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In a 30-year correspondence that bridged wars, illnesses, broken marriages and affairs, Bay State poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop shared their beliefs about life and the making of art

By William H. Pritchard
October 26, 2008
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Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell
Edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 875 pp., illustrated, $45

Here is all of it, all you wanted - and can take - of the epistolary "words in air" passed over a 30-year period (1947-77) between two of the most gifted poets in our last century's latter half. The task of assembling and editing them has been fulfilled in an exemplary manner by Thomas Travisano, author of an excellent critical study of Elizabeth Bishop, and Saskia Hamilton, who three years ago admirably edited Robert Lowell's letters. In Travisano's useful introduction he correctly points out the "sustained colloquial brilliance of style" found in the correspondence, and Hamilton has contributed much to the scrupulous fullness of annotation, helpfully placed at the bottom of the page. The edition prints more than 300 hitherto-unpublished letters.

The pointed responsiveness of Lowell and Bishop to remarks made by one or the other gives continuity and dramatic impetus to their exchanges, and we turn the pages to find out what will happen next. "What happened" in the lives of the two Massachusetts-bred poets makes for a grim list of sufferings, as enumerated by Travisano: "Bishop's proneness to depression and autoimmune disorders, Lowell's hereditary disposition to bipolar disorder, and their shared struggles with alcoholism." Yet as Frank Bidart, a close friend of both, once pointed out about Lowell, "When [he] was well, he was more well than most people I know," something that could also be said about Bishop.

For all their difficulties - perhaps even because of them - each managed, with the spur given by the other, to rise in their letters to humorous, buoyant, and consistently ironical self-presentation. "I have acquired a phony, spruce disillusioned tone - but it's only Washington," Lowell informs Bishop as he goes about his poetry-consultant duties at the Library of Congress in 1948. Bishop, teaching at the University of Washington in 1966, describes her students to Lowell: "The boys are all over six feet - some girls are, too - and the girls have huge legs." She had been warned by a friend "about the bosom in the front row - but not about the large bare knee that starts creeping up over the edge of the table." Such are two minor examples of the creative spirit everywhere to be found in the exchanges.

"Does the imagination dwell the most / Upon a woman won or woman lost?" Yeats's question in "The Tower" has its relevance to Lowell's imagining of "Dearest Elizabeth" (Bishop). After his divorce from Jean Stafford and before his marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick, there was a moment (he writes Bishop about it later) when he assumed it "would be just a matter of time before I proposed and I half believed that you would accept." He never made the proposal, and one doubts that Bishop, whose preference was for same-sex relationships, would have accepted him. But the possibility, sustained by the imaginations of both poets, may be thought of as crucial to the unflagging devotion shown by each to the other in these letters. In Lowell's words, "the other life that might have been had" remained powerfully imagined.

In their shared judgments about their contemporaries, Bishop was a sterner judge than Lowell, whose public literary life (compared with her quite private one) sometimes made for less severe verdicts. When Anne Sexton's first book of poems appeared, with Lowell's blurb on the back, Bishop, while admitting that Sexton was "good, in spots," insisted that "there is all the difference in the world, I'm afraid, between her kind of simplicity and that of 'Life Studies,' her kind of egocentricity that is simply that" and Lowell's more complicated and interesting presentation of self.

There is no need to decide who was the superior letter writer, although Lowell's poetic gift for the original phrase or word is continually on display, and to dazzling effect. He describes the three-month visit of his mother to him and Hardwick in Amsterdam, "the three of us, all behaving very badly, then being very self-sacrificing, and fuming inside like the burning stuffings of an overstuffed Dutch chair." As for marriage, he writes Bishop that Hardwick "has just said the only advantage of marriage is that you can be as gross, slovenly, mean and brutally verbose as you want." (But Hardwick may not have said it quite so succinctly and finally.) Back home, he and his wife are learning to drive, practicing in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, "past J. R. Lowell, Rufus Choate etc. and were quickly spotted, and warned that the graveyard, despite appearances, was heavy with threat: bends, knolls, other heedless amateurs learning." Lowell's friend Frank Parker is interested after 6 o'clock only in "drinking red wine and talking about the sexual act"; Allen Tate is "no traditionalist but a whole-hearted masher and anarchist"; while Lowell and Richard Eberhart "discussed the prostate operation in saturating detail." By far the most memorable vignettes are of his and Bishop's (but especially his) friend Randall Jarrell, "a terror for his friends in public - you are either corrected, ignored, or expected to loudly agree." Visited at Cape Cod, Jarrell is "a fencer who has defeated and scarred all his opponents . . . and Randall stands leaning on his foil . . . unchallenged, invulnerable, deadly, salt marsh and deserted tennis court stretching below him." This is devastating, also beautiful.

Eight hundred and some pages are a stretch, and since Bishop lived in Brazil for many years with her partner Lota de Macedo Soares, I read more about Brazilian politics than I wanted to. But this volume takes its place, along with the correspondence between Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov, or Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, as consummate examples of wit, affection, and indeed - in the case of Bishop and Lowell - love.

William H. Pritchard is professor of English at Amherst College. His most recent book is "Updike: America's Man of Letters."

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