Irishman Colm Tóibín is an acclaimed novelist whose works include The Master, based on the life of the twentieth-century American novelist Henry James. An admired and widely published literary essayist, Tóibín is also the author of the 2012 essay collection New Ways to Kill Your Mother, which illuminates the connections between writers and their families through the works of such authors as Tennessee Williams, William Butler Yeats, and Roddy Doyle.
On this recording of Toíbín’s 2013 keynote address, he discusses the conscious and unconscious impulses at work in the practices of the American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) and English poet Thom Gunn (1929-2004), and particularly the manner in which these poets dealt with—and often avoided—personal trauma within their work. Of Bishop’s approach, Tóibín writes, “Nothing would be said but everything suggested…The emotion, somehow, was in the commas and the dashes.” Tóibín provides penetrating and insightful close readings of Bishop’s poems “One Art,” “Poem,” and “North Haven” and Gunn’s “In Santa Maria del Popolo”; and he cites the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky’s (1940-1996) assertion that “grief and reason … while poison to each other, are language’s most efficient fuel.” It is part of their achievement as poets, argues Tóibín, that “Bishop and Gunn, in a confessional age, had masked their grief with reason. The tone of impersonality, of passive description, of an immense and powerful withholding, lay at the core of both of their work as poets.” Finally, Tóibín concludes, “their not writing about what must have mattered to them enormously must be taken seriously. Their refusal to write certain poems was not failure; it was actually something they succeeded in not doing rather than failed to do.”
From KWLS 2013: Writers on Writers