on On Elizabeth Bishop by Colm Tóibín (Princeton University Press)

With On Elizabeth Bishop, the novelist Colm Tóibín presents an appreciative introduction to Bishop’s life and work, as well as an occasion for Bishop lovers to pick The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 off the shelf and revive the old pleasures. Encountering her poetry, Bishop’s new readers have often wondered if she provides more or less than meets the eye. An enduring taste for her work entails receptiveness to the oddity of the in-between. “The subtle sweetness of Bishop isn’t always the thing,” writes Michael Hofmann in his essay on her work. “You have to be in the mood for something that’s mostly middle. She doesn’t offer much to beginners or sophomores. She can seem touristic, evasive, wispy. She can seem small scale and unurgent (it’s her word).”

BishopCover.jpgTóibín has been Bishop’s committed reader at least since 1975 when at age 20 he traveled to Barcelona with her Selected Poems in his suitcase, “a treasured book. I liked the idea, I suppose, that Bishop had traveled, which I was doing now, and I noticed a tone that avoided easy or obvious drama. She used detail and shifts of tone to suggest feeling, to conceal feeling, and perhaps mask feeling.”

On Elizabeth Bishop comprises some of the ways in which a reader’s mind attaches to a writer’s life and works. Tóibín paces alongside the attributes of Bishop that depict or heighten his own habits and preferences. In Bishop’s childhood, he recognizes the roots of his own difficulties. Born in 1911, she was eight months old when her father died. At age five, she saw her distraught mother for the last time; twenty years later, Gertrude Bishop died in an institution. Bishop lived with her grandparents and then her mother’s older sister and family in Massachusetts, spending summer months in Nova Scotia.

Tóibín launches his book by immediately addressing Bishop’s odd blend of attentiveness and demurral. “She began with the idea that little is known and that much is puzzling,” reads his first sentence. Reflecting on her childhood, he hears a “panic held in check” in the poems. Soon he recalls his own youth in Ireland: “I have a close relationship with silence, with things withheld, things known and not said.” Well, don’t we all? And that seems to be Tóibín’s point – Bishop’s poetry portrays commonly experienced moments of lingering in loss while maintaining our routines if not our dignity.

BishopCat.jpegIn a letter to Robert Lowell, Bishop praises “that strange kind of modesty that I think one feels in almost everything contemporary one really likes – Kafka, say, or Marianne, or even Eliot … Modesty, care, space, a sort of helplessness but determination at the same time.” Tóibín stays focused on her modesty, “a restrained but serious ambition. Bishop merely seemed to keep her sights low.” But the abiding strangeness of that modesty doesn’t quite register in Tóibín’s reckoning. On the other hand, he neither patronizes nor sentimentalizes her (as Lowell did in the letters).

On Elizabeth Bishop pursues and achieves its own restrained but serious ambition – a recollection of Tóibín’s discovery and devotion to poetry. He specifies the moment the lights flicked on – September 1967, his father recently buried, The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse opening to Auden, MacNeice, Gunn, and Plath. The impact of Thom Gunn’s verse was especially profound for him: “Bishop and Gunn, in a confessional age, had masked their grief with reason. The tone of impersonality, of passive description, of an immense and powerful withholding, lay at the core of their work, and it was something I recognized.”

Tóibín places so much emphasis on reticence that one struggles to discern the intention of the poems. The absence of complete texts exacerbates the problem. Although he quotes appropriately, you may want to keep your volume of Bishop at hand while taking in his observations. “As in much of her work, she used a calm system for pretending that nothing, or nothing much, was going to happen,” he says – but what does happen? “In Bishop’s work,” he writes, “much was implied by what seemed to be mere description … The self in Bishop’s poems was too fragile to be violated by much mentioning.”

Bishop_1.jpgPrivileging his own reticence, Tóibín backs away from peering too closely at the implications. But his approach is apt. As Hofmann says, “In a generation at worst of noisemakers and grimly professional professionals, Bishop stood out like a whole thumb or a thumbs up for her unassumingness and positiveness and the reticence of her personal style.”

Her descriptions are particular, and particularizing is a process of exclusion. Her poems are filled with fussiness about a life of no fuss. In making the usual claims for her exactitude, Tóibín quotes a line from a chiding letter to Lowell: “I can’t tell a lie even for art, apparently; it takes an awful effort or a sudden jolt to make me alter facts.”

BishopLowell.jpegThat statement sounds to me like a lie or at least a principled misrepresentation -- reminding me of the first line of one of my favorite Bishop pieces, “The End of March.” The poem is addressed to two poet friends, John Malcolm Brinnin and Bill Read, with whom she took a walk on a beach at Duxbury, Massachusetts. The poem begins, “It was cold and windy, scarcely the day / to take a walk on that long beach.” But Bishop was an inveterate beach lover regardless of season. It was exactly the day for such a person to experience the beach, she had made an effort to get there, and she liked it bleak.

Tóibín gracefully moves the reader through Bishop’s biography – her travels, her relationships. He writes, “For most of her life, Bishop was interested in managing what eluded her with considerable care so that the truth, when it appeared, might become sharper and more precise, the more she could find the right tone and form for it.” Her work both welcomes and deflects our curiosity about that life.

[Published April 22, 2-15. 224v pages, $19.95 hardcover]

On Reticence

Well, there’s a place
for reticence in poetry
I won’t tell you now but
the truth is ever so precise
like a screw to a screwdriver
maybe relax and wait a sec
you ever take a poet on a trip
and their will looks wobbly
don’t walk on hot coals with
them they won’t hold back
you can relax all you want.