Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell
Edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 845 pp., $40)
'"Your poem came to the right buyer," Robert Lowell wrote to Elizabeth Bishop during the spring of 1976 after receiving "One Art," the nineteen lines that Bishop called "the one & only villanelle of my life." Composed in a tightly repetitive form inherited from the troubadours of the late Renaissance, "One Art" may be the best known, most anthologized American poem of the past half-century. Its opening lines--
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster--
are familiar to college students who couldn't tell you whether they were by Bishop, Shakespeare, or Robert Frost. Bishop's wry how-to manual, with its practical lessons in losing--"Lose something every day. Accept the fluster/of lost door keys, the hour badly spent"--was as right for the self-help 1970s as Dylan Thomas's equally famous villanelle, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," was for an age of self-styled existentialists braving what Lowell called the "tranquillized Fifties."
Three days after his fifty-ninth birthday, Lowell (known as Cal to his friends) accompanied his praise for "One Art" with the news that he had just completed "a longish though not violently troubled stay in the hospital" after yet another of the manic episodes that plagued his adulthood. "I fear the frequency of these things," he wrote. "Yet I put my trust in my doctor's unruffled trust in lithium." "I haven't been too well myself," Bishop countered. Six years older than Lowell, she was in recovery from an alcoholic binge brought on by her fear that her companion, Alice Methfessel, was about to leave her. The jaunty tone of "One Art" breaks down in its ending:
--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
"The last 4 lines are the triumph," Lowell remarked, "here the poet's voice rings out. I am reminded of Wyatt or Herbert. You command your words."
The exchange over "One Art" came toward the end of a remarkable friendship--part long-distance romance, part artistic collaboration, part AA meeting--that lasted almost thirty years. This huge and wonderful book encompasses all the surviving correspondence between Bishop and Lowell, 458 items in all, adding more than three hundred previously unpublished letters to those already available in Bishop's One Art: Letters (1994) and The Letters of Robert Lowell (2005). Thomas Travisano's boosterish introduction betrays some anxiety:
"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!'"
If Lowell's "great" poetry is not as popular as it once was, Travisano seems to imply, at least Lowell was a public figure whose opposition to "the nation's president" over the Vietnam War was "widely publicized."
It is true that Lowell's reputation has slipped since his death, and that Bishop's has steadily risen. His ferocious productivity (his Collected Poems is 850 pages long), compared with her spare perfectionism (180 pages of collected poems in the recently published Library of America edition), has made her the easier poet to appreciate. They seem at times a bipolar pair, his manic output matched by her depressive reticence. "I've always felt that I've written poetry more by not writing it than writing it," Bishop told Lowell. But what Words in Air makes clear is that their poetry developed in tandem: they borrowed and stole from each other, made revisions according to the other's advice, tested and discarded poems after consultation, and (perhaps most importantly) wrote to satisfy the towering expectations each poet had for the other. They remind one in many ways (and sometimes reminded themselves) of Coleridge and Wordsworth, though a closer analogy might be to Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. One can easily imagine Lowell putting his unmade bed on the wall and calling it art.
Lowell and Bishop met in January 1947 at a dinner party in New York hosted by the poet Randall Jarrell, the cruelest critic of their generation. "I loved him at first sight," Bishop wrote of Lowell in an unpublished draft of a memoir appended to Words in Air. All three poets had just seen a popular Picasso exhibition at the Knoedler Gallery. "Lowell's taste & mine agreed well," Bishop wrote. "Jarrell tended to argue and make fun and at one point he demonstrated painting a picture with his feet, to show us what was coming next." Lowell was "rather untidy," she recalled. "He was wearing a rumpled dark blue suit; I remember the sad state of his shoes; he needed a hair cut, and he was very handsome and handsome in an almost old-fashioned poetic way." Lowell, who revised everything, offered his own version of their meeting in a letter in 1974: "I see you as rather tall, long brown-haired, shy but full of des[cription] and anecdote as now." To which Bishop replied: "Never, never was I 'tall.' I was always 5 ft 4 and 1/4 inches--now shrunk to 5 ft 4 inches.... And I never had 'long brown hair' either!--It started turning gray when I was 23 or 24--and probably was already somewhat grizzled when I first met you."
