Works on Paper - The letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

In 1947, Elizabeth Bishop published “At the Fishhouses,” in this magazine. Among those who admired the poem was her new friend the poet Robert Lowell. “I liked your New Yorker fish poem,” he wrote. “I am a fisherman myself, but all my fish become symbols, alas!” Bishop, who was staying at the time in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, had written to Lowell of the region’s marvellous bird life, “auks and the only puffins left on the continent, or so they tell us . . . real ravens on the beach . . . enormous, with sort of rough black beards under their beaks.” In response, Lowell lamented, “Puffins are in my book of New England birds, but I’ve never seen one.” As for Nova Scotia, he recalled it as the site of a bad trout-fishing expedition with his grandfather, including a “horrible after sea-sick feeling” and a few “dismal low-tide gulls.”

From the start, Lowell and Bishop were intent on being a mismatch. When Lowell invited Bishop to visit him in Washington, where he was serving as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (a post that we now call “Poet Laureate”), she informed him that she would be travelling there with her pet canary. Staying at the home of Pauline Hemingway in Key West and deep in what she called her “female Hemingway” phase, Bishop wrote of catching amberjack and jewfish. Lowell, fresh from charming William Carlos Williams’s ninety-one-year-old mother, responded that he had once “tried swimming” but “was nearly drowned and murdered by children with foot-flippers and helmets and a ferocious mother doing the crawl.” The critic John Thompson recalls his friend Lowell lying in bed all day writing poems, surrounded by a “tumble-down brick wall” composed of “his Greek Homer, his Latin Vergil, his Chaucer, letters from Boston, cast-off socks, his Dante, his Milton.” Bishop once interrupted a letter to witness the birth of a calf in a nearby field. These differences, sharpened for each other’s amusement, made them ideal trading partners. Lowell, the literary fisherman, sent a copy of “The Compleat Angler” to Bishop in Key West, keeping the motif alive. When he absent-mindedly put away a lit cigarette in his pocket, nearly setting himself on fire, Bishop mailed him a “SAFE if not particularly esthetic ashtray.”

They shared the tiny poetry orbit of stipends and seminars and itinerant jobs, but when it came to seeing each other they specialized in near-misses. Lowell’s first-ever letter to Bishop rues the fact that he had already narrowly missed seeing her on three occasions. When Bishop was at Harvard to record her poems for the Woodberry Poetry Room, she listened to Lowell’s recording of his poems, made there a year earlier. One season it was Lowell’s turn in Washington, calling on Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital, and then it was Bishop’s, bringing Pound a bottle of cologne. When Bishop wrote of blowing bubbles on the balcony outside her magnificent room at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, Lowell wrote that he thought he had stayed in that room, too, and reminisced about games of croquet. “We seem attached to each other by some stiff piece of wire,” he wrote, “so that each time one moves, the other moves in another direction.” They spent their lives begging each other to visit, but when the opportunity presented itself they conspired with almost comic transparency in setting up obstacles.

Seeing each other more often would have given them less time to write, less to write about, and, since letters exist in reciprocal terms, less to read. As it is, “Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell,” edited by Thomas Travisano, with Saskia Hamilton (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $45), takes up more than nine hundred pages. Like Victorians hungry for the next installment of a serialized novel, the two looked to each other’s letters for sustenance. “I’ve been reading Dickens, too,” Bishop wrote, as though confirming the scope and flavor of the correspondence, the “abundance” and “playfulness” that she ascribed to Dickens. The letters abound in Dickensian caricature, mostly gentle and humane. “Several weird people have shown up here,” Lowell wrote from Washington, including a Dr. Swigget with a terza-rima rendering of Dante and an aspiring writer named “Major Dyer, who takes Pound ice-cream, was a colleague of Patton’s and teaches Margaret Truman fencing.”

They were also adroit self-satirists. The poetry they perfected, so different in so many ways, shares a nearly absurdist attitude toward the self. Bishop, in “The Gentleman of Shalott,” imagined herself as a man (she often chose male personae) standing with half his body in the mirror and half out. Lowell, in poem after poem, finds himself reflected in unlikely ways. A late poem called “Shaving” describes his face “aslant” like a “carpenter’s problem,” and in “Waking in the Blue” he sees himself “before the metal shaving mirrors” of the insane asylum:

After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey

The poem, written during one of Lowell’s stays at McLean Hospital, outside Boston, takes a scrupulously external view: he’s just another one of the Brahmin “old-timers” holding a “locked razor.”

“It’s funny at my age to have one’s life so much in and on one’s hands,” Lowell wrote. Bishop responded by quoting her Maine hairdresser: “Kind of awful, ain’t it, ploughing through life alone.” They were introduced in 1947 at a dinner party thrown by Randall Jarrell in New York. Bishop recalled, “It was the first time I had ever talked to some one about how one writes poetry.” She found that talking with Lowell, who struck her as “handsome in an old-fashioned poetic way,” was “strangely easy, ‘like exchanging recipes for a cake.’ ” It had been a strange, lonely interval for them both. Lowell was twenty-nine and coming out of his disastrous first marriage, to the novelist Jean Stafford. (Stafford had sued him, before they were married, after he permanently injured her face in a car crash. Things went downhill from there.) Bishop was turning thirty-six, and her relationship with Marjorie Stevens, from Key West, was coming to an end. Lowell’s “Lord Weary’s Castle” and Bishop’s “North & South” had just been published to acclaim. (Lowell collected a Pulitzer Prize for his book; he was among the youngest poets ever to receive one. Bishop won the Pulitzer nine years later, for her second book.) Bishop was writing poems along with autobiographical stories and sketches, while Lowell was wringing out of his early style the long, hysterical poem “The Mills of the Kavanaughs,” a daily task that he greeted with expanding dread.

Bad childhoods are a human misfortune, but for writers they are often a stroke of luck. Both Lowell and Bishop were aware that growing up lonely sponsored their imaginative lives. In the seventies, Lowell, in his great poem “Ulysses and Circe,” chose a baffled and emasculated Ulysses for his self-portrait. A few years earlier, Bishop, in “Crusoe in England,” had picked, for hers, a retired Robinson Crusoe nostalgic for his island days.

Both were ways of representing an essential strandedness that had its origins in childhood. Lowell was the unwanted only child of a belittling mother and a father who grew, in Lowell’s eyes, “apathetic and soured.” Bishop’s father had died when she was eight months old. When she was five, her mother was placed permanently in a sanitarium. Bishop never saw her again, though her mother lived nearly twenty more years. Bishop was then subjected to several experiments in child rearing. She was happy in Nova Scotia with her mother’s parents, but her father’s parents, burghers in Worcester, Massachusetts, felt they could provide better for her. That arrangement soon failed, and she was sent to live with her aunt Maud, in Revere, Massachusetts. Maud nursed her back from the ailments she suffered in Worcester: asthma, bronchitis, eczema, symptoms of St. Vitus’ dance, and allergies to practically everything in her grandparents’ house. (Later, reading Proust, she discovered a voluble fellow asthma sufferer and decided wryly that she hadn’t “capitalized” enough on her condition.) Aunt Maud had pet canaries and Italian neighbors with beautiful surnames that Bishop never forgot.

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