Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton. Farrar Straus Giroux, $45.
“Please never stop writing me letters—they always manage to make me feel like my higher self (I’ve been re-reading Emerson) for several days.” – Letter #218, July 27, 1960.
In January 1947, Elizabeth Bishop accepted Randall Jarrell’s invitation to dine in New York with Jarrell, his wife, and Robert Lowell. She approached the evening—she says in fragments of an unfinished memoir attached to Words in Air—“in fear and trembling.” But when Lowell arrived she “took to him at once.” It was an animated party. Lowell’s taste and hers agreed on modern art, on Marianne Moore’s prosody, on the craft of poetry: “it was the first time I had ever actually talked with some one about how one writes poetry—and [I thought] that it was, that it could be, strangely easy ‘Like exchanging recipes for making a cake.’” Nearly twenty eight years later, Lowell’s hindsight gave the occasion such portent that he recollected in a romantic haze, “I see you as rather tall, long brown-haired, shy but full of des[cription] and anecdote as now.” Bishop straightened him out: “Cal dear, maybe your memory is failing!—Never, never was I ‘tall’—as you wrote remembering me. I was always 5 ft 4 and 1/4 inches—now shrunk to 5 ft 4 inches—The only time I’ve ever felt tall was in Brazil. And I never had ‘long brown hair’ either!” Then she teased in a footnote, “so please don’t put me in a beautiful poem tall with long brown hair.” They began writing to each other soon after that meeting and kept at it until Lowell’s death (in September 1977) foreclosed further conversation. Formal and sparse at first, their correspondence soon eased into a natural, unstrained, expansive intimacy. Through the mail, they nurtured their friendship across continents, shared personal triumphs and setbacks, offered solace when physical or mental illness, or alcohol, had the upper hand, bandied gossip, talked literary shop, worked together to improve draft poems, disagreed about artistic principles, and leavened each other’s creativity.
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We have read a number of their vibrant letters before. Some are printed whole in the two selections, Bishop’s One Art (1994) and Lowell’s The Letters (2005). Some appear in part in their critical biographies. And there is limited quotation in copious notes to the two recent large poetry volumes, Lowell’s The Collected Poems (2003) and Bishop’s Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke Box (2006). Although several of those letters have become justly famous, they are appetizers to the feast in Words in Air. Thomas Travisano, with Saskia Hamilton, give us everything that endures of the remarkable written dialog the two poets sustained through three decades: 800 pages-worth of 459 exchanges that include postcards, telegrams, and more than three hundred letters not published before. I was absorbed over many long nights in the book’s intelligent and engaging narrative of two artists who accumulate great debts to each other, as people and as poets, and steadfastly repay what they owe, as they go, with interest.
Bishop’s powerful reticence, in person and on the page, has many admirers, but none have matched the elegant validity of James Merrill’s memorial tribute, that she gave an “instinctive, modest, lifelong impersonation of an ordinary woman.” Lowell, twenty nine when they met, six years Bishop’s junior, was already impersonating a great poet. To begin with, those contrasting attitudes infuse their letters. Jarrell had already praised Bishop’s first book (“Anyone at all interested in poetry should buy . . . North and South”) when Lowell wrote his review. His declarative sentences and absolute judgements mimic Jarrell’s critical style and suggest his ambition and self-esteem in those days. “About ten of its thirty poems are failures. Another ten are either unsatisfactory as wholes, or very slight. This leaves ‘Roosters’ and ‘The Fish,’ large and perfect, and, outside of Marianne Moore, the best poems that I know of written by a woman in this century.” The condescension might have given offence, since Bishop always scorned the sexist label of woman poet, but she did not demur and was duly grateful. She was “quite overwhelmed by” his analysis. “I suppose for pride’s sake I should take some sort of stand about the adverse criticisms, but I agreed with some of them only too well— . . . It seems to me you spoke out my worst fears as well as some of my ambitions.” They passed on from speaking out about poems in print to collaborating on drafts. After Bishop made a short visit to Lowell in Washington (he had just been appointed consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress), her thank-you note at the end of October, 1947 refers “to talk about the wonderful Cavanaughs,” that is, an early version of “The Mills of the Kavanaughs.” A few weeks later, Lowell appreciated Bishop’s identification of a “few spots” that did not make sense in “Falling Asleep over the Aeneid.” “Of course, your objections may hold good, and I’ll ponder them. It’s flattering to get such a thorough going reading.” From then on, letter after letter glows with collegiate good will and imaginative energy. We get a close-up of their craft in process. Neither seems to doubt the durability of their relationship and its inherent importance in their work. After more than twenty years of non-stop exchanges, Lowell could write with child-like certitude and only a touch of exaggeration, “you have always been my favorite poet and my favorite friend.”
