Elizabeth Bishop was in dire need of maternal affection. At five years old, she’d witnessed her own mother committed to an asylum: the last glimpse Bishop ever got of her.
In the mid-1930s, as a shy, bushy-haired student at the all-women’s Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, Bishop devoured many poems by the older modernist writer Marianne Moore. Later, she’d wonder whether she would ever have become a poet if it hadn’t been for reading the likes of ‘Marriage’ and ‘Peter’.
Moore was perhaps ready to adopt a literary daughter. Her own mother rarely left her side, watching while she wrote or busying herself in the adjacent room, ready to cast her sharp editorial eye over each new poem. During the last three decades of Mrs Moore’s life, the pair even shared a bed.
Moore may have had a surfeit of maternal attention, but she could connect with Bishop’s parental loss. During Moore’s infancy, her father had cut off his right hand in a fit of delusion and had then been committed to an asylum. She could not recollect a single memory of him.
When Moore was approached by an old childhood friend, now the librarian at Vassar College, she reluctantly agreed to meeting the twenty-three-year-old Bishop. The young woman rushed from Grand Central Station, relieved to have just about made it on time to their meeting place beneath the imposing lion statues that flank the New York Public Library. Moore, who wore two wrist watches, was already waiting for her. She cut a quaint old-fashioned figure, her rust-pink hair braided around her head, her man’s polo shirt two sizes too large.
Despite Bishop’s nerves and Moore’s reservations, the pair hit it off immediately. The older writer soon placed her protégée’s work in an anthology, writing an insightful preface to the new poems. But there was always a familial aspect to their friendship as well as a literary connection: they would take trips to the circus and the cinema and to children’s talks at the Natural History Museum. And, however early Bishop showed up, she would always find Moore there ready and waiting.
Soon, Bishop was invited to the narrow over-crowded apartment that Moore shared with her mother in Brooklyn – the unlikely but popular meeting place for Moore’s coterie of fellow high-modernist friends, among them H.D., T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams.
Unlike Moore and her mother – who impersonated each other to the extent that it was difficult to tell where one ended and the other began – Bishop retained her separate identity. Six years into their friendship, she sent her mentor her latest poem ‘Roosters’. Moore and her mother objected to what they considered Bishop’s vulgarity – particularly her reference to a ‘water-closet’! Staying up until the early hours of the morning, the mother-daughter duo rewrote the younger woman’s poem, removing everything that had affronted them. Although Bishop incorporated some of the changes, she retained her lavatorial images. And the friendship survived undented.
In her old age, Moore soared to an extraordinary level of superstardom: appearing on the Tonight Show, featured on the cover of Esquire, inundated by fans who showed up at her door. But in her memoir of her friend, Bishop lovingly recalls how the elderly Moore continued to attend creative writing classes as a student (sometimes to the tutor’s horror!) and even enrolled in a dance school, where she learnt to tango.
This month, we will follow in Moore’s footsteps by embracing lifelong learning.