Between Reticence and Revelation: Bishop’s and Lowell’s Letters

Between Reticence and Revelation: Bishop’s and Lowell’s Letters

Between Reticence and Revelation: Bishop’s and Lowell’s Letters

Reading the letters of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.


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.

Given the prominence that Bishop has accrued since her death, in 1979, it’s difficult to remember that she spent her entire career standing in the shadow of Robert Traill Spence Lowell Jr., who was infinitely more famous than she: Lowell was not a reticent describer of mundanities but the maker of the taste by which the second wave of modern American poets was judged. By 1947 he had already won his first Pulitzer Prize, for Lord Weary’s Castle; and in the ’60s, while Bishop was living in Brazil and publishing infrequently, Lowell was refusing invitations to the Johnson White House and appearing on the cover of Time magazine. By that time Bishop had also won important prizes, but she remained (in John Ashbery’s phrase) a “writer’s writer’s writer,” and her wariness around Lowell, whom she also loved, took different forms over time.

In 1948 Lowell forwarded to Bishop these remarks about her poems by the Harvard philosopher George Santayana: “I liked ‘North & South’ especially for its delicacy. If it were not for the Darky Woman who is looking for a husband that shall be monogamous [‘Songs for a Colored Singer’], I should have thought that Elizabeth Bishop had little sense of reality.” Bishop responded that she was “delighted” with Santayana’s remarks, but that hardly seems possible, especially since a poet renowned for her descriptive powers might be expected to have some sense of reality. She parried by sending Lowell these remarks by her friend Margaret Miller, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art: “I have never read a word of R. L. and had suspected that at least a portion of your enthusiasm for the poetry could be laid to professional politeness. I was therefore unprepared for all that blacktongued piratical vigor. I can’t read more than three or four poems at a sitting–it’s a little like smelling salts–but they are remarkable and wonderful, though the rhymes seem a little too strong or crass on occasions.”

This is a keenly perceptive account of the poems of Lord Weary’s Castle, which are as aggressively apocalyptic as the poems of North & South are retiringly descriptive. But description was for Bishop a very complicated and often calculated enterprise, as her poems and correspondence reveal: “The water looks like blue gas–the harbor is always a mess, here, junky little boats all piled up, some hung with sponges and always a few half sunk or splintered up from the most recent hurricane. It reminds me a little of my desk.” Bishop sent this account of the harbor at Key West to Lowell in 1948, and a year later she reported that she’d “sold the New Yorker a medium length bit of plain description.” She was referring to her poem “The Bight,” which grew from her letter about Key West and is anything but a bit of plain description:

Some of the little white boats are still piled up
against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,
and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,
like torn-open, unanswered letters.
The bight is littered with old correspondences.
Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.

These lines are about the power of description–about how the meticulous attention to the surface of things inevitably dredges up sordid emotional depths. The point of “The Bight” is not merely to offer an account of a dilapidated harbor but to dramatize a state of mind that finds itself mirrored in such dilapidation. The poem is subtitled “On my birthday,” and its final line (“awful but cheerful”) appears, by Bishop’s request, on her tombstone. Her characterization of “The Bight” as a “bit of plain description” only reinforces the poem’s strategy of reticent understatement, and her motive in employing that characterization to Lowell is difficult to read. Was her coyness an invitation into her private world, a world she needed simultaneously to construct and conceal? Or did she think that the purveyor of blacktongued piratical vigor would be deaf to such subtlety?

I suspect the latter. Lowell to Bishop, August 16, 1948: “If you’d come to Ipswich–you’d have found waiting for you: Anne Dick, Elliott and Mrs. Chandler, the woman who almost converted Mrs. Sortwell, and my first project for you: age 41, weight: 155, hair: full black graying. He has lived for 20 years in a spic and span little white house with two aged servants tending lambs and reading Thoreau and writing a book which no one has seen.” Lowell’s “project” was to find Bishop (who was not yet acknowledging her lesbianism publicly) a husband. Bishop to Lowell: “I think you’ve done an enormous amount of ground-work already & I can see I picked the right person to solve my problems about my future for me.” Was she serious? Bishop to Carley Dawson, Lowell’s ex-girlfriend, a few days later: “if I wanted to remain friends with Cal at all, I’d better not see him for some time.”

