In 1973, the great American poet Robert Lowell published a poem about the way his best friend, Elizabeth Bishop, wrote her own poetry:
you still hang your words in air, ten years
unfinished, glued to your notice boards, with gaps
or empties for the unimaginable phrase —
unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect?
Their relationship spanned 30 years. A new book called Words in Air publishes their complete correspondence for the first time.
Lowell was a Pulitzer Prize winner before he was 30 and held a position that eventually became known as Poet Laureate; he was a phenom. Bishop was six years older — and would later be compared to Emily Dickenson.
They met at a New York dinner party in 1947, at the home of the poet and critic Randall Jarrell. Bishop was afraid to attend the gathering. She had asthma and was shy — someone who liked the fringes of things. Like parties. And continents. She preferred Rio de Janeiro and Key West to Boston and New York.
Lowell had just won a Pulitzer for his collection Lord Weary's Castle. Bishop had won the distinguished Houghton-Mifflin Poetry Prize Fellowship for her collection North and South.
Intellectually, Bishop, who was a lesbian, fell like a stone for the handsome and mesmerizing Lowell, whom she said she "loved at first sight." When she got home from the party, she wrote to him — an uncharacteristic first move. Write me a note, she said. He did. Over the next three decades, they would write hundreds more.
In Words in Air, edited by Thomas Travisano, it's easy to feel Bishop and Lowell finishing a cup of coffee or lingering over a cigarette. Travisano points to the quality of lightness in the correspondence. When Lowell nearly sets himself on fire smoking, Bishop sends him an ashtray.
Early on in 1948, Bishop confided to Lowell that she was lonely. She did not include much about her alcoholism — referring obliquely to being in and out of what she called "rest homes" over the years. For his part, Lowell hesitated to share with her the details of the manic depression that would color his life — until it nearly destroyed him.
Lowell suffered his first major breakdown in 1949, when he was 32. A short-time later, he married Elizabeth Hardwick. It was a tumultuous marriage that lasted 20 years despite his infidelities. Bishop had a relationship for 16 years with Lota de Macedo Soares, a brilliant Brazilian architect. But there was at least one moment, perhaps a manic moment, in which Lowell, writing from Castine, Maine, imagined a romantic trajectory for himself and Bishop.
Their letters were frequent, their meetings less so. Lowell said they had to get over moving as "if attached by a stiff piece of wire," where each moved in the opposite direction when one moved closer. And they did critique each other's work; Bishop was shocked when Lowell used his ex-wife's letters in his collection, The Dolphin.
Unquestionably, each depended on the other. Lowell would often step in throughout Bishop's life to arrange fellowships, teaching positions or awards nominations. They lived on their words.
Almost 20 years after they met, Lowell wrote to Bishop: "How wonderful you are, dear, and how wonderful that you write me letters. What a block of life has passed since we met."
When Lowell died, Bishop wrote an elegiac poem called "North Haven," referring to the island in the Penobscot Bay where both had spent time:
You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue ... And now — you've left
for good. You can't derange, or re-arrange,
poems again. (But the sparrows can their song.)
The words won't change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.