Words in Air:
The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell
edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton
Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell
Robert Lowell wrote the poem ‘Water’ about being on the coast of Maine in the summer of 1948 with Elizabeth Bishop; he put it first in his collection For the Union Dead, which he published in 1964. He sent Bishop a draft of the poem in March 1962, explaining that it was ‘more romantic and grey than the whole truth, for all has been sunny between us. Indeed it all started from thinking about your letter, how indispensable you are to me, and how ideally we’ve really kept things, better than life allows really.’ In her response, Bishop questioned the accuracy of Lowell’s opening line, ‘It was a real Maine fishing town,’ and the line ‘where the fish were trapped’. ‘I have two minor questions,’ she wrote.
As usual, they have to do with my George Washington-handicap. I can’t tell a lie even for art, apparently; it takes an awful effort or a sudden jolt to make me alter facts. Shouldn’t it be a lobster town, and further on – where the bait, fish for bait, was trapped – (this is trivial, I know, and like Marianne [Moore], sometimes I think I’m telling the truth when I’m not) . . . ‘The sea drenched the rock’ is so perfectly simple and so good.
Lowell replied: ‘Your suggestions on “Water” might be great improvements.’ The poem finally read:
It was a Maine lobster town –
each morning boatloads of hands
pushed off for granite
quarries on the islands,
and left dozens of bleak
white frame houses stuck
like oyster shells
on a hill of rock,
and below us, the sea lapped
the raw little match-stick
mazes of a weir,
where the fish for bait were trapped.
Six years later, Bishop sent Lowell a postcard from the Art Institute of Chicago of Winslow Homer’s Marblehead – an image of two people in conversation on a coastal rock. ‘Out of all the masterpieces in this place,’ she wrote, ‘I chose this to send you, for obvious reasons.’
In 1957, Lowell had sent Bishop a long and somewhat manic letter about that time in Maine. At the end of a day’s swimming,
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 . . . But at the time . . . I guess (I don’t want to overdramatise) our relations seemed to have reached a new place. I assumed that would be just a matter of time before I proposed and I half believed that you would accept . . . and when I was to have joined you at Key West I was determined to ask you . . . The possible alternatives that life allows us are very few, often there must be none . . . But asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.
In 1974, when they had known one another for almost thirty years, Lowell wrote to her: ‘I see us still when we first met, both at Randall [Jarrell]’s and then for a couple of years later. I see you as rather tall, long brown-haired and thirty I guess and I don’t know what.’ Bishop replied, once more seeking accuracy from him and a sharper sense of detail:
Never, never was I ‘tall’ – as you wrote remembering me. I was always 5 ft 4 and a 1/4 inches, now shrunk to 5 ft 4 inches – The only time I’ve ever felt tall was in Brazil. And I never had ‘long brown hair’ either! – It started turning grey when I was 23 or 24 – and probably was already somewhat grizzled when I first met you . . . What I remember about that meeting is your dishevelment, your lovely curly hair . . . You were also rather dirty, which I rather liked, too . . . Well, I think I’ll have to write my memoirs, just to set things straight.
In his letter remembering their first meetings Lowell returned to the image of water. ‘But the fact is we were swimming in our young age, with the water coming down on us, and we were gulping.’ In Bishop’s world there was always water. The house in Great Village in Nova Scotia where she spent some of her childhood still stands in a strange coastal flatness, as though it could be inundated by the tides at any time. It is land that was not always dry, or its dryness comes as a sort of accident, a quirk in nature. As Bishop described it in her poem ‘The Moose’, it is a place of
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,
where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on if it meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home
Bishop’s grandparents’ house is modest and has an air, even now, of comfort and ease and warmth. Bishop was brought here after her father died, when she was eight months old. Then, when her mother became mentally ill and was incarcerated, she remained under the care of her mother’s family until she was six, when she was taken to live with her father’s much wealthier family in Worcester, Massachusetts. This wrench between what was cosy and familiar and what was alien and cold would stay with her all her life. The village in Nova Scotia and the landscape around it became a place for her of longing, of dreams. Bishop wrote directly about what happened to her in those years in two prose pieces, ‘In the Village’ and ‘The Country Mouse’. In ‘The Country Mouse’ she wrote of her move to Worcester:
I had been brought back unconsulted and against my wishes to the house my father had been born in, to be saved from a life of poverty and provincialism, bare feet, suet puddings, unsanitary school slates, perhaps even from the inverted r’s of my mother’s family. With this surprising set of grandparents, until a few weeks ago no more than names, a new life was to begin . . . I felt as if I were being kidnapped even if I wasn’t.
