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Michael Dirda on 'Words in Air'
The long epistolary friendship between two great poets.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, November 9, 2008

WORDS IN AIR

The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

Edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton

Farrar Straus Giroux. 875 pp. $45

Most readers drawn to this wonderful correspondence -- a book to linger and dawdle over for weeks -- will already know at least a little about poets Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) and Robert Lowell (1917-1977). If you don't, first read at least a few of their poems. For Bishop, you might start with "The Imaginary Iceberg" ("We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship"), the Kafkaesque vision called "The Man-Moth" (inspired by a misprint of "mammoth"), the celebrated villanelle "One Art" ("The art of losing isn't hard to master"), "Questions of Travel" ("Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?") and those two somewhat longer masterpieces "The Moose" and "Crusoe in England." Together they make for some of the best poetry of the previous century.

For Lowell, the choices are more difficult, as he wrote a great deal, frequently altered and revised already published work, and nearly always emphasized forcefulness and daring over classical finesse. The simplest course is to read his single, most admired book, Life Studies. This includes elegies for older writers such as George Santayana and Ford Madox Ford ("you were a kind man and you died in want"), poems about Lowell's relatives and ancestors, the famous "Skunk Hour" (dedicated to Bishop) and several portraits of married life, such as " 'To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage' " and "Man and Wife": "you were in your twenties, and I,/once hand on glass/and heart in mouth,/outdrank the Rahvs in the heat/of Greenwich Village. Fainting at your feet."

The Rahvs? Philip Rahv was the longtime editor of Partisan Review, as well as a powerful essayist and critic (see his classic analysis of American literature, "Paleface and Redskin"). Among the myriad joys of Words in Air is that it re-creates the glorious heyday of the little magazines and quarterlies, that era when an article or a poem in the Kenyon or Hudson or Partisan Review could actually make a writer's reputation. It was also a time when gods like T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams were still publishing and when half the young poets in America, including Lowell and Bishop, made the pilgrimage to St. Elizabeths Hospital, Washington's psychiatric haven, to spend an afternoon with Ezra Pound.

Lowell and Bishop first met in 1947 at a party given by Randall Jarrell, the most feared and influential poetry critic of his time. Before long, Elizabeth and "Cal" (as Lowell's friends called him) were corresponding regularly, discussing each other's work, their mutual acquaintances and almost everything, except their very deepest troubles: When distressed, Bishop sometimes drank to a state of hospitalization, while Lowell would periodically grow so manic that he required sedation and sanctuary in rest homes. Yet they never let their friendship lapse. Indeed, some people even thought they might marry. As Lowell once wrote to Bishop, "Asking you is the might have been for me." But "nothing was said, and like a loon that needs sixty feet, I believe, to take off from the water, I wanted time and space," and so the moment passed. One shudders to imagine the two as a wedded couple, especially since Bishop preferred women and Lowell rockily married three times.

Both were absolutely superb letter writers, mutually admiring, each clearly striving to out-entertain the other. Yet even their literary gossip serves the greater purpose of inclusion, support and intimacy. For the most part, Lowell is the more dynamic of the two, the hot kid who lands the plum jobs, then prepares the way for the shyer Bishop to take over after him, as guest at an artist colony, as consultant at the Library of Congress, as Harvard professor.

Lowell also writes the more dazzling letters, often peppering them with vivid pen portraits. Here is that previously mentioned artists' colony: "No use describing Yaddo-- rundown rose gardens, rotting cantaloupes, fountains, a bust of Dante with a hole in the head, sets called Gems of Ancient Literature, Masterpieces of the World, cracking dried up sets of Shakespeare, Ruskin, Balzac, Reminiscences of a Happy Life (the title of two different books), pseudo Poussins, pseudo Titians, pseudo Reynolds, pseudo and real English wood, portraits of the patroness, her husband, her lover, her children lit with tubular lights, like a church, like a museum . . . I'm delighted. Why don't you come?"

With a deft sentence or two, Lowell can sum up the legendary Delmore Schwartz, William Empson, Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath and many others, including the razor-sharp Jarrell: "I think of him as a fencer who has defeated and scarred all his opponents so that the sport has come to be almost abandoned, and Randall stands leaning on his foil, one shoulder a little lower than the other, unchallenged, invulnerable, deadly." Surely, there is no better short description of John Berryman and his world than this: "Saw John Berryman: utterly spooky, teaching brilliant classes, spending week-ends in the sanitarium, drinking, seedy, a little bald, often drunk, married to a girl of twenty-one from a Catholic parochial college, white, innocent beyond belief, just pregnant."

For much of her adult life Bishop lived away from the North American literary scene, primarily in Brazil with her beloved Lota de Macedo Soares. But this "minor female Wordsworth," as she calls herself, doesn't just write about landscape and nature. At one religious procession, she reports, a loud speaker orders the spectators to give "a big hand for Our Lady of Fatima." When asked what she would teach were she to come back to the University of Washington, Bishop dryly answers "Remedial English." From time to time, she even outdoes Lowell in pen portraiture:

"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?' "

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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