Bishop and Lowell were both New Englanders, both financially comfortable, and educated at elite schools. Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father, a building contractor, died when she was eight months old; her mother was committed to a mental hospital when Bishop was five. She recalled her mother's breakdown in a haunting story called "In the Village," in which she remembered her mother's final cry: "The scream hangs there like that, unheard, in memory--in the past, in the present, and those years between." Lowell turned the passage into his poem "The Scream." Farmed out to relatives on both sides of her family, Bishop attended boarding school and Vassar on a trust fund established by her father.
An only child like Bishop, Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV was born where Lowells are always born, in Boston. He once described his mother as "a scolding rusty hinge" who browbeat his mild and "mumbling" father into quitting his administrative job in the Navy and going into business selling soap. Lowell attended St. Mark's and, briefly, Harvard before continuing his education at Kenyon College, where he roomed with Jarrell in the house of their favorite teacher, the Southern poet-critic John Crowe Ransom. In 1946, the year before they met, Lowell and Bishop had published their first real books. Bishop's North & South included such lasting masterpieces as "The Man-Moth" and "The Fish," and won the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Prize Fellowship; Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle, a lesser if louder achievement in its declamatory rhymed verse, won the Pulitzer Prize.
Their growing intimacy seems to have surprised them both. Lowell's first marriage, to the writer Jean Stafford, was ending in divorce. Bishop was also ending a long-term relationship, with a woman from Key West named Marjorie Stevens. For the first two years of their friendship, at least in Lowell's mind, the possibility of marriage was in the air. In "Water," the first poem in For the Union Dead (later revised into a sonnet titled "Water 1948"), he reminded her of a particular afternoon in Stonington, Maine, when they swam and talked on a slab of rock:
We wished our two souls
might return like gulls
to the rock. In the end,
the water was too cold for us.
"When you write my epitaph," Bishop told him that day, "you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived." Lowell thought of proposing at the time, but got cold feet: "like a loon that needs sixty feet, I believe, to take off from the water, I wanted time and space." As he explained, in a letter of 1957:
"I do think free will is sewn into everything we do; you can't cross a street, light a cigarette, drop saccharine in your coffee without really doing it. Yet the possible alternatives that life allows us are very few, often there must be none. 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 etc., the poetry would be improved, and 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."
Bishop's characteristically down-to-earth response to all this melodrama was basically: get a good shrink and don't drink.
Other choices were made, in any case. Lowell married the writer Elizabeth Hardwick in 1949; their child, Harriet, was born in 1957. Bishop forged an enduring relationship with Lota de Macedo Soares, a Brazilian aristocrat and government official, at whose house she recovered from an allergic reaction on a trip to South America in 1951. They lived together in Brazil until Soares's suicide in 1967. Both poets continued lifelong struggles with mental illness and addiction, and the accompanying wreckage is well documented. There was a particularly nasty episode at Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, early in 1949, amid an FBI probe regarding possible communist activity there. Grandiose and paranoid, Lowell led the prosecution, accusing the director of being a communist, before order was restored.
Lowell suffered his first major manic attack later that spring, and described it in an autobiographical draft:
"The night before I was locked up I ran about the streets of Bloomington Indiana crying out against devils and homosexuals. I believed I could stop cars and paralyze their forces by merely standing in the middle of the highway with my arms outspread.... Bloomington stood for Joyce's hero and Christian regeneration. Indiana stood for the evil, unexorcised, aboriginal Indians. I suspected I was a reincarnation of the Holy Ghost, and had become homicidally hallucinated. To know the glory, violence, and banality of such an experience is corrupting."
On later occasions, Lowell channeled Hitler instead of Jesus. Bishop was hospitalized in 1949 as well, and she began a regimen of alcohol-aversion therapy in 1954.
