In Colm Tóibín’s revelatory keynote address to launch Session Two of the thirty-first annual Key West Literary Seminar last night, he shared his experience of reading and identifying with the works of the English poet Thom Gunn and Elizabeth Bishop, who did much of her best work on this subtropical island.
Tóibín opened the talk, titled “On Grief and Reason,” by recounting an interview in which Gunn referenced “The Gas Poker,” one of the few poems he had written about his mother, who had committed suicide when Gunn was a boy. “Obviously this was quite a traumatic experience; it would be in anyone’s life,” Gunn had said of finding the body. “I wasn’t able to write about it ’til just a few years ago. Finally I found the way to do it was really obvious: to withdraw the first person, and to write about it in the third-person. Then it became easy, because it was no longer about myself.”
In 1964, Bishop had written in a letter to a friend, “Although I think I have a prize ‘unhappy childhood’, almost good enough for the text-book—please don’t think I dote on it.” In her poems, Bishop avoided addressing the circumstances that left her an orphan, but of “In the Village”—a story she admitted to be “completely autobiographical,” published in The New Yorker in December 1953—Tóibín said, “The pain was in the tone, in the ways the mother’s scream and then the mother’s disappearance were given equal billing with everything else that was noticed by the child. The scream was all the more powerful because it was almost, but not quite, shrugged off as nothing.”
Tóibín’s realization that Gunn and Bishop shared an overwhelming avoidance to confront what mattered to them most continues to hit him with “considerable emotional force.” Tóibín recalled the death of his own father during Tóibín’s childhood and his growing awareness, as an adult, that he had almost completely blocked out the experience. “And now I had come across it in Bishop and Gunn,” he said last night, “grief masked by reason, grief and reason battling it out.”
Don DeLillo has described Tóibín as a writer who “never says too much and never lets us grow too comfortable.” With his reading of Gunn and Bishop as an indication of what matters most to him, we look forward to reconsidering his own novels, stories, and plays, paying close attention to what he describes in their work as “the space between the words,” knowing that “something important was being hidden and something equally important was being said.”