Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Linebacker and the Dervish

Lowell stormed the literary world; while Bishop orbited its periphery. On closely reading their collected letters, a poet and critic uncovers a new way to read their mythologized friendship.

by Michael Hofmann
Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton.Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $45.00.

This is such a formidably and dramatically and lingeringly wonderful book, it is hard to know where to begin. Well, begin in the manner of the physical geographer and the embarrassed statistician and the value-for-money merchant, with quantity, though that's absolutely the wrong place. Here then are 459 letters, three hundred of them not previously published, exchanged over thirty years, between 1947 when the two great poets of late-twentieth-century America first met—Robert Lowell just thirty, Elizabeth Bishop thirty-six, each with one trade book and one round of prizes under their belts—and 1977 when Lowell predeceased his friend by two years; covering, all told, some nine hundred pages, from Bishop end-papers—one hand-scrawled, one typed—to Lowell end-papers—one in his laborious, also not greatly legible child-print ("I know I'm myself beyond self-help; and at least you can spell"), one typed. The apparatus of footnotes, chronology, and compendious glossary of names—take a bow, Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton—is modest, helpful, and accurate. At this point in our post-epistolary (no joke), post-literary, almost post-alphabetical decline, we would probably receive any collection of letters with a feeling of stupefied wistfulness and a sigh of valediction, but Words in Air is way beyond generic. It feels like a necessary and a culminating book, especially for Bishop. To read, it is completely engrossing, to the extent that I feel I have been trekking through it on foot for months, and I don't know where else I've been. "Why, page 351," I would say. "Letter 229; March 1, 1961. Where did you think?"

But what is it like? How in fact do you read it? "I am underlining like Queen Victoria," Bishop remarks at one stage. How do you filter, assimilate, crunch it down to the space of a review? Its eight-hundred pages of letters—every one of them bearing my ambiguous slashes of delight, interest, controversy, revelation—still left me with eight sheets full of page numbers of my own. It's like starting with a city, and ending up with a phone book—hardly useful as a redaction. Really, I might as well have held a pencil to the margin and kept it there, for bulk re-read.

It's an epistolary novel, if not a full-blown romance then at least at moments an amitié amoureuse. It's a variation on Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. Or it's an Entwicklungsroman in later life, both parties already poets but perhaps more importantly still on the way to becoming poets (echoing the title of David Kalstone's study), as perhaps one only ever and always is becoming a poet. It's an ideally balanced, ideally complex account of a friendship, a race, a decades-long conspiracy, a dance (say, a tango?). It's a cocktail of infernal modesty and angelic pride. It's a further episode in Bishop's increasingly sweeping posthumous triumph over her more obvious, more ambitious, more square-toed friend. It's a rat-a-tat-tat ping-pong rally, an artillery exchange, a story told in fireworks, a trapeze show. One can read it for gifts sent up and down the Atlantic, from Lowell's traditional northeast seaboard to Bishop's serendipitously-arrived-at Brazil, where she mostly lived from 1951 on, having arrived on a freighter for a short visit; for projects completed, adapted, revised, abandoned, published, and responded to; for blurbs solicited, struggled with, and delivered to greater or lesser satisfaction; for houses bought and done up and left; for other partners encountered and set down; for visits and time together passionately contrived, put off, and subsequently held up to memory or guiltily swept under the carpet; for gossip and the perennial trade in reputations; for a startlingly unabashed revelation of mutual career aid ("we may be a terrible pair of log-rollers, I don't know," writes Bishop in 1965, having asked Lowell for a blurb for Questions of Travel after he had asked her for one for Life Studies); for loyalty and demurral, independent thinking and prudent silence, insistent generosity and occasional self-seeking; a longing to submit to the other's perceived discipline and a desire to offer unconditional admiration; for personal, professional, and public events. One can read it for movements of place, for gaps in time, and discrepancies and disharmonies in feeling or balance; for the dismayed Bishop's agonized criticism of aspects of two of Lowell's books, the rather coarse free translations in Imitations of 1961 and the use of private letters from his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, in The Dolphin of 1973; for various other crises and cruxes: their heady, teasy-flirty mutual discovery of 1947, Bishop's difficult visit to a near-manic Lowell in Maine in 1957, Lowell's visit to Brazil and another manic episode in 1962, the death by suicide of Bishop's companion Lota de Macedo Soares in 1967, Bishop's uneasy return to Boston (to fill in for Lowell's absence, if you please), and Lowell's ultimate shuttling between wives and countries of the late seventies. It's social history, comedy of manners, American dissidence, the search for a style. It's not least a gender myth more astute about men and women than that of Atalanta and Hippolytus (in any case, I always think Atalanta, like Bishop, should have won—she should have been provided with the apples, and Hippolytus, the ambitious, distractable male, goofed off in their pursuit, rather than the other way round). He is her anchor, she his kite.