‘In the Village’ describes the time just preceding the move, and is haunted by the idea that her mother’s scream will not stop echoing in the landscape and in her memory. ‘The scream hangs there like that, unheard, in memory – in the past, in the present, and those years between. It was not even loud to begin with, perhaps. It just came there to live, for ever – not loud, just alive for ever. Its pitch would be the pitch of my village.’
Out of the damage done to her in childhood, Bishop produced a body of work filled with meticulous observing. In her poems she often corrected herself, or qualified herself, almost as a duty or a ceremony. In the second line of the first poem in her first book, ‘The Map’, she wrote the word ‘Shadows’, and then immediately wondered ‘or are they shallows’; in ‘The Weed’, she dreamed that ‘I lay upon a grave, or bed’ then had to qualify that by writing: ‘(at least, some cold and close-built bower)’; in ‘The Fish’, when she wrote the words ‘his lower lip’, she had to wonder ‘if you could call it a lip’. Before she could allow the mountains in ‘Arrival at Santos’ to be ‘self-pitying’, she had to impose the words ‘who knows?’; in ‘The Armadillo’, when she mentioned ‘the stars’, she had to correct herself to say ‘planets, that is’; in ‘Sandpiper’, she wrote:
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes
Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them,
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.
So, too, in her poem ‘Trouvée’, about a white hen run over on West 4th Street, she was forced to make clear that the hen, while once white, is ‘red-and-white now, of course’. In ‘Poem’, when she used the word ‘visions’, she instantly wanted to change it: ‘“visions” is too serious a word’; she found a calmer one – ‘our looks, two looks’. In ‘The End of March’, she described an urge to retire and ‘do nothing,/or nothing much, for ever, in two bare rooms’. In one of her last poems, ‘Santarém’, she mentioned a church and had to correct herself: ‘Cathedral, rather’. This urge to correct also appeared in her letters: in 1973, for example, she wrote to Lowell that ‘James Merrill and I gave a joint reading – no, a sequential reading – at the YMHA.’
This enacting of a search for further precision and further care with terms was, in one way, a trick, a way of making the reader believe and trust a voice, or a way of quietly asking the reader to follow the poem’s casual and then deliberate efforts to be faithful to what it saw, or what it knew. The trick established limits, exalted littleness, made the bringing of things down to themselves into a sort of conspiracy with the reader. But it was also a way of noticing the world with something close to terror. She wrote to Lowell about her ‘passion for accuracy’: ‘Since we do float on an unknown sea I think we should examine the other floating things that come our way carefully; who knows what might depend on it.’ She worried about anything which might be overlooked (‘no detail too small’), or not noticed properly, or exaggerated, or let loose into grand feelings which were not fully to be trusted. In ‘The Map’, she seemed to disapprove of the moment when the map’s printer experienced ‘the same excitement/ as when emotion too far exceeds its cause’. She was careful not to allow that to happen in her life (at least when she was sober) or, most of the time, in her letters.
Thus she chose not to acknowledge Lowell’s account of how he once might have proposed marriage to her. Instead, soon after she received his letter, she wrote a newsy, sometimes cheerful reply about whom she had visited and where she had travelled. One advantage of writing letters, for her, was that she could, anytime she liked, avoid territory in which she was not comfortable: the territory of easy emotion, for example, or easy regret, or having to deal with the many things she wished to keep at a distance.
Bishop published ‘In the Village’ in the New Yorker in 1953. Later, she said that she produced it in two nights under the influence of a ‘combination of cortisone and the gin and tonic I had in the middle of the night’. The story was, she wrote to a friend, ‘completely autobiographical’. Ten years later she wrote to another friend: ‘“In the Village” is entirely not partly autobiographical. I’ve just compressed the time a little and perhaps put two summers together, or put things a bit out of sequence – but it’s all straight fact.’ Lowell wrote to her to say that it read ‘as though you weren’t writing at all, but just talking in a full noisy room, talking until suddenly everyone is quiet.’ He mentioned it again in his letter of March 1962 that contained his draft of ‘Water’:
Also I tried versing your ‘In the Village’. The lines about the heart are Harriet’s [his daughter] on her kindergarten society, the rest is merely your prose put into three-beat lines and probably a travesty, making something small and literary out [of] something much larger, gayer and more healthy. I let the scream throw out the joyful clang. Anyway, I send it with misgivings. Maybe you could use it for raw material for a really great poem.
When she read the poem which Lowell had made from her story, Bishop wrote to him:
‘The Scream’ really works well, doesn’t it. The story is far enough behind me so I can see it as a poem now. The first few stanzas I saw only my story – then the poem took over – and the last stanza is wonderful. It builds up beautifully, and everything of importance is there. But I was very surprised.
