'I Write Entirely for You'
WORDS IN AIR
The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell
Edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton
Illustrated. 875 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $45
A poet should never fall in love with another poet love is already too much like gambling on oil futures. Two poets in love must succumb to the same folie à deux as the actor and the actress, the magician and the fellow magician, because each knows already the flaws beneath the greasepaint, the pigeons hidden in top hats, all the pockmarked truth beneath illusion. Real lovers, Shakespeare long ago reminded us, have reeking breath and hair like a scouring pad.
Lovers may be permitted an exception to this ironclad rule, if they never achieve the bliss of consummation and therefore never have to wake to the beloved's morning breath the morning after. Many would-be lovers have been divided by family, law or plain bad luck; before the days of long-distance phone calls or e-mail, the sublimated affair was conducted by postage stamp. The letters of Nietzsche and Lou Andreas-Salomé, Pirandello and Marta Abba, Gautier and Carlotta Grisi show that, though literature has always been good for love (think how many seductions may be chalked up to Shakespeare's sonnets), love was even better for literature if there was a mailbox nearby.
"Words in Air" collects the letters between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, from a few months after they met at a dinner party in 1947 to a few weeks before his death of a heart attack 30 years later, a correspondence conducted across continents and oceans as their poetry drove them together and their lives kept them apart. As poets, Lowell and Bishop could not have been more different. His heavy-handed youthful verse, solemnly influenced by Allen Tate, laid down a metrical line like iron rail. (If Lowell's early poems seem stultified now, they were boiled in brine and preserved in a carload of salt.) Her whimsical eye and wry, worried poems condemned her to be treated like a minor disciple of Marianne Moore. Bishop for much of her life was a poet's poet, which means a poet without an audience.
Lowell and Bishop felt drawn to each other's poetry from the start. Though wary of being seduced by an alien style (Bishop, after reading one of Lowell's poems: "It took me an hour or so to get back into my own metre"), they were soon exchanging their work and, sometimes by return mail, sending back fond but exacting criticism. Lowell was a poet trying to get out of his own skin he changed styles the way some men change socks while Bishop was desperate to vanish into her words. (The two poets went from not being quite sure who they were to grousing mildly at what they had become.) It doesn't take a Viennese doctor to suggest that the artist's relation to art reveals something about childhood Lowell's poems were often an act of vengeance upon his parents, while Bishop's concealed her anguish over a childhood best forgotten (she described herself as "naturally born guilty").
Poetry can be a surprisingly lonely art you end up wishing that Emily Dickinson had discovered someone livelier than Colonel Higginson, someone who showed a little more rapport. It's so rare for a writer to find the perfect sympathetic intelligence, we think sadly of Melville and Hawthorne, Coleridge and Wordsworth, whose hothouse friendships came to grief, in part because of the fatal attunement of their imaginations not all harmonies survive the wear and tear of character. Bishop and Lowell passed almost immediately from awkward introduction to rapturous intimacy. Though they were delighted by that most valuable specie of literary life, gossip, it was soon apparent what necessary company these brittle, gifted intelligences were.
Their surviving 459 letters, some surprisingly long (Bishop might elaborate hers over weeks, at times swearing she had written Lowell in her imagination), give us the closest view of these wounded creatures his muscular, bull-in-a-china-shop intellect; her pained shyness and abject modesty, and a gaze like the gleam off a knife. She brought out the boyishness in him. They worked out in verse the terms of their fragility its character, its allowance, its burden. It is not, not just, that their sympathies were nearly absolute (letters, however adoring, begin with an affinity of prejudices), but that each poet proved a nearly ideal audience "I think I must write entirely for you," Lowell told her.