Behind this exchange lurks a mysterious but emotionally momentous day that Bishop and Lowell spent together in Stonington, Maine, in the summer of 1948. Lowell had arrived in Stonington with Dawson; Bishop came with Tom Wanning, whose relationship to Bishop remains unclear. But after a few days, Dawson left with Wanning, leaving Lowell and Bishop alone. They talked, they went swimming: Lowell decided he wanted to marry Bishop. Nine years later, in 1957, after a manic breakdown reawakened this fantasy, Lowell explained his embarrassing behavior by reaching back to “that long swimming and sunning Stonington day after Carley’s removal by Tommy”:

I was feeling the infected hollowness of the Carley business draining out of my heart, and you said rather humorously yet it was truly meant, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” Probably you forget, and anyway all that is mercifully changed and all has come right since you found Lota. But at the time everything, I guess (I don’t want to overdramatize) our relations seemed to have reached a new place. I assumed that [it] would be just a matter of time before I proposed and I half believed that you would accept…. But asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.

This kind of frankness was unusual even after Lowell and Bishop had known each other for many years. They communicated most intimately by indirection, by emblem, by letters that seem self-consciously like literature rather than an unfettered exchange between friends. Bishop did not respond to Lowell’s confession, though she fussed over a pointlessly detailed account of a sailing expedition that Lowell used as a way of ramping up to the confession.

“Confession” is of course a word inextricable from Lowell’s achievement, since the phrase “confessional poetry” was coined by the critic M.L. Rosenthal in a review of Lowell’s Life Studies, published in September 1959 in this magazine. In these poems, Lowell abandoned the blacktongued piratical vigor of his early work for what Bishop immediately recognized as “a strangely modest tone”–“they are all about yourself and yet do not sound conceited!” What Bishop could not have known was that in the wake of his 1957 breakdown, Lowell discovered this tone by writing poems about Bishop, spoken by Bishop or emulating Bishop’s sensibility. He was obsessed. “Skunk Hour,” modeled on Bishop’s “Armadillo,” came first, and it was followed swiftly by poems that adopt Bishop’s way of rendering acute psychological states by seeming merely to account for the surface of things.

In my Father’s bedroom:
blue threads as thin
as pen-writing on the bedspread,
blue dots on the curtains,
a blue kimono,
Chinese sandals with blue plush straps.

“Really I’ve just broken through to where you’ve always been,” wrote Lowell to Bishop, but he also traveled to places where she’d never go, as in this draft of a poem spoken by Bishop:

Starlike the eagle on my locket watch,
Mother’s sole heirloom. I hear her, “All I want
To do is kill you!”–I, a child of four;
She, early American and militant.

Bishop’s mother was committed to a sanitarium in 1916, when Bishop was 5. Bishop to Lowell, December 11, 1957, with studied nonchalance: “While I remember it–one small item that I may have mentioned before. If you ever do anything with the poem about me, would you change the remark my mother was supposed to have made? She never did make it; in fact I don’t remember any direct threats, except the usual maternal ones. Her danger for me was just implied in the things I overheard the grown-ups say before and after her disappearance.”

Bishop had written about her mother’s mental illness in her story “In the Village,” but her method (as in her letters and poems) was implication, not hyperbole; it’s hard to imagine Bishop putting the aggrandizing modifier “sole” in front of “heirloom,” much less literalizing the implied danger of her mother’s behavior in a direct threat. Remaking his style in the poems of Life Studies, Lowell learned from Bishop how to let description do the talking; but unlike Bishop, he ultimately gravitated toward gothic rather than ordinary details. In addition, the construction of a dramatic voice was crucial to Lowell’s poems in a way that was ancillary even to Bishop’s dramatic monologues, which aren’t theatrical. This is why Lowell’s well-known account of the new style (a breakthrough to where Bishop had always been) has always seemed more flattering than strictly accurate. This is also why Lowell’s style became massively influential, an immediately identifiable turning point in literary history, while Bishop’s style could still seem unlikely to produce poems worthy of Shakespeare or Donne.

Few people would stand by that judgment today; following confessional poetry’s decline in prestige, Bishop has been used as a club to beat Lowell, much as Lowell was used as a club to beat T.S. Eliot. But however powerful Bishop’s style might be, that style depends (like Lowell’s–like any indelible style) on the transformation of personal limitation into a strategic power that stops just short of becoming a method. So while Bishop’s letters to Lowell (if not to all her correspondents) can seem cloying in their dependence on charm, her poems almost never do. Yet Bishop often worried that her poems were superficial.

