The poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell met in 1947 at a New York dinner party held by Randall Jarrell. She was 36 and had just published her first book of poems. He was 30 and had just won a Pulitzer Prize. Later, she wrote that she’d gone to the party with “fear and trembling.”
“Then Lowell arrived and I loved him at first sight. . . . My shyness vanished and we started talking at once. . . . I remember thinking that it was the first time I had ever actually talked with some one about how one writes poetry—and thinking that it was[,] that it could be[,] strangely easy. Like exchanging recipes for making a cake.”
Along with Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Bishop and Lowell were one of the great poetic twosomes of the 20th century. Fortunately, they never married. Their friendship, which took place mostly in letters, is not so much attractive for its drama—they did all the suffering on their own time—as for the way they talked about poetry, which was very much like two cooks tasting and devouring each other’s work.
Elizabeth and “Cal” (the name he used with everyone, short for “Caliban” or “Caligula”) were at first ambivalently attracted to each other. Lowell told her later that he’d once almost proposed: “Asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.” By then, though, Lowell was married to the writer Elizabeth Hardwick and Bishop was in Brazil, living with her lover Carlota de Macedo Soares. As Lowell acknowledged: “All has come right [for you] since you found Lota.”
Instead, they grew to depend on each other as partners in art. They had a lot in common: Both came from old, well-off New England families. Both had had difficult and lonely childhoods, particularly Bishop, whose father died when she was an infant and whose mother disappeared into a mental hospital when she was five. They seldom spoke to each other of these things, or of Bishop’s crippling uncertainty and alcoholism, or of Lowell’s bouts of mania, which landed him, over and over, first in some new woman’s bed and then in a mental institution.
Instead, their letters were a refuge, warmed with constant praise. They admired in each other what they needed for themselves: She longed for his fluency and his willingness to use his own life in his poems; he coveted her control and famous eye for telling detail. She said their conversation made her “feel quite picked up again to the proper table-land of poetry . . . , off which I guess one does gradually slip unless there are a few people like you to talk to.” He was grateful for their “backward and forward flow that always seems to open me up and bring color and peace.”
These exchanges are part of their long correspondence, now edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton and published as Words in Air. In their letters, they also gossiped endlessly (and affectionately) about other writers; between them, they knew almost every poet who mattered at midcentury. They were generous in their praise of newcomers they liked—Flannery O’Connor, Frank O’Hara, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich—and gentle with those they weren’t sure about (Bishop on Allen Ginsberg: “I find him rather admirable, except for his writing”). They both felt protective of mad Ezra Pound and visited him in his Washington hospital: At Christmas 1949, Bishop writes, “I’m about to go see Pound and take him some eau de cologne. So far my presents have not met with much success, but maybe this will. . . . I am dying to see you and tell you about the strange tea-party for Frost, at which Carl Sandburg suddenly turned up to everyone’s horror.”
Lowell, by far the more famous poet before their deaths (his in 1977; hers two years later), could occasionally be patronizing. In a 1971 interview, he remarked, “Few women write major poetry. . . . Only four stand with our best men: Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath.” Bishop, offended, wrote him: “I’d rather be called ‘the 16th poet’ with no reference to my sex, than one of 4 women—even if the other three are pretty good.” Later, she refused to have her work in anthologies of women poets—was it Lowell’s fault?
It’s a rare grouchy remark in their correspondence. Mostly, they’re so anxious to keep their breakdowns and blackouts out of their magical world that they don’t tell each other what’s really going on. In 1966, when Lota was having mental-health troubles, Bishop wrote her friend Anny Baumann: “My darling Lota, whom I still love very much if she’d give me a chance to show it, has been simple hell to live with for five years now.” To Lowell, on the same day, she would only admit to being worried about her lover—who died a year later of an overdose of pills.
It’s hard not to read this book without thinking of Ted Hughes, whose collected letters have also appeared recently (Letters of Ted Hughes, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 758 pp., $45, edited by Christopher Reid). They’re more grounded and intense than the Lowell-Bishop letters, and often very beautiful. But in comparison to these troubled poets, Hughes—with his horoscopes and shamanistic dabblings—sometimes seems like the sorcerer’s apprentice, calling up forces he didn’t understand and couldn’t keep in check. He brought back great poetry from his journeys into the subconscious: He’s fascinating on the writing of Crow, his brilliant hymn to bad luck and destruction. But the same journeys don’t seem to have yielded much self-knowledge.
If Bishop and Lowell are careful with each other, it’s because they do know themselves, and know that deeper waters of the psyche don’t always make good swimming. These 800 pages of determined charm get a little wearing after a while; this is a book for the true fan. But you can dip into it at any point and come out with a gem of insight or observation from either writer, especially from Bishop, whose eye never deserts her. Querying a detail in a Lowell poem, she wrote him, “[S]ince we do float on an unknown sea I think we should examine the other floating things that come our way very carefully; who knows what might depend on it?” Bishop’s gift for querying such floating objects fills these letters. The more we see it, the more grateful we are to Lowell for helping save her from drowning.