They had the best of times, and they had conflicts. Their mutual artistic admiration was complicated occasionally by serious differences. Lowell’s 1964 poem “The Scream” is one example of a collaborative work made without the lead author’s knowledge or approval. His prefatory note in For the Union Dead claims “‘The Scream’ owes everything to Elizabeth Bishop’s beautiful calm story ‘In the Village.’” But he presumes too much—he owes some words and little else to Bishop. She was not consulted and was caught off guard when she saw the poem in typescript. Lowell had appropriated her biographical experience and lifted fragments from her prose. Nevertheless, she declared that it worked really well. Some of us disagree. Lowell’s title suggests the melodramatic slant he brings to the overpowering emotion felt by Bishop’s child persona. Although many lines are verse transcriptions of her prose, the poem sacrifices her delicate, precise diction to jerk and stumble in aggressively end-stopped short lines. A more revealing illustration of the emotional and intellectual sophistication of their relationship occurs in 1972, when their lengthy back-and-forth averted lasting rupture over Lowell’s The Dolphin, a book of unrhymed sonnets. Lowell had left his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, and was living in England with Caroline Blackwood before she became his third wife. In draft sequences he sent to several associates, his poems quote extensively, and in some cases verbatim, from Hardwick’s letters and phone calls during their estrangement. Bishop strenuously disagreed that Hardwick’s actual words should be thus versified, yet, characteristically, she took time to measure her misgivings through several weeks. After repeated readings of the drafts and much thought, she writes in late March of her objections in a scrupulous cry from the heart. She had “one tremendous and awful BUT” and quotes a letter from Thomas Hardy she had noted years before.
What should certainly be protested against, in cases where there is no authorization, is the mixing of fact and fiction in unknown proportions. Infinite mischief would lie in that. If any statements in the dress of fiction are covertly hinted to be fact, all must be fact, and nothing else but fact, for obvious reasons. The power of getting lies believed about people through that channel . . . , by stirring in a few truths, is a horror to contemplate.
She insists that Hardy’s principle has always been her principle and mounts a forbidding case over five pages against Lowell publishing the blameworthy material. Remarkably, she also offers constructive suggestions to improve individual sonnets. And showing a worthy sense of proportion, she stresses her deep, abiding concern for Lowell and his professional reputation, “I love you so much I can’t bear to have published something that I regret and that you might live to regret, too.” She leaves no doubt about her values. “One can use one’s life as material—one does, anyway—but these letters—aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission—IF you hadn’t changed them . . . etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.” It is the most obdurate adverse criticism Lowell ever received from her. He remained thankful and attentive and worked through some of her detailed emendations during his long-running revision of the book. After extensive alterations he did publish the following year to a chorus of disapproval (it took the Pulitzer Prize in 1974). Adrienne Rich, for instance, was a friend of both Lowells before their divorce (close enough to borrow Hardwick’s maternity clothes) who attacked The Dolphin as “one of the most vindictive and mean-spirited acts in the history of poetry.” Her righteously indignant response betrays its own lack of balance and, at this distance, is worth mentioning only to counterpoint the decency and dignity of Bishop’s conduct.
