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Courtesy of Vassar College Library

A group of us are reading Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and their correspondence with each other. There are aspects of both of them—their sensibilities, quirks, proclivities, struggles, shared glimpses of the interior landscapes—that have taken on an ambience that feels like a permeating fragrance. The oddest details are compelling to me.

Here’s Thomas Mallon in the Atlantic, capturing some of those quirky, memorable details:

He [Lowell] never succeeded in reconciling “the Puritanical iron hand of constraint and the gushes of pure wildness” that he saw within himself. He suffered manic attacks during and just after two of his rare face-to-face visits with Bishop but took pains to keep his mania from infecting the correspondence that he counted on to bring him “color and peace.” On one occasion, fearful of sounding off-kilter, he reassures Bishop, “This is a rushed letter, much more so than my state of mind.” Late in 1967, after Lota committed suicide, Bishop suffered an alcoholic collapse and then a bad fall while visiting Lowell’s New York apartment. It seems to have been easier for each of them to come apart in the other’s presence instead of on the pages of the letters, which became the real and cherished essence of their relationship.

Lowell had, early on, almost proposed marriage to Bishop, and years later he explained, “Asking you is the might have been for me.” In most of the letters, romance remains not so much an undercurrent as a charming above-ground stream of salutations and vocatives: she is his “Darling,” he her “dear boy.” For three decades, they practice a sort of creative courtly love, with Lowell as the knight chevalier, seeking approval of the lady in her faraway jungle tower. A reader of the correspondence may be surprised to find that the carefully banked fires of Bishop’s personality somehow create an even stronger glow than Lowell’s accelerated blazes.

Sharp social and personal observations, from each of them, allow the correspondence to breathe, opening it up beyond guarded confidences and dialogue about their craft. When comparing new works by her college contemporary, Mary McCarthy, with those by her own early mentor, Marianne Moore, Bishop ponders the “strange contrast—Mary so sane and mean; Marianne so mad and good—which do you choose?” In August 1964, just after Flannery O’Connor’s death, Lowell paints a splendid miniature of the southern Catholic writer:

It seems such a short time ago that I met her at Yaddo, 23 or 24, always in a blue jean suit, working on the last chapters of Wise Blood, suffering from undiagnosed pains, a face formless at times, then very strong and young and right.

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Flannery O’Connor

The passage exemplifies a quality in Lowell’s writing that Bishop, elsewhere in the letters, remarks upon: the way his prose can be “almost on the point of precipitation into poetry.”

Mallon goes on to share this memorable account:

It is, in fact, a blending of the two that causes the great aesthetic crisis in their correspondence, during the early 1970s, when Lowell gets ready to publish The Dolphin, a volume in which he has altered and versified some of the angry, hurt letters that Elizabeth Hardwick wrote to him after he’d left her for the Irish writer Caroline Blackwood. Aware of his own recklessness, Lowell tells Bishop in February 1972, “I am going to publish, and don’t want advice, except for yours.” Bishop’s slow-starting response—“It’s hell to write this”—turns almost shockingly firm:

One can use one’s life as material—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.

Lowell makes some adjustments to the book but does not otherwise desist, and even a year later he has nothing like Bishop’s clarity about the matter. “My sin (mistake?) was publishing,” he writes. “I couldn’t bear to have my book (my life) wait hidden inside me like a dead child.”

Here is Mallon’s closing assessment:

He [Lowell] had once exclaimed, “I seem to spend my life missing you!” and in the early years of their friendship had pondered their impossible geography: “We seem attached to each other by some stiff piece of wire, so that each time one moves, the other moves in another direction. We should call a halt to that.” But the distance between them, and their inability to overcome it except during those widely spaced visits, was actually fate’s gift to them. The letters that separation necessitated—even the ones that crossed in the mails or never arrived—became the connection that Lowell and Bishop were meant to live. Words in Air takes its place—amid the letters of Keats and Hopkins and Owen—as one of the great poetic correspondences. It is also, almost certainly, the last of them.

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