It seemed unlikely on the face of it that two big books of letters, each of which could serve as a doorstop, would be so absorbing. But I recently found that re-reading The Letters of Robert Lowell and Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell issued me into a world as vivid as that of a novel—more vivid, really, because the world evoked in these letters is peopled with real men and women, against a backdrop of the times during which the letter-writers were active. The letters became an alternative reality I was eager to escape into, leaving behind what came to seem the paler reality of the world in which I actually live.

Their correspondence indirectly tells the life stories of both poets, and this is a good thing, since we lack a definitive biography of either. Each of these two personalities was of such complexity, encompassing such contradictions, that an unusually gifted biographer would be required, someone who could take it all on board, and so far such a person has not appeared in either case. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It by Brett C. Millier (2009) is not a bad book, but it is less helpful than it might be. For starters, Millier taxes Bishop for not being as “political” as her biographer would like her to have been on gender issues—and explicitly political was exactly what the skeptical Bishop never was and never wanted to be. Ian Hamilton’s 1983 Random House biography of Lowell is well researched but gives a radically distorted view of the man. Paul Mariani’s 1994 book on Lowell, Lost Pilgrim, is more sympathetic but remains dependent on Hamilton’s research. A corrective to Hamilton’s book will probably never be written now that most first-hand sources of information about Lowell and most of his old friends and acquaintances are no longer around. I like the oral biography Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art that Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil Estess put out about thirty years ago, when memories were fresh.

There was usually a love affair associated with Lowell’s manic episodes.

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell each regarded the other as a best friend, but the circumstances of their lives meant they more often communicated through letters than face to face. Lowell’s attraction to Bishop was something different from what he probably had in mind when he wrote in “Waking Early Sunday Morning” that “All life’s grandeur/ is something with a girl in summer.” There was usually a love affair associated with his manic episodes, a glorious infatuation that lasted only as long as the high did. In the late Forties, though, Lowell was on the brink of proposing to Bishop: “I assumed,” he wrote her almost ten years later, “that [it] would be just a matter of time before I proposed and I half believed that you would accept.” The moment came and went, the proposal was never made. Still, Lowell wrote, “Asking you is the might have been for me.” All of Bishop’s important relationships and emotional attachments were with women anyway. But the two poets were soul-mates. And while marriage between them would have been a disaster, the friendship was a lifesaver, a source of nourishment and inspiration in both these difficult lives.

Bishop was a traveler who lived for long periods outside the United States. Part of her motivation was that her small trust fund went much further in a place like Brazil than in the United States. Beyond that, she was a restless soul, someone attuned to visual, cultural detail and local color, the kind of vivid authenticity and genuineness she found lacking in mainstream American life except in out-of-the-way places like Key West, Maine, and Nova Scotia, less culturally homogeneous than most of North America. “I suppose I am just a born worrier, and that when the personal worries of adolescence and the years after it have more or less disappeared I promptly have to start worrying about the decline of nations,” she wrote Lowell. “But I really can’t bear much of American life these days—surely no country has ever been so filthy rich and so hideously uncomfortable at the same time.”

“We are poor passing facts,” Lowell would write in his last book, “warned by that to give/ each figure in the photograph/ his living name.” So, he concludes, “why not say what happened?” By contrast, Bishop preferred to disguise her forays into self-revelation. In one of her letters she says, “I simply hate talking about myself, more & more, the older I get—I’m afraid it is not very interesting.” About poets in the movement known by the unfortunate and misleading label of Confessional Poetry, Bishop commented tersely, “You wish they’d keep some of these things to themselves.”

In contrast to the broken glass, spilt gin, nervous breakdowns, affairs and divorces to be found in the work of poets like Anne Sexton and even in some of Lowell’s own, Bishop’s self-examination, at least in her poems, is gentler, more circumspect. She had an acute sense of humor, and a persona that seemed to share many of her own personal qualities sometimes figures as a slightly comic and appealing character in her work.

