In Other Words

On El­iz­a­beth Bishop by Colm Tóibín

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.