75 at 75: Colm Tóibín on Elizabeth Bishop
Posted on Jul 18, 2013
The tone is neutral, oddly fearful, and it could be mistaken for casual. It is a voice coming to us from a distance; it is almost deliberate in its calm cadences. It is speaking rather than performing, insisting that the rhythm of the poem be kept in check. Any obvious or easy drama is withheld. Above all, there is no self-dramatisation. In 1974, three years before this reading at the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y, Robert Lowell, a close friend, wrote to Elizabeth Bishop: “By the way is a confessional poem one that one would usually hesitate to read before an audience? I have many (they are a perfectly good kind) but have none in my last lot, and you have none ever.”
Elizabeth Bishop began with the idea that little is known and that much is puzzling. The effort then to make a true statement in poetry—to claim that something is something, or does something—required a hushed, solitary concentration. A true statement for her carried with it, buried in its rhythm, considerable degrees of irony because it was oddly futile; it was either too simple or too loaded to mean a great deal. It did not do anything much, other than distract the reader or briefly please the reader. Nonetheless, it was essential for her that the words in a statement be precise and exact. “Since we do float on an unknown sea,’ she wrote to Robert Lowell, “I think we should examine the other floating things that come our way carefully; who knows what might depend on it?”
A word, then, for her was a tentative form of control. Grammar was an enactment of how things stood. But nothing was stable, so words and their structures could lift and have resonance, could move out, take in essences as a sponge soaks in water. If words were a cry for help, the calm space around them offered a resigned helplessness. The poetry written in the light of this, or in its shadow, had to be led by clarity, by precise description, by briskness of feeling, by no open displays of anything, least of all easy feeling; it implied an acceptance of what was known. The music or the power was in what was often left out. The smallest word, or the holding of breath, could have a fierce, stony power.
Bishop was never sure, and in the poetics of her uncertainty there was something hurt and solitary. And that, too, is in the voice when she reads her work. On October 10, 1977, when she read at the Y with Howard Moss, introduced by May Swenson, she was not in a good state. The memorial service for Robert Lowell had taken places just a few weeks before. Bishop was commuting between her apartment in Boston and New York, where she was teaching, unhappily, two courses a week at NYU. She was struggling with depression and alcohol. By the end of the semester she was in hospital. It was a period when she was not writing anything.
The introduction by her friend May Swenson was formal and eloquent, the tone appropriate to the occasion. It is only now, years later, that we can smile at the distance between public speech and private feeling, now when we have Swenson’s unfinished and unpublished poem to Bishop, written in 1961 or 1962 which includes the lines
‘I was nuts
about you. And I couldn’t say
a word. And you never said the
word that would have loosened
all my doggy love and let me
jump you like a suddenly
unhobbled hound wild for love.’
Bishop would have appreciated Swenson’s restraint as she spoke at the Y that evening; her own reading style bears all the marks of a great withholding of emotion, the refusal to allow emotion to “exceed its cause,” as she says in “The Map,” the first poem she read, which is also the first poem in her first book. The last poem she read, “Santarém,” would be included in The Complete Poems 1927-1979 as one of only four poems finished between her last volume, Geography III (1976) and her death on October 6, 1979.
Colm Tóibín’s book on Elizabeth Bishop is forthcoming from Princeton University Press.