The haunting issue in these letters is how much the vast difference between their authors brings them together and how much it pulls them apart. Because Lowell and Bishop are unmistakably and unignorably and quite intractably dissimilar—of that there can be no doubt. The letters might as well have been printed in different type or different colors, so little is there ever any question of who is writing. (Which, if you think about it, is rather striking over some eight hundred pages of often close personal communication.) Even when, in the manner of friends, Lowell mimics Bishop, or Bishop teases Lowell, there is no real blurring of identities. "Parce que c'etait lui, parce que c'etait moi" is Montaigne's classic definition of friendship in his essay on the subject. It's a definition that itself resists further definition. It glories in something arbitrary and utterly unappealable. To try and soften this, we standing outside and looking on at such a friendship would hope or expect to see the "lui" and the "moi"—or here the "elle" and the "moi"—as at least converging in a sort of dynamic narcissism, in the way of people coming to resemble their spouses, or dog-owners their dogs. But this is a friendship, it seems to me, across the lines, that from the very beginning asserts itself in spite of everything, that enlists the whole sum and detail of its two divergent personalities to satisfy its absolutely irrational and resolutely Montaignesque basis. The attraction of opposites is a simplification in this context, but the Lowell-Bishop association does bring to mind the school construction of a molecule: the proton (Lowell) massive, positively charged, hugging the center, and the electron (Bishop) almost weightless, negatively charged, speedy and peripheral and orbiting.

All this is exacerbated, of course, by the way one reads, which is to question, to cross-refer and compare, to doubt, to go behind the back of words, to tap for hollowness and cracks and deadness. One reads not with a vise or glue, but with a hammer and chisel, or an awl. It's not—or at least not by intention, or not immediately—a consolidating or fortifying activity, but more like looking for safe passage across a frozen river. Hence, the very form of this book—not one voice, but two voices, and then such different voices and such completely different temperaments—inclines one to further doubt. It's as though two incompatibles had re-based themselves and in some Nietzschean way sworn undying loyalty. The loyalty, whether unspoken or occasionally voiced along the lines of "I don't know what I'd do without you," one tends to disregard—it makes, as it were, the hard covers for this book—while the reader is again and again made aware of the incompatibility, which is everything in between.