The work of both these writers is inherently dramatic, often filled with memorable characters, like the catalogue of Lowell’s fellow conscientious objectors in “Memories of West Street and Lepke,” such as Abramowitz, “a jaundice-yellow (‘it’s really tan’)/ and fly-weight pacifist,/ so vegetarian,/ he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.” There is Miss Breen from Bishop’s “Arrival at Santos”—“Miss Breen is about seventy,/ a retired police lieutenant, six feet tall,/ with beautiful bright blue eyes and a kind expression”; Manuelzinho, “with that wistful/ face, like a child’s fistful/ of bluets or white violets,/ improvident as the dawn . . . .” (Only Bishop would have had the ear to rhyme “wistful” and “fistful.”) And of course Gregorio Valdes, the “primitive” painter Bishop collected and wrote about with admiration: “There are some people we envy not because they are rich or handsome or successful, although they may be all of these, but because everything they do is of a piece, so that even if they wanted to they could not be or do otherwise.”

This inveterate traveler’s greatest exploration of her own wanderlust is found in her 1965 collection, Questions of Travel, my favorite of her books. The collection is notable, as its title suggests, for questions rather than answers. “Oh tourist,” writes Bishop, addressing a version of herself in “Arrival at Santos” who finds herself (blissfully heedless of the “pathetic fallacy”) disappointed by the “impractically shaped and—who knows?—self-pitying” appearance of the Brazilian town where her freighter docks:

is this how this country is going to answer you

and your immodest demands for a different world,

and a better life, and complete comprehension

of both at last, and immediately,

after eighteen days of suspension?

Finish your breakfast.”

Bishop developed the knack of creating emblems for the self that allowed her to write veiled autobiography. There are many such emblems in Bishop’s work. Here is “The Sandpiper,” whose baffled search for meaning mirrors the poet’s own:

The world is a mist. And then the world is

minute and vast and clear. The tide

is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.

His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

Looking for something, something, something.

Poor bird, he is obsessed!

The title poem, “Questions of Travel,” begins in the voice of someone not unlike the spoiled, hard-to-please tourist from “Arrival at Santos,” prompting a similar internal dialogue between two voices belonging to the same person: “There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams/ hurry too rapidly down to the sea . . . .” Was it worth it to come all the way to this exotic place? The other voice, less hasty, less rash, takes a calmer, more considered approach, answering one question with another: “Think of the long trip home./ Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?”

Bishop writes brilliantly about the complex relationship between the arts, religion, and colonialism in Brazil.

“I started out,” she writes soon after settling in Brazil, “intending to go all over the continent but I seem to have become a Brazilian home-body, and I get just as excited now over a jeep trip to buy kerosene in the next village as I did in November at the thought of my trip around the Horn.” And as she settles in, she starts to notice and write, brilliantly, about the complex relationship between the arts, religion, and colonialism in Brazil. If the questioning traveler had indeed “stayed at home,” she would have missed not just experiences but understanding:

—Yes, a pity not to have pondered,

blurr’dly and inconclusively,

on what connection can exist for centuries

between the crudest wooden footwear

and, careful and finicky,

the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.

Her dramatic monologue “Manuelzinho” is one of the funniest poems I know, and at the same time a searching critique, not excluding pathos, of the master-servant relationship. Anyone who has experienced a way of life that includes servants will recognize the half-affectionate, half-exasperated tone that seems reserved for people who like to talk among themselves about “the help,” in this case a “half squatter, half tenant (no rent)—/ a sort of inheritance . . . the world’s worst gardener since Cain.”

Lowell was a more situated poet. Early on he identified himself as a Bostonian, a New Englander, and this identity is crucial from his early work in Lord Weary’s Castle all the way through his 1959 masterpiece, Life Studies, and its follow-up volume, For the Union Dead (1964). There is even room in this picture for his madness. He liked to quote the old saying that a true Bostonian has “a share in the Athenaeum, a lot at Mount Auburn [cemetery] and an uncle in McLean’s.” (McLean’s was the old-line private sanatorium where Lowell would put up from time to time.) When he moved to New York in the early Sixties, he in turn somehow managed to absorb the spirit of literary and political New York, and during the turbulent late Sixties and early Seventies, he assumed the role of spokesman for the intellectual Left. At the same time Lowell was ambivalent about that role, because in some ways he remained a rock-ribbed New England conservative.

