"WHAT A BLOCK OF LIFE"
In July 1965 the great mid-century American poet Robert Lowell (1917–1977), who had recently weathered a controversy that brought him into widely publicized opposition to the nation’s president, wrote affectionately to his poetic peer and close friend Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979) from his summer retreat in Castine, Maine, "How wonderful you are Dear, and how wonderful that you write me letters . . . In this mid-summer moment I feel at peace, and that we both have more or less lived up to our so different natures and destinies. What a block of life has passed since we first met in New York and Washington!" Two years earlier, when their correspondence was briefly interrupted, Lowell acknowledged that "I think of you daily and feel anxious lest we lose our old backward and forward flow that always seems to open me up and bring color and peace." Lowell told Bishop in 1970 that "you [have] always been my favorite poet and favorite friend," and the feeling was surely mutual. For her part Bishop, with her characteristic blend of directness and wry humor, urged Lowell, "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 . . ."
Through wars, revolutions, breakdowns, brief quarrels, failed marriages and love affairs, and intense poetry-writing jags, the letters kept coming. For these were not merely intimate friends, ready to share each other’s lives with all their piquant and painful and funny moments, but eager readers—eager for the next letter, eager for the next poem. For each, personally as well as artistically, these letters became a part of their abidance: a part of that huge block of life they had lived together and apart over thirty years of witty and intimately confiding correspondence.
Bishop and Lowell began their lifelong exchange of letters after meeting at a New York dinner party hosted by Randall Jarrell in January 1947. When Jarrell, a gifted poet and the most discerning poetry critic of his age, introduced his old friend Robert Lowell to his new friend Elizabeth Bishop, he was bringing together the two American poets of his generation whom he most admired. The painfully shy Bishop, so often anxious and tongue-tied when among the literati, immediately felt at home with this most imposing of literary lions. Once the letters started coming, any hint of initial stiffness quickly gave way to that easy "backward and forward flow." The exchange continued for the next three decades, ending only with Lowell’s death in 1977. Bishop’s own death followed two years later, but not before she had written "North Haven," the most touching and incisive elegy Lowell ever received: "Fun," Bishop wrote of her "sad friend," "it always seemed to leave you at a loss . . ." Yet although both Lowell and Bishop lived lives of some disorder colored by early sorrow, each was clearly having fun with letters as frequently amusing—and often downright hilarious—as these. Indeed, the droll give-and-take of their affectionate serve and volley is perhaps the letters’ most surprising and engaging feature. This complete collection of the letters between them extends by more than three hundred letters the published canon of their mutual exchange to be found separately in their selected correspondence: Bishop’s One Art: Letters (1994), edited by Robert Giroux, and The Letters of Robert Lowell (2005), edited by Saskia Hamilton. The back-and-forth interchange recorded in the present volume provides a window of discovery into the human and artistic development of two brilliant poets over their last and most productive three decades.
Although Bishop confessed to Lowell in a 1975 letter that she had "been almost too scared to go" to that fateful 1947 meeting, in Lowell she discovered an artistic counterpart whose individuality, verbal flair, and dedication to craft mirrored her own. And the letters themselves are unique. For the artistic distinction of the correspondents, for the unfolding intimacy of the interchange, for its sustained colloquial brilliance of style (with neither poet ever on stilts), for its keen observation of both the ordinary and the extraordinary spiced with a wealth of literary and social history and a smorgasbord of literary gossip, it is hard to think of a parallel.
As the correspondence began in 1947, Bishop was thirty-six and Lowell had recently turned thirty. David Kalstone, in his groundbreaking Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell (1989), rightly observes that "they could not have met at a better moment." As poets, each had lately published a prizewinning first volume and was achieving substantial recognition for the first time. Bishop’s North & South (1946) had won the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Prize Fellowship, which included publication and a cash prize, for a book manuscript that triumphed over more than eight hundred rival submissions. Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), which included new poems as well as extensive revisions from his 1944 small press Land of Unlikeness, had won—still more impressively—the Pulitzer Prize, making him one of the youngest poets ever to receive that award. Indeed, while both poets would receive many public honors, including a Pulitzer for Bishop in 1956, Lowell would, throughout their lifetimes, continue to enjoy a public reputation that exceeded his friend’s. One prominent critic, Irvin Ehrenpreis, an admirer of both poets, dubbed their era "The Age of Lowell." Lowell appeared on a 1967 Time magazine cover and was regularly featured in other mainstream media not only for his poetry but for his left-of-center political interventions and for a life marked by widely publicized mental breakdowns. Bishop, by contrast, shunned publicity, was retiring by temperament, and lived for long periods in Key West or Brazil, remote from the major American cultural centers, and her work was intensely prized by a narrower circle. Bishop tended to be thought of while living as, in John Ashbery’s now-famous phrase, a "writer’s writer’s writer." In the years since her death, however, Bishop’s reputation has risen dramatically, fully catching up with Lowell’s, and in the eyes of some, surpassing it. These admiring friends are now linked in many readers’ minds—as they were in Jarrell’s six decades before—as perhaps the two outstanding American poets of their talented mid-century generation.
