Elizabeth Bishop is one of the most widely read American poets of the twentieth century. In the decades following her death, her reputation among critics and popularity among readers have increased exponentially. Her lyric poems are marked by a knowing, observant tone and technical virtuosity, even while exploring themes as diverse as grief, alienation, and the intersection of the natural and human worlds. Her collections include the 1946 North and South, the Pulitzer-Prize winning 1955 Poems: North & South/A Cold Spring, and the 1976 Geography III. Of the 101 poems Bishop published during her life, some of the most widely anthologized and beloved are "One Art," published in 1976, "The Fish," published in 1946, and "In the Waiting Room," published in 1976.
Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her childhood was tumultuous: her father died when Bishop was a year old, and her mother was committed to an asylum following a mental health crisis when Bishop was five. She then went to live with her grandparents in Nova Scotia. She spent her childhood between Nova Scotia, Worcester, and Boston, raised at various points by relatives on both her maternal and paternal side. She attended Vassar College, where she became part of a well-known literary circle. Her peers at Vassar, with whom she co-founded the literary magazine Con Spirito, included the poet Marianne Moore—with whom Bishop would remain close throughout her life—and the novelist Mary McCarthy. (Bishop later cultivated a well-known friendship with the poet Robert Lowell as well). She graduated from Vassar in 1934 and embarked on a series of travels in Europe and North Africa.
While Bishop's early travels in Europe and Africa informed her poetry, she produced much of the work that would eventually be published in her first collection while living in Key West, Florida. After four years in Key West, Bishop moved to Brazil with her partner, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares. While in Brazil, she became interested in the country's literary tradition, eventually translating poetry from Portuguese into English. She also developed a fraught relationship with the Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector, and even produced several English translations of Lispector's work. She spent 14 years in Brazil, but, following Soares's 1967 death, she increasingly spent time back in the U.S. The later years of her career were marked by accolades, including a National Book Award and a Neustadt International Prize for Literature. During the final decade of her life, Bishop taught at Harvard University, and she died in Boston in 1979. In addition to poetry, Bishop worked as a painter, even remarking in an interview with The Paris Review, "I like painting probably better than I like poetry."
Bishop's poetry is known for its tranquil, measured, and detailed observations about the natural world. She is known for focusing on the everyday settings of domesticity and work. Her poems feature scenes drawn both from her travels and from her life in New England. These poems tend not to focus on overt biography or confessional revelations, instead addressing their subjects from an impersonal but engaged distance. The poet and critic Ernest Hilbert has written that Bishop's work is "distinguished by tranquil observation, craft-like accuracy, care for the small things of the world, a miniaturist’s discretion and attention."