It is obvious why she was surprised, but perhaps she should not have been. The difference between ‘In the Village’ and ‘The Scream’ is the difference between two sensibilities. Bishop’s ‘beautiful, calm story’, as Lowell described it in his acknowledgments, was filled with mystery: nothing was over-explained or over-emphasised. It would be easy to miss the story’s point: the pain was in the tone, in the ways the mother’s scream and then the mother’s disappearance were given equal billing with everything else that was noticed by the child. The scream was all the more powerful because it was almost, but not quite, shrugged off as nothing. It was barely dramatised: the references to what happened, to the circumstances that effectively left Bishop an orphan, were managed in the story obliquely and, of course, in prose, a medium that was not Bishop’s natural one.
In a letter to Lowell in 1955 Bishop tried to work out what the difference between prose and poetry might be for her, what it was that caused her to derive ‘a great satisfaction’ from the few stories she wrote, including ‘In the Village’. ‘It’s almost impossible not to tell the truth in poetry, I think,’ she wrote, ‘but in prose it keeps eluding one in the funniest way.’ For most of her life, Bishop was interested in managing what eluded her with considerable care so that the truth, when it appeared, might become sharper and more precise, so that she could find the right tone and form for it. She was never sure.
In his poem Lowell allowed the scream of Bishop’s story to become almost a shriek. He was right to feel that Bishop could have made ‘a really great poem’ from this material. It was an essential aspect of her talent, indeed of her great reticent gift as a poet, however, that she did not do so directly. Instead, she buried what mattered to her most in her tone, and it is this tone that lifts the best poems she wrote to a realm beyond their own occasion.
For Lowell, the idea that the living poet he knew best and admired most had used prose to break her silence about the facts of her upbringing was significant. It did not just inspire him to make a poem out of her story, but to write his own story in prose. His autobiographical piece ‘91 Revere Street’ was written after he had read ‘In the Village’ and included in his volume Life Studies in 1959; it seemed, he wrote to Bishop, ‘thin and arty after your glorious mad mother and cow piece’. Since he had followed her example, Bishop then in turn followed his, as though what they were doing was an intricate game of follow-the-leader, and included the story ‘In the Village’ in her next volume of poetry, Questions of Travel, in 1965. Her editor, she wrote to Lowell, ‘at first he said no, it was imitating you too much (it was) – but then when he’d read the story he changed his mind, and is now all for including it.’
Thom Gunn reported that Bishop told him that Lowell was her best friend; he seemed pleased to record that when he met Lowell a few years later and mentioned that he knew Bishop, Lowell also said: ‘Oh, she’s my best friend.’ What was peculiar and perhaps what was sustaining to the friendship was how little Lowell and Bishop ever actually saw each other. Bishop lived in Brazil from 1952, and when she returned to the East Coast of the United States in 1970, Lowell was mainly in England, until his death in 1977. They sent one another poems and Lowell helped Bishop to win prizes and deal with publishers.
They were unusual as poets, or indeed as citizens, in that they did not have to work, as Lowell pointed out to Bishop in 1953; they both had trust funds which kept them going. (‘Usury has made us.’) They were also both only children. Mostly, between 1947 when they met in New York and Lowell’s death, they seemed, as Lowell wrote, ‘attached to each other by some stiff piece of wire, so that each time one moves, the other moves in another direction.’ On the other hand, he wrote to her in 1963: ‘I think I must write entirely for you.’ She, in turn, became his most avid reader. In 1964, she wrote to him: ‘I’m afraid you’re the only poet I find very interesting, to tell the truth.’
It is notable that despite the closeness of their friendship, there were things that could not be easily mentioned. When Lowell wrote to her in 1950, for example, to say that his father had died, there is no evidence that Bishop made any reference to the death in return. Her long letter to him after his mother’s death in 1954 began: ‘What a joy to hear from you! Heavens – I’ve felt much better ever since; I hadn’t realised just how worried I had been, I guess. I had heard vaguely, perhaps from Zabel, about the death of your mother and felt I should have written about that but scarcely knew what to say and of course do not even now.’ She made no other reference to the death in a letter filled with news and trivia.
Some of their exchanges remain fascinating, such as the letter in 1957 in which Bishop responded to a draft poem (which became ‘For Elizabeth Bishop 2: Castine, Maine’) that Lowell had written about her in which he mentioned that her mother had tried to kill her. ‘I don’t remember any direct threats,’ Bishop wrote, ‘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. Poor thing, I don’t want to have it any worse than it was.’ The following year, it must have struck Bishop with considerable force to learn that Lowell, who had had a breakdown, was incarcerated in the same mental hospital as her mother had been. ‘My mother stayed there once for a long time,’ she wrote to him. ‘I even have some snapshots of her in very chic clothes of around 1917, taking a walk by a pond there.’
