On Elizabeth Bishop
In the book Edgar Allen Poe & The Juke Box, an anthology of drafts by Elizabeth Bishop, editor Alice Quinn devotes a sizeable chunk to the 16 drafts of One Art, where the arc of the poet’s journey – furious editing and fastidious attention to the integrity of the word – is, even today in an age when copy is altered on screen, a breathing palimpsest of the workings of a poet somewhat eclipsed while she was alive by the incendiary life styles of her contemporaries: Robert Lowell (insane), John Berryman (suicide), Sylvia Plath (suicide) and Anne Sexton (suicide).
Unlike them, she used travel to loosen time’s tyranny. Unlike their confessions, she was candid (the focus is with her, not on her, reasoned Michael Schmidt).
So Bishop is a poet who continues to polarise opinion, which is why On Elizabeth Bishop by Colm Toibin is an opportune homage to a misunderstood master of the craft. Toibin has been close to Bishop’s poetry for all of his adult life, and brings to this study an acute ear for her phrasing and her technique (he unlocks the music in Roosters), charting the evolution of Bishop from early formality to symbolism.
This is not a biography: if you want to know what made Bishop tick, read her correspondence with Lowell, or his beautiful poem to her, Notebook, or swim among the lyrical currents of The Moose, which took 20 years to complete, for although One Art was done and dusted within months, Bishop was meticulous in her laying of words. There are too biographies by Victoria Harrison and Brett Miller.
What segues Bishop and Toibin is a line in her introduction to The Diary of Helena Morley: ‘happiness does not consist in wordly gods but in a peaceful home, in family affection, things that fortune cannot bring and often takes away.’ Toibin has articulated that loss in his introduction to Music and Madness by Ivor Browne: ‘I did not know before then that my father’s death, the pure and almost unbearable grief which I had denied for so many years, was so close to me, could so quickly be summoned up.’
What intrigues Toibin most about Bishop, encapsulated so early and sharply by Marianne Moore, ‘Elizabeth Bishop is spectacular in being unspectacular,’ is, as he writes, while burying what matters to her most in her tone, ‘it is this tone that lifts the best poems she wrote to a realm beyond their own occasion.’