On Elizabeth Bishop

Colm Tóibín. Princeton Univ., $19.95 (216p) ISBN 978-0-691-15411-4
Novelist Tóibín (Nora Webster) gives an intimate and engaging look at Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and its influence on his own work. Tóibín begins with an account of Bishop’s guiding principles for writing poetry, including that the words be “precise and exact.” The same precision that Tóibín finds in Bishop’s work marks his writing here. Without attempting a comprehensive biography, he traces Bishop’s life from her childhood in Nova Scotia to her moves to Key West and later to Boston, detailing turning points like her mother’s time in a mental institution and the suicide of her lover Lota de Macedo Soares. Other writers appear, either through their own relationships with Bishop—such as Thom Gunn, Mary McCarthy, Marianne Moore, and Robert Lowell, whom Bishop called her best friend—or in comparison with Bishop as writers, such as James Joyce. The portrait of Bishop that emerges shows her as protective of her voice as a poet, reserved, but not unkind, and “distant from the reader.” Tóibín is also present in the book, and his relationship to Bishop’s work and admiration of her style gives the book much of its power. Whether one is familiar with Bishop’s life and work or is looking to Tóibín to learn more, this book will appeal to many readers. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 01/19/2015
Release date: 03/01/2015
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