Works on Paper
The letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.
by Dan Chiasson November 3, 2008
In 1947, Elizabeth Bishop published "At the Fishhouses," in this magazine. Among those who admired the poem was her new friend the poet Robert Lowell. "I liked your New Yorker fish poem," he wrote. "I am a fisherman myself, but all my fish become symbols, alas!" Bishop, who was staying at the time in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, had written to Lowell of the region's marvellous bird life, "auks and the only puffins left on the continent, or so they tell us . . . real ravens on the beach . . . enormous, with sort of rough black beards under their beaks." In response, Lowell lamented, "Puffins are in my book of New England birds, but I've never seen one." As for Nova Scotia, he recalled it as the site of a bad trout-fishing expedition with his grandfather, including a "horrible after sea-sick feeling" and a few "dismal low-tide gulls."
From the start, Lowell and Bishop were intent on being a mismatch. When Lowell invited Bishop to visit him in Washington, where he was serving as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (a post that we now call "Poet Laureate"), she informed him that she would be travelling there with her pet canary. Staying at the home of Pauline Hemingway in Key West and deep in what she called her "female Hemingway" phase, Bishop wrote of catching amberjack and jewfish. Lowell, fresh from charming William Carlos Williams's ninety-one-year-old mother, responded that he had once "tried swimming" but "was nearly drowned and murdered by children with foot-flippers and helmets and a ferocious mother doing the crawl." The critic John Thompson recalls his friend Lowell lying in bed all day writing poems, surrounded by a "tumble-down brick wall" composed of "his Greek Homer, his Latin Vergil, his Chaucer, letters from Boston, cast-off socks, his Dante, his Milton." Bishop once interrupted a letter to witness the birth of a calf in a nearby field. These differences, sharpened for each other's amusement, made them ideal trading partners. Lowell, the literary fisherman, sent a copy of "The Compleat Angler" to Bishop in Key West, keeping the motif alive. When he absent-mindedly put away a lit cigarette in his pocket, nearly setting himself on fire, Bishop mailed him a "SAFE if not particularly esthetic ashtray."
They shared the tiny poetry orbit of stipends and seminars and itinerant jobs, but when it came to seeing each other they specialized in near-misses. Lowell's first-ever letter to Bishop rues the fact that he had already narrowly missed seeing her on three occasions. When Bishop was at Harvard to record her poems for the Woodberry Poetry Room, she listened to Lowell's recording of his poems, made there a year earlier. One season it was Lowell's turn in Washington, calling on Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital, and then it was Bishop's, bringing Pound a bottle of cologne. When Bishop wrote of blowing bubbles on the balcony outside her magnificent room at Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, Lowell wrote that he thought he had stayed in that room, too, and reminisced about games of croquet. "We seem attached to each other by some stiff piece of wire," he wrote, "so that each time one moves, the other moves in another direction." They spent their lives begging each other to visit, but when the opportunity presented itself they conspired with almost comic transparency in setting up obstacles.
Seeing each other more often would have given them less time to write, less to write about, and, since letters exist in reciprocal terms, less to read. As it is, "Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell," edited by Thomas Travisano, with Saskia Hamilton (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $45), takes up more than nine hundred pages. Like Victorians hungry for the next installment of a serialized novel, the two looked to each other's letters for sustenance. "I've been reading Dickens, too," Bishop wrote, as though confirming the scope and flavor of the correspondence, the "abundance" and "playfulness" that she ascribed to Dickens. The letters abound in Dickensian caricature, mostly gentle and humane. "Several weird people have shown up here," Lowell wrote from Washington, including a Dr. Swigget with a terza-rima rendering of Dante and an aspiring writer named "Major Dyer, who takes Pound ice-cream, was a colleague of Patton's and teaches Margaret Truman fencing."
