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Essay

Their Living Names

Elegies in the letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.
You Wrote Me Oh So Many Letters by Bethan Phillips

One January evening 50 years ago, Elizabeth Bishop wrote from Rio to her beloved friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell. Into their usual mix of personal and literary tidbits—an upcoming trip to Ouro Prêto, the premiere of an Edward Albee play, the completion of a jigsaw puzzle (“took four evenings!”)—she dropped a solemn note:

I am sure you feel very badly about Eliot; and I’m very sorry, too. [I won]der why on earth he was still in London at this time of year? And [the] picture I saw of him at the time he received that medal showed him [loo]king very sick, I thought. Poor Valerie.

The unfortunate Londoner, of course, was T.S. Eliot, who had died of emphysema three days before.

Humble as this squib is, it conjures up a wealth of biographical context: the assumption of shared mourning for their famous acquaintance, whose death was being reported worldwide; the common reference point of “that medal” (the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an extraordinary honor for a poet); the intimacy implied in the clucking over Eliot’s choice of winter residence—and yet the difference in formality accorded “Valerie” and her husband “Eliot,” who was 38 years older and already a legend.

And those bracketed letters? According to a footnote in Words in Air, the 2008 volume of Bishop and Lowell’s collected correspondence, they’re “due to the airmail paper having been burned by cigarette ash.” Who spilled the ash, and in what emotional state, we’re left to guess.

Lowell never responded directly to the news. By the time he wrote back on February 25, life had hurried on—for one thing, he’d spent “a month in the sanitarium.” Nor did Bishop wallow in mourning for longer than a paragraph. The next line of her note reads:

However—a very chipper letter from Marianne!

You sense a willfulness in her own chipper exclamation point, a stoic optimism that “Marianne” (her mentor, Marianne Moore) might have admired. It’s as if she’s reassuring them both that the old giants have not yet passed from the earth. 

The giants Bishop and Lowell knew, and among whom they towered in their own right, provide much of the peculiar magic of Words in Air. Fascinated as I am by the correspondents themselves—Lowell’s mad brilliance and anointed career as a Famous American Poet; Bishop’s quiet mastery and self-imposed exile in Brazil; the 30-year artistic friendship that nurtured their best works—I can’t be the only reader who started looking up other writers as soon as I opened the book. Still, it may say something about my temperament, as well as the period the letters cover, that my search soon zeroed in on comments about other poets’ deaths.

“We are a brutal generation—brutalized—and yet admirable, too…” So Bishop mused to Lowell in 1963. They shared their middle years with those of their century, aging through the “confessional” movement Lowell inaugurated and Bishop carefully sidestepped. This was an era in which poetry had a fatality rate like 19th-century coal mining. In a recent piece on John Berryman, William Logan tallied the body count:

Dylan Thomas dead at thirty-nine (alcohol and pneumonia), Anne Sexton at forty-five (suicide), Randall Jarrell at fifty-one (suicide or accident), Theodore Roethke at fifty-five (heart attack), Berryman at fifty-seven (suicide), Robert Lowell at sixty (heart attack). Only Elizabeth Bishop lived to a reasonable sixty-eight. The great moderns—Pound, Eliot, Frost, Stevens, Moore, and Williams—all lived past seventy-five, Pound and Frost surviving until near ninety.

Logan fudges a little by excluding Hart Crane (suicide, 32) from the moderns, but he might also have mentioned Sylvia Plath (suicide, 30) and Delmore Schwartz (heart attack, 52) among the later group. No matter how you count, Lowell and Bishop saw one crop of poets felled in old age, another in its prime. They survived, briefly, a sort of communal disaster, and as their letters progress they come to seem the gods of it: presiding over each loss, sweetening each with a little prose elegy, glossing over the dread they must have felt for themselves.

