Edited by Saskia Hamilton and Thomas Travisano, Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)
It’s a good thing Brazil lies far from New England, for without such continental separation it might have been impossible for the friendship of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell to have survived. As their recent volume of complete collected correspondence, Words in Air, confirms, the long distance equation made possible a thirty-year epistolary recognition ceremony, where each could honor the other.
Comparing this literary pair is a fool’s game, but as with any postal tennis match, hard to resist. Here Bishop’s letters may convey the greater subtlety of skill, but Lowell, when properly stoked with mania and regret, pens letters dipped in amazing pain and beauty. In 1957, after Bishop finally visits Lowell in Maine, and amid his skittering mental state, departs sooner than arranged, he writes of his worry that he will be “forever in exile, along with those other clinging, clutching, fevered souls ... your worst Nova Scotia relatives, all those bramble-armed bugbears that have so boringly tried to tangle up your life.”
He also writes a long, exquisitely anguished letter about a boating trip he wishes Bishop could have stayed to enjoy. “Glorious evening, Maine food-filled cruise down Somes Sound. Everything I had hoped you... would see on our trip now materialized. All the great lawns, birch and elm groves, frail expensive wharves, new Swedish racing craft at the moorings, here and there a private plane; you felt that you were seeing the great Roman villas described by Horace and Juvenal.”
Such classically alluded turns are par for Lowell, but he knows such delicacies aren’t for everyone—and Bishop knows it too. In fact, part of their attraction seems to be a mindful subscription to their literary and social pedigree.
Money is another vein that interests the pair. Bishop in 1957 recounts a discussion with a financier regarding new investments: “We sat up till two like a group of wicked old capitalists, conniving,” she says, and then goes on to almost pitch Lowell the investment saying it will deliver a 100% return in two and a half years. But eventually, she rather primly checks herself, as she often does, saying “this is a dreadful paragraph. How did I skid from poetry to percents.”
And perhaps the investment, sank, for in 1960 Bishop implores Lowell “if you can think of anything I could apply for ... please tell me ... I sometimes think I have no right to, and then I realize that people who have small amounts of money do and I don’t see why I shouldn’t. Except that if I really worked...”
A year later, after Lowell has faithfully gained her a grant, her tone of financial modesty is lost. She proudly boasts her purchase of an antique rocking chair: “jacaranda wool and cane—beautiful crude 19th century Brazilian style ... there was a pair ... the man’s was bought ten minutes before I got there by the Spanish Ambassador.”
Such dualities form one of the great pleasures of this fascinating personal book, and underscore the tension between loneliness and social need that both poets wrestled with. Lowell recognizes what their practice of letter writing exhibits: “I guess I don’t really like solitude,” he confesses, “The fun is hammering bits of it out of a crowded life.” In Bishop, he found not just a corresponding hammer, but a receptive anvil as well.
Describing her pleasure at Mary McCarthy’s book on Florence, Bishop writes: “It is one of those wonderful books to hand guests to look at when you don’t quite know what to do with them—the superior type of guest, that is. The others we hand Steinberg too.” It’s a double swipe, taking out both Steinberg and the guest.
In spite of, and partly because of this kind of aesthetic elitism, it is touching to comprehend how much they actually depended on one another for a certain confirmation of self, a certain calibration of culture, and a certain appreciation for what the other writes. In one neat, metaphorical pat, Bishop assures Lowell “your poetry is as different from the rest of our contemporaries as say ice from slush.”
Taylor helped found the Graduate Writing Program at The New School. He is the associate director.