On a more personal level, as Kalstone observes, their 1947 meeting came at "an unsettled time for both of them," with Lowell finalizing a divorce from Jean Stafford and Bishop facing the end of a longstanding relationship with Key West resident Marjorie Stevens. In their friendship’s first two years, Bishop and Lowell would pass through a shifting and somewhat ambiguous phase of mutual attraction. Several friends thought they might soon become engaged. Bishop remained wary, however—her long-term relationships had always been with women, and she feared instability on both sides. Lowell, who had carried the thought within him that he might one day propose, later acknowledged that he could never find the right moment: "like a loon that needs sixty feet, I believe, to take off from the water, I wanted time and space, and went on assuming." Beginning in February 1949, while staying at Yaddo, the famous writers colony, Lowell suffered one of the most severe and prolonged bipolar episodes in a lifetime of severe bipolar episodes. During the long recovery process he became engaged to Elizabeth Hardwick, who had been present at Yaddo and who had supported him through this traumatic experience. They married in July of that year, and in 1950, with Lowell now recovered, he and Hardwick departed for Europe, where they would spend the next two years.
Bishop herself was suffering from bouts of depression at that time and was looking for a fresh personal direction. In 1951, on a visit to Brazil which Bishop intended to be the first leg of a freighter trip around South America, she suffered an acute allergic reaction to the fruit of the cashew. While recovering in Rio, she fell in love with Lota de Macedo Soares, a remarkable woman with whom she would spend the next sixteen years, mostly in Brazil. The lives of these two poets had taken decisively different directions since their first meeting, yet in 1957 Lowell confessed that "asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had." In 1954, lamenting the distance that separated them now that Bishop was established in and outside of Rio while he had settled down as a poet and teacher in his native Boston, Lowell observed, "We seem attached to each other by some stiff piece of wire, so that each time one moves, the other moves in another direction. We should call a halt to that." But they never did, and as Kalstone notes of Bishop, "After 1950, her friendship with Lowell was one of frequent letters and infrequent visits."
Yet their letters served as a powerful and self-renewing form of attachment, and as their correspondence moved forward year by year, Lowell sent along his poems in fresh batches or in book-length typescripts or proofs to Bishop for her appreciation and critique. According to their mutual friend Frank Bidart, Lowell used frequently to cite W. H. Auden’s remark that "The best reader is someone who is crazy about your work but doesn’t like all of it." Lowell found that kind of reader in Bidart, who would one day coedit his Collected Poems (2003), and he found it some years earlier in Bishop. She, too, was crazy about his work but didn’t like all of it, and her unfolding reactions to the evolution of Lowell’s work in both form and content—her outspoken praise when she was moved and impressed and her evident disquiet and genuine concern for Lowell and his reputation when she was less persuaded—are part of what make this particular record of artistic development so revealing. The critique of this "unerring Muse" helped Lowell, as he would one day phrase it, to make "the casual perfect" by honing small details to their sharpest edge. But if Bishop’s fascination with Lowell’s career was unflagging, her opinions of his individual books varied. While she praised "Falling Asleep over the Aeneid" and other individual poems in his third book The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951), she remained politely lukewarm about the title sequence. Moreover, Bishop famously took exception to important aspects of two Lowell volumes. Although she praised many of Lowell’s free translations in Imitations (1961), she objected with considerable specificity to what she considered the excessive latitude of his versions of certain poems by Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Twelve years later, she objected to Lowell’s extensive use in The Dolphin (1973) of letters from Hardwick, his recently estranged wife. Yet when Bishop liked a poem or group, her response could be glowing. Of her first reading in 1957 of the title sequence from Life Studies (1959), she writes:
. . . they make a wonderful and impressive drama, and I think in them
you’ve found the new rhythm you wanted, without any hitches . . .
They all also have that sure feeling, as if you’d been in a stretch (I’ve
felt that way for very short stretches once in a long while) when
everything and anything suddenly seemed material for poetry—or
not material, seemed to be poetry, and all the past was illuminated in
long shafts here and there, like a long-waited-for sunrise.
