Last summer, my big heavy book was the correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. I kept thinking about Bishop's work and her life. Her poems (and I'm sure I'm repeating myself here) are nearly perfect; I would probably kill to write poems like that. But would I have wanted her life? She had sorrows early and late in life, suffered from asthma and alcoholism, and seemed always to be worrying about money. In the letters, she is always promising to take trips to see Lowell and other people, and rarely follows through - whether due to money, the vagaries of the Brazilian government (she lived in Brazil for many years), or something to do with Lota, her longtime partner. I got the sense that sometimes she felt stuck in Brazil. On the other hand, her isolated geographic position allowed her to be dismissive of things like awards, readings, and teaching honors - all of which she seems to have disliked.
This got me thinking about some of my favorite poets' lives, and whether I'd like being in them. While I certainly wouldn't say no to James Merrill's independent wealth (read: time to read and write and travel all the time), it doesn't sound like his childhood was any picnic. And even though he had lots of friends and lovers, there's something lonely in his poems, especially the later ones.
Then there's Philip Larkin, a fellow librarian. I love his sharp, dry poems, and his Collected Poems is the book I give to friends who claim not to like poetry. According to the Poetry Foundation, he hated the limelight even more than Bishop, and grew more and more reclusive after publishing his last book in 1974 (he died in 1985). He appears to have been a serial romantic partner (sometimes monogamous, sometimes not, but apparently with the agreement of the other parties). I admire that he managed to be both a good librarian and a good poet. But it does seem like he was terribly cranky most of the time.
And finally, there is Amy Clampitt, whose appearance on an episode of the Poetry off the Shelf podcast I was listening to this morning jump-started this whole line of thought. I had never heard of Clampitt until we studied her in a class I took my senior year in college. My professor invited a critic who'd known her to talk to the class, and the details of her life delighted me. She published her first book at age 54 - a fact that comforts me when I get all Sylvia Plath-y about how time is ticking away on me as a poet and a person. (Notice I left SP out of this entry altogether. Clearly.) And Clampitt was also a reference librarian, for the Audubon Society. The visiting critic told us that she met her partner at a Communist rally when they were both on the older side, and that they kept separate apartments. They only got married when one of them was dying (can't remember if it was him or her) so there wouldn't be legal trouble. There was a poet on the podcast who's currently living in her house in Western Mass. on a residency. (I kind of want to apply.)
And her poems - while they don't blow me away every time - are really good. They're about - and I swore I wouldn't mention the David Lipsky book about DFW till later, but I have to - about the kinds of things DFW said, in that book, that poetry needs to be about for people to care about it again: the 9-to-5, and married people sleeping in the same bed. (I can't seem to find the exact quote.) So yeah, I guess Amy Clampitt is as close to a poetic idol as I'm going to get.
(All these poets are bio-ed and critic-ed and bibliographied very well over at the Poetry Foundation.)
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