‘I envy the mind hiding in her words,” Mary McCarthy opined of Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), a poet admired for her air of secrecy during the heyday of confessionalism, when poets regularly hauled their Freudian couches into the amphitheater. Bishop’s poems, in contrast, invoke textured scenes and piquant characters—a marketplace in Marrakesh, Robinson Crusoe glumly restored to England, a child in a dentist’s waiting room—charging them with psychological tension, intrigue, and widening gyres of feeling.
The pleasure principle in Bishop’s poetry is her associative imagination. Like the child narrator in “In the Waiting Room” encountering human nakedness in a National Geographic for the first time, Bishop invites her reader to inhabit the paradox of being “too shy to stop.” Shyness, like shame, binds both ways: We shy away from shameful things while often being drawn to study them. Ashamed of ourselves, or on account of others, we also become shy. Bishop’s poetry rides such hinges; and a shyness, of sorts, governed her career in letters.
Unlike her more prolific peers, Bishop remained a fastidious perfectionist, publishing four major collections in 30 years (1946-1976) and less than 90 poems in total. At that rate, she was writing less than three published poems a year, accreting, by painstaking degrees, an oeuvre of finished work and 3,500 “papers” by the time of her death. The latter have been hungrily excavated by critics who have brought portions of Bishop’s letters, poem drafts, essays, and prose fragments to a broadening audience in such collections as Alice Quinn’s Edgar Allan Poe & the Jukebox (2006), Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz’s Elizabeth Bishop Library of America edition (2008), and Joelle Biele’s Elizabeth Bishop and ‘The New Yorker’ (2011).
This archival archaeology has not been without controversy. Some purists, including the estimable Helen Vendler, have resisted this undoing of the poet’s Horatian hesitancy, a reticence that likely had as much to do with Bishop’s aesthetic standards as with perceived liability. Bishop had lesbian relationships, and she was an expatriate during much of the Cold War. When she served as the poetry consultant for the Library of Congress (now the poet laureateship) in 1949-50, federal employees could be dismissed for homosexuality. Twenty years later, Bishop joked that she desired—in her Boston seaside apartment and in her public life—“Closets, closets, and more closets!”
Yet secrets, in poems, can be solicitous. Here, in Colm Tóibín’s new book, the Irish novelist explores Bishop’s remoteness in ways that both open her poems to the everyday reader and season scholars’ broth about her eminence. John Ashbery once called Bishop a “writer’s writer’s writer,” and Tóibín reveals how this hypothesis has been, in his case, positively true. Though this book is not a biography, it has the uncanny effect of one: In close readings of Bishop’s poems and their geographical moorings, Tóibín takes us further inside the poet’s (and his own) psyche than, perhaps, the archives ever will.
When Tóibín first purchased a copy of Bishop’s Selected Poems in 1975, he was a 19-year-old university student on holiday in London. Forty years later, he is the author of eight novels, including three shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman professor of humanities at Columbia. What Tóibín finds in Bishop—and in fellow travelers Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Joyce, and Thom Gunn—is an aesthetic rooted in hydraulic power, a language operating within the specific confinements of place.
Thus, Tóibín reads Bishop’s classics against their geographical (and existential) backdrops, situating her famous poem “Roosters” in a Key West transformed into a World War II naval base; “The Moose” in a night bus to Boston; and “Crusoe in England” in connection with Bishop’s return to America after more than a decade in Brazil. The technical rigor in Tóibín’s analyses secures our trust in his more abstract mapping of the poet’s spiritual cartography.
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