The thought came to me early on that this is a dialogue of the deaf, or to put it in the way I first conceived: it's like an arm writing to a leg. It's all a matter of what you want to do, tickle, or walk. Bishop is acute, Lowell obtuse; Bishop sensitive, solicitous, moody, Lowell dull, sometimes careless, rather relentlessly productive; she is anxious, he when not shockingly and I think genuinely self-critical, insouciant; she is open to the world, whereas with him—and this is an understatement—"sometimes nothing is so solid to me as writing"; her poems in her account of them are fickle, small-scale, barely worth pursuing—and how many of them seem to get lost in the making—whereas his are industrial-scale drudgery and then quite suddenly completed. It seems symptomatic that as these letters begin, Lowell is working on his long poem, "The Mills of the Kavanaughs," "12 hours a day—it's now 24 sections almost 400 lines, and I think may go to about 50 sections," only for that to be followed by his prose memoir in the fifties, various translations and dramatic adaptations in the sixties—Imitations, The Old Glory, The Oresteia, Phaedra—and the several versions of another "section" poem, Notebook, followed by another long poem, The Dolphin. He writes like a man consumed—and not at all made happy—by his own industry, a sort of tin Midas: "I have a four hundred line sequence poem which might make a book, twenty pages on a New England essay, and my obituary on Randall. Thank God, we two still breathe the air of the living." If Lowell proceeds like a brickie—you see the string and the plumbline, everything is so and so many courses of bricks—Bishop is like a butterfly hunter, now one, now another, in pretty pursuit, a little forlorn, and quite likely to come home at night with nothing to show for a day's gallivanting. (Strange to think that they were both fishermen, and on occasions fished together.) She is much more protective of her poems too, either not mentioning them at all, or else habitually deprecating them: "I have two new ones I'll send you when I get back, but not very serious ones I'm afraid." Even length—and the term is relative—is not comforting to her, but rather the opposite: "However I have just about finished a long & complicated one about Key West." The poem in question is "The Bight," which barely goes over a page.

The catalog of differences goes on. Not only is Lowell a sort of monad of literature, with little interest outside its bounds—his occasional comments on painters seem dull and contrived, and in music as well he lags way behind Bishop, a one-time music major, who is capable of recommending jazz clubs in Boston, Gesualdo, Purcell, Webern, and Brazilian sambas, all with deep knowledge and understanding—even within it he is drawn with laddish (or loutish) insistence to the monumental, the papier-mâché, the Ben Hur. The contrast in their reading is illuminating: he comes to her, at various times, with Faulkner, Pope, Middlemarch, Chaucer, Dryden, Tasso, Shakespeare, Carlyle, Macaulay, Dr. Zhivago, "all of Thucydides. Isn't Moliére swell!"; she counters with such things as Marius the Epicurean, Frank O'Hara, Captain Slocum, Mme de Sévigné ("so much better than most things written on purpose"—which might be an epigraph for the present volume), Sergey Aksakov. It's not that her writers are impressively obscure or recherché—though they are that, too!—they bespeak a taste as his, frankly, don't. They are the product of longer and more grown-up searching. This emerges beautifully in one of the most lovely and softly assertive passages of hers in the book, where she is talking initially about an Anton Webern record, then makes this into nothing less than an ars poetica:
I am crazy about some of the short instrumental pieces. They seem exactly like what I'd always wanted, vaguely, to hear and never had, and really "contemporary." That strange kind of modesty that I think one feels in almost everything contemporary one really likes—Kafka, say, or Marianne, or even Eliot, and Klee and Kokoschka and Schwitters . . . Modesty, care, space, a sort of helplessness but determination at the same time.
This brave and smart piece of improvisation, on an aesthetic that is not even wholly her own (and fighting contrary tendencies in Kokoschka and Eliot, at least), is surely quite beyond Lowell, whose programmatic remarks in books and interviews are few, lazy, and approximate—which might not seem to matter very much, except that the regrettable "confessional" label goes unopposed.

