Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell are the two most prominent members of the second wave of modern American poetry–the generation of poets who came of age after the groundbreaking achievements of T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens. Other poets of this second wave may seem more relevant: George Oppen’s combination of formal adventurousness and emotional lyricism has been especially influential over the past twenty years, and the profligate energy of John Berryman (perhaps the most gifted poet of the second wave) has yet to be assimilated. But Bishop and Lowell continue to dominate the stories we tell about twentieth-century poetry, not only because of the continuing power of their poems but because of their intricate friendship–a friendship that endured far longer than any more intimate relationship sustained by either poet. “You have no idea, Cal,” wrote Bishop to Lowell in 1962, using Lowell’s nickname, “how really grateful to you I am and how fortunate I feel myself in knowing you, having you for a friend. When I think of how the world and my life would look to me if you weren’t in either of them at all–they’d look very empty, I think.”
This abiding affection was mutual. But it was complicated by barely suppressed professional jealousy, and it was challenged at crucial moments by alcoholism and mental illness. Over the thirty years of their friendship, Bishop and Lowell saw each other only rarely (Bishop lived in Brazil from 1951 to 1967), and their meetings often released an emotional intensity that is difficult to parse, especially since they tended to coincide with Lowell’s manic breakdowns: on more than one occasion he confessed to Bishop that she was the true love of his life. “DEAREST ELIZABETH COME HERE AND JOIN ME ITS PARADISE,” Lowell cabled from Buenos Aires after visiting Bishop and her lover, Lota de Macedo Soares, in Rio in 1962.
These episodes are recorded in Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence by virtue of their absence: the frequent exchange of letters ceases, then starts up again with poignantly terse acknowledgment of what transpired. Many of the letters are newsy in a way that feels anxious, the epistolary equivalent of the kind of conversation that happens at a dinner party after someone storms from the table. One is tempted to skip ahead–especially since the most riveting letters (such as the fraught exchanges over Lowell’s adaptation of the letters of Elizabeth Hardwick, his second wife, in The Dolphin) were published almost twenty years ago in David Kalstone’s elegant critical study Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop With Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell and subsequently collected in The Letters of Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton, and One Art: Letters, edited by Bishop’s longtime friend and editor Robert Giroux. Unlike these books, however, Words in Air allows us to experience the peculiar rhythm of the Bishop-Lowell relationship, a relationship conducted almost exclusively through the mail. The letters are assiduously but unobtrusively annotated by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton, and sometimes the dullest letters are also the most weirdly revealing.
Bishop and Lowell met in 1947 at a dinner party given by Randall Jarrell, another poet of the second wave. Their correspondence began immediately thereafter–with mildly entertaining trivialities. Bishop to Lowell, August 14, 1947:
I was called out to see a calf being born in the pasture beside the house. In five minutes after several falls on its nose it was standing up shaking its head & tail & trying to nurse. They took it away from its mother almost immediately & carried it struggling in a wheelbarrow to the barn–we’ve just been watching it trying to lie down. Once up it didn’t know how to get down again & finally fell in a heap.
Behind this letter lies not only the Jarrell dinner party but Lowell’s review of Bishop’s first book, North & South, which appeared in the Sewanee Review in the summer of 1947. “Her admirers are not likely to hail her as a giant among the moderns,” wrote Lowell, “or to compare anything that she will ever write with Shakespeare or Donne. Nevertheless, the splendor and minuteness of her descriptions soon seem wonderful.” Bishop’s self-consciously charming letter plays to Lowell’s praise–as if she were eager to prove that, while she’d never be Shakespeare or Donne, she’s spot-on about dairy farming.