Somehow, amid the glory and the banality, the poems got written. Tranquilized or not, the 1950s were an interesting time for American poets eager to make their mark. The intimidating monuments of modernism were there for all to see, even as their creators--Eliot, Stevens, Moore, Williams, Frost--endured the humiliations of old age, or worse. Lowell and Bishop, who both served as poetry consultants at the Library of Congress, visited Ezra Pound at the mental hospital of St. Elizabeths in Washington, where he was held for making treasonous radio broadcasts in support of Mussolini. In 1948, Lowell was one of the judges who voted, controversially, to award Pound the Bollingen Prize for his Pisan Cantos; Bishop wrote her strange and moving "Visits to St. Elizabeths," dated 1950, with its nightmarish nursery-rhyme phrasing: "This is the house of Bedlam./This is the man/that lies in the house of Bedlam./This is the time/of the tragic man/that lies in the house of Bedlam...."
Metaphors for madness come from pottery, with vulnerable vessels cracked and crazed in the kiln's inferno. The pathos of the locked psychiatric ward, where communal visiting hours were interrupted by outbursts from other inmates, seemed an all-too-real possible future for Lowell and Bishop--a special circle of Dante's Hell reserved for aging poets. Bishop never doubted that Pound was a crackpot. "Why," she wondered, "do some poets manage to get by and live to be malicious old bores like Frost or ... pompous old ones, like Yeats, or crazy old ones like Pound--and some just don't?"
Some of the most interesting pages in Words in Air are shoptalk: two smart and ambitious poets seeking to position their own work amid competing models. Another visitor to St. Elizabeths circa 1950 was Charles Olson, a Melville scholar trained at Harvard and a poet eager to put his own spin on lessons learned from Pound. Bishop called Olson one of the "three or four people in this world I really hate," but offered no further explanation. Olson's influential manifesto "Projective Verse" appeared in 1950, laying out an agenda for experimental poetry involving what he called "COMPOSITION BY FIELD, as opposed to inherited line, stanza, over-all form." Black Mountain College in North Carolina, which Olson ran for several years in the early 1950s, became a kind of cultural think-tank for poets such as Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, bent on following Olson's lead, and for painters such as Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. By the mid-1950s, there was some cross-fertilization between Black Mountain and the Beat writers of the West Coast.
Bishop and Lowell exchanged wary reactions to all this ferment, and kept a close eye also on the Beats. In 1959, Lowell reported that "Ginsberg, Corso, and Orlovsky came to call on me" in his New York apartment. "When they came in, they all took off their wet shoes and tiptoed upstairs. They are phony in [a] way because they have made a lot of publicity out of very little talent.... How can you make a go for long by reciting so-so verse to half-jeering swarms of college students?" Bishop replied: "I have read some of the poetry and find it hopeless--and yet I sympathize with them." In a later letter, she explained her sympathy. She quoted Lowell's remark about Marianne Moore's "terrible, private, and strange revolutionary poetry," and his claim that "there isn't the motive to do that now." Bishop wondered why not:
"Isn't there even more--only it's terribly hard to find the exact and right and surprising enough, or un-surprising enough, point at which to revolt now? The Beats have just fallen back on an old corpse-strewn or monument-strewn battle-field--the real real protest I suspect is something quite different. (If only I could find it. Klee's picture called FEAR seems close to it, I think...)"
Bishop is probably referring to Mask of Fear at the Museum of Modern Art, with its Humpty Dumpty-like figure, inspired by a Zuni sculpture, walking on four spindly legs. It is striking how often Bishop in her letters alludes to contemporary art as a provocation for her own work. She is curious about Abstract Expressionism, but she prefers what she calls the "strange kind of modesty" that she associates with "Klee and Kokoschka and Schwitters": "Modesty, care, space, a sort of helplessness but determination at the same time." Of course, she is also describing her own aesthetic instincts. Bishop loved Joseph Cornell's work; she constructed boxes like his and translated Octavio Paz's poem about him. Lowell preferred Old Masters such as Vermeer and Holbein. In 1957, when Rothko and de Kooning and Johns were on the scene, he announced confidently that the best painters in America were Ben Shahn, Morris Graves, and Hyman Bloom.