Literary style is another constant source of difference. Bishop has humor—the lovely air of amusement and being amused that plays over almost everything she writes—Lowell has the more deliberate, more solitary quality of wit. I don't think Oscar Wilde ever wrote or said anything wittier than Lowell's observation—itself a witty variation on Juvenal—on his friend (and perennial bone of contention in this correspondence: he likes him, she doesn't) Randall Jarrell: "Then Randall thinks nothing adult is human." Bishop seeks balance and harmony, even in her most far-flung sentences, so that one's impression is of a chord: "The man wore a very strange buttoned bow-tie, and as a youth he had carried gold, around his waist, for Wells Fargo." (Who else would have thought to make one sentence out of that?!) Lowell is drawn to energy, imbalance, exaggeration, caricature; here he is on his son, aged just one: "We'll be at Bill Alfred's sometime after the 15th, though I dread the effect of Sheridan on Bill's fragile furniture. Unfortunately he has made great strides in the last month and now walks, and I think takes strength exercises. A little girl visited him and he looked in contrast like a golden gorilla." To such a distanced, perhaps word-bound, way of looking (remember, please, those "great strides" are actually literal), everything is apt to seem monstrous; and did anyone ever use the little word "girl" with that undertow of sexual speculation with which Lowell always endows it?! Bishop noticed it too: in "North Haven," her marvelous elegy for him, she has, "Years ago, you told me it was here / (in 1932?) you first 'discovered girls.'" There seem to be almost two competing notions of literature at work here: to Bishop it is seeing everything clearly and fairly and in complicated harmony, through to the horizon; to Lowell it is something compacted and impacted, often a single quality driven in and in on itself, somehow caricatured even when kind. He does have some wonderful passages, but they seem—compared to hers—so utterly planned and worked: the account of a literary conference in New York, the description of a weekend's sailing in Maine with the Eberharts and others, a piece of passionate recollection of Delmore Schwartz (on July 16, 1966) which reaches the level of his brilliant published memoirs of Jarrell and Allen Tate:
Delmore in an unpressed mustard gabardine, a little winded, husky voiced, unhealthy, but with a carton of varied vitamin bottles, the color of oil, quickening with Jewish humor, and in-the-knowness, and his own genius, every person, every book—motives for everything, Freud in his blood, great webs of causation, then suspicion, then rushes of rage. He was more reasonable than us, but obsessed, a much better mind, but one really chasing the dust—it was like living with a sluggish, sometimes angry spider—no hurry, no motion, Delmore's voice, almost inaudible, dead, intuitive, pointing somewhere, then the strings tightening, the roar of rage—too much, too much for us!
This is hammer work, a hammer on the piano or a hammer on the drums; Bishop makes writing seem like breathing.

If one leaves the sheltered hunting grounds of literature—as to an extent we have already—then the differences grow still more apparent. Bishop likes strong Brazilian coffee, Lowell drinks American dishwater coffee (or tea, sometimes he's not sure). Bishop is the one who brings in words: desmarcar, "when you want to get out of an engagement," or "found a lovely word at Jane Dewey's—you probably know it—ALLELOMIMETIC. (Don't DARE use it!)." And she is the one too whose work requires a dictionary: "Dearest Elizabeth: It was fun looking up echolalia (again), chromograph, gesso, and roadstead—they all mean pretty much what I thought. Oh and taboret, an object I've known all my life, but not the name." It's as though these correspondents have separate vocabularies! And of course separate lives, or rather—to put it a little too brusquely—one life as well: hers. She is the one who travels on freighters, who likes bullfighting, whose "favorite eye shadow—for years—suddenly comes in 3 cakes in a row and one has to work much harder at it and use all one's skill to avoid iridescence . . ." (I belatedly realize what a strangely Hemingwayesque collocation this is). It's not just that Lowell didn't do these things, but that even if he had done them, it seems probable that they would have been wasted on him. He after all was at different times in three European cities—Florence, Amsterdam, and London—and was reminded in all three of them of Boston. Meantime, from Boston, his Boston, she wrote him in 1971: "It is nice autumn weather—the ivy turns bright colors but the trees just an unpleasant yellow. On the library steps I realized the whole place smelt exactly like a cold, opened, and slightly rotten watermelon." It is hard not to contrast this gift to him of his own place with his hard, raptor-like, plaid-golfing-slack announcement: "We would like to come and see you and then rapidly a little more of South America."

