Should you come upon this book in a shop, or see its title headlined in a review, it would be reasonable for you to consider whether or not to order it according to the degree of your interest in Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. Should this be marginal, or even non-existent, you might decide to skim through the book on account only of your enthusiasm for the fiction of Colm Tóibín. He is, after all, a novelist at the height of his career: a ‘literary’ novelist who is also a bestseller and one of whose novels, Brooklyn, has recently been filmed. Both approaches are, of course, valid but the casual glance or the quick skim would be a category mistake. On Elizabeth Bishop is the literary primer or vade mecum of a remarkable writer. An apprentice anxious to make a name as an author could hardly do better than use this long essay as a manual for the way to go about writing; an introduction to the ontology of literature, if you like: the weight you give issues of tone, rhythm, mood, description, setting and time. Any apprentice would, of course, need to look carefully at the slides Tóibín provides for his lecture and follow up with further reading of Bishop and Tóibín himself. He has learned a lot from her. He wants you to learn from her as well.
When Bishop died, in her late sixties, in 1979, she was relatively little known on this side of the Atlantic. Poets read her attentively and tended to hoard what they found; she had in uenced the (at that time) much more widely read Sylvia Plath. In the early 1980s, three or four years after her death, I happened to recite her two longest poems, ‘Roosters’ and ‘Crusoe in England’ in the early sessions that launched Josephine Hart’s remarkable career as an impresario of spoken verse. The poems electrified listeners. At the end of each session people demanded information about their author. I was also proud to have given ‘Crusoe’ its first British airing, in a US edition of Agenda which I guest edited. Nowadays, I suspect, Bishop is more widely read than her old friend and amanuensis, Robert Lowell. Lowell died two years before she did. Our islands have generated since then a re- markable number of mid-career and younger female poets. This has helped lift Bishop to stardom. So has the meteoric posthumous career of her com- patriot and follower Sylvia Plath though Plath, of course, wrote her important poems in England. Indeed Bishop is a kind of antidote, or antibody, for Plath. Her gift is quiet and deliberative, closer to what Auden, in a different context, referred to as ‘the wry, the sotto voce/ironic and monotone’.
Bishop’s own mistress in the art was Marianne Moore, in my view the greatest female poet in English. (Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, according to his biographer Jonathan Bate, thought Emily Dickinson Sylvia’s only rival in this category). Tóibín chronicles their polite, even affectionate, pro- fessional falling out. It was over the violent, and also sexual, undertones of Bishop’s remarkable wartime poem, ‘Roosters’. Moore was a neoclassical artist. Her way of revealing personality was to excise it. She did so by ferocious concentration on the subject to hand. She too was ontological: the ‘is-ness’ of things preoccupied her. Bishop corresponds but her tone is neither quasi-scientific nor objective. The mood, and mood swings, of the observer are as important as those being ascribed to whatever is observed. Read Colm Tóibín’s two most recent novels, Brooklyn and Nora Webster, and you will nd exempli ed the huge critical sympathy this writer has for the poet who has so informed him.
‘It was an essential aspect of her talent, indeed of her gift, as a poet, however, that she did not manage to confront what mattered to her most. Indeed, she buried what mattered to her most in her tone, and it is this tone that lifts the best poems she wrote to a realm beyond their own occasion’.
