‘The Knife There on the Shelf’

J.L. Castel/Vassar College Library
Elizabeth Bishop, Brazil, 1954

On Elizabeth Bishop is the Irish writer Colm Tóibín’s exquisite study of the American poet, a book whose modest proportions suggest the personal nature of the connection. Tóibín has written a book he could have carried along with him in the nomadic period this study recalls, when, far from home, Bishop’s poems of travel and memory, also deceptively slight, first made their impression on him.

Bishop is a “writer’s writer’s writer,” according to John Ashbery; she tends to mean everything to writers to whom she means anything. Her work provided for Tóibín what Kenneth Burke said literature can provide: “equipment for living” under conditions (the early loss of parents, the awakening to one’s homosexuality, the discovery of a vocation for writing) that recalled Bishop’s own. The tact and poise and proportion Tóibín learned from Bishop are the very qualities that make this study of the poet so satisfying.

The book is partly a defense of understatement. Bishop’s Nova Scotia, where she spent the happiest years of her childhood, and Tóibín’s southeastern Ireland, both, according to Tóibín, value language partly as “a way to restrain experience, to take it down to a level where it might stay.” The implication is that “experience” is too wayward and threatening to be left alone, and that language is less a working out than a tamping down. This is the tension we find in much of Bishop’s work, where a style pared of ornament and excess implies—and, with growing openness across the arc of her career, explores—the painful life material it paradoxically “restrains.” Frost’s idea of poetry as a “momentary stay against confusion” comes to mind; Frost, whose influence on Bishop has rarely been noted, is yet another writer whose region and family predisposed him to defend in his poems the virtues of reticence and skepticism manifested by his poems.

It is also a study of shyness, which, whatever its root, is a trait so many writers possess. For a writer, speaking is terrifying, since it operates under conditions foreign to composition: one might be interrupted or distracted, or find one’s meanings questioned before they are fully developed and expressed. Tone, which is entirely in the writer’s hands, seeps into speech from circumstances no writer can control: his accent, his reflexive vocabulary, the pitch of his voice, even his appearance and posture—these are all elements of spoken self-presentation that cannot really be controlled in the moment, in social interaction. Advantage: writing. But writing may lack the lifeblood, the qualities of surprise and innovation, we find in speech. How can a writer recreate speech on the page, not excluding the thrill of risk and innovation we find in the most brilliant conversation?

Bishop’s poetry, with its ingeniously crafted personae and deflections of a thousand kinds, makes a preemptive strike against embarrassment. Tóibín, who developed a stammer around…

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