Sometimes falling in love is as much an act of criticism as criticism is an act of love. Before, during and after his marriages, Lowell took lovers, from students to a Washington socialite (his poems were charged with an intensity no earthbound lover could match). At the outset of one of his "enthusiasms," as he called his shadowy attacks of manic depression, he often fixed his attention on some starry-eyed young woman. Bishop was not starry-eyed. Lowell was so much in love with her poems, however, it must have seemed logical to fall in love with her. After a near disastrous visit in 1957 (their meetings, long planned and longed for, did not always go well), he wrote her that asking her to marry him was the great might-have-been of his life.
Bishop, who comes across as the more sensible and insightful of the pair, placidly ignored this revelation (she remained somewhat coquettish, from a distance); and their friendship proceeded as before they continued to address each other as "Dearest," and once Lowell called her "Dear Heart." It is to the advantage of these letters that this love was impossible, as he must have known. Bishop was an alcoholic and a lesbian, as well as half a dozen years older. We owe the brilliance of their letters not to the love that dared not speak its name, but to the love whose name except once Lowell dared not speak. Eight years before he died, he wrote, "I seem to spend my life missing you!"
By 1951, Bishop had moved to Brazil, more or less by accident, or the accident of love. She fell in love during a stopover on a long freighter cruise, while being nursed through an allergic reaction to a cashew fruit. She adored the frankness of Brazilians they took no notice of her shyness. Bishop was charmed by the exotic (perhaps one day, when she has ceased to be their darling, academic critics will accuse her of imperialist fantasies). Through coup and countercoup, through the yearly snarl of Brazilian politics, she wrote lighthearted poems that kept their darkness buried in the interior. She was always good at concealing what she felt.
Lowell became her lifeline to the literary world left behind. They discussed the books they read, their motley illnesses, how many poems they were writing (Lowell) or not writing (Bishop), their hopes of seeing each other (half a century ago, almost every visit was preceded by protracted negotiation by letter). If they shook their heads over the antics of Richard Eberhart or the later poems of Marianne Moore, we're amused, because we shake our own heads over Eberhart and the later poems of Marianne Moore. Their peers John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz were not exactly dismissed, but only coolly embraced (Bishop and Lowell admired Jarrell, but were not so fond of his poems). Younger poets, if mentioned at all, were mentioned for their faults.
Yet in this avid chatter there is nothing like braggadocio, nothing as bold as Keats's quiet remark to his brother, "I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death." At one point Bishop says, more in sorrow than in pride, "I feel profoundly bored with all the contemporary poetry except yours, and mine that I haven't written yet." Their mutual praise is as affecting as the way they would shyly enclose some stray poem like "The Armadillo" or "Skunk Hour," described as trifling and now an indispensable citizen of our anthologies.
Their admiration even made them light fingered they borrowed ideas or images the way a neighbor might steal a cup of sugar. Lowell was especially tempted by this lure of the forbidden, using one of Bishop's dreams in a heartbreaking poem about their might-have-been affair, or rewriting in verse one of her short stories. They were literary friends in all the usual ways, providing practical advice (the forever dithery and procrastinating Bishop proved surprisingly pragmatic), trading blurbs, logrolling as shamelessly as pork-bellied senators (Lowell was adept at dropping the quiet word on her behalf). There was a refined lack of jealousy between them that particular vice never found purchase, though in letters to friends they could afford the occasional peevish remark about each other. The only time Bishop took exception to Lowell's poems was when, in "The Dolphin" (1973), he incorporated angry letters from his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick "Art just isn't worth that much," Bishop exclaimed. She flinched when poets revealed in their poems too much of themselves, once claiming that she wished she "could start writing poetry all over again on another planet."
These poets, in short, inspired each other. Lowell always seems to be stuffing her newest poem into his billfold, so he can take it out later like a hundred-dollar bill. Bishop saw immediately how strange and even shocking "Life Studies" (1959) was (its confessional style caused as violent an earthquake in American poetry as "The Waste Land"); but he noticed something more subtle, that she rarely repeated herself. Each time she wrote, it was as if she were reinventing what she did with words, while he tended to repeat his forms until he had driven them into the ground, or driven everyone crazy with them. Bishop was loyal enough to admire, or pretend to, even Lowell's mediocre poems.