Lowell dedicated one of his best-known poems, “Skunk Hour,” to Bishop. The two animals—the skunk, never a welcome visitor, and the armadillo, biologically outmoded, also a nuisance—are emblematic of everything marginalized and unliked. “Skunk Hour” does not shy away from “confessional” detail: “My mind’s not right. . . . I hear/ my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,/ as if my hand were at its throat . . . .” But what catches one by surprise is how Lowell, adopting one of Bishop’s favorite stances, backs off from these first-person “confessions,” instead making the despised skunk a self-image for people like himself, rejected by society because of his difference but still defiant: “She jabs her wedge-head in a cup/ of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,/ and will not scare” in the same way that Bishop’s armadillo is an emblem of defiance against life’s unfairness: “a weak mailed fist/ clenched ignorant against the sky!”

Bishop’s stance is dramatically different. “Art just isn’t worth that much.”

The clash between Bishop’s sense of privacy and personal dignity and Lowell’s “why not say what happened” philosophy led to their most serious rift. Their arguments about Lowell’s decision to include partially fictionalized letters from his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, in The Dolphin and For Lizzie and Harriet are substantive, particularly on Bishop’s part. Lowell’s defense of what he has done comes across in retrospect as rather lame—even heartless and uncomprehending when he writes to Hardwick: “I fear I may owe you an apology for versing one of your letters into my poems on you in Notebook. When Lamb blew up at Coleridge for calling him ‘Frolicsome Lamb,’ Coleridge said it was necessary for the balance of his composition. I won’t say that, but what could be as real as your own words, and then there’s only a picture that does you honor.” Hardwick must have blown up when she read that.

Horrified by what Lowell was doing, Bishop quotes Hardy to him: “What should certainly be protested against, in cases where there is no authorization, is the mixing of fact and fiction in unknown proportions. Infinite mischief would lie in that.” She goes on to say, “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.” Consider how far Bishop is here from Faulkner’s well-known claim that “the writer’s only responsibility is to his art. . . . Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” Lowell is staking out a position close to Faulkner’s; Bishop’s stance is dramatically different. “Art just isn’t worth that much.”

Beyond this debate, it is enjoyable to see these two powerful writers simply as people, Lowell mentioning televised sports in the same breath as his voluminous reading: “Except for football games, I’ve become a pure creature of books.” He was a prodigious reader, a tireless learner, and he often lists the books he’s been reading. In 1948 he is on a Robert Louis Stevenson kick: “I’ve read Black Arrow, Weir of Hermiston, The Master of Ballantrae. . . . Saw Black Arrow as a movie too—it’s a cumbersome pot-boiler at best, but redone with the plot of a western thriller it is, is—words fail me.” Bishop apologizes jokingly for a spot on a letter she has just written: “I’m sorry—I seem to have got some of a very old & liquefied jelly-bean on this.”

In between his manic highs and the doldrums of his lows, Lowell loved routine, and often praises a pleasant quotidian dullness: “We’re back in Maine, awfully tennis-playingish and beachy. [Richard] Eberhart’s boat still lands, heavy with strangers and heartiness. . . . I sit typing, surrounded by chintz and Cousin Harriet’s somber 19th century oils of Alpine valleys. The sun comes in the window.” You can see here the poet of Lord Weary’s Castle and Life Studies on his home turf, cosseted by antiques and other not always agreeable reminders of the past. And we can see Lowell’s history-haunted mind at work on the parallels he sees between the Roman Empire and contemporary one-percent America, in this case the summer-place coast of Maine: “All the great lawns, birch and elm groves, frail expensive wharves, new Swedish racing craft at the moorings, here and there a private plane; you felt you were seeing the great Roman villas described by Horace and Juvenal . . . .”

For all their animadversions against American culture, it is fun to see that these poets were American enough to get excited about cars. Here is Bishop on the sports car her friend Tom Wanning was thinking of buying: “Tom is considering buying an English car, a Jaguar—he says it’s ‘moss-green,’ has four forward speeds, and what particularly gets him, I think, is a very elaborate tool-chest, like a Jewel box, with the tools embedded in little wells of green billiard cloth.” More car talk from Lowell in Iowa City, where he was teaching: “We’ve just bought a seventeen year old Packard that an old professor looked after like a baby, or rather far better. I’ve just gotten my driver’s license, and discover unexpectedly that I am slow and reliable. We go for pleasure drives along the unscenic Iowa river, and are almost senile with joy and fatuousness.”

