Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Alfred Corn
Dear Editor,

I was glad to find the "Valentines" feature of your February issue leavened with comedy, both intentional and unintentional. It's apparent that we're meant to understand the J.D. McClatchy piece ["The Arrow in the Heart"] as suggestive reverie rather than accurate reportage, a prose parallel to the autobiographical yet fictional poems he describes writing. Still, when he refers to Robert Lowell, I'd be willing to suspend disbelief more readily if he got the general circumstances right. Although we do find conversations (not recalled verbatim, obviously) with Elizabeth Hardwick in For Lizzie and Harriet, no fictionalized letters from her were used in that volume. Where they do appear is in his next book, The Dolphin, a series of excerpts that Lowell admitted revising when he worked them into the poems. It may interest readers to consider Elizabeth Bishop's response to this procedure in a letter dated March 21, 1972. She quotes Thomas Hardy on the dangers of mixing fact and fiction in imaginative works dealing with people who actually lived. She observes that the public could be led to believe non-factual, perhaps libelous things about a fictionalized subject when these are mingled with circumstances known to be true; and says that, because of the cruelty involved, "art just isn't worth that much." Of course some models for fictional characters are tougher than others, and Elizabeth Hardwick didn't really need anyone to run interference for her, even a defender as eloquent as Bishop. I report here a comment that circulated when The Dolphin was published, to the effect that she wasn't bothered so much by Lowell's revision of her letters as the fact that the book incorporating them wasn't very good.

Hudson, New York

Originally Published: October 27, 2008

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This prose originally appeared in the May 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

May 2007

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 Alfred  Corn

Biography

American author Alfred Corn has published ten books of poems, including Stake: Selected Poems, 1972-1992 (1999) and, most recently, Unions (2014). He has also published a novel, Part of His Story, a study of prosody The Poem’s Heartbeat, and two collections of critical essays, The Metamorphoses of Metaphor and Atlas: Selected Essays, 1989-2007. His second novel, Miranda’s Book, will be published in late 2014.

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