Bishop’s blurb for Life Studies, which Lowell confessed he was "overwhelmed by," remains one of the most perceptive appreciations that the book has ever received. In 1965 she would write appreciatively of one of Lowell’s finest and most prescient poems that "Waking Early Sunday Morning" has many wonderful things in it— and not the least, I think, is the way it goes on in a leisurely way, like a Sunday morning—even if the meter is not leisurely, there seems to be time,—to think—not like week-day thoughts. "In small war on the heels of small / war"—is marvelous—and now far truer than when you wrote it, I gather by the papers I see here. Bishop’s books came more slowly than Lowell’s, about one per decade, and her work appeared in Lowell’s mailbox not volume by volume but poem by poem. Each effort, though proffered with her characteristic diffidence— "Here’s a bit of description, for what it’s worth" she writes of her masterly late "The End of March" (1975)—would be hailed in its turn by Lowell as a perfectly realized work of art. For Lowell, Bishop’s "End of March" provokes an absorbed rumination on its own leisurely and intriguing metric, whose sources and effects he finds difficult to place: "What is interesting is that your rhythm slows and forces one to read it as prose—prose perhaps like M. Moore’s poems, tho your rhythm has a much slower wandering quality . . ." His meditation segues into memories the poem provokes even as he continues to muse on its prosody: "now rereading I remember all sorts of talks with you: that room I got near (?) you in Brazil, filled with proletarian callgirls—the meter I see is steadily iambic . . . any number of terrific seemingly tho quiet details." Significantly, "The End of March" is one of the few poems about which Lowell offers a significant critique, observing that "I am troubled by one thing, a sort of whimsical iambic Frost tone to the last five lines or so, tho I think they are needed. New lines might make a fine poem into one of your finest." In a later letter Lowell worries that his suggestion "must have been troublesome," but Bishop took his advice to heart and, after considerable further effort, produced an ending that is among her most dazzling.
Some poems or groups, including the linked pair "The Armadillo" (dedicated by Bishop to Lowell) and "Skunk Hour" (dedicated by Lowell to Bishop), as well as the balance of Lowell’s "Life Studies" sequence and Bishop’s story "In the Village," became the subject of extended discussion, even long after the work had been finished and published. The correspondence thus records a series of parallel and often intertwining artistic explorations —a record of what Bidart, in an interview on his edition of Lowell’s Collected Poems, coedited with David Gewanter, terms "the immense pleasures and satisfactions as well as the turmoil and fears about making."
Yet these letters are as much about living as they are about making, and their pages reveal a sharing of life as well as a sharing of art. Each poet’s eager and surprised and excited response to the other’s work emerges out of a flurry of vividly recorded everyday experience. In his insightful 1994 review of Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art: Letters in The Times Literary Supplement, the poet Tom Paulin observed, "each letter occurs as a historic moment whose taut nowness can be immensely exciting." Yet there is so much of the quotidian in these letters that one sometimes feels surprised when one stumbles upon not only historic events at the moment of their happening but famous poems and sometimes whole books receiving their first readings in the context of letters brimming with impromptu bits of comic observation drawn from casual, odd, domestic moments. Such moments would continue to punctuate the letters from both sides for the next three decades, and their drily witty and unexpected—yet consistently supportive and sympathetic— playing off of each other’s anecdotes and observations is one of the joys of the correspondence. Postscripts, which abound in these letters, are full of amusing throwaways, suggesting an ongoing conversation that each is reluctant to break off. One Bishop letter, written during a torrid Brazilian summer, closes apologetically: "I’m sorry—I seem to have got some of a very old & liquefied jelly-bean on this," while another Bishop postscript, written from New York and indicating a darker stain, closes, with a hint of comic challenge: "Brazilian coffee—you’d hate it; you like WEAK coffee . . ." It is hard to imagine Wordsworth ending a letter to Coleridge with either line.
When reading a fresh letter, each was in part enjoying the other’s spontaneous and arresting verbal performance. Planning a seminar "on ‘Letters!’ " at Harvard, Bishop told friends that it would be about "just letters—as an art form or something." Paulin’s investigations of this "art form or something" led him to ask, "And is there a poetics of the familiar letter?" Apparently finding none, he begins to supply the outlines of such a poetics, suggesting that letters, to qualify as literature, must paradoxically "construct themselves on an anti-aesthetic, a refusal of the literary." Speaking of a sentence in one of Bishop’s early letters to Lowell, Paulin notes that "it leaps out as if she is an actor or a dancer, inspired by the intelligence and attention of her audience of one. For there is—it scarcely needs emphasizing—a keenly performative element in the epistolary art." Yet this performative element, if the letter is to be of lasting interest, must aim—again paradoxically—"to flower once and once only in the recipient’s reading and then disappear immediately. The merest suspicion that the writing is aiming beyond the addressee at posterity freezes a letter’s immediacy and destroys its spirit." It is the apparent absence of this interest in posterity on the part of two poets famous for their obsession with craft that gives this correspondence much of its interest and appeal.
