Book Review: On Elizabeth Bishop

On Elizabeth Bishopon elizabeth bishop coverby Colm ToibinPrinceton University Press, 2015The “Writers on Writers” series from Princeton University Press has, in its short life, been subject to the same quantum fluctuations in quality and tone that afflict all such series in which independent writers rather than scholars are commissioned to dilate on matters of biography. Readers will be familiar with these kinds of fluctuations from, among other things, the old Penguin “Brief Lives” series, which fielded the occasional masterpiece (Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse, for example, or Elizabeth Hardwick on Melville) amidst a broad field of slightly dotty meanderings best confined to their authors' writing dens after ti many martoonis. This Princeton series has given us Philip Lopate's brilliant, searching Notes on Sontag, and it's given us Alexander McCall Smith's What W. H. Auden Can Do for You. You buys your ticket, and you takes your chances.The non sequitur at the heart of such an enterprise is this: Author X has achieved some measure of success, so you should therefore be interested in reading, basically, anything Author X has to say on any subject. That it actually manages to work so often is one of the little mysteries of the Republic of Letters.The latest volume in the Princeton series, “On Elizabeth Bishop,” is a perfect case in point. It's written by novelist Colm Toibin, who's scarcely so much as mentioned Bishop's name in his last five thousand interviews, who's scarcely written a voluntary word about her before now, and whose own poetry couldn't be any less like hers if it had dropped in from Mars. You're not supposed to buy this book because it contains the quick reflections of a Bishop scholar; you're supposed to fork over your $20 because Colm Toibin wrote it, Bishop or no Bishop.Such a situation can raise what Nixon-watchers used to call “the specter of doubt,” and Toibin doesn't exactly calm those doubts, starting off the book with some entirely unconvincing speculations about the spiritual kinship set up between himself and his subject by the fact that she spent part of her childhood in bland, rural Nova Scotia and he did parallel time in the bland, rural southeast of Ireland. He touches (one doesn't like to say “harps”) on this alleged parallel a few times in the course of his scanty 200 pages (but index-card sized pages … the book is actually no more than 60 pages long and will take you exactly the sitting of one fish-platter lunch to finish), and other elements of his own autobiography trickle in, overtly or otherwise. When discussing the luminously happy letters Bishop wrote during her time in Brazil, for instance, we get a summary that says more about the summarizer than the summarized:

In almost all of the letters there was a sense that her own fragility and instability had made her respond to Brazil with such openness and gusto. In nearly all of them there was an almost desperate urge, despite her regrets, to remain cheerful.

And likewise we sometimes get echoes not of a passionate lifelong reader of Elizabeth Bishop so much as a slightly bored, slightly distracted Columbia star teacher who knows just how little he needs to work in order to keep those undergrads busily note-taking, as when he quotes the lines from Bishop's great poem “The End of March,” “I'd like to retire there and do nothing,/ or nothing much, in two bare rooms,” and then digs down deep to give us this:

There is as much self-mockery here as there is sadness, as much irony as resignation; the varied meter of the two lines establishes the unsettled tone. This is a voice speaking; it is also a mind in reverie. It is both casual and deliberate; it is both whimsical and resigned.

When he's not being an overpraised novelist or a star professor, however, fortunately, Toibin is an excellent critic, and for the bulk of On Elizabeth Bishop, those skills don't desert him. His formidable literary insight turns up some very good observations about Bishop's work and life (although far, far too much of the 'life' bits seems more about Robert Lowell than anybody else), and at several points throughout the book, he's refreshingly down to earth about the sacred task of interpretation, reminding us, for instance, that “It is important to insist that the poem 'Roosters' is about roosters,” and expanding on this theme when writing about her famous poem “The Moose”:

It is easy to say that the moose, since this is a poem, must stand for something – the eternal, say, or the disruptive in nature, or the mystery of things – other than being a mere moose. But it resists the idea that it stands for something. Rather, it is something. It is another prat of the specific night in question, and haunting, among other reasons, because of the precise way it stayed in the memory. In other words, it is not an easy metaphor; it is hardly a metaphor at all. (Or a symbol, for that matter.) Emphatically, it is a moose before it is a metaphor, and indeed for a good while afterward.

But as is probably inevitable in a short, ruminative book about a poet, some of the highlights of On Elizabeth Bishop are short ruminations about other poets. Toibin has read widely and often wisely, and reading him here on Gerard Manley Hopkins or Anne Sexton can be illuminating. There's an especially good aside on Thom Gunn:

He used everything he knew, at times exploiting an impersonal, heavily metered and sharply rhymed style in which all the obvious or easy terms of feeling had been excluded and thus somehow the strongest and most authentic levels of honesty and accuracy in feeling had been managed by him and manipulated and set free. He stood close to grief and reason, like seconds to figures in a duel: he forced them to open fire on each other.

Bishop once made the tossed-off observation about Lowell that “Somehow or other, by fair means or foul, in the middle of our worst century so far, we have produced a magnificent poet,” and although it was never true for Lowell, it was often true for Bishop herself, although she never strained for it the way Lowell did so embarrassingly and so often. “It'll take about a hundred years for people to see how good she really is,” Bishop's friend Mary McCarthy said about her (it amazed McCarthy that Bishop – or anybody – could brood over work instead of merrily serving it forth), and although this little volume by Toibin does precious little to hasten that day, it will get his many fans and followers to go to the Strand and buy some Bishop poems (or perhaps One Art, the tremendous collection of her letters that Robert Giroux put together twenty years ago) – and that's always a good thing.