Bishop was cautious in her response when Lowell published Life Studies in 1959. When he asked her to write a blurb for it, she produced an elaborate note of support, writing of the personal section of the book: ‘In these poems, heartbreaking, shocking, grotesque and gentle, the unhesitant attack, the imagery and construction are as brilliant as ever, but the mood is nostalgic and the metre is refined.’ She concluded: ‘Somehow or other, by fair means or foul, and in the middle of our worst century so far, we have produced a magnificent poet.’ She liked the idea, she wrote to Lowell, that the confessional poems ‘are all about yourself and yet do not sound conceited’. In 1960, after reading some deeply personal poems by Anne Sexton (which were often compared to Lowell’s), she wrote to Lowell: ‘there is all the difference in the world, I’m afraid, between her kind of simplicity and that of Life Studies, her kind of egocentricity that is simply that, and yours that has been – what would be the reverse of sublimated, I wonder – anyway, made intensely interesting, and painfully applicable to every reader.’
Sexton’s work reminded Bishop why she disliked the work of other women writers. She wrote to Lowell:
That Anne Sexton I think still has a bit too much romanticism and what I think of as the ‘our beautiful old silver’ school of female writing which is really boasting about how ‘nice’ we were. V. Woolf, K.A.P. [Katherine Anne Porter], Bowen, R. West etc – they are all full of it. They have to make quite sure that the reader is not going to misplace them socially, first – and that nervousness interferes constantly with what they think they’d like to say.
The following year she wrote to Lowell to complain about W.D. Snodgrass’s personal poems, calling Snodgrass ‘one of your better imitators’ and saying: ‘You tell things – but never wind up with your own darling gestures, the way he does . . . I went straight through Life Studies again and there is not a trace of it, and that is really “masculine” writing – courageous and honest.’ In 1974, Lowell wrote to Bishop: ‘By the way is a confessional poem one that one would usually hesitate to read before an audience? I have many (they are a perfectly good kind) but have none in my last lot, and you have none ever.’
The last poem in Life Studies, ‘Skunk Hour’, was dedicated to Bishop and written during a period in which Lowell had discarded a number of poems actually about her. As he worked on it, he wrote to her to say that it was ‘indebted a little to your Armadillo’, but he later said in public that he ‘was intent on copying’ the form of Bishop’s ‘The Armadillo’. ‘Both poems have an ambling structure, little stanzas and the final natural but charged image that gives the poem its conclusion and title.’ As David Kalstone pointed out in Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, however, the poem was not simply a homage to Bishop and her work, but a way of using her tone and then moving away from it, a way of separating himself from her as much as moving close.
In Bishop’s work, much was implied by what seemed to be mere description. Description was a desperate way of avoiding self-description; looking at the world was a way of looking out from the self. The self in Bishop’s poems was too fragile to be violated by much mentioning. Slowly, the self then emerged with the same stark force that silence has in music. Bishop managed to unsettle the tone of a poem by watching a scene with fierce precision, as though the scene or she herself would soon disappear; many of her best poems offered little real sense of the personal, or any single meaning. The fact that the world was there was both enough and far too little for Bishop. Its history or her own history were beside the point. In an effort to praise Lowell, she mentioned a composer (Webern) and a painter (Klee) whom she admired: they had used silence, blankness, minimal means, and had ‘modesty, care, space, a sort of helplessness but determination at the same time’.
‘The Armadillo’ opened:
This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,
rising toward the saint
still honoured in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.
What Lowell saw her do in the poem was to find something moving – an armadillo – and give it a sort of resonant and disruptive mystery, a task and function in the poem that was surprising, not fully clear, and all the more powerful for that. Its appearance hit the nervous system of the poem and made the things around it shudder. In ‘The Armadillo’, Bishop may have implied a great deal about her own helplessness, but she managed also to suggest that such an implication might be both taken for granted and also fully taken in by the reader and felt. For Lowell, such an implication was precisely what he wished the poem to have, the only implication he wished it to have. He wanted, in his own words, to make the scream ‘clang’. He saw what could be done in the tone of Bishop’s poem by using short lines, with three beats, against a longer line with five beats. He adapted this system of short and long and short to superb effect for the last stanza of ‘Skunk Hour’:
I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air –
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.
Lowell had found a set of metaphors loose, suggestive and ambiguous enough to encapsulate the personal plight he had outlined more clearly, perhaps more flatly, in some of the earlier pages of Life Studies; but ‘Skunk Hour’ was sharp enough to dramatise his place in the world more fully than any of his merely confessional poems. It would, as Kalstone wrote, launch ‘him into his true subject, investigation of the debilitated historical and personal forces that had shaped his life’. His dramatisation of this subject would culminate in a number of magisterial poems, such as ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’, ‘Fourth of July in Maine’ and ‘Near the Ocean’, in his volume Near the Ocean in 1967.
