By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Colm Tóibín
Narration by: John Keating
Colm Tóibín’s “On Elizabeth Bishop” is a brief outline of the life of a poet. It is a poet’s eye view of another’s life and work. For those not enamored with poetry, Colm Tóibín manages to encourage listeners to hear Bishop’s poetry.
Elizabeth Bishop begins life in hardship with the loss of her father when a baby and, as still a child, her mother to an asylum. Shunted from relative to relative with some stability from a grandmother and grandfather, Bishop completes high school and is accepted at Vassar College in 1929, just before the stock market crash. Listening to Tóibín’s analysis of Bishop’s poems, one understands why Bishop’s poetry is classified as cold, somewhat clinical, and only lightly emotional.
Tóibín’s analysis and Keating’s warm narration compel a listener who may have never heard a Bishop’ poem to hear one read. Several poems can be found on YouTube; one of which is “One Art”. Because of accompanying images in this production of the poem, the perfection, meaning, and depth of Bishop’s words are clear; even to the tone deaf.
Tóibín’s writing will encourage those who have never heard of Elizabeth Bishop to hear her poetry and learn more about her life. Though there is little one sees of the inner life of Bishop in her poetry, after listening to Tóibín’s book, the importance of the image of a farm-house in a reading of “Sestina” reminds one of a lonely young daughter being raised by grandparents in rural Massachusetts.
Bishop led an unconventional life. She traveled the world; lived in Brazil for ten years with her lover; corresponded with other poets, and learned more about poetry from a formal education, mentor-ship and collaboration with fellow poets. Though strongly influenced by others, she chooses her own path. Bishop abjures personal emotion but intellectually reveals what life means to her, and often what it means to others.
This is a brief biography of Elizabeth Bishop, but Tóibín’s analysis of her poems offers a window through which one sees the value of poetry.
“At the Fishhouses” YouTube Reading with Pictures of Elizabeth Bishop, the Poem’s Creator: