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STYLE & CULTURE : BOOK REVIEW

Letter writing as an art between two postwar poets

Words in Air; The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell; Edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton; Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 876 pp., $45

November 07, 2008|Jamie James | James is the author of "The Snake Charmer."

In 1961, Elizabeth Bishop wrote Robert Lowell about Madame de Sevigne, France's venerated master of the art of letter writing: "Have you ever read her? She is marvelous, and the wonder is that the letters survived, and are so much better than most things written on purpose." There's a sweet, self-conscious irony there: Bishop's own letters were exquisitely written and radiant with purpose, never more so than when she addressed Lowell, who took the medium as seriously as she did.

The poets met in 1947 at a dinner in New York hosted by their mutual friend Randall Jarrell, a party the painfully shy Bishop later said she was "almost too scared to go to." They bonded immediately and commenced a virtuosic epistolary duet that ended only with Lowell's death in 1977. A new collection of their complete correspondence, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton, is not only an intimate, detailed history of American literary life in the postwar era, it's also an exhilarating document on the art of friendship, crafted with exceptional subtlety by a pair of masters.

Lowell was the most famous and influential American poet of the generation that came of age after World War II, given to bold action and statements at the center of the nation's intellectual life. Bishop was an introverted outlier, exceptionally slow and sparing in her creative output, who was widely admired, even revered by her peers; John Ashbery famously called her "a writer's writer's writer." Since Bishop's death in 1979, her reputation has risen steadily. Though Lowell remains the overpowering, inescapable presence of the postwar literary scene, Bishop is now regarded by many as the finest American poet of the latter 20th century.

The two shared everything, closely reading each other's manuscripts and supporting each other as they struggled with their demons -- his madness, her alcoholism. "Friendship" seems almost too wan a word to describe their relationship: Lowell adored her and once contemplated proposing marriage, despite her lesbian inclination. Bishop wasn't given to emotional statements but was explicit about her feelings in a 1962 letter: "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."

"Words in Air" makes an invaluable contribution to American literary scholarship, as most of the letters here have never been published before; yet it is something more. By devoting a single volume to the letters between the pair in chronological order, the editors have re-created a lifelong conversation that is intensely moving and readable. The book is good for dipping into, but once the reader has taken the dip, it's hard to stop reading.

In addition to fascinating exchanges about their work, the volume abounds in witty, trenchant views of events in the great world beyond literature. Bishop moved to Brazil in 1951 to set up housekeeping with her partner, visionary architect Lota de Macedo Soares, a Brazilian woman from an aristocratic background who resembled Lowell in many ways. Bishop's dispatches about the social upheavals in Brazil during the 16 years she lived there alternate between the brilliantly colorful and coolly ironic. Lowell, the public figure, frequently provides firsthand glimpses of American history. At John F. Kennedy's inauguration, he tells Bishop, he wrote in the guest book, " ' Robert Lowell, happy that at long last the Goths have left the Whitehouse.' Bobby Kennedy read it and said, 'I guess we are the Visigoths.' "

Inevitably, "Words in Air" possesses a special appeal for readers of poetry. Incidental portraits flit through the pages; snapshots of lovable, madcap Marianne Moore and the pathetic wreckage of Ezra Pound are particularly moving. T.S. Eliot makes a surprising appearance in one of Lowell's letters as "Elbows Eliot," for his uninhibited dancing at a "Charles River boatclub brawl." Bishop's appraisals of her contemporaries tend to be subtly pointed, often amusing in their self-revelatory candor. On Allen Ginsberg, in 1968: "I find him rather admirable, except for his writing! -- but feel a little like an old-fashioned Southerner about the Negro -- all right as long as he keeps his place."

Dull patches are sparse -- never a whine about money problems, little professional envy (but plenty of juicy gossip). There's a correspondence about a campaign to get a nephew of Soares admitted to Harvard, and advice about ashtrays and contact lenses; but on virtually every subject the writing is rich and complex, alternately amusing and touching, and sometimes both. Lowell's description of attending a literary conference with a ferocious hangover is hilarious ("Lunch: ham mostly fat and terrible things, egglike, that look like they've been through a steam laundry") and disturbing, coming just two months after he was hospitalized for a severe manic episode.

What finally gives "Words in Air" its emotional heft is its long continuity, which endows its pages with the immediacy of life. Joys and sorrows and puzzlements jostle; great passions blaze and fade. In the last pages, the poets bury friends and colleagues with obituaries that are frank and sometimes moving. The satisfying constant is their devotion to each other. Lowell wrote Bishop in 1959: "Oh we won't ever fall out, God help us! Aren't people difficult." And they never did.

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