Colm Tóibín on Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth_BishopThe 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?”

Read the complete essay and listen to Elizabeth Bishop read her poems.

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