Prose from Poetry Magazine

"There's Something Haunting and Nihilistic About Your Hairdresser"

Previously unpublished letters between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.

Elizabeth Bishop was introduced to Robert Lowell in late 1946 or early 1947. That winter Randall Jarrell, whom she had already briefly met, was in New York to begin work as the acting literary editor of the Nation. Planning a dinner for his literary friends, he invited both Bishop and Lowell. As she tells the story in an unfinished draft of an essay found among her papers, "I was extremely shy at the time and I had met very few poets. I was afraid of going to dinner with Jarrell and his wife, and even more afraid of meeting Lowell." This was so because she "admired some of his poems extremely," and Lowell—younger than Bishop and still in his twenties—had just published Lord Weary's Castle, soon to earn the Pulitzer Prize. Fortunately, her "fear and trembling" were short-lived. The night of the dinner she felt relaxed with Jarrell, who "talked a blue streak" while putting his big black cat, Kitten, "through his tricks." And then... "Lowell arrived and I loved him at first sight." Her shyness vanished, and the two began to talk. During her taxi ride home that evening—she was living in what she called a "genuine garret"— Bishop reflected that it was the first time she had ever actually talked with anybody about how one writes poetry. She followed up this first meeting with an awkward and formal-sounding letter sent to Lowell through his publisher in May 1947. Despite the warmth of their first encounter, the two didn't address each other by their first names until later that summer, when Lowell insisted on it—and explained that he should be called by his now-famous nickname, Cal.

The sequence of unpublished letters presented here begins in November 1947 and documents the blossoming of a friendship that would last the rest of their lives, a period of three full decades. Bishop writes from Key West, where she has gone to stay with Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway, recently divorced from Ernest. Lowell is in Washington DC, where he has taken up the post of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress and is living in the venerable Cosmos Club. She had visited him just the month before—taking in the National Gallery of Art, and recording some of her poems for the Library at his invitation. In the ensuing letters they amiably talk shop: she responds to poems that are about to go into Lowell's second book, The Mills of the Kavanaughs; he gives her advice about how to handle the reprinting of her first book, North & South. They also trade gossip and—best of all for the contemporary reader—fall naturally into their distinctive prose styles. Though they would see each other infrequently over the years, they remained, through their letters and poems, faithful friends. As Thomas Travisano, who has now edited their complete correspondence, summarizes, "Through wars, revolutions, breakdowns, brief quarrels, failed marriages and love affairs, and intense poetry-writing jags the letters kept coming . . . For each, personally as well as artistically, these letters became part of their abidance." —DS

To read the letters of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop subscribe to Poetry.
Originally Published: October 23, 2008

COMMENTS (2)

On October 17, 2008 at 12:59pm Katherine Valentine wrote:
Sometimes we are consumed by our poems and readers and relate to each other only through gooey thoughts and spirited diatribes and endless longings and so poetry becomes the appetizer, main course, dessert. It's the be all end all and the beginning and the end. There's nothing "middle" about poetry or its slaves called poets.

Katherine V.

On November 25, 2008 at 7:48pm The Thing that tests the wind wrote:
Had lowell spent his youth on seeds of lust

while doting on the likes of Plath, and

wrote letters to the dust of Euripedes, instead of to the great Bishop, he

might have been less apt to smile,

wile simulating winks and nods,

as is the norm on coasts theat shreak,

and instead he might have peaked

and interest in naked limbs, by

orange lit lamplights on the whims

of those who'd eat a peach.

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This prose originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

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