Colm Tóibín: 'Closets, closets and more closets'
Lavinia Greenlaw admires Colm Tóibín's deeply personal study of American poet Elizabeth Bishop
In 1975, a Miss Pierson wrote to the US poet Elizabeth Bishop for advice. Bishop bothered to reply partly because Pierson had enclosed an SAE but also because she, too, thought poetry groups a "bloody bore".
Bishop instructed her acolyte to "read a lot of poetry - all the time… anything at all almost that's any good, from the past - until you find out what you really like, by yourself". Only then should one proceed to "the great poets of our own century… and not just two or three poems of each… read ALL of somebody. Then read his or her life, and letters, and so on… Then see what happens".
This wonderful book is about what happens. It's about the writer as reader, how one informs the other, and the conversations that take place within what we write.
Colm Tóibín has been reading Bishop for 40 years. While they had people in common, they never met. He has been enchanted, frustrated, illuminated and provoked by her poems. He has come to love some more and others less. Reading her enables him to formulate things about who he is and what he does.
The same year that Pierson wrote that letter, Tóibín bought Bishop's Selected Poems. He recalls the moment as vividly as someone buying their first Sex Pistols record. Bishop was described by the poet John Ashbery as "the writer's writer's writer". Tóibín might be the reader's reader's reader. Writers can find it nearly impossible to describe their own processes. It is often through investigation of the works of others that they reveal these to us, and also to themselves.
In exploring Bishop, and the adventure of reading her, Tóibín explores himself. He follows Bishop off the page into her life and letters, early drafts and unpublished work, and brings her to us as someone in the process of trying to write rather than a completed person alongside her finished work.
Bishop, born in 1911, was highly educated and financially independent. She grew up between Nova Scotia and Massachusetts, then lived in Florida and Brazil. She was also an alcoholic and a lesbian who believed in "closets, closets & more closets". Her father died when she was a baby and her mother had a breakdown when she was a child, entering an asylum and dying years later without Bishop seeing her again. This great trauma defined her sensibility but could not be the explicit subject of her poems. It was written instead as a story, In The Village, a study of trauma and memory, which she wrote one night in a haze of cortisone and gin.
Tóibín brings us Bishop as a reader, too. She was forthright and incisive, as here on Larkin: "I am all for grimness and horrors of every sort - but you can't have them, either, by shortcuts…" In an early essay on Gerard Manley Hopkins, she used the philologist M W Croll's phrase: "Not the thought but the mind thinking." She could have been describing her own explicit revisions and qualifications, which are present from the first poem of her first book: "Shadows, or are they shallows…" (The Map).
This is neither criticism nor biography. Tóibín starts with her impulse: "She began with the idea that little is known and that much is puzzling." This directs us to her poem Sandpiper: "The world is a mist. And then the world is / minute and vast and clear …" Bishop's gift is that she can show not only the clarity and the mist, the small and the large, but one becoming the other.
The trauma of Bishop's childhood is echoed in Tóibín's loss of his father. He writes here of how it was not spoken about, of the development of his stammer and his subsequent "close relationship with silence".
He took Bishop's poems when he left Ireland for Barcelona, like her establishing a place from where to write about home. Bishop once observed that people understood her better when she was on a different continent, and her most comfortable perspective does seem to have been close focus from a distance - the telescopic.
Tóibín learns what she can do and so starts to notice when she doesn't quite manage it. There are times when her "breezy ambiguousness" deflects the poem from its course. Brazilian politics baffled her, while she delighted in the country's picturesque detail to the extent that she could be, as Tóibín says, "whimsical and naive". Her playfulness was an impressive form of resistance to rhetoric but it could obstruct. When her early mentor, Marianne Moore, was said to have "controlled panic by presenting it as whimsy", Bishop blustered in defence that surely panic underlies all art? The observation seems to have hit a nerve.
Tóibín is an exceptionally musical writer: "Novels and stories only come for me when an idea, a memory, or an image move into rhythm." The point of formulation is, for him, one of orchestration as it is for the poet. Bishop's music is plain, resistant and takes some getting used to. It attracts those in danger of loving the music of language too much. How does she manage to make something of such substance and resonance without it singing as sweetly as we might expect?
In this conversation between writers, Tóibín brings in Joyce, "another great exile", and Thom Gunn, who left Britain for San Francisco. He recalls an evening when reading Gunn took him on an adventure through his shelves that brought him to the exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky's essay on Robert Frost, On Grief and Reason, which Brodsky describes as "language's most efficient fuel". This phrase, for him, makes sense of Bishop. So one writer reads another writing about another, and the heart of the matter is reached.
Friendships between writers can be vital and fraught. Tóibín depicts Bishop's sparring devotion to Robert Lowell. Whereas Bishop is a diffused presence in her poems, Lowell cauterises himself by being at his poems' core. They described each other as best friends, corresponded but rarely met. They had permission to challenge the other, she correcting his wild translations of Rimbaud as well as the odd practical detail: "As a cook, I feel I should tell you that soured milk is NOT junket…" She was not above competing: "I have a poem that has a galvanised bucket in it, too."
This is not just a story of how one writer influences another; it is also about how they resist. Tóibín writes last about Marianne Moore, the poet who was Bishop's mentor in her youth, noting how Moore (and her mother) became overzealous in their editing and how Bishop removed herself while taking all she had learnt from Moore with her.
Tóibín lapses into close reading naturally. He is also good at teasing out the checks and balances required to write well, just as he knows the importance of taking risks. Bishop knew when to take them, too.
This book ends with Tóibín back in Wexford: "Home. I am here now." Home offers a sense of being present and, therefore, complete, which is why it has to be placed at a distance, too.
As for Bishop, she died in Boston, where she'd gone to teach, returning to one of her versions of home. She concluded her letter to Miss Pierson: "I really don't know how poetry gets to be written. There is a mystery & a surprise, and after that a great deal of hard work." Poetry is difficult but its difficulty and resistance are why poets persist. As her line on her gravestone says: "All the untidy activity continues, awful but cheerful."
Colm Tóibín on Elizabeth Bishop
Princeton University Press, hbk, e20.99, pp224
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