Bishop’s gusto for reading other people ’s letters suggests that even such an intensely private poet as she would have had scant objection to posterity’s peering over her shoulder to read a fresh letter from Lowell or to scan the response she wrote at leisure or, perchance, dashed off hurriedly to catch the next day’s mail. When Lowell sold his papers to Harvard’s Houghton Library in 1973, he told Bishop that "Your letters are the most valuable and large single group," and he generously insisted that she accept a substantial portion of the profit he derived from the sale. This transaction might suggest a tacit understanding by both parties that such a large and valuable group of letters would be examined soon enough by scholars and might one day find a wider circle of readers. Indeed, Lowell himself declared, "When Elizabeth Bishop’s letters are published (as they will be) she will be recognized as not only one of the best, but one of the most prolific writers of our century."
The focus of these poets on the performative moment emerges even in Lowell’s first letter to Bishop, dated May 23, 1947, and written from his New York apartment, in response to one of Bishop’s regretting a missed meeting due to illness. Opening "Dear Miss Bishop," it begins in a friendly but comparatively formal way. Then the letter suddenly launches, without transition, into a paragraph of impromptu comic performance. From Lowell’s first letter onward, neither correspondent felt the need for transitions between paragraphs —either could expect the other to follow each successive leap of thought. While much in the correspondence is in some sense historic, impromptu bits of detailed comic or lyric observation would punctuate the letters from both sides for the next three decades, as ordinary folk and distinguished personages (ranging from the modernist sculptor Alexander Calder to the quaintly learned founder of Hires Root Beer) are vividly figured forth in all their eccentric particularity. Among many pen portraits of famous writers, their lively ongoing commentary on the doings and sayings of Randall Jarrell, Marianne Moore, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Allen Tate, Dylan Thomas, and Mary McCarthy feature as highlights. In these pages, too, the austere creator of The Waste Land makes a surprising appearance as "Elbows Eliot," so named in a Lowell postscript because he "danced so dashingly" with his new wife at a "Charles River boatclub brawl." Since Bishop and Lowell were at once historic personages, ordinary people, and extraordinarily fresh and funny observers, it should not surprise us that everywhere in the letters one finds a conjunction of hilariously descriptive performance on the one hand and literary history in the making on the other. Often these elements are inextricably intertwined.
Yet their descriptions of obscure individuals observed in passing are perhaps even more compelling. Thus, in a letter from the summer of 1948 in which Bishop has just spoken of several lonely and depressing days enclosed in the fog of Wiscasset, Maine, she writes:
I think almost the last straw here though is the hairdresser, a nice
big hearty Maine girl who asks me questions I don’t even know the answers to.
She told me: 1, that my hair "don’t feel like hair at all." 2,
I was turning gray practically "under her eyes." And when I’d said
yes, I was an orphan, she said "Kind of awful, ain’t it, ploughing
through life alone." So now I can’t walk downstairs in the morning or
upstairs at night without feeling I’m ploughing. There ’s no place like
Lowell responds perfectly with a single line in a postscript to his next letter: " There ’s something haunting and nihilistic about your hair-dresser."
The strong affinity as writers of these two New Englanders grew in significant part out of their eye for the telling detail, their ear for the characteristic phrase, and their shared distaste for cant and fakery. And each poet, from the start, saw the other as already a classic. Lowell told Bishop, "I think I read you with more interest than anyone now writing," and Bishop frequently yearned for new Lowell poems, because, as she said, "They really make almost everything I see look pretty dreary, or labored, or absolute silliness. . . . your poetry is as different from the rest of our contemporaries as, say, ice from slush." Yet their mutual interest grew not only out of a recognition of their many affinities but also from a recognition of their intriguing differences. Each found in the other a profound devotion to craft and a pragmatic readiness to experiment with distinct poetic manners—now free verse, now sprung rhythm, now meter and rhyme. They shared a resistance to abstract or codified theory, that keen, unpredictable, exploratory eye, and a fascination with both public and private history.
Yet along with these shared tendencies, each also found in the other qualities they wished to develop in their own work. Lowell’s eye was surely keen by any reasonable standard, but he saw, behind Bishop’s images, an eye yet keener and more certain. Lowell admired, too, Bishop’s capacity for understatement, her gift for artistic balance and proportion, her patient waiting for each poem to come, and her willingness, as he phrased it in a public tribute, to renounce the poem "forever if it doesn’t come." Lowell worried about his own capacity to compel poems into being by sheer doggedness and force of will, and he acknowledged to Bishop that, stylistically, he sometimes "beat the big drum too much." He observed with humorous self-deprecation in 1952, "You always make me feel that I have a rather obvious breezy, impersonal liking for the great and obvious—in contrast with your adult personal feeling for the odd and genuine," and in 1947, praising the naturalness of Bishop’s "At the Fishhouses," he observed ruefully that "I’m a fisherman myself, but all my fish became symbols, alas!"
