...[an] elegant, moving biography ... Taking up this biography, I sometimes felt that I could not possibly learn anything new. I was wrong. To begin with, Ms. Marshall was privy to letters kept by Bishop’s last lover, Alice Methfessel, and only made available on Alice’s death in 2009 ... But Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast has more to recommend it than these shocking revelations. It is a shapely experiment, mixing memoir with biography ... The difficulty of knowing another person becomes a theme of Ms. Marshall’s book. Each of her six major chapters takes for its title one of the six end words used in each stanza of A Miracle for Breakfast, and in turn each chapter is followed by a briefer memoir of Ms. Marshall’s life, her own family wreckage and conflicted relationship with her subject. The structure shouldn’t work, but it does, by involving us in recognition ... This new biography fuses sympathy with intelligence, sending us back to Bishop’s marvelous poems.
Maybe it’s fitting that a new biography of the brilliant and troubled poet Elizabeth Bishop is something of a beautiful mess ... Marshall employs a keen eye for nuance, drama and psychology to write about a life both depressing and in Technicolor ... Marshall vividly traces Bishop’s struggles: with grief, shyness, booze, broken romances and long periods when she produced no poetry at all. But her skill as biographer tends to break down when it comes to exegeses of individual poems ... Marshall ends the book abruptly, with very little material after Bishop’s death in 1979, a regrettable omission, since Bishop’s reputation has grown since then, with publication of her letters, biographies and works of criticism ... The author’s decision to include a half-dozen short, first-person chapters recounting a creative writing course she took from Bishop at Harvard in 1976 fizzles. Besides stopping the flow, these self-absorbed autobiographical digressions are antithetical to Bishop’s own healthy disregard for the confessional poetry of such peers as Lowell, Plath, Sexton and Berryman. A reader who skips these chapters is better able to savor a fascinating and courageous life, uninterrupted.
Marshall’s biography is dull and dispiriting. The author, who studied briefly with Bishop at Harvard in the mid- to late-1970s, has made the awkward decision to interlard the text at regular intervals with detailed stories from her own life: her youth, her depression, her attempts to study music and poetry ... Marshall’s attempts at memoir are painfully earnest ... This book does not contain strong or especially perceptive readings of Bishop’s poems. Marshall fails to fully set the milieu of midcentury American poetry. She lacks seizing talons for detail ... As Bishop aged, she increasingly took on younger lovers, sometimes women less than half her age. After decades of reading about the late-life sexual exploits of male poets, this is tonic.