Books April 2009

Theirs Truly: The Lowell-Bishop Letters

The letters between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop are one of the great poetic correspondences of all time—and became the real essence of their relationship
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Illustration by: Mark Yankus; Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries

Start with him: tall and handsome and prolific, and in regular bursts quite crazy. The manic descendant of famous New England blue bloods, Robert Lowell revitalized American poetry in the 1950s and ’60s by vaulting into a confessional spot between the desiccated mannerisms of the academy and the ululations of the Beats. The poems of his fourth book, Life Studies (1959), felt raw and disciplined all at once, whereas in his actual life Lowell could attain those states only in alternation. He became famous—making the cover of Time, dancing attendance on the widowed Jackie Kennedy, and protesting the Vietnam War—but the mental breakdowns, during which he’d rhapsodize about Hitler and fall for a new girl, finally wore him out. He died in 1977, at 60, in the midst of leaving his third wife for his second.

“I’m getting down my ladder to the moon” is the way he describes, in 1957, one of his innumerable subsidings from mania to functionality. In this instance he is imparting the news to Elizabeth Bishop, who students of American poetry now realize was both the lodestar and antipode of Lowell’s stressful voyage through life. Bishop spent many of the years of their deep and decent friendship in Brazil, often depressed but never manic. Her poetic output stayed small as Lowell’s grew abundant; unlike his, her verse confessions remained reluctant and oblique. Both sides of their 30-year epistolary exchange have already been published, separately and in part, but the letters’ new joint arrangement, a volume called Words in Air, allows readers at last to experience the full responsiveness of one poet to the other, as it occurred, letter by letter.

Lowell and Bishop met in New York in 1947, at a dinner party given by the poet and critic Randall Jarrell. She was 36, shy and asthmatic, a graduate of Vassar raised by an aunt and two sets of grandparents in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. Her poems were at this point known chiefly to other poets. Lowell was a much hotter prospect, a former student of John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren, a Catholic convert, and a convicted felon, for conscientious objection during World War II. Both poets, as Thomas Travisano points out in his introduction to this new volume, were more or less on the rebound: Lowell divorcing the writer Jean Stafford, and Bishop breaking up with her female lover in Key West. Over the next several years, Bishop kept a sensible distance from Lowell’s confused and fitful ardor. Before long he married the critic Elizabeth Hardwick, and Bishop went off to live with Lota de Macedo Soares in Brazil.

Always brilliantly attentive to animals in her poems, Bishop found much to see around Petrópolis. One afternoon, she reports to Lowell, a five-foot-long snake passed by with the feet of a baby bird “waving feebly in his mouth, the parent birds shrieking and having hysterics. Lota got her rifle and got him with the first shot.” Ambivalent for years about her exotic relocation, Bishop surveys all the exaggeration and corruption that surrounds her, and wonders at one point to Lowell, “This isn’t my world—or is it?”

Being removed from American poetry’s competitive hothouse had its imaginative advantages, but her absence and small output made it crucial for Bishop to have a champion on the scene back home. Out of real admiration, as well as a sort of devoted sublimation, Lowell filled that role for years, helping her secure grants and prizes and eventually teaching positions. In return, Bishop provided ballast as he sailed off on the waters of experimentation and celebrity. Two years after giving Life Studies a blurb, and thus her poet’s-poet imprimatur, she gently cautions Lowell not to publish some sloppy translations of Rimbaud: “Your star is so very high now.” If he goes ahead, Bishop worries, the critical knives will be out for him. Her generalized warnings against extreme subject matter and the fad of posing as “dope-addicts—saints—either one or the other—anything rather than be what we are” help keep Lowell from drifting too far, at least for many years. Her zeal for exactitude matches his for disclosure. In 1963, commenting on his manuscript of “The Neo-Classical Urn,” set in a park, she objects to the phrase I left the plaster statue of a nymph, on the grounds that “even the most miserable neo-classicism couldn’t use plaster because it wouldn’t last a week outdoors.” In the published version of the poem, Lowell turned the statue to stone.

He never succeeded in reconciling “the Puritanical iron hand of constraint and the gushes of pure wildness” that he saw within himself. He suffered manic attacks during and just after two of his rare face-to-face visits with Bishop but took pains to keep his mania from infecting the correspondence that he counted on to bring him “color and peace.” On one occasion, fearful of sounding off-kilter, he reassures Bishop, “This is a rushed letter, much more so than my state of mind.” Late in 1967, after Lota committed suicide, Bishop suffered an alcoholic collapse and then a bad fall while visiting Lowell’s New York apartment. It seems to have been easier for each of them to come apart in the other’s presence instead of on the pages of the letters, which became the real and cherished essence of their relationship.

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Thomas Mallon’s books include the novels Two Moons and Aurora 7, as well as Rockets and Rodeos, a collection of essays.

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