24, titled ‘From the Archive: Discovering Elizabeth Bishop.' The conference will feature an exhibition composed of books on Bishop by key scholars, as well as the primary sources in our collection that supported their research."

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