A great majority of the arresting and beautiful observations in this book are Bishop's; and one's sense of the book as a whole is largely conditioned by her part of it. From tiny sparking details like the salutation "Dear Lowellzinhos" or the signing off "recessively yours," to a charming haiku-like sentence on a postcard from Italy, "Lovely weather—green wheat, wild-flowers, swallows, a ruin with a big fox," that is like a fast-forward of the creation, it seems she is always good for a vivid and pell-mell and noticing transcription—if not, to use I think it was Derek Mahon's neologism, "danscription"—of the natural world that is a match for anything in her poetry:
All the flowering trees are in blossom, delicate patches of color all up the mountains, and nearer to they glisten with little floating webs of mist, gold spider-webs, iridescent butterflies—this is the season for the big pale blue-silver floppy ones, hopelessly impractical, frequently frayed, in vague couples. They hover over our little pool, and pink blossoms fall into it, and there are so many dragon flies—some invisible except as dots of white or ruby red or bright blue plush or velvet—then they catch the light and you see the body and wings are really there, steely blue wire-work. We sat out in the evenings and the lightning twitched around us and the bigger variety of fireflies came floating along like people walking with very weak flashlights, on the hill—well—you missed this dazzlingness—and the summer storms. Lots of rainbows—a double one over the sea just now with three freighters going off under it in three different directions.
The Lowells had paid a more or less calamitous visit the previous year ("hopelessly impractical, frequently frayed"), and this magnificent paragraph is nothing less than a remaking of paradise ("steely blue wire-work"), and a sign of forgiveness ("a double one") for them all. Even an occasional striking-a-pose of brisk, tweedy, maiden-auntish refusal is delightful in her: "A very cursory look at the Munch Museum—it was too beautiful a day and I was feeling too cheerful to be bothered with all that nordic nonsense." For much of this book, Lowell makes really remarkably little showing compared to Bishop's ironically proferred "superbly underdeveloped country and this backward friend."

Why this matters, I suppose, is that—other things being equal—one likes a poet to have some hinterland (ugly Tory word!)—some hinterland basically of prose: to have experiences, to hold opinions, to store memories, to lead a rich and varied life of the senses. (The other type of poet is a unicorn who lives in an ivory tower: he's frightening and different and real, and we don't get him. When Lowell spends an evening reading poems aloud with I.A. Richards, that feels like unicorn behavior to me.) It's the famous Louis MacNeice prescription: "I would have a poet . . ." and so forth. This Elizabeth Bishop embodies triumphantly, to the extent that over the course of her life her poems—four short books—have a hard time emerging. She gets involved in the turbulent Brazilian politics of the fifties and sixties (and the characteristically ham-fisted American responses to them); Lowell writes: "Let's not argue politics. I feel a fraud on the subject," but that sort of retrenchment applies everywhere, and to some extent the feeling of fraudulence too. Bishop is so prodigal with sympathy, attention, interest; Lowell, by contrast, seems to endow even people quite close to him (even Elizabeth Bishop, as we will see) with very little reality. It comes down to something like focal length—his is about a foot. See him in his heavy, black-rimmed spectacles, recumbent on a leather sofa in the Fay Godwin photograph ("my tenth muse, Sloth"), in a study described (in the poem "The Restoration") as: "unopened letters, the thousand dead cigarettes, / open books, yogurt cups in the unmade bed," and writing things like:
               Now, heart's ease and wormwood,
we rest from all discussion, drinking, smoking,
pills for high blood, three pairs of glasses—soaking
in the sweat of our hard-earned supremacy,
offering a child our leathery love. We're fifty,
and free! Young, tottering on the dizzying brink
of discretion once, you wanted nothing
but to be old, do nothing, type and think.
This is the poet as house plant, as aspirin-munching studio beast, as day-for-night alice band. Lowell is the linebacker-turned-pasha as poet, Bishop is the lifelong dervish.

