Truth in Poetry

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79) is considered to be among the most important American poets of the 20th century.  She was a U.S. Poet Laureate and won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and the Neustadt International Prize.  Her collection Questions of Travel (1965) may be the best known.  Perhaps her literary reputation outpaces her true achievement; honors do breed honors.  That position would not, however, be taken by Colm Tóibín, a novelist, poet, critic, and journalist.  This book, not so lengthy as the page count suggests because the format is small, is sympathetic to its subject.

It was Bishop’s lesbianism, Tóibín says, that prompted him to write an essay on her earlier.  Her sexual proclivities were known in her lifetime.  Wikipedia names two companions; there were other affairs.  Bishop never made her sexual life the crux of her poetry, however; her lesbianism is glimpsed infrequently and obliquely.  Moreover, she played no role in women’s liberation movements and declined to appear in anthologies of work by women only; she wished for her poems to be judged on their literary merit alone, not their feminist import.  In contrast, Tóibín, nearly two generations younger and benefiting from the homophilic and special-rights movements that followed the Stonewall riots, has made literary hay from his anomalous mode of...

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