Although our recovery of Elizabeth Bishop’s politics has involved seeing her as a resistant “outsider,” this essay argues that she was at her most challenging as an inhabitant of poetic institutions. Exemplifying the vexed status of the Depression-era writer after the crash of the patronage system, when Bishop settled in Key West, Florida, she was moving not to a cultural periphery but to a showpiece for government-sponsored social reform, where some of her most successful poems were stimulated by federal government policies. This productive interaction with agencies like the Federal Writers’ Project was cut short by World War II and by the sort of conservative backlash to the New Deal that drove the House Committee on Un-American Activities to investigate events leading to the postwar construction of an apolitical Bishop, abstracted from the politics that in fact conditioned much of her work. Ultimately, the essay suggests that relocating Bishops’s work in its New Deal context helps us see that, as one critic put it, “There’s something queer about the welfare state.”

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