JACKI LYDEN, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Jacki Lyden. The great American poet, Robert Lowell, published a poem 35 years ago. It was about the careful way his dear friend, Elizabeth Bishop, wrote her poetry. Here's how it ends and afterwards, the passage.
Ms. JENNIFER MENDENHALL: (Reading) Have you seen an inchworm crawl on the leaf, cling to the very end, revolve in air, feeling for something, to reach to something? Do you still hang your words in air, 10 years unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps or empties for the unimaginable phrase - unerring muse who makes the casual, perfect?
LYDEN: Unerring muse, that phrase shows the strength of the bond between these late great poets. That bond spanned 30 years. A new volume called "Words in Air" publishes their complete correspondence for the first time. It's one of the literary world's most intriguing relationships, an unlikely paring and in its way, a kind of love story.
(Soundbite of music)
LYDEN: He was Robert Lowell, a descendant of the Boston Lowells, a Pulitzer Prize winner before he was 30, who held a position that eventually became known as the Poet Laureate. She was Elizabeth Bishop, a lesbian, six years older. They met at a dinner party in 1947 in New York at the home of the poet and critic Randall Jarrell. Elizabeth Bishop said later she was fearful of going.
She was shy at the time - someone who liked the fringes of things like parties and continents. She preferred Rio de Janeiro and Key West to Boston and New York. Yet, she fell like a stone for the handsome, mesmerizing Robert Lowell, who, she said, she loved at first sight. He said, there was no one he'd rather talk poetry with. It was as if, he said, they were exchanging recipes for making a cake. When she got home, she wrote to him - an uncharacteristic first move.
Ms. MENDENHALL : (Reading) May 12, 1947. Dear Mr. Lowell, I just wanted to say that I think it is wonderful that you have received the awards. I guess I'll just call them one, two, and three. Anyway, they're all very gratifying. Maybe if you're still in town, you would come to see me sometime. I should like to see you very much. My telephone number is WA51706, or just write me a note, if you'd rather.
LYDEN: Write me a note, she said. He did. Lowell and Bishop wrote hundreds of letters over the next three decades, collected in "Words in Air," edited by Thomas Travisano. We can practically 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 set himself on fire smoking, Bishop sent him an ashtray. Travisano says, when they met, they were both coming out of broken relationships.
Mr. THOMAS TRAVISANO (Editor): Both of them are kind of unsettled, looking for the next thing in their lives. And there was even the possibility that Bishop could be the next thing for Lowell or Lowell could be the next thing for Bishop. Some friends even thought that they might become engaged. They never did.
Mr. AUBERY DEEKER: (Reading) Giotto, Saratoga Springs, August 21st, 1947. Dear Elizabeth, you must be called that. I'm called Cal, but I won't explain why. None of the prototypes are flattering. Calvin, Caligula, Caliban, Calvin Coolidge, calligraphy - with merciless irony. I'm glad you wrote me because it gives me an excuse to tell you how much I liked your New Yorker fish poem. Perhaps, it's your best.
Ms. MENDENHALL: (Reading) At the fish houses, although it is a cold evening, down by one of the fish houses, an old man sits netting, his net in the gloaming almost invisible, a dark purple brown and his shuttle worn and polished. The air smells so strong of codfish, it makes one's nose run and one's eyes water. The five fish houses have steeply-peaked roofs and narrow...
LYDEN: Elizabeth Bishop had almost jewelry maker's approach to poetry, polishing each word or phrase before (unintelligible) the jam down in print. In fact, it wasn't unusual for her poems to take decades to write. Early on, in 1948, Bishop confided to Lowell that she was lonely. When she wrote to him, she'd been to see her hairdresser during a summer stay in Maine.
Ms. MENDENHALL: (Reading) 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, one, that my hair don't feel like hair at all. Two, 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, plowing through life alone? So now, I can't walk downstairs in the morning or upstairs at night without feeling I'm plowing. There's no place like New England.
LYDEN: But if Elizabeth Bishop could write humorously about her loneliness, she didn't include much about her alcoholism, referring obliquely to being in and out of what she called rest homes over the years. And Lowell hesitated to share with her the details of the manic depression that would color his life and work until it nearly destroyed him.
Ms. MENDENHALL: (Reading) A lot of water has gone under millwheels since we were last writing, almost a year ago now. I have been sick again, and somehow, even with you, I shrink both from mentioning and not mentioning. This thing's come on with a gruesome, vulgar, blasting surge of enthusiasm. One becomes a kind of man-aping balloon in a parade then you subside and eat bitter coffee grounds of dullness, guilt, etcetera. Well, your letter moved our hearts, and please don't worry anymore.