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When their colleagues first started to disappear, Lowell and Bishop treated the subject with melancholy grandeur, even a touch of relish. Here’s Lowell in 1953 after the death of Dylan Thomas:

The details are rather gorgeously grim. He was two days incommunicado with some girl … in some New York hotel. Then his wife came, first cabling “eternal hate,” and tried quite literally to kill and sleep with everyone in sight…. It’s a story that Thomas himself would have told better than anyone else; I suppose his life was short and shining as he wanted it—life, alas, is no joke.

Bishop, six days later, echoes Lowell’s blend of somberness and gossip:

I suppose he had a cerebral hemorrhage or something, poor man. I liked him so much. Well, “like” isn’t quite the word, but I felt such a sympathy for him in Washington, and immediately, after one lunch with him, you knew perfectly well he was only good for two or three years more. Why, I wonder ... when people can live to be malicious old men like Frost, or maniacal old men like Pound…

A decade later Frost himself died, along with Plath, Roethke, Williams, and Louis MacNeice in the same year. The cascade seemed to startle both correspondents. In August Bishop pronounced on their brutal, brutalized, admirable (but not “saintly”) generation; in September Lowell sighed: “What a mortality year for poets!” That November, the “terrible trauma” of another untimely death—John F. Kennedy’s—contributed to the “crack-up” that left Lowell hospitalized for six weeks afterward.

It also triggered the ’60s as we know them. Squarely in the middle of that frenzied decade, Bishop and Lowell faced the first death of a true mutual friend: the poet-critic Randall Jarrell. Here the strain really starts showing through the poise of the prose. In a long passage beginning “The Randall business is very awful,” Lowell casts the incident—Jarrell had dashed into traffic—as the punishing conclusion of a tragic syndrome he’s battled himself:

He should have had a doctor who made clear to him that getting over his manic depressive attack had nothing to do with returning to his wife—my doctor has always made that point…. In his pocket a bottle of Demerol, pain-killer, that might have fuzzed his senses. I think it was suicide, and so does every one else, who knew him well. Hannah [Arendt] said to me, “What is so awful was that it was so fitting.”

Yet his postmortem winds up blaming something very different from pills or depression:

Oh, but he was an absolutely gifted, and noble man, poisoned and killed, though I can’t prove it, by our tasteless, superficial, brutal culture.

Bishop takes up the refrain of “awful” while resisting a diagnosis of depression on other grounds:

I felt awful about Randall…. I feel it must have been an accident of the unconscious-suicide kind, a sudden impulse when he was really quite out of his head—because surely it was most unlike him to make some innocent motorist responsible for his death….Demerol is a strong drug…. Maybe he’d taken some and kept going, which would certainly make anyone “fuzzy,” as you say.— It is too sad, really. I hope he got the two letters I wrote him about his book and that I managed to say something he wanted said.

Of course, it’s common for the friends of apparent suicides to express such doubts and rationalizations. Here, though, the reflexive “defense” of the dead friend also captures the dynamic between these two brilliant, troubled addicts: the mix of frankness and evasion, the personal loyalty and professional supportiveness—arguably the enabling, in the best and worst senses of that term. We see, too, their faith (however shaken) in art, in language, as the only detour from despair: Lowell believing a more tasteful culture might have saved Jarrell, Bishop simply hoping her words might have consoled him a little before the end.

Peering over these poets’ shoulders as they write their contemporaries offstage, we can’t help turning their own judgments back on them. Surely Lowell’s complaint that “each English week[ly] or arts page has a bad elegy” on John Berryman betrays anxiety over his own legacy as a public poet. Surely Bishop, admonishing Lowell after Roethke’s heart attack, is all too aware of her own smoking and drinking habits, as well as her notoriously spotty writing routine:

Please—take care of your health! Being a poet is one of the unhealthier jobs—no regular hours—so many temptations!