Bishop’s response to some of the other poems in Life Studies – those in which Lowell mentioned members of his grand family by name, as though they were personages, such as ‘My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow’ – should be read ambiguously, especially in the light of her views on Virginia Woolf and other posh lady novelists. ‘I must confess,’ she wrote,
that I am green with envy of your kind of assurance. I feel as if I could write in as much detail about my Uncle Artie, say – but what would be the significance? Nothing at all. He became a drunkard, fought with his wife, and spent most of his time fishing . . . and was ignorant as sin . . . Whereas all you have to do is put down the names! And the fact that it seems significant, illustrative, American etc gives you, I think, the confidence you display about tackling any idea or theme, seriously, in both writing and conversation.
Not having the confidence gave Bishop her power. The idea of ‘nothing at all’ fascinated her all her life. Writing to tell Lowell how wonderful it was when he named his ancestors was one way of dealing with him. It is useful to remember that it was only in her poems that she could not allow herself to tell a lie. The letters are different: even those that attempt to be honest and true should be read as a form of relaxation from the grim business of telling the truth in poetry.
Both Lowell and Bishop drank, and both wrote poems about drinking and hangovers. In February 1960 she wrote to him: ‘Please send me the poem called “The Drinker” – I have a sort of sonnet called “The Drunkard” but I have never been able to decide whether it’s any good or not.’ In April, she wrote again: ‘Oh, I think your drunkenness poem is going to be superb! It started me off on mine again. Mine is more personal and yet a bit more abstract, I think.’ In July 1960 she wrote: ‘I find [“The Drinker”] even more horrendous in PR [Partisan Review] . . . The most awful line for me is “even corroded metal” . . . and the cops at the end are beautiful, of course – with a sense of release that only the poem, or another fifth of Bourbon, could produce.’ Lowell would have understood that ‘horrendous’ and ‘awful’, coming from Bishop, were terms of praise.
These ‘cops’ first appeared in a letter of June 1958 in which Lowell wrote that his daughter ‘calls the mounted policeman in a forsythia-yellow oilskin ambling down the Back Bay checking parking meter violations “doggie”’. ‘The Drinker’ ended with this image:
Out on the street,
two cops on horseback clop through the April rain
to check the parking meter violations –
their oilskins yellow as forsythia.
Bishop liked the poem enough to feel free to correct its detail. ‘As a cook,’ she added, ‘I feel I should tell you that soured milk is not junket, but the picture is all too true.’ (Lowell replied: ‘The junket was a joke, I know milk turns to clabber.’)
Then, having corrected him, she began to compete with him, and it is hard not to feel that their correspondence was kept animated by a well-bred but rather fierce and oddly loving lifelong competition: ‘I have a poem that has a galvanised bucket in it, too – it is one I started in Key West – and I think I even used the phrase “dead metal”, oh dear.’ The poem she was referring to remained unfinished, but she seems to have worked on it into the 1970s. A draft of it is included in Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke- Box (2006), a collection of Bishop’s unpublished poems, drafts and fragments. It is a poem, or rather the bad draft of a poem, about her mother, dramatising a scene from childhood and ending with:
But since that night, that day, that reprimand
I have suffered from enormous thirst –
I swear it’s true – and by the age
of twenty or twenty-one I had begun
to drink, & drink – I can’t get enough
and, as you must have noticed,
I’m half-drunk now . . .
And all I’m telling you may be a lie . . .
In some of her letters to Lowell, Bishop walked what Kalstone called ‘a critical tightrope’. She praised his work in general and some poems in particular, but managed also to make clear her uneasiness about some of his work, or her dislike of what he was doing, while making sure not to break their friendship. This occurred not only at the time of Life Studies, but also when she saw the poems which were to be included in Imitations (1961), a volume, dedicated to her, of loose translations or versions of poems. She was smart enough, however, to send a telegram as soon as she received the manuscript: ‘translations absolutely stunning. proud and pleased.’
