On Elizabeth Bishop, by Colm Tóibín

Elizabeth Greene applauds this compelling examination of the American poet’s achievement

April 16, 2015

How does a writer turn life into art? Novelist, poet and critic Colm Tóibín’s brilliant, compelling book On Elizabeth Bishop does not raise or answer this question directly, but it brings us very close to the moment of alchemy, both in Bishop’s work and in his own, showing Princeton University Press’ wisdom in establishing the series of writers on writers of which this is a part.

Tóibín uses a variety of strategies to make Bishop (1911-79) and her poetry live, beginning and ending with landscape. Bishop’s first landscape was in and around Great Village in Nova Scotia on the Bay of Fundy, where she last saw her mother at the age of five and where she lived with her maternal grandparents for a short time before being abruptly removed by her other set of grandparents to Worcester, Massachusetts. Tóibín makes a convincing case for the importance of this childhood landscape of early love and loss. Although Bishop lived in other cities by the sea – Key West, San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro and Boston – she returned to Great Village, with its enormous tides, in her late poetry, especially in The Moose, Poem and The End of March.

Bishop, as Tóibín emphasises, came from a culture of silence and restraint – just as he did, in fact. Tragedy was accepted and not discussed. Words restrain. There is a tension between the restraint of the surface and the unspoken emotion roiling, often wordlessly, beneath. I have often found Bishop’s poetry flat, but Tóibín persuades me that I have not taken account of the spaces between, and the tragic sense of life beneath the surface. Commenting on her response to one of Robert Lowell’s letters, he says: “She did not say so, however, and not saying so was one of her most developed skills.”

Tóibín explores in detail what Bishop did do – write detailed poetry as true as she could make it, with rhymes that seem almost to have lives of their own and play against the sober poetic vision (my point, not Tóibín’s). His close reading of the poems is especially impressive in his discussion of the rhymes she found.

He also invokes the poets to whom she felt indebted, such as George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins. He creates a circle of affinities, partly through Bishop’s important friendships with Lowell and Marianne Moore, through her lesser friendship with Thom Gunn, through reference to paintings, through her influence on Tóibín himself.

Her process was slow. Sometimes her poems took years to write. She wrote her best-known poem One Art relatively quickly, in mere months, but a lifetime of loss preceded the writing. She did not like confessional poetry, agonised poetry, symbolic poetry, mythic poetry. Her work does not lend itself to intricate critical theories. Tóibín’s decision to set the poems in the context of Bishop’s life, her friendships and love, and a circle of writers and painters like-minded enough to throw light on her achievement, is an impressive solution to a potentially difficult critical problem.

The book concludes with Tóibín looking at a painting of his own childhood landscape at Ballyconnigar. This conclusion is an echo of the inspiration for Poem, where Bishop looks at a small painting given to her by her great-uncle of her childhood landscape – the poem is a combination of description, memory and, beneath those, loss. It is not quite the moment of alchemy, but few critics have come so near to catching it.

On Elizabeth Bishop

By Colm Tóibín
Princeton University Press, 224pp, £13.95
ISBN 9780691154114 and 9781400865574 (e-book)
Published 22 April 2015

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