In the 1950s and 1960s commentators were inclined to treat Bishop as Lowell’s adjunct and supporter rather than her own woman and poet. But, in spite of his initial attempts at rhetorical superiority, and his larger public reputation, Lowell did not think that way. While struggling to create enough poems to make the book that became Life Studies, he writes, “I used your “Armadillo” [dedicated to Lowell] in class as a parallel to my “Skunks” [dedicated to Bishop] and ended up feeling a petty plagiarist. I’ve tried other things in similar stanzas; nothing comes. The muse seems quite gone.” He looked on Bishop as a mentor and said so repeatedly in person and in print. In a professorial summary of his poetic development through the 1950s, he explains in 1963, “I was reading Elizabeth Bishop’s poems very carefully at the time and imitating the loose formality of her style.” He was well placed to appreciate the difficulty of living on both sides of his paradox—loose formality—and knew that Bishop’s best poetry resulted from years of painstaking application of craft, to minimize evidence of the masterful structural formality that contributes to her poetic triumphs. Travisano takes his title from Lowell’s verse celebration of the mysterious alchemy of her fastidious creative practice, which involve years spent on a single word or phrase. Lowell prints in History a suite of four unrhymed sonnets to Bishop, ends:
Have you seen an inchworm crawl on a leaf,
cling to the very end, revolve in air,
feeling for something to reach to something? Do
you still hang your words in air, ten years
unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps
or empties for the unimaginable phrase—
unerring muse who makes the casual perfect?
Patient revisionary energies make an artful naturalness that hides its dedicated perfectionism, and its art. The tribute is itself perfectly made with patience, consideration; “unerring muse” is warmly meant and grandly elevates Bishop, with courteous tact and no trace of condescension, to a revered position above Lowell. The admiration and respect animating the beautifully executed Bishop-like last line climaxes in the delicately balanced oxymoron of the final two words—casually perfect and perfectly casual— to express both a contrast in usual writing practices and temperamental differences between the two poets.
“North Haven,” Bishop’s moving elegy for Lowell, has the wistful aside, “(‘Fun’—it always seemed to leave you at a loss . . .).” In reality, she knew better. Both correspondents invariably have their wits and their wit about them. They come out to play together. Their spirits are often high and their pages glitter with harmless mischief, especially when they comment on the major literary figures of the age. Here’s Lowell: “Went through John Ransom’s Selected Poems (75 pages of big print) again. They are almost all queer Chaplin-like charades of himself: looking at children, young girls, the heavens and more often the knotted ravel of marriage.” “I must write you about Eliot and his new bride next letter. They danced so dashingly at a Charles River boatclub brawl that he was called ‘Elbows Eliot.’” And here’s Bishop: “Mary [McCarthy] has worked hard and deserves a lot of money about now—but it entails that bitterness that it’s not for what she deserves it for. Those ‘Group’ pieces, however, bring those days back only too well,” how she and her first husband “worried about their clothes, endless discussion of new spring outfits & pathetic interior-decoration schemes.” “I’m not so crazy about Randall’s introduction, however—or maybe I just never did like his understanding & sort-of-over-sympathizing with the lot of women—”
Both writers are, each in their distinctive ways, prose stylists of uncommon facility, moving seamlessly from the sublime, or the pseudo sublime, to the ridiculous and back again. Each makes time to explore the differences between her complex, layered consciousness on the one hand, and his on the other. But even with so much candor, readers might be taken aback by the catharsis of Lowell’s longest letter, dated August 1957. Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares, her Brazilian partner, had visited the Lowells in Maine during that summer. Lowell, while averting a manic attack, had propositioned Bishop, causing the two visitors to retreat to New York. In eight pages Lowell unburdens himself of disgrace, guilt, remorse, and the revelation that nine years previously he was convinced he and Bishop would marry, once he got round to proposing, which he never did. “But asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.” Five years further on Lowell recovers enough composure to publish “Water” his poem in which two friends are presences felt, but are never identified nor given physical substance. They float discretely through the lines at a leisurely pace to realize the poem’s timeless quality, grounded in a matter-of-fact meditation that some emotions recollected in tranquility are unsatisfactory and chilling: “In the end, / the water was too cold for us.” The other life that might have been? We rejoice in this one, the unique literary life in letters that unfolds through Words in Air. It is exhilarating and heart-warming.