In Other Words
On Elizabeth Bishop by Colm Tóibín
There’s a longstanding tradition among some authors to have a side career as a critic. Virginia Woolf reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement (at the time, TLS reviews were anonymous). E.M. Forster is the rare novelist who is almost as well known for his critical thought, some of which is distilled in his book, Aspects of the Novel. Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliché and Julian Barnes’ Through the Window are more recent examples of fine critical writing. With On Elizabeth Bishop, Colm Tóibín continues this exciting tradition.
Elizabeth Bishop is having her 21st-century moment. A documentary, Welcome to This House, about her personal life, was released in May. Jonathan Galassi — president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux and a former student of Bishop’s at Harvard — references her in his debut novel Muse. Tóibín puts a magnifying lens to her poetry in this book, which was commissioned for the Writers on Writers series.
Tóibín performs a nuanced dissection of Bishop’s sensibility — his thesis is that the power of Bishop’s poetry derives from what’s left unsaid. In reading Bishop’s poems, it’s evident that she uses various techniques, from relying on questions to nature analogies, to suggest meaning. “In ‘The Bight’ even the birds are given an edge of violence. The pelicans crash into the water ‘unnecessarily hard,/it seems to me, like pickaxes.’ ”
The facts of Bishop’s childhood are stark — her father died before she was one, and her mother was committed to a mental asylum when she was five. Bishop would never see her mother again. Bishop struggled with these early setbacks, but she was able to transcend them, at least in her poetry. She went on to become America’s Poet Laureate in 1949. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1956 and the National Book Award in 1970.
Bishop’s friendships with other poets help illuminate her artistic trajectory. Her correspondence with Robert Lowell is especially useful in mapping her ways of thinking. Her letters also give us a picture of her over-decade-long stay in Brazil, where she lived with Lota de Macedo Soares (who later committed suicide in New York City). Here, Bishop tried to get a grip on Brazilian politics, which Soares was involved in, but coups confounded her.
During her stay in Brazil, Lowell sent her his new poems before they were published. Her notes to him illustrate their different sensibilities. Lowell had used his ex-wife’s “painful” letters to make sonnets in The
Dolphin, and Bishop reprimanded him by quoting Thomas Hardy: “What should certainly be protested against, in cases where there is no authorization, is the mixing of fact and fiction in unknown proportions. Infinite mischief would lie in that.”
Bishop was never a fan of confessional poetry. Like her contemporary, poet Thom Gunn, she preferred to keep a distance from the reader. “Gunn wrote about the poet Gary Snyder: ‘Like most serious poets he is concerned at finding himself on a barely known planet, in an almost unknown universe, where he must attempt to create and discover meanings.’ ” When an interviewer asked Gunn if this could also be a description of himself, Gunn replied: “I expect so.” Tóibín suggests Bishop too was trying to make sense of an alien world.
The book sings when Tóibín brings other poets into the mix, as he does with Gunn and Robert Frost, to illustrate “grief and reason battling it out” in their poems. Bishop’s relationship with her mentor Marianne Moore is evoked with neat strokes. Bishop benefited from having a mentor, as when Moore included her work in an anthology, but she also forged her own way when she rejected Moore’s sometimes prudish edits on her poems. Bishop maintained a close bond through letters with both Lowell and Moore, but she was also at the same time swimming away to her own stretch of “dry shore.”
Tóibín takes Bishop’s silences seriously, as when he suggests that in her poems, “the emotion was in the commas and the dashes, and in the spaces between the words.” This thoughtful meditation of a book can occasionally grow as quiet as the silences in Bishop’s poetry, but it’s not surprising that a serious dive into Bishop’s work can itself become a mood piece. To his credit, Tóibín does not distract by dwelling on Bishop’s sometimes-turbulent personal life. He refers to it only to give insights into her work and her life as an artist — including her evasion of the confessional and her strong sense of privacy.
Despite the current focus on Bishop, she remains a mysterious figure, blissfully elusive in an era of self-promotion and oversharing. Tóibín doesn’t so much explain her or even her poetry, but he gives us just enough to intrigue us into discovering Bishop for ourselves. Many insights here are gleaned from Bishop’s surviving letters. Most authors today dash off emails instead — and even emails are antiquated now compared to texts. That the practice of letter writing is all but extinct will be a clear loss to future literary critics. — Priyanka Kumar