One feels this contrast of temperaments in the differing rhythms and styles of the letters themselves. Lowell accurately describes his own letters as "muscle-bound." In a picaresque narrative of a cruise aboard the poet Richard Eberhart's sailboat, Lowell works up the drunken crew, including a former wife of the Beat poet Kenneth Rexroth, who was for Lowell a bete noire:
"She had gone to six consecutive Eberhart readings (sometimes two a day)! In fact she was all too much astride the high, foamy wave of Eberhart's elan, and Betty [his wife] was rather balky and unpoetic about obeying Dick, still a bungalow man and not yet the skipper of the Reve.... [On shore] you felt you were seeing the great Roman villas described by Horace and Juvenal as examples of the glorious sic transit gloria mundi of the imperial Roman's middle age (His own middle age, not Rome's!). We landed at Somesville, went ashore, a rather ungracious little group ... the ex-Mrs. Rexroth, figury, black sweatery, faded red haired, Dick, home-made Commander Whitehead, fringe-bearded, sunset red-faced, wearing a plum and beige lumber-jacket."
It is easy to imagine that passage chopped and squared into one of Lowell's sonnets. Lowell had a way, as Bishop noted, of "prefacing a name with adjective piled on adjective--I like this very much; sometimes I disagree with an adjective or two, but usually the others will be accurate, surprising, maybe, but suddenly new and absolutely right--you can take your choice."
Bishop worried that her own writing was "frivolous," and that her family connections could hardly match his.
"I feel that I could write in as much detail about my Uncle Artie, say--but what would be the significance? Nothing at all. He became a drunkard, fought with his wife, and spent most of his time fishing ... and was ignorant as sin. It is sad; slightly more interesting than having an uncle practicing law in Schenectady maybe, but that's all. Whereas all you have to do is put down the names! And the fact that it seems significant, illustrative, American, etc., gives you, I think, the confidence you display about tackling any idea or theme, seriously, in both writing and conversation."
She admired his aristocratic hauteur, seemingly inherited from the august line of Lowells, which neither madness nor domestic squalor could break down, but she never sought to emulate it. She recognized the different strengths, the different art, to be derived from a shaky line of Uncle Arties, significant and illustrative of the helplessness twinned with determination she was after.
In these letters, Bishop's very frivolity is infectious. "I believe," she wrote, "in swimming, flying, and crawling, and burrowing." That exquisitely delayed "and burrowing" finds a descriptive equivalent in her account of a tiny clown at a circus in Rio, who "made an exit breaking wind in huge puffs of blue smoke, with reports like a cannon--again, and again, and finally just once more from behind the red velvet curtain." What she said of the "sketchiness" of Emily Dickinson's letters could be said of her own: "It is the sketchiness of the water-spider, tenaciously holding to its upstream position by means of the faintest ripples, while making one aware of the current of death and the darkness below."
One of the best documented stylistic shifts in the history of American poetry is the steady loosening of Lowell's muscle-bound style leading up to the epoch-making Life Studies in 1959, the volume in which Lowell mined his own family history and "put down the names." Many factors contributed to that loosening, not least his encounter with Bishop's poetry and short stories. On a trip to the West Coast during the spring of 1957, when he read his poems in front of audiences who expected a more relaxed and spontaneous phrasing closer to the Beats, Lowell found himself unstitching the tight pattern of his poems. "I'd make little changes just impromptu," he said. "I began to have a certain disrespect for the tight forms. If you could make it easier by just changing syllables, then why not?"
