(The entire essay, here in 5 parts, originally appeared in the literary journal drafthorse. The last part of this essay will appear here tomorrow. Stay tuned!)
Knowing what we know today about the poet Elizabeth Bishop’s talent and fame, one might be surprised that she too was beset throughout her life with financial woes. Much of her correspondence discusses poetry that she sold, and how much she sold it for. In June 1941, she wrote to her friend Charlotte Russell, “I was so touched by your offer of a LOAN. Thank you very much… I’m gradually getting out of the red now, although I have a bill collector on my tail.”
Much of Bishop’s authorial correspondence is taken up by talk of Guggenheims, fellowships to Yaddo or Bread Loaf, Fulbright grants, and other arts awards with monetary value. In 1978, when Elizabeth Bishop was sixty-seven she wrote to her friend – professor and lecturer Ashley Brown, “This weekend I go to Washington, in two weeks or so to Durham, and from there to Arkansas – then Storrs, Conn., and later on Bennington. This is all to earn $$$, I’m afraid – because I’m not teaching now – and hope never to again! If I get a Guggenheim (I think I may) I can probably just make it for a year – and then I hope ‘something will turn up.’ I want desperately to do some work of my own.”
A year later, on June 3, 1979, Bishop wrote to publisher Robert Giroux asking him for a recommendation for a $15,000 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (she didn’t get the Fellowship). “I have lived on handouts for so long I hesitate to send you this. However, I hope you’ll be willing to recommend me. I’m afraid I live beyond my means in Massachusetts & should probably move to Utah or Florida – but I don’t want to!” She died four months later.