On (Colm Tóibín on) Elizabeth Bishop

There’s a good case to be made for October being the loveliest month, in England at any rate; though only really when the sun shines and the plentiful golden yellows are at their best, like Samuel Palmer landscapes before your eyes.

It’s also a month of melancholy, too, which suits me just fine. The ideal time to get stuck into some serious reading, which, in turn, will feed into writing. Over the years, early autumn has traditionally been a time when I will make a concentrated study of a favourite poet’s oeuvre, to see how the quality of their output, and the clarity of their thinking, deepened over time. Poets who, either by choice or premature death (yes, I realise that most deaths are premature in some respect), published in a disciplined and selective manner are ideal for this, Elizabeth Bishop for one.

Like everyone and anyone who loves poetry, I’ve long liked Bishop’s poems. Curiously, though, real, devoted love for them has been awakened in me through an apparently unlikely source, Colm Tóibín. His book On Elizabeth Bishop, published by Princeton University Press, is as fine a critical reader’s study of another writer as any I’ve ever read. I find it interesting that it should be a writer known until recently solely for his novels, albeit wonderful ones at that, who has really opened my eyes. I won’t spoil the book for anyone who might be tempted to buy a copy, save to quote just the first sentence of the opening section (‘No Detail too small’), which alone was enough to make me sit up and reflect:

She began with the idea that little is known and that much is puzzling.

Tóibín continues:

The effort, then, to make a true statement in poetry—to claim that something is something, or does something—required a hushed, solitary concentration.

Much more than, say, his late compatriot Eavan Boland did, he gets to the heart of Bishop’s statement-making, her restraint – what’s unsaid in her poetry as much as what is said, especially in comparison to her close friend Robert Lowell – and the exactness of her writing. In so doing, he quotes extensively from Bishop’s stories and correspondence (primarily with Lowell, naturally), but also from another great poet, Thom Gunn, who, like Bishop, chose not to take the ‘confessional’ path blazed by Lowell in Life Studies.

On the strength of just a few pages of the book, I couldn’t resist buying Tóibín’s poetry collection, Vinegar Hill, published by Carcanet. It could’ve been a dreadful vanity project, but, as any of the recent online readings he’s undertaken attests (there are several on YouTube), Tóibín’s humility about his poetry appears genuine and heartwarming. By and large, it’s a very good collection, albeit rather bloated – thinning out by a third, maybe almost a half, could’ve made it brilliant. All the same, I enjoyed and admired it.

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