Poet drawn out of the shadows
What is the draw of reading writers on other writers? It is perhaps the last really alive type of literary criticism. Because the learned-critic-atan-objective-remove mostly bores, right? A reader merely experiences the flavours of the text but a writer has a chance at guessing the recipe. So know-how, then, but also sympathy — books are hard to write, after all. Better commentary that comes out of understanding rather than other motivations, such as the desire to compartmentalise or judge.
In this new book Irish novelist Colm Toibin returns to American poet Elizabeth Bishop for the fourth time in 22 years: two long-form reviews of recent collections of her letters appeared in the London Review of Books in 1994 and 2009 respectively, and a chapter is devoted to her in Love in a Dark Time, his 2002 survey of nine 20th-century gay writers.
“Repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise” is how Bishop summed up the writing life in her elegy to Robert Lowell, North Haven. Each of Toibin’s pieces is a repetition and a revision of the ones before it. Paragraphs at a time in On Elizabeth Bishop — see the chapters Nature Greets Our Eyes and The Escape from History — duplicate the 1994 review with barely a nip or tuck. On other occasions an idea fleetingly attended to previously is treated to lengthier exposition via an analysis of a specific Bishop poem (more than 50 are referred to in the book) or a comparison with a fellow writer (James Joyce, quite surprisingly, and also Thom Gunn, more persuasively).
One reason we repeat and revise things, of course, is to understand them better. Residing behind Toibin’s periodic moving of his own literary-critical furniture is curiosity, even puzzlement. It’s possible to boil down this curiosity or puzzlement to a question, though Toibin never utters it directly, perhaps fittingly: how exactly is it that Bishop says so little in her poems yet suggests so much, that in their shadows lurk helplessness, desperation, anxiety, hurt — heavy emotional stuff, in essence — but that is never direct, easy or obvious? And this at a time when it was all the rage for poets to expose absolutely everything about themselves.
Bishop was aware she had the equipment — “I think I had a prize ‘ unhappy childhood’, almost good enough for the textbooks,” she once said — but about confessional poetry she complained, “The tendency is to overdo the morbidity. You just wished they kept some of these things to themselves.”
It was the resonant unsaid, Toibin recalls, that hit him with considerable force when he first read Bishop’s poems. That he can pinpoint the date (“the Easter break of 1975, when I was nineteen”), the place (“the Compendium Bookshop on Camden High Street in London”) and the edition (“her Selected Poems, published by Chatto and Windus”) attests to it: “I found something in the space between the words, in the hovering between tones at the end of stanzas, at the end of poems themselves, in the elegance, in the watchfulness and use of the solitary figure either speaking or being described, which made me sit up and realise that something important was being hidden.”
Toibin notices different ways Bishop manages to smuggle intense personal cargo into poems ostensibly about other people, places, animals and things — a black servant called Cootchie, Cape Breton, a moose, a painting by a great-uncle she has never met. These include a casualness of tone, a “fierce simplicity” in word choice, a habit of qualifying or correcting her- self and a resistance to metaphor and symbol.
Particularly fascinating to Toibin is the strange alchemy that makes her strict sticking to the material or historical facts — her “pure accuracy” — metamorphose into philosophical investigation: “She began with the idea that little is known and that much is puzzling. The effort, then, to make a true statement in poetry — to claim that something is something, or does something — required a hushed, solitary concentration … This great modesty was also, in its way, serious ambition.”
The focus on the “how” makes this a writer’s inquiry; another reader might have been more interested in the “why” — in locating the reallife stories behind the “calm pain” of the poems. On Elizabeth Bishop does not deny the reverberations of certain life events in the poems, or indeed their allure for readers: the death of Bishop’s father when she was a baby, the institutionalisation of her mother and her own removal from Boston to Nova Scotia to live with grandparents as a five-year-old, her lesbianism, the suicide of her Brazilian lover Lota de Macedo Soares.
In Love in Dark Times Toibin submits the reason he read Bishop “with considerable in-