If Lowell and Bishop often seem to love no poems more than each other's, as critics perhaps they were right. A hundred years from now, they may prove the 20th century's Whitman and Dickinson, an odd couple whose poems look quizzically at each other, half in understanding, half in consternation, each poet the counter-psyche of the other. Their poems are as different as gravy from groundhogs, their letters so alike so delightfully in concord the reader at times can't guess the author without glancing at the salutation.
These lives were marked by terrible sadness. Bishop's Brazilian lover committed suicide; the poet continued drinking until she started falling down and injuring herself. Lowell's degrading seizures of manic depression, during which he often behaved contemptibly, left him in a permanent state of semi-apology. His three marriages, each time to a novelist, ended badly. Though sometimes blocked or depressed, as a poet Lowell would suddenly bull his way forward; Bishop, timid as a turtle, often terribly lonely, slowly produced small masterpieces, finishing only one or two poems a year (she said, "I've always felt that I've written poetry more by not writing it"). The interstices of their lives were remade as art; but that is not enough, if you have to live the life afterward. Even in their 40s, they sound worn out.
The pleasures of this remarkable correspondence lie in the untiring way these poets entertained each other with the comic inadequacies of the world. Letters offer the biographical hour though in some phrase you may see the germ of a poem, you possess all the brilliant phrases that didn't make their way into poems, whether it's Lowell saying that he, his wife and his mother were all "fuming inside like the burning stuffings of an overstuffed Dutch chair" or Bishop describing the baptism of some babies: "The god-parents holding them shook them up & down just like cocktail shakers." Their remarks about writing have, in his case, a self-amused detachment ("I like being off the high stilts of meter"); in hers, deadpan modesty ("I have only two poetic spigots, marked H & C"). He: "Psycho-therapy is rather amazing something like stirring up the bottom of an aquarium." She: "I bought a small wood Benedito, the crudest kind of whittling and painting. . . . He's holding out the baby, who is stuck on a small nail, exactly like an hors d'oeuvres." In her mid-30s, Bishop, who called herself a "poet by default," had not read Chaucer; in his late 40s, Lowell had to look up the words gesso, echolalia and roadstead.
Admittedly, in this concrete block of a volume there are long stretches of nattering, antique gossip, ideas that come to nothing (Bishop habitually started things she could never finish). The late letters often confine themselves to worries over age, money and dentistry. As the poets grow older, there come the premature revelations of death: Dylan Thomas, then Roethke, Jarrell, Schwartz, Berryman many of their generation died too young. Comically, Lowell and Bishop more or less adopt the younger poet Frank Bidart, who catered to Lowell during his endless revisions (or perhaps encouraged his manic over-revision "spoiling by polishing," Lowell called it) and proved Johnny-on-the-spot after Bishop moved to Boston. If at times the poets treated him as a mere factotum, Bidart served as the surrogate son they could gossip about and fuss over.
The editing of this immense volume is so genially meticulous, it reveals that Robert Giroux's selection of Bishop's correspondence in "One Art" (1994) grossly altered her punctuation. Nonetheless, "Words in Air" is marred by a raft of typos and a sketchy, inadequate glossary of names. The editors confidently announce that the poets' spelling has been corrected all a reader can say is, would that they had corrected more of it.
This long, leisurely correspondence seems now of another world, a fading reminder of the golden age of letter writing. For some two decades, Bishop and Lowell have divided postwar American poetry between them, a shared dominion the more remarkable because their manners, their styles and their philosophies of imagination are so different. Though Bishop was not always highly rated in a generation of poets given to Sturm und Drang, she was worshiped by Lowell; and his is the taste we share now. Their devotion was crucial to their literary life, perhaps more than any of their love affairs. These star-crossed lovers found the muse in each other.
William Logan is a poet and critic whose most recent books are "The Whispering Gallery" and "The Undiscovered Country."
Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil, 1962.
01 nov 2008