Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop

The idea for the Written Image started with Elizabeth. I was a good enough poet to be accepted into her small creative writing seminar at Harvard. When we had our first one-on-one meeting, she said, “You’re not a poet. What are you?” I stuttered and said I wanted to be a painter. She said, "we’ll have to find a way for you to get credit.” 

She wrote out her poem “The Fish” and said, “do something with this.” Afterwards, I went down the hall to ask my other teacher, Robert Lowell, if he would collaborate with me. We had a meal at the Iruna restaurant in Harvard Square. At lunch, he choose a small square of paper and wrote out the opening lines of his chilling poem “Man and Wife.” He laughed maniacally and said,” Have fun with that!!” I was twenty. His small square of paper became the red window in his piece. I asked my third teacher, Octavio Paz, if he would collaborate. He was delighted and asked to see examples. I only had the Lowell and Bishop. When he saw their sheets, he said they wrote too small. He asked if he could write in Spanish and could he write large? I said, of course. 

The Written Image was launched. 

I did not realize at the time, but I had shot the moon. In the American card game called Hearts, if you have a certain run of cards in your hand, you’ll win all the tricks. It’s called shooting the moon. Having those three stars in my firmament meant few poets have turned me down. One memorable man was Jack Gilbert whose book The Great Fires inspired me, especially the cycle of poems after the death off his Japanese wife. He said, “I’m too old now. I used to be able to hold any person in the audience’s attention when I read. Anyone. I’m tired now. I don’t want any of that now."

The only collaboration I’ve lost over the years is Elizabeth’s, “The Fish.” It’s a fitting loss as she was very reticent and shy. She avoided public appearances. Many times I went to a scheduled reading only to be told Elizabeth wouldn’t be coming.  We did become friends, though, and I visited her on Lewis Wharf, on one condition: that I never asked her anything about poetry. We played backgammon. We drank tea. We even laughed a lot.


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