Ariel to Caliban and Vice Versa

Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell
Edited by Thomas Travisano, with Saskia Hamilton
Faber and Faber (2008)
£40.00 (875 pages)

What to make of letters? The etymology of ‘literature’ and venerable phrases like ‘the republic of letters’ and ‘man of letters’ seem to put them at the centre of verbal art, and not merely because the Latin word litera denotes the raw alphabetic material of writing. Actually, the Latin term reserved for personal letters of high quality is epistolae, and classical verse examples by Horace and Ovid have been imitated by later authors including Pope, Shelley, Auden, MacNeice, and, more recently, Marilyn Hacker. The paradigm of the written message sent from one person to another is congruent with first-person poems at large, even when a text appears without the complimentary opening ‘Dear X’.

The tension between candour and artifice intrinsic to the verse epistle (or any first-person poem) is only a heightened instance of the same problem posed when notable published authors write to each other. Voltaire could be certain that his letters (drafted, corrected, and sent to fellow authors, scientists, and monarchs) would one day be collected, printed, and made public. The same applies, in differing degrees, to Horace Walpole, Coleridge, Carlyle, Yeats, Virginia Woolf, Dylan Thomas, and Ted Hughes. As with diaries, the letters of published authors are nearly always composed with a sense of someone reading over the shoulder. You can say that the ‘art’ of authors’ personal letters has to find a path between private and public arenas; it succeeds when spontaneity manages to sort with calculation. The correspondents must somehow seem not to know that their letters will one day be scanned by eyes other than the named recipient’s. And when we sense that the letter-writer was writing not so much to the person addressed as to Posterity, then distaste or satirical feelings overtake us. On the other hand, if letters are too telegraphic, if they never describe, reflect, joke, if they never use irony, paradox, varied diction, and figurative language, if they never include thumbnail portraits or anecdotes or comments on books, music, painting or theatre, their later scanners may conclude that the author was, after all, a secrete dullard, hobbled by an unimaginative form of sincerity. (Two examples that come to mind are Wilde and Joyce, who put none of their genius into their letters, either because of literary parsimony or laziness.)

European and American literary history since 1700 counts published collections of authors’ letters in the hundreds, but the tennis-match presentation—‘The X and Y Correspondence’—begins only in the twentieth century and includes the notable examples of Nabokov/Edmund Wilson and Pound/Robert Duncan. This approach, both dual and tightly focused, amounts to an extension of university research practice, homing in as it does on a specific literary relationship—though you always find some spilling-over when the letter-writers have friends in common. Hefty volumes of Bishop’s and Lowell’s selected correspondence have already appeared, and more than half the letters in this book can be found in the earlier collections. What’s the argument, then, for this new stereophonic format for the Bishop-Lowell correspondence? First, it contains fascinating letters not previously published, and, second, it allows us, without shuttling back and forth between the earlier volumes, to track the two poets’ mutual influence more effectively than any study I know. (That would include David Kalstone’s often-praised Becoming a Poet, a pioneering enquiry into the Bishop/Lowell literary relationship.)

I say literary relationship, but the personal impact that Elizabeth made on ‘Cal’ (as she learned to call him by the time she sent her third letter), and that Cal made on Elizabeth, cannot be disentangled from it. Both poets published their first full-length books in 1946, and in early January 1947 the poet-critic Randall Jarrell invited them to dinner at his New York apartment. They weren’t in touch again until May, when Bishop wrote to congratulate Lowell on his Pulitzer Prize and two other fellowships—none of which went to her. Several more months were needed before Bishop and Lowell were on a comfortable footing. At some point in the following year, Lowell decided he was smitten with his new friend, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to propose changing the nature of their relationship. He seems later to have regretted failing to make a declaration, and it isn’t clear at what point it dawned on him that Bishop was lesbian—perhaps not until 1951, when she settled to live in Brazil with Lota de Macedo Soares, beginning a relationship that lasted for nearly two decades.

One fascinating ‘period’ aspect of these letters is that, even after she and Lowell were the best of friends, Bishop never defined her sexuality or directly referred to the conjugal love she shared with her Brazilian partner, nor, later, with other women. Granted, homosexuality was a legal offence during most of Bishop’s life, and as a proper Bostonian she would have been aware of the admonition in Emily Post’s etiquette book saying that a woman should never put in personal letters any statement she would not be willing to have read out in a court of law. Given her reticence and the scarcity of information about homosexuality available in that day, Lowell’s obtuseness on the topic is plausible. At several points over the years he reports his rueful recollection of the tongue-tied visit he made to Bishop in 1948 while she was staying in a Maine seacoast village. When the woman Lowell was with at the time saw that she was in the way, she beat a hasty retreat, leaving Lowell with both motive and opportunity for announcing his intentions. Apparently it hadn’t occurred to Lowell that a marriage proposal would have been refused. After all, he was the most celebrated young poet in America, tall, with arresting good looks, and a member of an old Bay Colony family that had included Puritan divines, statesmen, Harvard presidents, and poets. Despite all these circumstantial reinforcements, some reluctance or unspoken discouragement from Bishop held Lowell back. And a good thing, too. Considering the bipolar illness Lowell would soon develop and, on her side, Bishop’s chronic asthma attacks and alcoholic binges, any sort of domestic association would have been disastrous. Both poets needed partners who were also, to some degree, minders—Lowell eventually finding his in his wife Elizabeth Hardwick; Bishop, in Lota de Macedo Soares.