LYDEN: Lowell suffered his first major breakdown in 1949, when he was 32. A short-time later, he married fellow writer Elizabeth Hardwick, a tumultuous marriage that nevertheless lasted 20 years despite his infidelities. Bishop had a relationship with Lota de Macedo Soares, a female Brazilian architect. It went on for 16 years.
But there was a moment, perhaps a manic moment, in which Lowell, writing from Castine, Maine, imagined a romantic trajectory for Bishop and himself. The collection's editor Thomas Travisano talks about that moment.
Mr. TRAVISANO: In 1957, Bishop and Lota went up to Castine, and Lowell began the onset of a manic episode and made kind of romantic advances to Bishop with his wife and daughter in the next room, and Bishop sort of recoiled a little bit and made a rather brisk and early departure from Castine.
Mr. DEEKER: (Reading) August 15, 1957. Dearest Elizabeth, you need never again fear my overstepping myself and stirring up confusion with you. My frenzied behavior during your visit has a history, and there is one fact that I want to disengage from all its harsh frenzy. There's one bit of the past that I would like to get off my chest, and then I think all will be easy with us.
Do you remember how, at the end of that long swimming and sunning Stonington day, you said, rather humorously, yet it was truly meant, when you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived. Probably you forget, and anyway, all that has mercifully changed, and all has come right since you found Lota.
But at the time, everything - I guess I don't want to over-dramatize - our relations seemed to have reached a new place. I assumed that it would just be a matter of time before I proposed, and I half- believed that you would accept. Yet, I wanted it all to have the right build-up. And like a loon that needs 60 feet, I believe, to take off from the water, I wanted time and space and went on assuming.
Let me say this, though, and then leave the matter forever. I've never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry. No doubt if I used my head better, ordered my life better, worked harder, etcetera, the poetry would be improved. There must be many lost poems, innumerable accidents and ill-done actions. But asking you is the might-have-been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.
LYDEN: Years past. Lowell was there for Bishop when her lover, Lota, committed suicide. Their letters were frequent, their meetings less so. Lowell said they have to get over moving as if attached by a stiff piece of wire where each moves in the opposite direction when one move closer, and they did critique each other, not only poetically. Bishop was shocked when Lowell used his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick's letters in his collection, "The Dolphin."
Ms. MENDENHALL: (Reading) March 21st, 1972. Dearest Cal, I'm sure my point is only too plain. Lizzie is not dead, etcetera, but there is a mixture of fact and fiction, and you have changed her letters. That is infinite mischief, I think. One can use one's life as material. One does anyway. But these letters - aren't you violating a trust? Art just isn't worth that much. It is not being gentle to use personal tragic anguished letters that way. It's cruel.
LYDEN: Yet, Elizabeth Bishop depended on Robert Lowell throughout her life. He would often step in with fellowships or teaching positions or award nominations when things got hard. After all, they were two poets who lived on their words. Almost 40 years after they met, Robert Lowell wrote to Elizabeth Bishop, how wonderful you are, dear, and how wonderful that you write me letters. What a block of life has past since we met. Again, Thomas Travisano, the editor of "Words in Air."
Mr. TRAVISANO: Lowell's destiny was to become this great public poet who kind of meditated on the America of the 1960s and '70s. Bishop, on the other hand, her destiny seemed to be this writer's writer's writer.
LYDEN: And then suddenly, it was over.
Ms. MENDENHALL: (Reading) North Haven in memoriam, Robert Lowell. The islands haven't shifted since last summer, even if I like to pretend they have. Drifting in a dreamy sort of way, a little north, a little south, or sideways…
LYDEN: Bishop wrote this elegiac poem for Robert Lowell after his heart attack in 1977. He was 60. The poem called "North Haven," ends this way...
(Soundbite of people at the sea)
Ms. MENDENHALL: (Reading) Years ago, you told me it was here in 1932 you first discovered girls and learned to sail, and learned to kiss. You had such fun, you said, that classic summer. Fun - it always seemed to leave you at a loss. You left North Haven, anchored in its rock, afloat in mystic blue. And now, you've left for good. You can't derange or rearrange your poems again. But the sparrows can their song. The words won't change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.
(Soundbite of music)
LYDEN: The memorial poem "North Haven" by Elizabeth Bishop, written for her dear friend Robert Lowell. Their letters to each other are collected in the new volume "Words in Air," edited by Thomas Travisano. Their letters were read here by Jennifer Mendenhall and Aubrey Deeker.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.