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Michael Dirda on 'Words in Air'

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"The local bookshop is run by an Englishman and his wife who is about 20 years older than he, very cute, really, with dyed bright pink hair. They play chess in the corner and very much dislike being interrupted by a customer. The other day a man I knew went in to buy a book and asked for it timidly. Hugh, the Englishman, said, 'Good heavens, man! Can't you see I'm about to make a move?' "

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Oh, these letters are just so good! Reading Partisan Review in 1963, an annoyed Bishop asks Lowell, "WHO wrote those idiotic movie reviews? I think she must be somebody's mistress?" (Answer: Pauline Kael.) After acquiring a mynah bird, Bishop announces that she's teaching it to say, "I too dislike it" -- the famous opening words of Marianne Moore's "Poetry."

Both poets are insatiable readers. Bishop goes through "just about all Dickens" in order to write a sonnet. Over the years she mentions her pleasure in the letters of Madame de Sévigné and Sydney Smith, the memoirs of Augustus Hare, Trollope's North America, Kipling's stories, Henry James's correspondence, and even Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. Naturally, she reads The Group, the bestseller by her friend and Vassar classmate Mary McCarthy, but without much approval.

Lowell is equally impressive. In bed for three days with a cold, he devours Thomas Carlyle's mammoth French Revolution: "Overpowering, and almost as good as Moby Dick when you give in to it. Our century really can't match the best Victorians for nonfictional prose." He studies the ancient Greek tragedies -- one sometimes forgets that Lowell majored in classics -- and boldly attempts English versions of many of the great poems of world literature (see the brilliant and sometimes maddeningly perverse Imitations). Unsurprisingly, Bishop agrees when Lowell says, "I wonder if you ever found reading and writing curiously self-sufficient. There are times when one hardly needs people."

Not that these two are unsociable. Lowell confesses, like many a teenager, "I am now on my second month of contact lenses and feel a new man." Bishop unashamedly pulls all the strings she can to get a young Brazilian into Harvard (without success).

And they can be blunt with each other too. When, in The Dolphin, Lowell cruelly alters the letters of his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, causing great hurt, Bishop comes right out and lets him have it: " Art just isn't worth that much." Later, when he's been going on about mortality and the passage of the years, she writes: "I am now going to be very impertinent and aggressive. Please, please don't talk about old age so much, my dear old friend! You are giving me the creeps."

When Lowell finally admits to feeling guilty about The Dolphin, she softens the blow: "We all have irreparable and awful actions on our consciences -- that's really all I can say now. I do, I know. I just try to live without blaming myself for them every day, at least -- every day, I should say -- the nights take care of guilt sufficiently."

Well, I just can't praise Words in Air enough. As Lowell and Bishop's friend Randall Jarrell used to say: Anybody who cares about poetry will want to read it. ·

Michael Dirda's email address is mdirda@gmail.com.


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