On (Eavan Boland and Colm Tóibín, again, on) Elizabeth Bishop

Having savoured Colm Tóibín’s book On Elizabeth Bishop, I then re-read words on Bishop by another great Irish writer, Eavan Boland: the chapter ‘Elizabeth Bishop: an unromantic American’ in her wonderful book A Journey with Two Maps (Carcanet, 2011), available here.

The focus of that book is on Boland’s own poetic journey and how women poets helped her shape her ideas about how she could relate in poems her own experience as a woman, wife, and mother; therefore, her thoughts on Bishop are somewhat subsumed to that purpose. Nonetheless, Boland’s discussion of Bishop’s ‘tone’, as distinct from her ‘voice’, is illuminating. As is her dissection of ‘At the Fishhouses’, from Cold Spring (1955), available to read here: rightly, she notes that, in amongst Bishop’s usual litany of precise visual perceptions, there lurks a “superb meditation on water as an emblem of tragic knowledge”, interrupted by the lighthearted, cameo appearance of a seal: ‘He was curious about me. He was interested in music; / like me a believer in total immersion, / so I used to sing him Baptist hymns’.

While Tóibín highlights Bishop’s paradoxical observation, ‘as if the water were a transmutation of fire’, Boland’s commentary stops short of addressing the last 19 lines of the poem, in which Bishop’s description of the sea reaches a tidal crescendo, culminating in the poem’s brilliant, six-line final sentence:

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

If a poet took lines like these to a workshop nowadays, the response would no doubt be that the poet should axe at least half the adjectives.

What’s especially intriguing to me in those lines is how Bishop separated the adjectives with commas in the second and last of them, but didn’t in the third. Strict grammarians may say that in a string of adjectives qualifying the same noun, there should always be commas between them; in poems, though that often looks fussy, if not off-putting to the reader. It could be, too, that by not separating adjectives with commas, one can enable them to have a pleasing and surprising compound quality. In this instance, Bishop used commas where she wanted to slow down the reader’s attention. Judging when to do this in poetry isn’t necessarily straightforward. Pacing, though, is a key component of a poem’s efficacy – and it isn’t just a case of deciding which overall form suits the words, and the speed at which the poet wants the reader to absorb them, but also how the pace of the words in each line looks and, moreover, sounds.

I could witter on about how Bishop brilliantly and repeatedly shifted the focus within the poem as a whole without it ever seeming as through its coherence was slipping; however, Tóibín is a much better guide to that than I’d be.

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