Bishop, for her part, admired and yearned to assimilate into her own work many of the qualities she found in Lowell: his capacity for hard and persistent poetic labor, his steady productivity, and perhaps most important, his gift for tackling seemingly any subject head-on, without apology and with compelling emotional effect. She wrote in 1947 of a recent Lowell poem, "The Fat Man in the Mirror," "I admire its sense of horror and panic extremely." Six years later she wrote of another poem, "Epitaph of a Fallen Poet" (later "Words for Hart Crane"), that she "admired its undiminished un-pulled punch." Each praised and frankly envied the differing capacities they recognized in the other. It is a measure not only of the strength of their friendship but of their strength as artists that they were able turn their lifelong study of these attractive opposites to such good advantage.
Each in fact learned enormously from the other’s poetic example. Lowell found means to assimilate much of Bishop’s art of nuanced observation and indirection into his style without losing that "un-pulled punch" that was his characteristic feature. Lowell’s Life Studies and For the Union Dead (1964), his most enduringly popular books, were written under Bishop’s direct influence, as the letters make clear, and despite their power to shock they show traces everywhere of her humor, gentleness, understatement, and eye for "the odd and genuine."
Bishop, who feared Lowell’s dominance—she once acknowledged that "I find your poetry so strongly influential that if I start reading it when I’m working on something of my own I’m lost"—took on Lowellian elements more slowly, perhaps, but just as surely, finding means to assimilate something of Lowell’s force and directness into her understated art without relinquishing its depths of quiet suggestion. Particularly in Geography III (1976), perhaps her finest book, and in the handful of subsequent poems—"Pink Dog," "North Haven," "Sonnet," and "Santarém"—that she completed just before her death in 1979, Bishop produced a compelling series of selfexploratory poems that provide readers with a window into the latent yet powerful personal element that informs all of her writing. At the same time, encouraged in part by Lowell’s example, this poet who worried, as she once told Lowell, that she might turn out to be merely a "minor female Wordsworth," was extending her reach into previously unexplored political and cultural borderlands.
Yet it wasn’t just their poetry that was mutually influential. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the conversationally performative quality of the letters gradually began to find its way into in a similarly casual performative quality in their poems. When Lowell felt free of the burden of his "bid for immortality," as he did when writing these letters, he was able to reveal aspects of himself that appear only fleetingly in his early poems. Bishop, no doubt, helped to draw those qualities out of Lowell in the letters, where one persistently sees Lowell’s gentler, funnier, and more vulnerable side— qualities that were always there in the person. Fiction writer Peter Taylor, Lowell’s close friend from their days together at Kenyon College, noted more than once in interviews that Ian Hamilton’s 1982 biography failed to capture two important aspects of Lowell: his capacity for friendship and his sense of humor. According to Taylor, "He was a wonderful friend; he could make you feel good about anything. One of the problems with Hamilton’s biography, although I thought it was good in many ways, was that it didn’t give any impression of the other side of him. He had the most marvelous sense of humor; he was the gentlest person and the most loyal of friends." Thus, Taylor felt, "with all the book’s careful delineation of his madness, there is the danger of his being seen as an unrelieved grotesque. None of his friends sa him as that—not one of them." Lowell’s correspondence with Bishop may have helped him to realize in verse aspects of his character that the aggressive style of his early work could not make room for.
For as the heavily accented, radically enjambed, and harshly rhymed iambic couplets of Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle and The Mills of the Kavanaughsgave way to the conversational directness of Life Studies, one senses that not only Bishop’s verse and autobiographical prose but the familiar style of the correspondence itself helped Lowell to master a shift toward that more casual and conversational poetic voice. In an interview shortly after the publication of Life Studies he admires what he calls the "drifting description" of Bishop’s "Armadillo," yet much drifting description of a high order can be found already in even their earliest letters. No doubt each correspondent helped the other to articulate latent yet powerful characteristics that otherwise might have been denied full expression, and the effect of this extends beyond the letters to the poems.