While Lowell had asked her to ‘let me know things you question’, it is possible that he did not really mean it. In any case, she waited for two months before writing him a detailed letter. She began by saying how much she and her lover Lota de Macedo Soares had enjoyed his translation of Phaedra. ‘It seems amazingly natural . . . but pure – but undated. Isn’t real tragedy a relief for a change? I feel as if I’ve said all this to you before, of course. Anyway, seems a tour de force to me, and I hope something is done with it.’ The letter went on for some time before she came to her view of the book as a whole, mentioning first that the dedication ‘made me shed tears’. She was worried, she wrote, about how the poems would be received. ‘Your star is so very high now . . . and to publish things open to misunderstanding might produce a lot of foolish jealous haggling and criticism that you could easily avoid.’ Slowly, she began to correct what looked to her like mistakes in Lowell’s French rather than freedoms taken with the translations. She mentioned that she had done translations of some of the same poems herself. She noted that in the last line of Rimbaud’s ‘At the Green Cabaret’, for example, Lowell had mistaken the words ‘un rayon de soleil arriéré’ to mean a ray of sun ‘behind’, rather than ‘a ray of late sun’. Lowell accepted her correction. Also, ‘tartines’ were ‘the little pieces of bread and butter given to French schoolchildren’, rather than Lowell’s ‘raspberry tarts’. He replaced ‘raspberry tarts’ with the French word ‘tartines’.
Unless Lowell was exceptionally thick-skinned, which he was not, her letter must have been difficult to read. On the other hand, since there is no joy greater than correcting someone else’s French, it must have been a pure pleasure for Bishop to write. (‘And now having damned everyone,’ she wrote to Lowell in 1959 after she had dissed Stanley Kunitz and Richard Wilbur, ‘I feel awfully cheered up.’) ‘If you want me to,’ she went on,
I’d be glad to give you more benefits of my past experience in Rimbaud-translating. (But of course not if you don’t want me to.) . . . Sometimes it seems to me you sort of spoil his joke, or give his show away, by bringing up his horror too soon . . . I just don’t want you to lay yourself open to stupid or jealous misunderstandings.
The next morning Bishop wrote him another letter. It was as though she had not written a letter the day before. ‘I’ve at last made up my mind,’ she began, ‘to attempt something very difficult . . . I am very much worried by the French translations, particularly the Rimbaud ones . . . The Rimbaud and Baudelaire poems are so well known that I don’t think you should lay yourself open to charges of carelessness or ignorance or wilful perversity.’ She then proceeded (‘if you will forgive my sounding like a teacher of French 2A, I’ll give you some examples’) to repeat some of her earlier examples of errors and add some new ones.
In his introduction to Imitations, Lowell made clear that ‘the book is partly self-sufficient and separate from its sources’ and that his ‘licences had been many’ but that he had ‘laboured hard to get the tone’. When Bishop was not questioning his understanding of French words, she questioned his tone. One poem struck her as being in the original ‘so much more light-hearted than you’ve made it . . . I just can’t decide how “free” one has a right to be with the poet’s intentions . . . and of course it is for you to decide, anyway (thank heavens!).’
In her second letter, she suggested that Lowell should consult Eliot on the matter: ‘I feel I am running an awful risk and I am suffering, writing this. I think you should consult someone both more scholarly and more “in the world” than I am, while you have time to do something about it.’ Since Eliot was to publish the British edition of the book, he got involved in the argument, agreeing that Imitations was a good title and that if Lowell used ‘the word translation in the subtitle it will attract all those meticulous little critics who delight in finding what seem to them mistranslations’. Eliot had enjoyed the book, he said, but he had his own quibbles. ‘You cannot use the term “old boys” in England as an equivalent of “vieux garçons”. “Old boy” in England means an alumnus of a public school and is not at all an equivalent so I suggest “gay old dogs”.’ Lowell accepted Eliot’s suggestion. He also changed ‘large heart’ to ‘great heart’ in the first line of his translation of Baudelaire’s ‘La Servante’, as Eliot had dryly pointed out that ‘the phrase “large heart” suggests merely an anatomical misfortune.’
There is no evidence that Lowell replied to Bishop’s two letters until 27 June – four months after they were sent, an unusual hiatus in their correspondence. It would be a mistake, however, to view this as pique. He wrote:
I’m OK and have been since April and have been meaning to write to you since April, but I shy away from giving a lot of personal history . . . I was in a hospital for five weeks or so, less high and in an allegorical world than usual and not so broken down afterwards. Once more there was a girl . . . and once more a great greyness and debris left behind me at home.
Then he returned to the subject of Imitations: ‘My book is a lot bigger . . . (I took all your suggestions) . . . The whole is much more worth dedicating to you now, and I hope you’ll be pleased.’
There is a hint in the letters that Bishop wrote about Life Studies and Imitations that she was uneasy about Lowell writing so openly about himself and his family. She did not say so directly, and not saying so was one of her most developed skills. But in 1972, when she saw drafts of the poems which were to appear in Lowell’s The Dolphin, some of which were sonnets made directly from painful letters written to Lowell by Elizabeth Hardwick, his wife of many years, after he left her for Caroline Blackwood, Bishop could not contain herself. In some of the sonnets, Hardwick’s letters were in quotation marks:
‘I love you, Darling, there’s a black black void,
as black as night without you. I long to see
your face or hear your voice, and take your hand’
‘I got the letter
this morning, the letter you wrote me Saturday.
