- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

Elizabeth Bishop on Writing, Poetry, Inspiration, and More


Happy birthday, Elizabeth Bishop! Here are some quotes from her writing.


“Lose something every day.”


“Oh, must we dream our dreams / and have them, too?”


“I was made at right angles to the world / and I see it so. I can only see it so.”


“Think of the long trip home. Should we have stayed home and thought of here?” Where should we be today?


“Hoping to live days of greater happiness, I forget that days of less happiness are passing by.”


All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful.”


“[O]ne shouldn’t get too involved with people who can’t possibly understand one…”


“It takes so many thousands of things coming together at the right moment just to make a poem that no one could ever really separate, and say this did this, that did that.”


“But I’m just naturally perverse—if you want me one way, I go the other way…”


“People say I am a perfectionist. The truth is that I often return to a poem started months or years before. I am very slow, that’s all.”


“Poetry has always seemed the most natural way of saying what I feel. I never intended to ‘be’ a poet, as I think people set out to do today. I never wanted to think about any label. It’s far more important to just keep writing poetry than to think of yourself as a poet whose job is to write poetry all the time. What do such people do during those long, infertile periods? Poetry should be as unconscious as possible.”


“Some poems begin as a set of words that you aren’t sure what they apply to, but eventually they accumulate and become lines, and then you see some pattern emerge. Sometimes an idea haunts me for a long time, though poems that start as ideas are much harder to write. It’s easier when they start out with a set of words that sound nice and don’t make much sense but eventually reveal their purpose. Again, the unconscious quality is very important. You don’t ask a poem what it means, you have to let it tell you.”


“One of the few good qualities I think I have as a poet is patience. I have endless patience. Sometimes I feel I should be angry at myself for being willing to wait 20 years for a poem to get finished, but I don’t think a good poet can afford to be in a rush.”


“I’m not trying to do anything specific in my poetry—only to please myself. The greatest challenge, for me, is to try and express difficult thoughts in plain language. I prize clarity and simplicity. I like to present complicated or mysterious ideas in the simplest ways possible. This is a discipline which many poets don’t see as important as I do. Complexity, I think, often obscures fuzzy thinking or verse masking as poetry. If poetry isn’t disciplined then probably the eye which observed or the mind which translated the experience lacked a certain discipline.”


“I am very object-struck. Critics have often written that I write more about things than people. This isn’t conscious on my part. I simply try to see things afresh. A certain curiosity about the world around is one of the most important things in life. It’s behind almost all poetry.

I am very fond on painting and this may account for some of my interest in observing things closely. My aunts sketched and painted watercolor and this may have subtly influenced me. In fact, I often wish I had been born a painter rather than a writer.”


“This mysterious thing we call inspiration isn’t that easy to pinpoint. But it’s the strange and wonderful thing about writing poetry—you can never predict where or when or even why something moves you to write a poem. That’s what I mean when I said a poem comes in many guises. A poem may be inspired by something that happened 20 years ago but until I’ve written it, I may not have realized that at the time I was greatly moved. I think you have a trust that the eye and mind are constantly recording, and be patient enough for them to reveal what they have observed.”


“I’ve never felt particularly homeless, but, then, I’ve never felt particularly at home. I guess that’s a pretty good description of a poet’s sense of home. He carries it within him.”


“Surprise. The subject and the language which conveys it should surprise you. You should be surprised at seeing something new and strangely alive.”


“The three qualities I admire in the poetry I like best are: Accuracy, Spontaneity, Mystery. My three ‘favorite’ poets—not the best poets, whom we all admire, but favorite in the sense of one’s ‘best friends,’ etc., are Herbert, Hopkins, and Baudelaire.”


“Writing poetry is an unnatural act. It takes great skill to make it seem natural. Most of the poet’s energies are really directed towards this goal: to convince himself (perhaps, with luck, eventually some readers) that what he’s up to and what he’s saying is really an inevitable, only natural way of behaving under the circumstances.”


  • John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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