Small wonder that Lowell (maybe) felt fraudulent. He knew the value of Bishop's letters—when he sold his papers to Harvard, he made sure she was paid a decent sum for hers, but that's not what I mean—even as he apologized ("your letters always fill me with shame for the meager illegible chaff that I send you back") for the thinness of his own. "You & Peter Taylor always make me feel something of a fake—so I love you both dearly," he remarks in 1949. It sounds flip, but of course it was deadly earnest. Lowell understood that there was an agility and a naturalness that Bishop had that he would never have; he and most of the rest of his generation were manufactured. To my possibly anachronistic modern ear, he sentimentalizes and patronizes her all the time. His letters keep her in place, and almost invariably the wrong place; telling an audience that with her he "felt like a mastodon competing with tanks" is typically inept, but maybe no more than telling her, "Honor bright, I'm not a rowdy." For decades he champions her prose, the story "In the Village" in particular ad nauseam (an obviously ambiguous accolade to any poet) and praises her poems (it's a heretical thought, but it did cross my mind) without much sign of having read them. One succeeds the other in his "billfold," but maybe they didn't do him much good there:
It's like going on the pilgrimage of your Fish, or the poem ending awful and wonderful, yet the journey is as utterly new and surprising as a first discovery of what life is all about. And so it is. If I can't stop what, I've already done, I must stop. Maybe, if I carry your "[Under the] Window" around long enough, I'll learn. It's a kind of patience and freshness.
The enthusiasm is vitiated by the confusion around the "what" and by the stale terms at the end. I've developed a thoroughgoing aversion to the (now routine) cult of Bishop as a perfectionist slowcoach (Lowell was an early high priest): she was a fast and sure and instinctive writer, but when a vein or a jag broke off, it was much harder to patch or extend than with less sensitive matter. Beyond that, it's mystifying how anyone could misremember "awful but cheerful." But then, in a letter near the end, he manages to misremember the whole of her: "I see us still when we first met, both at Randall's and then for a couple of years later. I see you as rather tall, long brown-haired, shy but full of des[cription] and anecdote as now. I was brown haired and thirty I guess and I don't know what." This elicits a characteristically accurate harrumph of friendly fire from her:
However, Cal dear, maybe your memory is failing!—Never, never was I "tall"—as you wrote remembering me. I was always 5 ft 4 and 1/4 inches—now shrunk to 5 ft 4 inches—The only time I've ever felt tall was in Brazil. And I never had "long brown hair" either!—It started turning gray when I was 23 or 24—and probably was already somewhat grizzled when I first met you. I tried putting it up for a very brief period, because I like long hair—but it never got even to my shoulders and is always so intractable that I gave that up within a month or so. I think you must be seeing someone else!*
The asterisk is to her footnote: "so please don't put me in a beautiful poem tall with long brown hair!" which of course, as she very well knew, is just what he would have done.

He knew she had everything he didn't; she—in terms of his persistence, his confidence, his diligence—will have known the same. A kind of justice and a kind of vicariousness prompted each of them in their hopes for the other, though in the end I don't believe that either helped the other's writing very much. (The title, Words in Air—the words are Lowell's, incidentally—tells its own story.) She is afraid to read him while writing; it influences her too much. While her praise and minute criticism, droppered out over years ("'ganging' is just right"), would have made him think she was responding on an insignificant, immedicable scale, and beyond anything he could do. "I'm mailing you a copy and wish you'd point [out] any correctable flaws. Correctable—the big ones alas I'm stuck with," Lowell wrote to accompany a typescript of Life Studies. But of course he was stuck with the little ones too, in the end not so little. With his swaggering inexactitude Lowell was absolutely wrong—a red rag for Bishop. In one dangerous letter, she wonders: "If I read it ["The Old Flame"] in Encounter under someone else's name I wonder what I'd think?" He, too, had cause to wonder from time to time: "I see in a blurb you've written you object to confession and irony"—it doesn't leave much of him, and he sounds accordingly bemused and hurt. They were contraries. Each enshrined the other. Short of enmity, it was all they could do.
Originally Published: December 30, 2008

COMMENTS (2)

On January 25, 2009 at 11:20pm Laura Hendell wrote:
This was the best and loveliest and most thoughtful look at this book...thank you so much! I enjoyed every word....

On March 3, 2009 at 7:47pm rita kosofsky wrote:
I've been nibbling at this book for several months.....Its too rich, too evocative, , and too varied...to take as 1 or 2 meals.

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This prose originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

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Michael Hofmann’s annotated translation of Joseph Roth’s letters was just published by W.W. Norton; Impromptus, his Gottfried Benn translations, is expected later this year from Farrar, Straus & Giroux

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