They were also adroit self-satirists. The poetry they perfected, so different in so many ways, shares a nearly absurdist attitude toward the self. Bishop, in "The Gentleman of Shalott," imagined herself as a man (she often chose male personae) standing with half his body in the mirror and half out. Lowell, in poem after poem, finds himself reflected in unlikely ways. A late poem called "Shaving" describes his face "aslant" like a "carpenter's problem," and in "Waking in the Blue" he sees himself "before the metal shaving mirrors" of the insane asylum:
After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor's jersey
The poem, written during one of Lowell's stays at McLean Hospital, outside Boston, takes a scrupulously external view: he's just another one of the Brahmin "old-timers" holding a "locked razor."
"It's funny at my age to have one's life so much in and on one's hands," Lowell wrote. Bishop responded by quoting her Maine hairdresser: "Kind of awful, ain't it, ploughing through life alone." They were introduced in 1947 at a dinner party thrown by Randall Jarrell in New York. Bishop recalled, "It was the first time I had ever talked to some one about how one writes poetry." She found that talking with Lowell, who struck her as "handsome in an old-fashioned poetic way," was "strangely easy, 'like exchanging recipes for a cake.' " It had been a strange, lonely interval for them both. Lowell was twenty-nine and coming out of his disastrous first marriage, to the novelist Jean Stafford. (Stafford had sued him, before they were married, after he permanently injured her face in a car crash. Things went downhill from there.) Bishop was turning thirty-six, and her relationship with Marjorie Stevens, from Key West, was coming to an end. Lowell's "Lord Weary's Castle" and Bishop's "North & South" had just been published to acclaim. (Lowell collected a Pulitzer Prize for his book; he was among the youngest poets ever to receive one. Bishop won the Pulitzer nine years later, for her second book.) Bishop was writing poems along with autobiographical stories and sketches, while Lowell was wringing out of his early style the long, hysterical poem "The Mills of the Kavanaughs," a daily task that he greeted with expanding dread.
Bad childhoods are a human misfortune, but for writers they are often a stroke of luck. Both Lowell and Bishop were aware that growing up lonely sponsored their imaginative lives. In the seventies, Lowell, in his great poem "Ulysses and Circe," chose a baffled and emasculated Ulysses for his self-portrait. A few years earlier, Bishop, in "Crusoe in England," had picked, for hers, a retired Robinson Crusoe nostalgic for his island days.
Both were ways of representing an essential strandedness that had its origins in childhood. Lowell was the unwanted only child of a belittling mother and a father who grew, in Lowell's eyes, "apathetic and soured." Bishop's father had died when she was eight months old. When she was five, her mother was placed permanently in a sanitarium. Bishop never saw her again, though her mother lived nearly twenty more years. Bishop was then subjected to several experiments in child rearing. She was happy in Nova Scotia with her mother's parents, but her father's parents, burghers in Worcester, Massachusetts, felt they could provide better for her. That arrangement soon failed, and she was sent to live with her aunt Maud, in Revere, Massachusetts. Maud nursed her back from the ailments she suffered in Worcester: asthma, bronchitis, eczema, symptoms of St. Vitus' dance, and allergies to practically everything in her grandparents' house. (Later, reading Proust, she discovered a voluble fellow asthma sufferer and decided wryly that she hadn't "capitalized" enough on her condition.) Aunt Maud had pet canaries and Italian neighbors with beautiful surnames that Bishop never forgot.
Poets live on two tracks: on one, life chugs along in the usual ways. On the other, art, which starts late but soon catches up, has its own landmarks and significant episodes. Interiority isn't mapped by biographical fact; that happens on the other track. And so "life" is an exceedingly difficult and unpromising subject for art. Bishop aimed for a dispassionate, even eerie objectivity, an effect that was incompatible with autobiographical writing. Lowell, the gifted parodist of persons and manners, found it comparatively easy to turn to his own person and manners, but in doing so he risked giving up the dazzling special effects of his early, Miltonic poems.