Lowell knew everybody who was anybody in the literary world. Personal sketches of other writers abound. Here is Theodore Roethke: “mammoth yet elfinlike, hairless, red-faced, beginning the day with a shot of bourbon, speechless except for shrewd grunted asides—behind him nervous breakdowns, before him—what?”

The Beats, who had visited Lowell in Boston in the late Fifties, did not impress Elizabeth Bishop: “Oh dear, your ‘Beat’ guests do sound awful. I have read some of the poetry and find it hopeless—and yet I sympathize with them. The trouble is mostly ignorance, don’t you think—and lack of education, as well as talent. (I guess that takes care of them!)”

Mary McCarthy, who summered in Castine, Maine, as Lowell did, and who was married for a time to Edmund Wilson, who in turn was once romantically involved with the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, provides an endless source of innocent merriment: “I sound like notes for a Mary McCarthy novel. Have you read her last [A Charmed Life] in which Mary (divorced and remarried) is seduced by Wilson (divorced and remarried) after a Wellfleet reading of Racine’s Berenice? In the last chapter Mary driving to Boston for an abortion is run into and killed by a red-headed Millay-like Cape poet driving on the wrong side of the road.”

Lowell knew everybody who was anybody in the literary world.

Lowell and Bishop both enjoyed stays at Yaddo, the artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, and in 1949 he writes Bishop about a young fiction writer from Georgia who was staying at Yaddo: “There’s a little Catholic girl named Flannery O’Connor here now . . . a real writer, I think, one of the best to be when she is a little older. Very moral (in your sense) and witty—whom I’m sure you’d like.”

Ready for this one from 1958? “I must write you about Eliot and his new bride next letter. They danced so dashingly at a Charles River boatclub brawl that he was called ‘Elbows Eliot.’ ”

I think that Lowell’s calling O’Connor “very moral (in your sense)” is a way of addressing Bishop’s deeply scrupulous nature. “I do hope and pray you are feeling yourself again,” she writes Lowell after one of his breakdowns. “(Not that I pray very much, but I mean by that just intensity of hoping . . . .)” Lowell famously wrote, in “Eye and Tooth”: “I am tired, everyone’s tired of my turmoil.” It’s true that his suffering was more dramatic and more public than Bishop’s private angst, but hers was no less intense. “I think you said a while ago,” she wrote him in 1948, “that I’d ‘laugh you to scorn’ over some conversation you & I had had about how to protect oneself against solitude & ennui—but indeed I wouldn’t. That’s just the kind of ‘suffering’ I’m most at home with and helpless about, I’m afraid, and what with two days of fog and alarmingly low tides I’ve really got it bad & think I’ll write you a note before I go out & eat some mackerel.”

I’ve always been intrigued by Bishop’s use of the word “disaster” in her great sestina, “One Art.” She uses it as one of the recurring rhyme words the form demands. Bishop sees the losses built into our lives as an occasion for art, “the art of losing,” something to “master,” though of course in the end, as the poem suggests, who is really capable of doing that? “The art of losing,” she memorably asserts—and the tone suggests someone is trying to convince herself of a proposition she can’t quite believe—“isn’t hard to master;/ so many things seem filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” In 1955, a couple of decades before “One Art” was written, we find Bishop mentioning “disaster” in a letter: “I am extremely happy here, although I can’t quite get used to being ‘happy,’ but one remnant of my old morbidity is that I keep fearing that the few people I’m fond of may be in automobile accidents, or suffer some sort of catastrophe . . . The word for even a small accident here is ‘desastre’. ”

I find I have mostly quoted from the Lowell-Bishop volume of letters, because in writing to his friend he seems to come most alive, but The Letters of Robert Lowell, too, contains gems, such as this apologia for the writer’s life Lowell wrote to Frank Bidart two years before he died: “It’s miraculous . . . how often writing takes the ache away, takes time away. You start in the morning, and look to see the windows darkening. . . . I think the ambition of art, the feeding on one’s soul, memory, mind etc. gives a mixture of glory and exhaustion. I think in the end, there is no end, the thread frays rather than is cut . . . . No perfected end, but a lot of meat and drink along the way.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 2, on page 40
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