For quite a while now, I’ve been working my way through Words in Air, the recently published collected correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Even though I’ve already read Bishop’s published letters, this is quite a different collection…and besides, I don’t seem to retain much that I read anyway. (That’s why I write about it.) It’s really wonderful in all kinds of ways. Both of them write so well, even in casual correspondence. It makes me want to read everything about and by Bishop, and all the books they talk about with each other. That reading list alone would keep me busy for the rest of my days. It’s overwhelming.
One thing that comes through in the letters is the community of artists and writers that existed during that time (the letters cover 1947 to 1977). Maybe that exists now – maybe it’s just much more fragmented. But all the names you’d recognize from that time float around their letters – visiting each other, nominating one another for fellowships, getting married and divorced - Moore, Pound, Eliot, Huxley, O’Connor, Jarrell, Frost. (Neither of them seems to have liked Frost very much.) Robert Lowell, who (I think) was more famous at the time, writes about an “after-party” at the Kennedy inaugural:
Incredible dinner at the Eberharts’ with the Tates, Madam Perkins, K.A. Porter, Auden, Ted Spencer’s sister and Betty Eberhart’s German cousin. Allen, very tight, gave two identical very formal toasts to the memory of Ted Spencer, and Auden helpfully took out all our plates, still unfinished, to the pantry, and Katherine Anne announced that she was seventy. (Letter 228 – Feb. 15, 1961; page 350)
Lowell also tells Bishop (of the poem she dedicated to him, and one of my favorites of hers), “I carry ‘The Armadillo’ in my billfold and occasionally amaze people with it.” (Letter 212 – Apr. 28, 1960; p. 324)
But it’s not all like that. As Lowell writes, “What marvelous letters you’ve written me. You must tire of my dark inwardness and shop talk.” (Letter 271 – June 19, 1963; page 469)
Everything Bishop writes is “marvelous.” I’m going to just rattle off a couple of excerpts for your reading pleasure.
“The idea of a child overwhelms me a little – but then, people do have them.” (Letter 122 – Dec. 5, 1953; p. 146)
“It’s almost impossible not to tell the truth in poetry, I think, but in prose it keeps eluding one in the funniest way.” (Letter 127 – May 20, 1955; p. 161)
And finally, this excerpt, written near the beginning of her many years in Brazil, resonated a lot with me:
“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….” (Letter 128 – Jul 8, 1955; p. 164)
All quotations from Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2008.
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