Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Bishop: The Celebrated Poet on Why Everyone Should Experience at Least One Prolonged Period of Solitude in Life
Wisdom on the rhythms of creativity from a lighthouse daydream.
By Maria Popova
“One can never be alone enough to write. To see better,” young Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. In solitude, Wendell Berry observed in his magnificent meditation on stillness, “one’s inner voices become audible [and,] in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.” For Keats, solitude was our greatest conduit to truth and beauty.
But too much solitude, surely, can isolate us and deaden the creative spirit, cutting us off from what Oliver Sacks has called, after David Hume, our essential “intercourse with the world.”
This delicate dance between solitude and communion is what the Pulitzer-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911–October 6, 1979) explores in a letter found in Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (public library) — the epistolary record of one of the most beautiful and enduring friendships in creative culture.
In a wink of a letter from July of 1948, Bishop suggests that solitude, like all good things, is only nourishing in moderation and can nauseate in excess:
Having just digested all the New York Times and some pretty awful clam-chowder I made for myself, I don’t feel the slightest bit literary, just stupid. Or maybe it’s just too much solitude.
A few weeks later, she writes to Lowell:
I think you said a while ago that I’d “laugh you to scorn” over some conversation you & I had about how to protect oneself against solitude & ennui — but indeed I wouldn’t. That’s just the kind of “suffering” I’m most at home with…
But as she grows older, she comes to appreciate the nourishment of solitude more and more — even of extended periods of solitude. Half a century before the trendy modern practice of the periodic sabbatical, 49-year-old Bishop writes to Lowell:
You ask if I have ever found “reading and writing curiously self-sufficient.” Well, both Lota [Bishop’s partner, the prominent Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares] and I read from 7 A.M. intermittently until 1 A.M. every day, and all sorts of things, good and bad, and once in a while I think — what if I should run out of things to read, in English, by the time I’m sixty and have to spend my old age reading French or Portuguese or even painfully taking up a new language? And then I’ve always had a day dream of being a light-house keeper, absolutely alone, with no one to interrupt my reading or just sitting, and although such dreams are sternly dismissed at 16 or so they always haunt one a bit, I suppose. I now see a wonderful cold rocky shore in the Falklands, or a house in Nova Scotia on the bay, exactly like my grandmother’s — idiotic as it is, and unbearable as the reality would be. But I think everyone should go, or should have gone, through a stretch of it… Perhaps it is a recurrent need.
Complement this particular portion of the wholly delicious Words in Air with Edward Abbey’s uncommonly beautiful vintage love letter to solitude, then revisit Bishop on how poetry pretends life into reality.