Moreover, as they wrote and as they read, Bishop and Lowell seem constantly to be weighing, sampling, and trying out fragments of potential poetic material. Bishop observed in 1958 that whole paragraphs of Lowell’s most recent letter appeared "almost on the point of precipitation into poetry ," to which Lowell replied in a postscript, "You are the one whose letters are poetry, such a full sail, such witty stories!" Both Bishop and Lowell seem to recognize poetic possibilities in Bishop’s Wiscasset hairdresser, though this "nice big hearty Maine girl" never found her way into a poem by either. However, Bishop used images and phrases from another 1947 letter to Lowell in her poem "The Bight," and many images and phrases from a 1947 letter from Bishop to Lowell found their way, fifteen years later, into Lowell’s poem "Water," an imaginary colloquy with Bishop—who remains unnamed but powerfully present in the poem. Thus, along with frequent discussions of published poems or poems in draft, hints of potential poems in the making peek recurrently out of these letters.
The sources in the letters for "Water" and "The Bight" have received much previous commentary, but less often noted is the use Bishop would later make of material in a letter to Lowell that she wrote from Briton Cove, Cape Breton, in August 1947.
I like the people particularly, they are all Scotch and still speak Gaelic,
or English with a strange rather cross-sounding accent. Off shore are
two "bird islands" with high red cliffs. We are going out with a fisherman
to see them tomorrow—they are sanctuaries where there are
auks and the only puffins left on the continent, or so they tell us.
There are real ravens on the beach, too, something I never saw before
—enormous, with sort of rough black beards under their beaks.
Traces of this letter’s description appear throughout Bishop’s poem "Cape Breton," published two years later, but the clearest echo is heard in the poem’s opening:
Out on the high "bird islands," Ciboux and Hertford,
the razorbill auks and the silly-looking puffins all stand
with their backs to the mainland
in solemn, uneven lines along the cliff ’s brown grass-frayed edge,
while the few sheep pastured there go "Baaa, baaa."
Bishop’s distinctively crafted yet conversational-sounding poem differs from her more spontaneous letter in intriguing ways, as she drops out some details (including her alluring ravens) while emphasizing or particularizing others to create the poem’s uniquely balanced tone and shape. Lowell—a poetic magpie if ever there was one—for his part mined Bishop’s letters for materials he would use in poems about her, not only in "Water" but in the four numbered unrhymed sonnets "For Elizabeth Bishop"—the first a fourteenline compression of "Water"—that appear in his 1973 History. The last and best of these, "For Elizabeth Bishop 4," contains his most eloquent verse tribute to Bishop as a poet.
Sometimes a letter’s content might reappear in a poem decades later and in a surprising shape. For example, Lowell begins a letter to Bishop in 1949 with rueful self-bemusement that on becoming aware of "a dull burning smell" in his Yaddo room one morning, he searched for some time before finding in his pocket "a lighted cigarette in holder consuming a damp piece of Kleenex. The pocket was also stuffed with kitchen matches. Oh my!" Bishop’s next letter opens with the statement that "I am mailing you a SAFE if not particularly esthetic ashtray," and it goes on to detail the many practical advantages of such an unaesthetic ashtray for a working writer. In these letters Bishop and Lowell demonstrate scant interest in aesthetic theory on an abstract level. What concerned them most, whether in art or in ashtrays, were the practical problems of making poems and of living one’s life, questions they approached with humility and humor, as well as with gentleness and common sense.
Yet even such casual exchanges might prove fruitful, as Bishop showed in "12 O’Clock News," an uncanny prose poem over which she had long labored and which she published at last in 1973, more than twenty years after her pragmatic riposte to Lowell’s episode of near self-immolation. Here a writer’s "ashtray" appears as the climactic figure in a series that includes a "gooseneck lamp," a "typewriter," a "pile of mss.," and other necessities of the writer’s trade. Each item is viewed with unconscious surrealism by a condescending observer—perhaps a war correspondent—who sees in these prosaic objects evidence of battle damage suffered by "this inscrutable people, our opponents." The ashtray’s crushed cigarettes metamorphose before this observer’s eyes into soldiers lying in heaps:
wearing the camouflage "battle dress" intended for "winter warfare." They are in hideously contorted positions, all dead. We can make out
at least eight bodies.
For Bishop as for Lowell, these letters might precipitate into poetry at surprising
times and in unforeseeable ways.