Compared with all the grand things that people have done with poems—justifying the ways of God to men, shoring fragments against their ruins, and so on—telling one's life story in more or less factual terms might seem to be a very modest goal. But Lowell was obsessed by the idea that this could be done without sacrificing poetry's ambition, its power and sweep. "Confessional" poetry—a brand inadvertently launched by Lowell's groundbreaking 1959 book, "Life Studies"—is in his practice really self-satire with the sadness left in. Bishop had a distaste for the "suffering business" of confessional poetry, but she loved "Life Studies," and thinking about why she loved it helped her define her own, very different method:
I am green with envy of your kind of assurance. 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. . . . 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. In some ways you are the luckiest poet I know!
No poet wants to hear that he is lucky, and Lowell never responded to this rather damning praise. What makes him a great poet isn't confidence about his own centrality but his yearning, brilliantly expressed throughout his work, for rest, for peace, for an integrated life. "I am tired," he wrote. "Everyone's tired of my turmoil."
"Words in Air" may be the only book of its precise kind ever published: the lifelong correspondence between two artists of equal genius. Lowell and Bishop lived various, tumultuous lives, and yet sometimes it feels as if the outside world existed primarily to be fattened up for their letters. A new sight calls for a new sentence, a night out conjures a new paragraph, a new home calls for a new letter or series of letters capturing, by a kind of demented entomology, every last scurrying detail. They were both collectors by nature. At nineteen, Lowell, a Harvard freshman, wrote of his "violent passions" for collecting: "tools; names of birds; marbles; catching butterflies, snakes, turtles etc; buying books on Napoleon." From Europe, he writes to Bishop, "We went everywhere. . . . I can't resist putting down the names." A list of thirty place names, starting with Naples and ending with Eton, follows.
Bishop, too, connects description with irrational compulsion. "I find it hard to stop when I get to describing," she writes from Brazil, where she lived for more than a decade, and where her hostess, soon to be her girlfriend, Lota de Macedo Soares, is "building an ultra modern house":
The house is unfinished and we are using oil-lamps, no floors—just cement covered with dogs' footprints. The "family" has consisted of another American girl, also a N.Y. friend of mine, 2 Polish counts for a while, the architect over week-ends etc., all a strange tri- or quadri-lingual hodgepodge that I like very much. . . . I like to cook, etc., but I'm not used to being confronted with the raw materials, all un-shelled, unblanched, un-skinned, or un-dead. Well, I can cook goat now—with wine sauce.
The letter billows onward for pages, detail upon detail, before ending with the announcement "I have a TOUCAN— named Uncle Sam in a chauvinistic outburst." When Bishop runs out of words, she draws a picture. When the occasion demands it, she switches ribbons on her typewriter and prints in red.
The result is exhilarating, consistently so, for hundreds of pages at a time. But the torrential incisiveness can also be wearying. You'd like to spend a little more time with those dogs' footprints on the cement floor, but you can't get off the treadmill of associations, from the Polish counts to the architect, from the goat to the wine sauce. This isn't writing: it's out-writing, and the spectacle of two brilliant out-writers grinding each other down over thirty years is astounding. Just when you think someone will surrender, he or she doubles down, as when Lowell antes his trip to Swarthmore against Bishop's trip to the Amazon:
What tremendous descriptions in your letter! The sick man on the amazon, the monks and nuns and Lota, the sacred heart on your bosom. I have nothing to reply with except a prosaic trip to Swarthmore. I was visiting a minute, intelligent dry poet, Daniel Hoffman, midway in a book on vegetation and other myths in Melville, Hawthorne, James, Faulkner, etc. and the American humorists, and all the way through a dry intelligent, unreadable book of vegetation myths, poems in strange ballad meters and the alliterative stanza of Sir Gawain. Exquisite Shaker and European baroque and Swarthmore stone house; nervous, charming near-sighted wife, poetry-editor for the Ladies Home Journal (ten dollars a line). . . . After their huge cocktail party, I asked them who was interesting and they said, "We are."
