What We’re Reading with Jonathan F.S. Post

September 30, 2022

Distinguished Research Professor Jonathan F.S. Post’s new book, Elizabeth Bishop: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2022), is available now through Oxford University Press. We caught up with Professor Post to discuss how his new work came about.

Can you tell us a little bit about your book?

Bishop has been a charged center of literary activity for nearly half a century, with sizeable audiences now in the U.S., Canada, the UK, Australia, and even Latin America.  Accompanying this explosion of interest has been much criticism of a specialized, scholarly sort, biographical as well as critical, but no general introduction.  My book attempts to speak to this lack.  It includes chapters on her life and art, especially the four volumes of poetry at the center of her oeuvre, from a variety of angles.  Some chapters are more formalistic—about the kinds of poems she wrote. Some are more thematic: about her penchant for detailed description; about the relationship between poetry and the visual arts (Bishop was an amateur painter); about her love interests (Bishop was lesbian); and about her fascination with geography and travel.  Bishop was always on the move, always changing.  My book seeks to capture what she most valued in the poetry she loved: accuracy, spontaneity, and mystery.

How did a book about Bishop come to be part of Very Short Introductions?

A very interesting question.  The Oxford Very Short Introductions have been largely concept-driven.  Authors are invited to write on big topics, like ‘Capitalism’, ‘African Politics’ ‘Monasticism’, etc. Out of some 700 books, there are only 4 on poets:  Homer, Ovid, Dante, and Shakespeare.  I wrote the one on Shakespeare’s Poetry, and was asked to consider writing another.  It turned out my choice fell on Elizabeth Bishop, thus putting her in rather delightfully rare company.

Were you always a fan of Elizabeth Bishop and her poetry? If so, what interests you about her and her poetry?

Yes, if ‘always’ can stand for the last 30 years or so, when I began teaching her works seriously.  I like how immediately available her poetry can seem:  almost simplistic in its affection for surface detail.  Here are some fire balloons, here is a bus trip, here is a painting. But that’s just the beginning.  She is a poet of infinite depth.  I also love how she thinks and sounds.  Her ear is exquisite, her mind attractively variable, lyrical.

What was the process like doing research for this book? How did you decide what to include and/or discuss from her body of work?

Pretty similar to the research I do for all my books.  Read everything by and about the author; try to see and visit the places that mattered the most to the poet; if possible, to work the library archive where the author’s writings are located, in her case Vassar College; and to teach or talk about her writings with others, both experienced and first-time readers.  The decision about what to include in the book comes from what I’ve read, seen, and heard.  I tend not to write in response to a particular trend.  I feel my greatest responsibility is to the author, who I always imagine to be one of my potential readers.  What would Bishop think about this sentence?

What do you hope readers come away with after reading this book? 

A clear, if intricate understanding of what goes into making Bishop very possibly the most admired poet of the last 50 years writing in English.

Do you have a favorite Elizabeth Bishop poem? 

Probably my favorite Bishop poem is “The Moose” from Geography III (1976).  A close second is “Poem” from the same volume. But the list of contenders is long. The current poet laureate, Ada Limón, credits Bishop’s famous poem, “One Art,” beginning “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” for inspiring her at age 15 to become a poet.  I like to think of Bishop’s poems as gifts to the English language.

Do you have any other projects on the horizon that you’d like to share or talk a bit about?  

Yes, mostly in essay form at the moment:  On John Donne; on sonnets; on George Herbert and Elizabeth Bishop; on the American poet, Anthony Hecht; with a possible return to the well-spring itself, Shakespeare.