As Bishop acknowledged to her fellow New Englander in the letter about her Maine hairdresser, she had in fact been virtually orphaned in early youth, and since then she had been plowing through life very nearly alone. Bishop noted the importance of support from her fellow writers, citing in a 1963 letter from Brazil a remark by Virgil Thomson, who had said: "one of the strange things about poets is the way they keep warm by writing to one another all over the world." Bishop was born half a world away from Brazil in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1911. Her father was William Thomas Bishop, a prosperous building contractor, who died of the still-incurable Bright’s disease when she was eight months old. Her mother, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, never got over the shock of her husband’s death. In 1915, when Bishop was four, her mother returned with her to the Bulmer family home in Great Village, Nova Scotia. Within a year, Bishop’s mother suffered a severe mental breakdown from which she did not recover, and she was placed in a mental institution in Dart mouth, Nova Scotia, where she died in 1934. Bishop never saw her again, and she vividly portrays this decisive experience of loss in her poignant "In the Village" (1953), a story which evokes the lingering presence of "the scream"—a scream Bishop associates with her mother’s final breakdown:
The scream hangs there like that, unheard, in memory—in the past, in
the present, and those years between. It was not even loud to begin
with, perhaps. It just came there to live, forever—not loud, just alive
forever. Its pitch would be the pitch of my village.
Lowell praised this story as "wonderful" when it first appeared in The New
Yorker, and in 1962 he composed a poem in quatrains "derived from Elizabeth
Bishop’s story" entitled "The Scream." Lowell frequently mentioned "In the Village" in subsequent letters, and the story antedates his own memoir "91 Revere Street" by three years and the composition of his "Life Studies" sequence by four.
In 1917, the year after her mother’s breakdown, Bishop was claimed by her wealthy paternal grandparents and transported from her beloved Great Village back to Worcester. Bishop observed of this move, in her posthumously published memoir "The Country Mouse": "I had been brought back unconsulted and against my wishes to the house my father had been born in, to be saved from a life of poverty and provincialism, bare feet, suet puddings, unsanitary school slates, perhaps even from the inverted r’s of my mother’s family. With this surprising set of grandparents, until a few weeks ago no more than names, a new life was about to begin." In her own mind, "I felt as if I were being kidnapped, even if I wasn’t." In the months that followed her unwilling return to Worcester, Bishop suffered simultaneous and nearly fatal onsets of asthma and eczema. She would struggle with severe episodes of both disorders for the rest of her life. When her paternal grandparents realized they could not care for her adequately, Bishop was passed among various maternal and paternal relatives. She lived chiefly, until she reached high school age, with her maternal aunt Maud Bulmer Shepherdson in an ethnically diverse lower-middle-class neighborhood in Revere, Massachusetts.
Thus, with these early and involuntary travels and movements up and down the social ladder, Bishop developed a fascination with geography. This may also explain the rapid juxtaposition, in her letters and in her poems, of sharply different peoples, cultures, and perspectives. After years spent quietly observing her passing world or, when the asthma struck, lying in bed "wheezing and reading," Bishop sufficiently recovered her health to attend boarding school and later Vassar College on funds provided by a trust established by her father. After graduating from Vassar in 1934, a year or two older than most of her classmates because of the time lost to illness, she embarked on an adventurous life of travel that would lead to extended sojourns in Europe, Key West, Mexico, and Brazil and briefer visits to Newfoundland and North Africa, topped near the end of her life by a journey to the Galápagos. As her letters to Lowell show, Bishop’s insecurities seemed to melt away when she was on the move, and it is a widely held tenet of Bishop studies that her famous travels may have been prompted by a search for a sustaining place to be. Although, as One Art: Letters makes clear, she maintained a remarkably extensive circle of friends and correspondents, to many of whom she wrote nearly as voluminously as she did to Lowell, she once told him: "When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived." Lowell, quoting this remark back to Bishop nearly a decade later, was recalling the "long swimming and sunning Stonington [Maine] day" in 1948 when Bishop disclosed to Lowell key aspects of her early history. It was at this moment, as Lowell would recall in that 1957 letter, that he came nearest to proposing marriage to her.
Like Bishop’s, Lowell’s early life was deeply troubled by childhood experiences of emotional uncertainty and loss, and his work, like hers, is haunted by painful recollections of his youth. The enthusiasm they display in their letters for each other’s self-exploratory writing about childhood shows that this shared experience was one source of their lasting affinity. Lowell’s memoir "91 Revere Street" (1956)—inspired, as he acknowledged, by Bishop’s earlier "In the Village"—focuses on the year 1927, when Lowell was ten years old and his father, Robert Traill Spence Lowell III, was making up his mind under strong pressure from his wife, born Charlotte inslow, to resign from a promising career in the navy to take up her preferred mode of living, as an upper-crust Bostonian. This memoir, in combination with the family sequence from Life Studies, makes it clear that Lowell’s parents were illmatched and played out their difficulties in front of their only son. As Lowell recalled in "91 Revere Street," "I felt drenched in my parents’ passions."