For Lowell, the possibility of a marriage between them was based on personal attraction, probably, but it would also (and more compellingly?) be sanctioned by the joint project of writing great poetry, a consummation that ought to override any non-artistic incompatibilities. Actually, he put his mixed feelings on the subject in a poem titled ‘Water,’ which not incidentally incorporates fragments of a dream that Bishop first recounted to him in a letter from 8 September 1948: ‘The boats bringing the men back from the quarries look like convict ships & I’ve been indulging myself in a nightmare of finding a gasping mermaid under one of these exposed docks. You know, trying to tear the mussels off the piles for something to eat,—horrors.’

‘Water’ wasn’t composed until more than a decade later, and Lowell announces its imminent book publication in a letter written from New York, dated 10 March 1962: ‘A word about the poems I’m putting in. You’ll find one to you, unidentified, about that time in Stonington, after the Carley Dawson departure. More romantic and gray than the whole truth, for all has been sunny between us. Indeed it all started from thinking about your letter, how indispensable you are to me, and how ideally we’ve really kept things, better than life allows, really.’

Using a neutral weather term to describe a relationship negotiated more by letters than direct contact is accurate insofar as it applies to expressions of affection and admiration between the poets. But their lived experience was much more fraught, as hinted at in a comment from the same Bishop letter reporting the mermaid dream: ‘Sometime I wish we could have a more sensible conversation about this suffering business, anyway. I imagine we agree fairly well. It is just that I guess I think it is so irresistible & unavoidable there’s no use talking about it, & that in itself it has no value, anyway.’ Because ‘there’s no use talking about it’, neither Bishop nor Lowell devoted much space in their letters to detailing ordeals undergone; a reference or two sufficed, otherwise the poets kept to more colourful or amusing topics and shoptalk. Conducting a friendship through the intermediary of letters provided an alternative to the boring or excruciating conduct of everyday life. As we’ve seen, the letters sometimes contained the germ of a work composed later on, in fact, an important test drive for Bishop’s poem ‘The Bight’ is found in a letter she wrote from Key West, on New Year’s day of 1948: ‘The water looks like blue gas—the harbor is always a mess, here, junky little boats all piled up, some hung with sponges and always a few half sunk or splintered up from the most recent hurricane. It reminds me a little of my desk.’

All of these details reappear, transformed, in her poem except the comparison to her desk. Perhaps persevering critics would have eventually deciphered the poem, even without this comment, as an allegory for writing. But perhaps not; as a form of insurance, Bishop deftly placed the amusing and significant observation in a letter she hoped would be read many years later by strangers interested in her work. Now that we have read it, we can grasp the poem’s intentions more fully. ‘The Bight’ also refers to Baudelaire’s proto-Symbolist doctrine of correspondances and [the poem] puns on that word in the phrase ‘torn-open, unanswered letters.’ She means personal letters, obviously, but when [‘The Bight’] is understood as an allegory for poesis, we’re given clues to an aspect of her art. A poem is like a letter, and for that reason it must not be ponderous—instead, personal, conversational in tone, comic if possible, and presenting the author-speaker in an attractive light, no matter any avowed imperfections. The apparent ease and spontaneity is achieved only after multiple drafts; the failures wadded and tossed about like boats after a storm. ‘The Bight’ concludes with the line, ‘All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful.’ Despite life’s awfulness, its mess and its wretched false starts, we must seem to be cheerful, a disguise any sensitive reader, and certainly Robert Lowell, would be able to penetrate.

Practical experience in the world teaches that this is a good social stratagem for the unhappy person to adopt. Nothing clears a room as quickly as a j’accuse or a mudslide of complaint. Bishop’s attractiveness as poet, her knack of turning first-time readers instantly into fans, is based partly on the skill to hint at hidden pain within a discourse that is mostly ‘sunny.’ But it also means she could not ever write something like Milton’s ‘On the Late Massacre at Piedmont’, or Hopkins’s ‘terrible’ sonnets, or even some of Lowell’s more agonized personal poems—though, in fact, she begins to approach that mode in her last published volume Geography III. Social norms governing personal exchanges may not, after all, enable a poet to say everything that needs to be said. But they are part of the reason that Bishop wrote as she did—and they explain why she is less pleased with Lowell’s poems than he is with hers. I say this despite her repeated insistence in her letters to Lowell that she admires him more than any of their contemporaries, in fact, almost singly. Still, if you look at letters she sent to Randall Jarrell (found in the earlier volume of her correspondence), you will see that she is discoverably less enthusiastic about recent publications of Lowell’s that she mentions to Jarrell than she is in the letters written to Lowell. In this frame, it’s worth considering statements made in a letter to Anne Stevenson, written in 1963 when Stevenson was preparing her critical study of Bishop (and not included in this collection): ‘I don’t care much for grand, all-out efforts—but on the other hand, I sometimes do… I admire Robert Lowell’s poetry very much, and much of Lord Weary’s Castle couldn’t be more all out…’ The comment about Lowell feels more like dutiful self-correction than an uncensored first thought. There are stronger praise-verbs than ‘admire’. In any case, Bishop’s dissatisfaction with Lowell’s poems, his tendency to be over-emphatic and ‘all out’, also creeps into the poem ‘The Armadillo’, which is dedicated to him. It’s a critique that can be detected if you surmise that the title’s armoured animal is partly a stand-in for Lowell himself.

