An admiring critical portrait of a great American poet and a master of subtlety.
For Irish novelist Tóibín (Humanities/Columbia Univ.; Nora Webster, 2014), the power of Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) isn’t just in her rich sensory and physical details, but in her restraint. Her strength, he writes, is in “the space between the words, in the hovering between tones at the end of stanzas.” Bishop’s poems aren’t abstract; they bear vivid witness to every place she ever lived, from her native Boston to Nova Scotia to Brazil, as well as all the people, roosters, fish and moose she encountered along the way. But rather than confront her subjects head-on, Tóibín writes, “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.” She was, likewise, circumspect about her private life; rather than openly address her lesbianism, she found security in “closets, closets and more closets.” Famously disciplined and a constant reviser—decades could lapse between inspiration and publication—she loathed the instant gratification of confessional poetry and was miffed when her friend Robert Lowell raided her letters for material. In Bishop-like fashion, Tóibín approaches his subject both directly and not. He responds to her personally, seeing a fellow restless spirit whose work “dealt with the pull toward a place despite the lure of elsewhere.” To get a fix on Bishop at the macro level, he weighs her against the competition, which proves more fruitful in some cases (Lowell and Bishop’s mentor Marianne Moore) than others. The book loses steam when Tóibín tries making an extended and rather dull case that Bishop and her younger contemporary Thom Gunn were virtual peas in a pod.
An inspiring appreciation from one writer to another.