These passions took the form of ongoing, nightly verbal warfare overheard by the young poet-in-the-making during "the two years my mother spent in trying to argue my father into resigning from the Navy." Lowell’s memoir revisits the "arthritic spiritual pains" of this period, during which "Mother had violently set her heart on the resignation. She was hysterical in her calm." The wrenching effect of this not-altogether-civil domestic combat went deep into Lowell’s psyche, and his father’s ultimate defenselessness, which led him to mumble, "Yes, yes, yes," in nighttime conversations overheard by their eavesdropping son, made it clear that his father would not be able to defend his son from a mother whose threatening presence was a daily reality for Lowell: "I grew less willing to open my mouth. I bored my parents, they bored me."
It was Lowell’s mother who held the reins of power within his family. Lowell’s father was a descendant of one of Boston’s most famous families, but his was a secondary branch that had cut its ties with Boston two generations before. Lowell’s great-grandfather, the first Robert Traill Spence Lowell, was an Anglican minister and the elder brother of the poet James Russell Lowell. This Lowell ancestor was a sometime missionary to Newfoundland, the pastor of a working class parish in Newark, New Jersey, a poet and novelist of minor reputation, and for three years the headmaster of St. Mark’s School near Boston, the boarding school which Lowell would one day attend. Despite these accomplishments "The clan as a whole was inclined to look at him just a little askance as déraciné," or so observes Ferris Greenslet in his elegant family history The Lowells and Their Seven Worlds. Perhaps the principal reason for these sidelong looks of disapproval by the family’s principal worthies was because this forebear ultimately relocated from Boston to "live with his wife ’s people in Duanesburg [New York]." The maternal Traill Spence line seems also, according to Greenslet, to have been the hereditary source of the bipolar disorder that infiltrated this branch of the family tree. Bishop may well have been aware of these bits of Lowelliana, since Greenslet was the editor of her first book at Houghton Mifflin and in October 1946, a few months before she met Lowell, Bishop congratulated Greenslet on the book’s recent publication and declared her eagerness to read it, " tonight, I hope." Lowell was exaggerating, but not by much, when he said that he didn’t know he was "a Lowell" until Allen Tate made clear to him the significance—and usefulness for himself as a poet—of his family position.
Lowell’s mother, a descendant of the famous Winslow line, was the family’s acknowledged aristocrat and its dyed-in-the-wool Bostonian, whereas when his father served as third in command of the local navy yard, he was by comparison a mere transplant and also comparatively impecunious. Without the added support of Arthur Winslow, Charlotte ’s wealthy father—who had made a fortune as a mining engineer before settling back into the embrace of his native city—the family would have been dependent on Commander Lowell’s modest navy pay. Just as Bishop had been passed along among various grandparents, uncles, and aunts, Lowell was raised more by nurses and schoolmistresses and -masters than by his own mother or father, and he felt himself a victim both of his parents’ neglect and of his mother’s narcissistic over control. For despite the fact that—setting James Russell and Amy Lowell aside—even the judges and captains of industry and Harvard presidents in the main Lowell line had dabbled in verse, and that his Lowell great-grandfather had been a poet of a certain note, it was Lowell’s mother who declared poetry to be an impossible occupation for any son of hers. Lowell wrote to Bishop of his recently widowed mother in 1951, "Well, under the best conditions, of course, I can’t begin to make sense out of her or to her. Each year since I was eighteen, it’s gotten worse." Three years later, the death of Charlotte Lowell and her son’s journey to Italy to recover his mother’s body would trigger yet another overwhelming bipolar episode.
Certainly, these poets enjoyed real social and cultural advantages. Given their painful early histories, however, and their often turbulent personal vicissitudes, it is not surprising that they frequently found themselves viewing the world, as Adrienne Rich noted of Bishop, through "the eye of the outsider." Partly for that reason, friendship for them was a matter of the greatest possible importance. Lowell shared with Bishop a real talent for friendship. Each maintained many intense lifelong friendships, and, as Peter Taylor noted of Lowell, loyalty to friends was a crucial personal value. Lowell wrote to Bishop in 1959,
Oh we won’t ever fall out, God help us! Aren’t people difficult. I
think, perhaps I have almost more warm intellectual friends than anyone,
and have lost none except Delmore Schwartz. But it’s like walking
on eggs. All of them have to be humored, flattered, drawn out,
allowed to say very petulant things to you. I’m sure they have to bear
the same things from me—however, I don’t feel the need to be diplomatic
with you and Peter Taylor.
Although they did, on a few occasions, disagree—most strenuously over Lowell’s use of Hardwick’s letters in The Dolphin—and although theirs, like all friendships, contained certain areas of ambivalence, the longevity of their friendship, and its intensity, was never really in doubt.
Excerpted from Words in Air by Elizabeth Bishop & Robert Lowell.
Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth Bishop.
Published in 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.