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.