Elizabeth Bishop’s Letter to Miss Pierson

A few words on poetry from a wonderful Worcester native:


I am answering you because (1) You enclosed a stamped, self-addressed envelope. (This happens very rarely.) (2) You think that poetry discussion groups are ‘a bloody bore’ –and although there are exceptions, in general I agree with you completely.

I think you have set up difficulties for yourself that perhaps don’t really exist at all. I don’t know what ‘poetic tools & structures’ are, unless you mean transitional forms. Which one can use or not, as one sees fit. If you feel you are ‘moralizing’ too much–just cut the morals off–or out. (Quite enough young poets tend to try to tie everything up neatly in 2 or 3 beautiful last lines, and it is quite surprising  how the poems are improved if the poet can bear to sacrifice those last, pat, beautiful lines.) Your third problem–why shouldn’t the poet appear in the poem? There are several tricks–‘I’ or ‘we’ or ‘he’ or ‘she’ or even ‘one’–or somebody’s name. Someone is talking, after all–but of course the idea is to prevent that particular tone of voice from growing monotonous.

From what you say, I think perhaps you are actually trying too hard–or reading too much about poetry and not enough poetry. Prosody–metrics–etc are fascinating–but they all come   afterwards, obviously. And I always ask my writing class NOT to read criticism.

Read a lot of poetry–all the time–and not 20th century poetry. Read Campion, Herbert, Pope, Tennyson, Coleridge–anything at all almost that’s any good, from the past–until you find out what you really like, by yourself. Even if you try to imitate it exactly–it will come out quite different. Then the great poets of our own century–Marianne Moore, Auden, Wallace Stevens–and not just 2 of 3 poems each, in anthologies–read ALL of somebody. Then  read his or her life, and letters, and so on. (And by all means read Keat’s Letters.) Then see what happens.

That’s really all I can say. It can’t be done, apparently, but by willpower and study alone–or by being “with it”–but I really don’t know how poetry gets to be written. There is a mystery & a surprise, and after that a great deal of hard work.


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