Both pen pals are especially revealing on the subject of Plath, whom Lowell portrayed in 1963 as a sort of hellion they’d both helped spawn:

Have you read the posthumous poems by Sylvia Plath? A terrifying and stunning group [including “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”] has come out…They seem as good to me as Emily Dickinson at the moment. Of course they are as extreme as one can bear, rather more so, but whatever wrecked her life somehow gave an edge, freedom and even control, to her poetry. There’s a lot of surrealism which relieves the heat of direct memory, touches of me, and I’m pretty sure touches of your quiet and humor.

Plath certainly did take after Lowell, her former instructor: the self-scrutiny of Life Studies laid the ground for Ariel. I don’t see much of Bishop’s “quiet” in Plath, but the grim nursery-rhyme humor of poems like “Daddy”—their singsong over the abyss—follows from such Bishop classics as “The Unbeliever,” “Insomnia,” and “Visits to St. Elizabeths.”

Bishop never answered Lowell’s question, but when Ariel came out in ’65, it was her turn to marvel:

Sylvia P. seems like a tragic loss to me—although I can scarcely bear to read her poems through, they are so agonized. A bit formless for my taste, too—but really a talent, don’t you think?

By that time Lowell had tempered his own opinion:

Sylvia, I think, has a few perfect poems, but the book as a whole troubles me with its desperation, and even more perhaps by something sprawling unfinished and disorderly, though poem after poem has flashes that are incredible and make me feel weak.

Digesting this pair of qualification sandwiches, we find the cool, controlled Bishop unsettled by Plath’s raw anguish—and suspicious of the headlong fury of her verse. We sense a Lowell “trouble[d]” by echoes of disorder in his own work, and by a young poet channeling her desperation into something more frightening, more transgressive, finally more mythic than Life Studies. Coming from the original confessionalist, that last admission (“[I] feel weak”) is especially rueful. It’s no accident that Lowell ends the letter by brooding on old age—then loftily dismissing it: “But it’s all illusion, we are ageless, a little wick burning in a fog.”

A few tributes are notable for their absence. Neither correspondent mentioned Langston Hughes after his death in '67—or at any other time. It’s a striking and disappointing omission. Lowell was an outspoken liberal firebrand; Bishop had declared, while tepidly recommending Gwendolyn Brooks’s work to him in 1961, that “Negroes should be paid extra attention [as writers].” Yet in 30 years of shoptalk, they completely ignored the master poet of the Harlem Renaissance and rarely discussed nonwhite poets at all. (Neither of them ever mentioned Brooks again, though time has proven her one of five major English-language poets born in the 1910s—along with Thomas, Berryman, and Bishop and Lowell themselves.)

Hughes wasn’t the only modernist to go unlamented. Bishop had effectively elegized Pound years earlier in “Visits to St. Elizabeths”—St. Elizabeths being the mental hospital where he spent much of his later life, avoiding trial for treasonous collaboration with Fascists—yet she treated his actual death as an afterthought:

Oh—Betty Kray called last night—she wants to put on something for Ezra Pound at the NY Public Library, I think—I think she wanted “ideas”…. But I don’t seem to have ideas on that subject any more.... [November 11, 1972]

Lowell didn’t seem to, either; he never wrote back about it. Likewise, neither Bishop nor Lowell discussed the death of Auden in September ’73—hard to believe, given his powerful influence on both of them. But Lowell was going through a “terrible stretch,” as Bishop gingerly put it; his ultra confessional work The Dolphin had compounded the turmoil of his recent divorce and remarriage, straining the poets’ friendship and slowing their correspondence. Over 15 months would pass before Bishop finally mentioned Auden, not in memoriam but in rejection of his gloom about aging: “I just won’t feel ancient—I wish [he] hadn’t gone on about it so in his last years, and I hope you won’t.”

As it turned out, both poets were already nearing the end, and the continuing deaths of friends kept them sharply aware of their own destructibility.

When Berryman jumped off a Minneapolis bridge in January 1972, Lowell looked back with Olympian approval on his friend’s final years: “his heroism was in leaping into himself … bravely.” Whether he meant Berryman’s poetic output or his tenuous sobriety is unclear. Bishop’s response was far less grandiose, and free of morbid double entendres: “dreadful … an awful shock … so sad & awful.” It’s one of the most extended bursts of emotion she ever set to paper; reading such a horrified outcry from such a self-possessed soul, you feel the full weight of awful that had piled up over the years.

