Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79) is considered to be among the most important American poets of the 20th century. She was a U.S. Poet Laureate and won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and the Neustadt International Prize. Her collection Questions of Travel (1965) may be the best known. Perhaps her literary reputation outpaces her true achievement; honors do breed honors. That position would not, however, be taken by Colm Tóibín, a novelist, poet, critic, and journalist. This book, not so lengthy as the page count suggests because the format is small, is sympathetic to its subject.
It was Bishop’s lesbianism, Tóibín says, that prompted him to write an essay on her earlier. Her sexual proclivities were known in her lifetime. Wikipedia names two companions; there were other affairs. Bishop never made her sexual life the crux of her poetry, however; her lesbianism is glimpsed infrequently and obliquely. Moreover, she played no role in women’s liberation movements and declined to appear in anthologies of work by women only; she wished for her poems to be judged on their literary merit alone, not their feminist import. In contrast, Tóibín, nearly two generations younger and benefiting from the homophilic and special-rights movements that followed the Stonewall riots, has made literary hay from his anomalous mode of living. He has published a volume on Oscar Wilde, Pedro Almodóvar, and other homosexual figures; before the Marriage Equality Referendum, he gave a public talk on “Being Gay in Ireland Now”; and his fiction, including The Master, deals often with the topic of ambiguous, unresolved sexuality. His story “Sleep” in the New Yorker (March 23) depicts an Irishman and his Jewish lover; “gay rights” and psychiatry are prominent themes.
The critic draws on the available volumes of Bishop’s correspondence, especially with Robert Lowell, as well as on her poetry, including posthumously published work. Tóibín is attentive to her poetic artistry, including rhymes (she also used free verse). But his sensibility is the principal lens through which hers is examined. He interjects himself frequently and braids their lives as he relates briefly his youth in the southeast of Ireland, sketches moments in his career, and concludes with musings on a return visit there. Tóibín stresses similarities between him and his subject—a preference for seacoasts over inland, for instance; she wrote well about the sea. (Her great-uncle was a painter; she can be a word-painter.) Another likeness is their attraction to silence (motif or condition). His “silence” is real, connected to his stammer; hers is literary (the white spaces around words as parts of the poem). Perhaps their most important common feature is that both, as children, were bereft of parents. His father died while Tóibín was in school; Bishop’s died when she was an infant. From that date on, moreover, her mentally unstable mother was confined to asylums (including one where Lowell later spent time), and from age five Bishop never again saw the woman, who died in an institution. The girl was taken from her native Massachusetts and farmed out to maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia, where she spent the formative years of her childhood—thus the importance of that province in her poetry—before being taken back to live with paternal relatives, then a maternal aunt, in various locations in Massachusetts.
Changes in living arrangements and illness interrupted Bishop’s schooling. She was able, however, to attend two private institutions and afterward Vassar, where she became acquainted with Mary McCarthy, a friend if not a close one. Bishop was graduated in 1934. Her acquaintance with Marianne Moore, her elder, who helped and influenced her, was important to both poets, though Moore took great liberties with friendship and poetry by rewriting certain of Bishop’s poems and sending her the altered versions. Lowell, whom Bishop met through Randall Jarrell, helped her win prizes and deal with editors. They read each other’s work, and he challenged some of hers; but she was able to resist suggestions that conflicted with her aesthetic and avoid the confessional trap.
With a small private income, Bishop was able to travel. She and a friend spent some years in Europe, notably France. She subsequently lived for 10 years in Key West and 15 in Brazil, where she shared her life with a noted architect, Lota de Macedo Soares. The relationship was not tranquil; Bishop drank excessively, and Lota eventually had a nervous breakdown. Late in 1965 Bishop left Brazil to teach in Seattle. After her brief return to Brazil, the two moved to New York, where Lota committed suicide in 1967. Bishop taught in San Francisco before going on to Harvard, MIT, and New York University. In 1973 she bought an apartment in Boston and lived there until her death.
Tóibín rightly emphasizes the discretion and distance in Bishop’s verse, and her skepticism concerning sentiment and memory. She did not wear her heart on her sleeve. Many of her poems begin with factual descriptions in which she seems to search initially for accuracy and identifies what might be uncertain or missing; she acknowledges instability of data, sometimes the inadequacy of words. Still, drawing closer to the scene, she probes, considering, often through metaphor, what might be gathered from it, what truths, if any, it might reveal. She is good with nuances and thresholds, moments of delicate change—morning and evening scenes, a tidal shore. Despite epistemological questionings, major themes emerge from her work, including death, violence, and nostalgia (a theme as well as a tone). The most pervasive of these may be solitude; Bishop had suffered from loneliness when returned as a child to Massachusetts. This theme is illustrated in the poem “Crusoe in England,” in which the former exile reveals how much greater his loneliness has become.
Although Derek Furr remarked in an essay on Bishop (Able Muse, Winter 2014), “We don’t ask a poet to be accurate, just truthful,” it is plain that, for her, truth is a function of some sort of accuracy. Well before postmodernism took over much of American criticism, her poetry demonstrated how ill considered is its prejudice against facts, properly arranged; rather than being a limitation on vision and imagination, facts are, instead, the condition of seeing further into the heart of things. (Thus the folly of disdaining a critical study on the grounds that it is “about something,” instead of “doing something”; the remark suggests that there is no reality to reflect on, that everything must be “constructed.”) The transcendency of language, which endures past its questioning, enables imagination, working with the real, to take leaps of feeling and knowledge. Finally, Bishop decided, “it is impossible not to tell the truth in poetry.” For that understanding, which applies to her own poetic enterprise, if not to every poet’s, she is to be commended. Any new examination of her writing that points to her truths and how she achieved them is welcome.
[On Elizabeth Bishop, by Colm Tóibín (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press) 209 pp., $19.95]
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