Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop by Thomas Travisano; Viking, 432 pp., $32
What is the relation between a poet’s life and art? A young Elizabeth Bishop offered the following advice: “The best way to understand Shelley is to read part of his biography and then read his poems that were written during the same period of his life.” Thomas Travisano’s study of Bishop, Love Unknown, implicitly invites us to follow this advice. To get the most out of his book, it’s best to keep a copy of Bishop’s works at hand and to consult each poem that Travisano mentions in the course of recounting her life.
Yet there’s an essential problem with biographies of writers. Travisano’s detailed account has filled in many gaps in my knowledge of Bishop, but it’s her work that matters. How much can we really learn about her poetry from studying her life? This is not to say, of course, that the personal lacks interest. I particularly relished the chapters on Bishop’s high school and college friendships, largely extracted from the luminous letters she wrote at the time. And if you want to know about Bishop’s forebears on both sides of her family, this is certainly the book to turn to.
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