But in honoring Marianne Moore, who died the following month, both poets struck a different tone. Though it’s from the same letter as his remarks on Berryman, Lowell’s tribute is sweetly direct:

The end of her life already ended by infirmity—she was a star in my sky 35 year [sic] ago.… Last week I was teaching her to my poor dim students, along with Cummings whom they of course liked and got much better. For you though, it’s losing the person. What can I say? Maybe you’ll write a little book of memory and thoughts. I have never heard anyone describe her so well—or anyone else. 

Bishop’s powers of description rose to the compliment and the occasion. Her commentary on Moore’s death—which, again, she brings up mid-letter, though it’s “what I really am writing you about”—immortalizes the nurse who

telephoned [Moore’s friend] Louise Crane that morning to say Marianne had just slightly evaporated.... I am glad it is over at last. She lay in state or whatever it’s called on the Monday in the Presbyterian church.…

 Somehow you doubt the word “evaporated” was the nurse’s.

Bishop’s account of the funeral continues in this vein—sharply observant, wry, at times a little too wry—while slipping in that inevitable “awful”: “Well, these affairs are always a mixture of the moving and the awful and the funny.” Again a certain steeliness gleams through the composure. A Bishop fan can’t help thinking of the closing lines of “The Bight”: “All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful.” They’re the lines she would choose as her own epitaph. 

We’ll never have the epistolary elegies we want most from Bishop and Lowell: their letters of mourning to each other, for each other. I imagine when Lowell collapsed from a heart attack in 1977, Bishop wanted to write to him immediately. Instead she had to settle for poetry—her famous elegy “North Haven,” whose unusually intimate (for Bishop) address concludes:

...And now—you’ve left
for good. You can’t derange, or re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)
The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.

What little comfort she offers lies in nature’s ability to evolve and (as an earlier line puts it) “revise”—essentially, life’s ability to move on. But at bottom this sentiment is unconsoling and unconsoled. It harshly exposes—and appears to share—Lowell’s ambivalence toward his lifework, while conveying Bishop’s own fear of passing into an unalterable state. For this notorious perfectionist who sometimes tinkered with poems for decades, “the words won’t change again” is about as grim a fate as she could have imagined. She met it herself after suffering a brain aneurysm the following year.

Lowell didn’t get to write a memorial piece for Bishop. Still, we can locate a kind of counterstatement in one of his last and finest poems, the eerily self-elegizing “Epilogue.” While confessing his own misgivings about his achievement—“sometimes everything I write / with the threadbare art of my eye / seems a snapshot”—he reaffirms the vitality, within its limits, of his art:

We are poor passing facts, warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.

That humble brand of immortality is just what Words in Air so satisfyingly provides. Flip through the letters as you would a photo album, and there the great, lost figures are again: more “lurid, rapid, garish, grouped” than they’d seem in a refined poetic elegy, but more candidly alive as well.

Of necessity, this essay has itself been a rapid series of snapshots—a few representative pearls fished from a lavish trove. Lovers of Bishop and Lowell will be reading their correspondence, and reading it into the poems—theirs and others’—for years; it will become the stuff of a thousand dissertations. The words of the dead, as Auden put it in his elegy for Yeats, will be “modified in the guts of the living.” In that sense these two sad friends are not past change at all; their careers have hardly begun.

  • Austin Allen’s first poetry collection, Pleasures of the Game (Waywiser Press), won the 2016 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. His poems and essays have appeared widely. He lives and teaches in Cincinnati.

Essay

Their Living Names

Elegies in the letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.
  • Austin Allen’s first poetry collection, Pleasures of the Game (Waywiser Press), won the 2016 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. His poems and essays have appeared widely. He lives and teaches in Cincinnati.

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