Who needs the Amazon when you have Swarthmore? Hoffman has gone on to have a distinguished career as a poet, but it scarcely matters: Lowell's combustible triple adjectives (minute, intelligent, dry) are the road flares that mark Hoffman's limits. "I don't know why I've stuffed this all in," Lowell concludes, "except to plaintively suggest that even here one can see the world in a grain of sand."
It must have seemed unreal to them to see one another in person. Few photographs of them together exist; the most famous ones were taken in Rio de Janeiro. In one, they wade together on a beach; in the other, they eye each other abashedly. The correspondence seems to be a counter-life richer than any lived one: how could it be made to accommodate the stubborn impediments of actual life? When Lowell's mother makes a three-month visit to him and Elizabeth Hardwick, his second wife, in Europe, Lowell writes only after they've returned, as though newly consecrating the page: "Now it's over; we have emerged triumphantly" from three months of "behaving very badly, then being very self-sacrificing," all the while "fuming inside like the burning stuffings of an overstuffed Dutch chair." When his father dies, he accelerates rapidly past the news and talks about his travel plans. When Bishop writes back, she says nothing about his father's death. When Lowell's mother dies, in 1954, in Rapallo, Italy, Lowell arrives to collect her corpse and then, as he writes to Hardwick, spends the morning "weeping & weeping" in the room with it. When he returns to America, he has a manic attack, writes a poem in Pound's style about Hitler that he then sends to Pound, and reaffirms to Hardwick that he wants to marry his Italian mistress. Again waiting until he has recovered (even though he wrote many letters when he was ill), Lowell writes to Bishop in November of that year, "I have been sick again, and somehow even with you I shrink both from mentioning and not mentioning." He goes on:
These things 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 etc.
The metaphors capture the illness. The manic self is an inflated "manaping balloon in a parade"—oversized, grotesque, dangerous. "Man-aping" echoes the word "mania," while the flaccid self sits in recovery, eating morning-after "coffee-grounds" of guilt. But the successful transformation of illness into metaphor is itself a sign of recovery. Lowell's recovery letters are among the most brilliant letters ever written, for the simple reason that the writing of them operates against such tragic stakes.
By the mid-fifties, Lowell's manic attacks were causing boundless damage in his life and in his relationships. While teaching in Austria in 1952, he vanished for a day and was found wandering near the German border. After that, he had to be watched by American M.P.s. At the University of Cincinnati, where he had been invited to give a series of lectures, his mien at the lectern took on a menacing aspect; the English Department had to seat a human shield of large-bodied scholars in the front row for fear that he would physically attack his audience. Because he was brilliant and sui generis and not less so when he was ill, nobody was ever able to catch him in time. Mania sharpened his intellectual aim even as it blunted his censor. He left a trail of insulted hosts everywhere, and baffled girls who thought he really was going to marry them.
In 1957, Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares visited Lowell and Hardwick and their infant daughter, Harriet, in Maine. Lowell appears to have propositioned Bishop, suggesting that he visit her alone in Boston, New York, or Brazil. Bishop, in turn, told Hardwick. The letters that follow are grandiose on Lowell's end and strategic on Bishop's; the correspondence that had sustained so many remarkable exchanges now feels like a fraying rope over an abyss. Lowell, his mania still cresting, recasts the Maine misadventure as the unstoppering of a very old bottle. "There's one bit of the past that I would like to get off my chest," he writes:
Do you remember how at the end of that long swimming and sunning Stonington day . . . we went up to, I think, the relatively removed upper Gross house and had one of those real fried New England dinners, probably awful. And we were talking about this and that about ourselves . . . and 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." . . . I assumed that [it] would be a matter of time before I proposed and I half believed that you would accept. . . . The possible alternatives that life allows us are very few, often there must be none. . . . But asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.
