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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Adrienne Rich on Elizabeth Bishop and lesbian identity

Criticism of Bishop in her lifetime was mostly appreciative of her powers of observation, her carefully articulated descriptive language, her wit, her intelligence, the individuality of her voice. I want to acknowledge the distinction of all these, the marvelous flexibility and sturdiness of her writing, her lack of self-indulgence, her capacity to write of loss and of time pat without pathos and with precision, as in poems like “Sestina,” “The Moose,” “Filling Station,” “First Death in Nova Scotia,” “At the Fishhouses.” I want to pay this homage and go on to aspects of her work which I have not yet seen discussed. In particular I am concerned with her experience of outsiderhood, closely—though not exclusively—linked with the essential outsiderhood of a lesbian identity; and with how the outsider’s eye enables Bishop to perceive other kinds of outsiders and to identify, or try to identify, with them. I believe she deserves to be read and valued not only for her language and images, or for her personality within the poems, but for the way she locates herself in the world.

Originally published in the April 1983 issue of Boston Review

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