“I think we both shy from talking emotionally,” wrote Lowell to Bishop near the end of his life, “then it comes out sometimes.” It came out most dramatically when Bishop responded to the manuscript of The Dolphin (1973), Lowell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the end of his marriage with Elizabeth Hardwick and his new life with Caroline Blackwood. The lacerating poems based on Hardwick’s letters are crucial to the book’s structure, especially in the versions that Bishop first read:

your clowning makes us want to vomit–you bore,
bore, bore the friends who wished to save your image
from this genteel, disgraceful hospital.

“One can use one’s life as material,” wrote Bishop to Lowell in a long, anguished letter; “one does, anyway–but these letters–aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission–IF you hadn’t changed them… etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.”

This letter has been famous for a long time; its power is reinforced by Bishop’s equally well-known belief that poets must tell the truth in their poems, rendering places and people with an accuracy that bears a kind of moral seductiveness. “I can’t tell a lie even for art,” she quipped. But like Bishop’s statements about description, her position about truth-telling is inevitably more complex than her epigrammatic remarks allow, and it’s instructive to read her response to The Dolphin in the context of the complete Bishop-Lowell correspondence. Lowell to Bishop, April 4, 1972, with uncharacteristic sternness: “Let me rephrase for myself your moral objections. It’s the revelation (with documents?) of a wife wanting her husband not to leave her, and who does leave her. That’s the trouble, not the mixture of truth and fiction. Fiction–no one would object if I said Lizzie [Hardwick] was wearing a purple and red dress, when it was yellow.” Writing to Frank Bidart, who was by this time a close friend of both Lowell and Bishop, Lowell was even more brazen: “I’ve read and long thought on Elizabeth’s letter. It’s a kind of masterpiece of criticism, though her extreme paranoia (For God’s sake don’t repeat this) about revelation gives it a wildness. Most people will feel something of her doubts. The terrible thing isn’t the mixing of fact and fiction, but the wife pleading to her husband to return–this backed by ‘documents.'” Bidart argued that The Dolphin should not be altered, but Lowell did make changes in response to Bishop’s objections: “Now the book must still be painful to Lizzie and won’t satisfy Elizabeth,” he concluded, aware that his disagreement with Bishop depended on a muddled conflation of aesthetic and moral values that, by its nature, could not possibly resolve itself.

The Bishop-Lowell correspondence describes and embodies this dilemma, this tension between reticence and revelation, a tension crucial to art that might otherwise be merely reticent or merely revelatory. But if the statement “art just isn’t worth that much” is legitimately troubling, how does one justify the presence of painful revelations that are made not in the complicated arena of art but in casual correspondence, in letters or journals or e-mails? Does the statement “letters just aren’t worth that much” carry the same charismatic weight? Should it? From the beginning of her friendship with Lowell, the otherwise reticent Bishop often wrote about their mutual friends in hurtful ways. That’s inevitable; anyone might do so. But not everyone expects their letters to be purchased by a library. By complaining about people she also loved, however accurately, Bishop participated in a grown-up version of an age-old playground ritual: she established Lowell and herself as an exclusive club–two people who, whatever their other affiliations, stand together on the highest pinnacle.

Wallace Stevens tossed his manuscripts in the trash. Henry James built a bonfire in the garden. T.S. Eliot’s most intimate correspondence (hundreds of letters written to Emily Hale) is sequestered at the Princeton University library until October 12, 2019, the fiftieth anniversary of Hale’s death. Words in Air is a sad, fascinating book by two great artists, but it is much easier to read than a book of poems, and a lot less gratifying. It will sell more copies than most books of poems.

How much are letters worth? The recipient of a letter owns the letter, though the writer owns its extractable content. When Lowell sold his archive to Harvard University, he arranged for Bishop to be compensated for her letters, even though she had no right to be; at first she demurred, but eventually she accepted the $5,000. Subsequently, Bishop’s archive was sold to Vassar College (her alma mater) for $175,000. More precious than that is “Water,” Lowell’s poem about the awkward, mercurial day he and Bishop spent together in Maine in 1948, the day they wouldn’t speak of:

We wished our two souls
might return like gulls
to the rock. In the end,
the water was too cold for us.

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