On the other hand, Lowell is always and unmistakably a fan of Bishop’s. What reservations he had were expressed only in indirect, symbolic form in the poem ‘Skunk Hour’, dedicated on 3 December 1957, tit for tat, to Bishop in these terms: ‘I’m dedicating ‘Skunk Hour’ to you. A skunk isn’t much of a present for a Lady Poet, but I’m a skunk in the poem.’ He isn’t the skunk the poem describes; that one being a ‘she’. But, apart from this one instance of score-settling, Lowell always showers Bishop with praise when she sends him poems. Beyond that, he helps her in a thousand practical ways, shunting fellowships and prizes her way, serving as unpaid public relations man for her with decision-makers, arranging for her to teach at Harvard and, finally, giving her a considerable sum of money after the sale of his archive to Harvard, arguing that she deserves to be paid for letters of hers that were part of it. If Bishop felt uneasy that her personal letters had become available for scholarly perusal, she didn’t say so. She cashed his godsend cheque, saying that it couldn’t have arrived at a better moment and that it helped her set up the new condo she’d bought in Boston. What becomes quite clear after an assessment of this three-decades-long friendship is that Bishop’s life would have been much more difficult and probably more obscure except for Lowell’s many interventions in her behalf. When we try to arrive at an accurate estimate of his achievements, it’s fair to add to them his championing of Bishop, a poet whom a more competitive contemporary might have tried to sabotage as a rival.

To remark that the correspondence comes to an end about a month before Lowell’s death in 1977 would be anticlimactic. Instead, let’s conclude by quoting excerpts from both correspondents. First, from Lowell, a little occasional poem he wrote for a friend’s album and then took the trouble to copy and send to Bishop in March 1962. (Lowell never published it in a book or a magazine.)

Are we couth or uncouth?
Oh it’s best to be both,
both sides of the coin,
half man and half horse,
poor creatures of rhyme,
who want to rejoin
the human race
and life and time.

And then Bishop, in a letter written in June 1970 from Brazil, about three years after Lota’s death:

I am having a lovely time being lonely—perhaps it is the way I should live, anyway. I am so damned cheerful all the time I can’t believe it—I have told my 18 year-old maid that she shouldn’t be frightened when I laugh to myself (at my own witticisms) and talk out loud—it is my way of ‘working’. I play her the Beatles and Janis Joplin and Sambas all day long and we both go about this large house dancing—it is very nice—and the house is so beautiful I can’t dream any more of selling it. You must see it some day—even if you are not domestic, like me…. [She describes the interior.] I also have a ‘cannon-ball stove’, I brought two—the other’s a Franklin, for the sala,—burning away, and I just realized last night as the lights failed in the kitchen and I fried myself an egg by the light of the oil lamp, that probably what I am really up to is recreating a sort of de luxe Nova Scotia all over again, in Brazil. And now I’m my own grandmother.

The last sentence confirms a theory I’ve advanced elsewhere, to the effect that Bishop’s Nova Scotian childhood was a lost paradise that she tried several times to recreate in un-Canadian and non-urban settings (Key West, Maine, Ouro Prêto), where she could dwell among unsophisticated people with kindly temperaments. If she at last became her own Nova Scotian grandmother, Lowell must amount to her Bostonian grandfather—absent, but upright, protective, and concerned for her well-being. Some indispensable stimulus vanished from her experience when that ‘all-out’ grandfather died. No further letters came from her favourite correspondent, and Bishop’s last ‘epistle’ to him was the elegy titled ‘North Haven’. She outlived him by slightly more than two years.

Alfred Corn


The Current Issue

The current issue is packed with poems, reviews and interviews.

View Online copy »


The Wolf 35 is now out and available at stockists. Click here to buy online

Issue 35 is our last print issue. We will accept single issue subscriptions until this issue runs through, or for requested back issues (depending on stock).

Thank you to all who have supported the magazine since 2002. We hope to develop this site into an archive of larger online materials in the future.

The Wolf is now available to buy as a digital PDF copy via Paypal. £3/$5 for the latest issue.

The Wolf - Digital version


» Buy latest issue & subscribe
» Outlets that stock The Wolf


Hear the Wolf poets read their work.

Click here >

The Wolf at the Poetry Library

The Wolf on - all of issues 6, 10 and 11