During a stay at the McLean Hospital the following year, recovering from another bout with mania and feeling "drained of new poems," Lowell turned to translation instead. His familiarity with the languages involved was spotty, and the prose versions he relied on allowed him to "disrespect" tight forms. The result was Imitations, the bracing book of exceedingly free translations that he dedicated to Bishop and published in 1961. "Sing for me, Muse, the mania of Achilles," the book opens. Lowell's version of "The Killing of Lykaon, " the episode that meant so much to Simone Weil in her analysis of the Iliad as "the poem of force," portrays Achilles as he brutally murders one of Priam's sons after patiently explaining his reasons: "You too must die, my dear. Why do you care?/Patroklos, a much better man, has died." Imitations closes with mania as well, in a quiet poem of Rilke's about the homecoming of pigeons: "body and gravity/miraculously multiplied by its mania to return." Despite the hyped-up tenor of the book, especially in the Baudelaire and Rimbaud versions, some of its best moments are quiet. A lovely poem by the German romantic poet Hebel, in which a father and son discuss the fate of man-made things, echoes Achilles: "the hour will strike,/when even Basel must fall down and die."
Like many readers, Bishop was not wild about Imitations, thinking that Lowell, who confessed to having "dropped lines, moved lines, moved stanzas, changed images, and altered meter and intent," had played a little too fast and loose with the originals. "When those dead translations enter the Cabinet of Dr. Cal, they become almost too much alive," she wrote. She felt a kindred uneasiness when Lowell, toward the end of his life, published The Dolphin, chronicling the collapse of his marriage to Hardwick and a new life begun with the English novelist Caroline Blackwood. Bishop objected to poems in which Lowell quoted from Hardwick's letters, revising them to fit his aesthetic needs. "One can use one's life as material--one does, anyway," she wrote, "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."
In 1973, Lowell published The Dolphin along with two other books of sonnets, History and For Lizzie and Harriet. He had culled these latter sequences from Notebook, separating out the more public poems from the private ones and revising--"spoiling by polishing," he feared--as he did so. What was lost in all this re-organization was the jarring juxtapositions of public and private, past and present, in Notebook, the "skipping" that Bishop considered its most effective attribute.
"I really don't know what to say at all--I am overcome by their sheer volume partly, but also by the range, the infinite fascinating detail, the richness, and everything else. I shall have to read them many more times through to get it all. I think I did say something about the earlier version to you in Boston--the kind of overall surrealism I get from them, the skipping and returning, and repeating, and the surrealism--if that is the word--being in the skips, or the 'pattern' rather than in the separate sonnet."
In her moving elegy for Lowell, "North Haven," Bishop wrote with apparent relief: "You can't derange, or re-arrange,/ your poems again."
If one wished to compile a list of poems to read along with Words in Air, one might begin with Bishop's "The Armadillo," dedicated to Lowell, and Lowell's "Skunk Hour," dedicated to Bishop. These poems have the darting, associative speed and the "drifting description," as Lowell called it, of the American idiom unloosed. To these one might add the late and wonderful "Pink Dog," Bishop's last completed poem:
The sun is blazing and the sky is blue.
Umbrellas clothe the beach in every hue.
Naked, you trot across the avenue.
Oh, never have I seen a dog so bare!
Naked and pink, without a single hair...
Startled, the passersby draw back and stare.
These remarkable poems, partly inspired by animals and partly inspired by each other, would help to clarify how the letters collected in Words in Air themselves contributed significantly to the best work of Lowell and Bishop, its confident "skipping" and "sketchiness."
Indeed, in the back-and-forth of these letters, we can see a kind of mutual schooling, as Lowell learned to trust the quick shifts and associative "water-striding" of Bishop's descriptions, even as Bishop learned to honor the weight of her own life experiences. She wrote poignantly of the "sure feeling" she sensed in Lowell's best work:
"as if you've 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. If only one could see everything that way all the time! It seems to me it's the whole purpose of art, to the artist (not to the audience)--that rare feeling of control, illumination--life is all right, for the time being."
Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College and the author of A Summer of Hummingbirds (Penguin) and American Audacity: Literary Essays North and South (Michigan).
By Christopher Benfey