She began with the idea that little is known and that much is puzzling.
So begins Colm Tóibín”s wonderful little book, On Elizabeth Bishop. The book is one of those pocket-sized books, has generous margins, and is only 199 pages long. That probably doesn’t sound short, but believe me, it is. Because Tóibín has such a beautiful, smooth, creamy voice. He is thoughtful and meditative. And while he makes thought-provoking observations, they are delivered so softly that you find yourself wrapped up in them like a cozy blanket and mulling them over before you even realize how interesting it all is.
On Elizabeth Bishop is criticism but not of the academic sort. It is a book written by someone who loves Bishop’s poetry and wants you to love it too. He delves deeply into a number of poems but even if you haven’t read them he does not leave you lost. Because while he delves Tóibín also brings up patterns and images and techniques that range across Bishop’s work. He’ll say things like how what Bishop does not say in a poem is oftentimes as important as what she does say. And then we are looking at “The Moose” and Tóibín is picking it apart, pointing out the gaps, providing us with biographical information and context, and suddenly you understand why “The Moose” is one of Bishop’s most famous poems.
Tóibín also uses other poets and other forms of art as a way to see the poetry in a richer light. He writes of Marianne Moore, poet and mentor to Bishop, and the friction that would arise between them because Moore wanted Bishop to write like her but Bishop continued to develop her own style and voice. Tóibín compares the two writing of Moore’s poems:
They were close to certain pieces by Stravinsky, all brass and disturbed tones, unashamed of their own noise, or indeed paintings by Kandinsky, unashamed of their own swirling colors, whereas Bishop’s poems had the sad gaiety and inwardness and sparseness of Weborn or Mondrian or Klee.
And without reading either Moore or Bishop you get an idea of what their poetry is like and understand that Moore was never going to succeed in making Bishop into her very own Mini-Me.
The book has an overall effect of a long, intimate conversation, one you don’t want to end but reluctantly have to conclude. If you want to know more about Elizabeth Bishop, do read this book. Heck, if you are a fan of Tóibín’s you will probably like the book too and finish it wanting to read Elizabeth Bishop. And if you think he could never convince you to read poetry, allow me to say, Tóibín is very persuasive.