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.
Lowell had, early on, almost proposed marriage to Bishop, and years later he explained, “Asking you is the might have been for me.” In most of the letters, romance remains not so much an undercurrent as a charming above-ground stream of salutations and vocatives: she is his “Darling,” he her “dear boy.” For three decades, they practice a sort of creative courtly love, with Lowell as the knight chevalier, seeking approval of the lady in her faraway jungle tower. A reader of the correspondence may be surprised to find that the carefully banked fires of Bishop’s personality somehow create an even stronger glow than Lowell’s accelerated blazes.
Sharp social and personal observations, from each of them, allow the correspondence to breathe, opening it up beyond guarded confidences and dialogue about their craft. When comparing new works by her college contemporary, Mary McCarthy, with those by her own early mentor, Marianne Moore, Bishop ponders the “strange contrast—Mary so sane and mean; Marianne so mad and good—which do you choose?” In August 1964, just after Flannery O’Connor’s death, Lowell paints a splendid miniature of the southern Catholic writer:
It seems such a short time ago that I met her at Yaddo, 23 or 24, always in a blue jean suit, working on the last chapters of Wise Blood, suffering from undiagnosed pains, a face formless at times, then very strong and young and right.
The passage exemplifies a quality in Lowell’s writing that Bishop, elsewhere in the letters, remarks upon: the way his prose can be “almost on the point of precipitation into poetry.”
It is, in fact, a blending of the two that causes the great aesthetic crisis in their correspondence, during the early 1970s, when Lowell gets ready to publish The Dolphin, a volume in which he has altered and versified some of the angry, hurt letters that Elizabeth Hardwick wrote to him after he’d left her for the Irish writer Caroline Blackwood. Aware of his own recklessness, Lowell tells Bishop in February 1972, “I am going to publish, and don’t want advice, except for yours.” Bishop’s slow-starting response—“It’s hell to write this”—turns almost shockingly firm:
One can use one’s life as material—one does, anyway—but these letters—aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission—IF you hadn’t changed them … etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.
Lowell makes some adjustments to the book but does not otherwise desist, and even a year later he has nothing like Bishop’s clarity about the matter. “My sin (mistake?) was publishing,” he writes. “I couldn’t bear to have my book (my life) wait hidden inside me like a dead child.”
The dispute, serious as it is, does not still what Lowell calls his “old admiring and loving voice,” through which he continues speaking in the few years’ worth of letters that he and Bishop have left to exchange. He had once exclaimed, “I seem to spend my life missing you!” and in the early years of their friendship had pondered their impossible geography: “We seem attached to each other by some stiff piece of wire, so that each time one moves, the other moves in another direction. We should call a halt to that.” But the distance between them, and their inability to overcome it except during those widely spaced visits, was actually fate’s gift to them. The letters that separation necessitated—even the ones that crossed in the mails or never arrived—became the connection that Lowell and Bishop were meant to live. Words in Air takes its place—amid the letters of Keats and Hopkins and Owen—as one of the great poetic correspondences. It is also, almost certainly, the last of them.