How should one take this letter? It is, of course, what one would say. Yet it is also beautifully and truthfully said, although, as he writes in a postscript, "too heatedly written with too many ands and so forth." Bishop responds with the name of a good analyst in Cambridge.
Reading this exchange is painful, but, oddly, it does not feel like eavesdropping. In a generally excellent introduction, Thomas Travisano, an English professor at Hartwick College, argues that Lowell's and Bishop's letters display "the apparent absence of this interest in posterity on the part of two poets famous for their obsession with craft." That's not so: even as fledglings, the two writers were the most posterity-obsessed literary creatures imaginable. No poet is obsessed with craft per se; craft is just a name for the mechanics of immortality. Travisano quotes the poet and critic Tom Paulin: "The merest suspicion that the writing is aiming beyond the addressee at posterity freezes a letter's immediacy and destroys its spirit." And yet what makes these letters so fascinating is their hawk's eye on immortality, even in the midst of lives lived fully, often sloppily. Writers like Lowell and Bishop are more human, sincere, candid—more genuine—the more ambitious they are.
The literary self-consciousness that Paulin and Travisano rule out is not just an aspect of these letters but their atmosphere and their deep subject. Lowell's "might have been" letter is, above all, a piece of writing—too heated, too many "and"s. At one point, he compares himself and Bishop to Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. During this period, Hardwick writes to Bishop with news of Lowell's hospitalization, comparing the whole episode to a Russian novel. Lowell recalls Bishop's prophecy that he would write her epitaph. When, late in his life, Lowell and Hardwick were estranged (Lowell had married Caroline Blackwood and had a child, Sheridan, with her), Lowell used some of Hardwick's letters in his book "The Dolphin." Bishop dissented in these remarkable terms:
One can use one's life as material—one does, anyway—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. I keep remembering Hopkins' marvelous letter to Bridges about the idea of a "gentleman" being the highest thing ever conceived—higher than a "Christian" even, certainly than a poet. It is not being "gentle" to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way—it's cruel.
In a letter about the misuse of letters, Bishop asks Lowell to live up to a moral standard guaranteed by an aesthetic one: be a gentleman, like Gerard Manley Hopkins. Lowell's and Bishop's letters were themselves a long, collaborative work of art, as rich in their own way and by their own standard as the poems. But Bishop seems more concerned that Lowell had changed Hardwick's letters than that he had included them. These are the objections of an author, and one who exercised an enormous level of control over her material. That Hardwick was a fellow-writer only deepened the transgression. The idea that someone would change a letter, as Lowell did in transforming Hardwick's into poems: this was a supreme violation not only of life but of art, the art of the letter.
It was Bishop, in the end, who wrote Lowell's poetic epitaph, the beautiful elegy "North Haven," which she read on the phone to Frank Bidart soon after Lowell died, in 1977. Lowell had been a chronic, sometimes hectic reviser of his work, publishing multiple versions of many poems. This habit was anathema to Bishop, who took more than twenty-five years to write her poem "The Moose." The title of their collected correspondence is taken from Lowell's late poem about that painstaking practice:
Have you seen an inchworm crawl on a leaf,
cling to the very end, revolve in air,
feeling for something to reach to something?
you still hang your words in air, ten years
unfinished, glued to your notice board,
or empties for the unimaginable phrase—
unerring Muse who makes the casual
To "err" literally means, as Lowell knew, "to wander or stray"; Bishop, the great nomad, was "unerring" in her art, utterly on the right track and on that track alone. Lowell, the greatest poet ever to be descended from the high Wasp line, never too far from Boston and New York, should have been at home in the world; and yet he was restless, almost vertiginous in his sometimes self-destructive energies. Bishop equated that dangerous energy with his life. Here are the final stanzas of "North Haven":
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
afloat in mystic blue . . . And now—
for good. You can't derange, or
your poems again. (But the Sparrows
can their song.)
The words won't change again. Sad
friend, you cannot change. ♦