I thought my heart would break a thousand times,
but I would rather have read it a thousand times
than the detached unreal ones you wrote before.’
Bishop insisted at the start of a long letter: ‘I think it is wonderful poetry . . . they affect me immediately and profoundly.’ Then she quoted Hardy: ‘What should certainly be protested against, in cases where there is no authorisation, is the mixing of fact and fiction in unknown proportions. Infinite mischief would lie in that.’ She went on:
I’m sure my point is only too plain . . . Lizzie is not dead etc – but there is a ‘mixture of fact & fiction’ and you have changed her letters. That is ‘infinite mischief’ I think . . . art just isn’t worth that much . . . In general, I deplore the ‘confessional’ – however when you wrote Life Studies perhaps it was a necessary movement, and it helped make poetry more real, fresh and immediate. But now – ye gods – anything goes, and I am so sick of poems about the students’ mothers & fathers and sex-lives and so on.
Later, she sent Lowell a quote from Kierkegaard, which seemed to sum up the difference between her method and his as they came to the end of their lives: ‘The law of delicacy, according to which an author has the right to use what he himself has experienced, is that he is never to utter verity but is to keep verity for himself & only let it be refracted in various ways.’ And then she added, as though to take the sting out of everything she had said: ‘But maybe that is exactly what you have done.’ But she did not really think so.
Lowell made changes to the book as a result of this letter, but he left the sections quoted above. Frank Bidart wrote in his notes to the poems: ‘Lowell responded by fundamentally changing the book. Several of the poems in Hardwick’s voice were muted by taking them out of direct quotation, placed in italics, their anguish and anger softened.’ Lowell wrote to Bidart about Bishop’s letter:
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 revelations give it a wildness. Most people will feel something of her doubts . . . Now the book must still be painful to Lizzie, and won’t satisfy Elizabeth. As Caroline says, it can’t be otherwise with the book’s donnée.
Lowell’s letters to his first wife, Jean Stafford, were destroyed by Stafford in a moment of rage; portions of some of his letters to Caroline Blackwood were transcribed by Ian Hamilton for his biography, but the letters themselves were stolen and have not resurfaced. Bishop’s letters to Lota de Macedo Soares were destroyed after Lota’s suicide. But there remain many unpublished letters by Bishop and Lowell. An edition of Bishop’s notebooks and journals is being prepared, and the publication of her correspondence with others – such as Marianne Moore, May Sarton, her editors at the New Yorker and, especially, her Aunt Grace in Nova Scotia, to whom there are a large number of letters written over many years – will be fascinating. There is a great difference between Lowell’s letters and Bishop’s; this may be summed up by Lowell’s view that she had an ‘extreme paranoia about revelations’. Since Lowell did not share this paranoia, and spent a great deal of his life spilling the beans about himself, there is very little mystery about him now. Bishop, on the other hand, remains all mystery. Also, Lowell’s days were full – too full, much of the time – and it is unlikely that the arrival of a letter in the morning and the composing of a reply in the afternoon mattered to him in the same grave, essential way as they did to Bishop. Bishop is a great letter-writer, Lowell is not.
The letters make clear that Lowell was a cross between a fox and a puppy dog. He knew many small things, and was often filled with hope for his poems, his plays, his friends, his wives and children. He did a great deal of physical and intellectual gallivanting. Bishop, on the other hand, was a cross between a hedgehog and a snail. She knew, or tried to become acquainted with, one large thing; she left silvery and ambiguous traces. She relished the idea that she came from a ‘literal small backwater’ and that she moved to another one as soon as she could. Some of this was self-invention: she had a trust fund and moved, in as much as she ever moved, during her years in Brazil, among an elite set.
Her letters to Lowell in Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton’s well-annotated volume throw interesting light on those years in Brazil. It is clear from the letters in One Art, the wonderful selection of her correspondence edited by Robert Giroux, that she found great happiness there. Some of the letters are comic masterpieces about the antics of the weather, the servants, the locals and various pets. But there are a number of letters in the new volume that emphasise the role of Lota de Macedo Soares in the political life of Brazil and the sort of alliances and allegiances she had, some of which became dark and nasty.