I have found this passage an invaluable underscoring of the miracles (as I find them) of Brooklyn and Nora Webster. The essential theme of Brooklyn is exile, homesickness, the Irish diaspora; of Nora Webster, bereavement. This novel treats specifically with how you cope with bereavement, and prime-of-life bereavement at that. The heroine of the title is left badly off with two younger and two older children to cope with. They too have lost out. Nora loved her husband. He has died in his forties only a day or two before the novel begins. Bereavement comes instantly into a Tóibín and a Bishop fan’s mind when, in the essay, Tóibín considers her great villanelle, ‘One Art’. This ends:
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
Colm Tóibín is gay; Elizabeth Bishop was lesbian. As a famous writer and public intellectual, Tóibín was a powerful voice in the surprising recent landslide referendum victory in the Irish Republic of the right of gays and lesbians to marry. But in this book the sexual orientation is only relevant when Tóibín considers his own admiration for the English poet Thom Gunn, self-exiled to California, and Gunn’s on-and-off admiration for Bishop. Gunn objects to the occasional cuteness, the arch passages of her writing: the little found moments of whimsy. But when he needed to wean his own poems off their (to me, admirable) tight formal constraints, Gunn did better bringing his conversational tone into line with Bishop’s ability to think out loud than with his previous efforts to make chatty asides in the American accent of William Carlos Williams. Gunn was a genius at applying up-tight English versification to hang-loose Californian manners, a juxtaposition he shared with David Hockney, whose skilled guration and colour sense invented a pictorial language for LA and established LA’s position in the history of art.
Tóibín makes appropriate use of one of the seminal texts for contemporary poets, the correspondence of two decades and longer between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell edited by Saskia Hamilton. Our apprentice can bank bags of literary capital through immersion in these letters. A Lowell couplet tells us ‘all life’s grandeur/is something with a girl in summer’. He also liked being married. He married three times – in a way, four times as he returned to Elizabeth Hardwick, the writer he left for the Irish novelist Caroline Blackwood, for the last six months or so of his life. Lowell and Bishop referred to each other as each other’s best friend. They seldom met. Bishop spent most of the years of the correspondence in Brazil. But the sea, the Atlantic littoral, north (Nova Scotia for Bishop, Massachusetts and Maine for Lowell), south (in Rio, Bishop’s at overlooked Copaca- bana beach) and middle (Bishop called Florida the “state with the prettiest name” and lived for a while in Key West), the image of an ocean lapped at them both. Two of Lowell’s most famous poems, ‘Skunk Hour’ and ‘Water’, are dedicated to Bishop. ‘Water’, indeed, is suffused with flirtation, an unconsummated love affair: ‘In the end, the water was too cold for us’. (At Lowell’s funeral in 1977 I spent some time with Elizabeth Bishop. She was very drunk and kept repeating that he was the only man she could ever have loved). An oceanic atmosphere is equally important for Tóibín. Like Bishop, he cannot bear the idea of living far from the sea. Nora Webster begins with the widow having to sell the family cottage on the Wexford coast. The success of Brooklyn has enabled its author to build his own dwelling there. Indeed, On Elizabeth Bishop ends, in a way academic critics may find puzzling, with a kind of prose poem, a hymn to his native coastline. Bishop provides the theme; Tóibín orchestrates it. The apprentice might learn from this that similarities, and similes, are more than correspond- ences. They are metamorphoses. They take off from literal launch pads and discover creatures rich and strange.
Tóibín has also published a book-length collection of essays on another American writer who has in uenced him and, indeed, one whom he is be- ginning to resemble physically. This is Henry James. Tóibín’s novel, The Master, is the best portrait, even if ctional, of James: a literary equivalent of Sargent’s great rendering. On Elizabeth Bishop is the companion literary primer. Tóibín cites the remarkable ending of Bishop’s poem ‘At the Fishhouses’. After almost a surfeit of shy, wharfy, marine exactitudes, Tennysonian in detail, her lines swell, at first unobtrusively, into a miraculous ending, a quiet crescendo.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be, dark, salt, clear, moving utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of this world, derived from the rocky breasts forever, owing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, owing and own.
Tóibín talks of Bishop ‘creating a music lled with risk and repetition, which would mimic the tones of prayer, the mind at its most exalted’. Here two magni cent writers encounter each other and the implications for anyone interested in the ‘one art’ are in nite. Princeton should be proud of themselves.
On Elizabeth Bishop, Colm Tóibín, Writers on Writers series: Princeton University Press, 2015, 224pp, £13.95 (hardcover)
By Grey Gowrie