Lota committed suicide while in New York with Bishop in 1967. (Lota’s nephew Flávio, to whom Bishop had been close, also committed suicide, in 1970. Lowell wrote to Elizabeth Hardwick: ‘I don’t know how she has taken the boy’s suicide and dread knowing.’) In 1968, Bishop moved to San Francisco, but continued to spend time in Brazil. In 1970 she taught Lowell’s class at Harvard and met Alice Methfessel; they became partners. In 1970, Lowell met Caroline Blackwood in London and their son was born the following year. In 1973, Bishop bought an apartment at Lewis Wharf in Boston where once more she had a view of the ocean, as she had had in Rio.
As Lowell began to write a great number of sonnets, which he published in Notebook (1969) first, and then, revised and expanded, in three volumes – History, For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin – published in 1973, Bishop wrote to him to ask: ‘How are the sonnets going? Well – I think I have written one.’ If this question was not her epistolary style at its most mischievous, then she was more innocent than we know she was. Among his sonnets, Lowell produced four for her, and there was mischief in two of these too. In one of the non-mischievous ones, he wrote about her relationship to the North and South Atlantic:
you’ve never found another place to live,
bound by your giant memory to one known longitude.
In the other he wrote about her method as a poet, slow, meticulous, uncertain, exact:
you still hang your words in air, ten years
unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps
or empties for the unimaginable phrase –
unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect?
In 1962, in response to the first draft of ‘Water’, with its lines about her (‘One night you dreamed/you were a mermaid clinging to a wharf-pile,/and trying to pull/off the barnacles with your hands’), Bishop had written not only to correct details but to remind him of something he had not included in the poem. It was a four-line poem she had once recited to him, about Edna St Vincent Millay:
I want to be drowned in the deep sea water
I want my body to bump the pier
Neptune is calling his wayward daughter
Edna, come over here.
It was her way of nudging him to be less earnest. Now, he played another stroke in their game. He rewrote ‘Water’ as a sonnet and called it ‘For Elizabeth Bishop (25 years) 1. Water’. In doing so he destroyed it, took all the calm, spare delicacy away from the original poem, made the opening lines sound as casually dead as so many of the lines in these late sonnets of his (other lines, it should be said, are startling and brilliant, but not these):
At Stonington each morning boatloads of hands
cruise off for the granite quarry on the island,
leaving dozens of bleak white frame houses stuck
like oyster shells on the hill of rock. Remember?
Bishop wrote to say that she loved the sonnets. But she emphasised that she preferred the others to the new sonnetted version of ‘Water’, about which she wrote: ‘I am always dumbfounded by your capacity for redoing things . . . I think I’ll try to turn that damned fish into a sonnet.’
Then she made a mistake: she wrote about how desperate she was. Lowell responded by turning this part of the letter, so unusually and painfully personal in its tone, into another sonnet: ‘For Elizabeth Bishop 3. Letter with Poems for Letter with Poems’. He wrote to her to apologise ‘for versing one of your letters into my poems on you in Notebook . . . Too intimate maybe, and if so I humbly ask pardon.’ The poem began:
‘You are right to worry, only please DON’T,
though I’m pretty worried myself. I’ve somehow got
into the worst situation I’ve ever
had to cope with. I can’t see the way out.’
We would need Borges’s Pierre Menard to tell us how long it took Lowell to make up these four lines. Perhaps as long as it took him to copy them out, or perhaps not even as long as that. Because Bishop’s letter, written in February 1970, included the lines more or less verbatim: ‘Well, you are right to worry about me, only please don’t! – I am pretty worried about myself. I have somehow got into the worst situation I have ever had to cope with and I can’t see the way out.’
It would not be fair, or even true, to say that Bishop waited and had her revenge. Things were never as simple as that between them and it must always be remembered how much she loved and admired him. She outlived him by two years – he died suddenly in 1977 and she died suddenly in 1979 – and wrote a beautiful elegy for him. In its last stanza, she wrote that he could not ‘derange, or re-arrange,/your poems again’ and perhaps she thought that was a good thing. He had all his sonnets in these last years; she had, as she said, just one. It was the last poem she finished, and its skinny perfection, compared to his garrulous hit and miss, must have given her pleasure; but it must have made her melancholy that the only reader she really cared about, would not be there to witness the last word in their long conversation. She called her sonnet ‘Sonnet’:
Caught – the bubble
in the spirit-level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
Freed – the broken
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
it feels like, gay!
Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV (March 1, 1917 – September 12, 1977) was an American poet, considered the founder of the confessional poetry movement. He was appointed the sixth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1946
Elizabeth Bishop (8 February 1911 – 6 October 1979) was an American poet and writer. She was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1949 to 1950, and a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1956. Elizabeth Bishop House is an artist's retreat in Great Village, Nova Scotia dedicated to her memory.
Colm Tóibín’s new novel, Brooklyn, will be published in May.
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