2 February, 2009Issue 8.2LiteratureNorth AmericaPoetryThe ArtsWriters

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“An Art Form or Something”

Vidyan Ravinthiran

Travisano.jpgThomas J. Travisano
Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence
Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

Faber and Faber, 2008
800 pages
£40.00
ISBN 978-0571243082


On November 16, 1960, the celebrated mid-twentieth century American poet Robert Lowell sat down to write a letter to his contemporary, friend, and equal, Elizabeth Bishop:

Dearest Elizabeth:

This letter might have been written under very odd circumstances: trying to be natural while Cartier-Bresson sat in my study taking occasional pictures. He’s left now, but I still feel the strain of dutifully trying to forget he was here—I really did forget at times, but now realize that was more of a stunt than I realized.

Minutely textured by its specific historical moment, this self-conscious tidbit from Thomas Travisano’s new collection of Lowell and Bishop’s correspondence also stands more generally as a portrait in miniature of the poet-as-letter-writer sitting down to write to a friend and “trying to be natural”.

Can the poet, accustomed to writing for a dedicated audience in the most formally self-conscious of literary genres, really “forget”, even for the duration of a personal letter, the practised rigour of his style? Lowell in particular doesn’t always get the balance right. When he describes himself lounging in Castle Maine “enjoying the liquidity of a peach”, his style emulates that of John Keats, perhaps English literature’s most celebrated correspondent, famously describing a nectarine in his own letter-prose: “It went down soft pulpy slushy oozy—all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified strawberry”.

Compared to Keats’s off-the-cuff brilliance, Lowell’s self-regard is merely cloying, but the wrought echo does show him treating the letter form as a literary genre in its own right, one he wants to succeed in as Keats canonically has. At their best, Lowell’s letters share with Keats’s an enabling, campy tone which progresses beyond mere posturing towards what Theodor Adorno described as “that cunning intertwining of pleasure and work [which] leaves real experience still open, under the pressure of society”. They show the poet-as-letter-writer’s refusal to take seriously society’s alienating distinction between public and private life, work and play, casual and literary writing.

While literary critics usually read poets’ letters for biographical information, or to pinpoint throwaway données later transfigured and refined into their poetry, the case has been made within recent criticism for seeing letters themselves, as Elizabeth Bishop once remarked to Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, as “an art form or something”. Reading Bishop and Lowell’s correspondence, one is amazed repeatedly by what Travisano calls their “sustained colloquial brilliance of style”, as two masters of prosodic technique let their imagination play and range discursively over matters of literary interest, personal gossip, and historical speculation. If the school of confessional poetry inaugurated by Lowell (and frequently derided by Bishop) worked in just this manner, bringing the poet’s private life into the realm of art, then the achieved intensity of these letters does something similar but in the other direction, recording the artfulness and genuine creativity behind anybody’s experience of life.

Yet Bishop and Lowell are not just anybody, and those familiar with their poetry will find much here that is co-extensive with it, in both style and content. Situated by gender, social class, and temperament right at the heart of mainstream American literary culture, Lowell’s letters specialise in those brilliant, acidic, measured sketches of literary figures recognizable from his poems. Empson is “heroically odd”, Flannery O’Connor has a “face formless at times, then very strong and young and right”; Lowell on the minor poet William Burford thrills like Hazlitt on Coleridge and Wordsworth, bringing this likeable, slightly absurd figure to life as we read:

He was full of himself because he is writing a long autobiographical poem, and as you know his conversation is a pure centerless flux. The three of us spent a long night. Burford managed to drink an entire quart of Dutch gin, so one had the contrast of unimaginable coherence and unimaginable incoherence. The next day my Dutch friend said, “You always felt he was about to make a point.”

The quietly devastating final spoken aside punches out the paragraph like the end of one of Lowell’s unrhymed sonnets in History (1973).

Yet if such casual sniping at his contemporaries is a guilty pleasure, there is also a deep generosity to his and Bishop’s fascination with individual character. One must always bear in mind that this is the correspondence of a manic depressive and an alcoholic, both all too conscious of their own and the other’s frailties. The acuity of Lowell’s literary gossip is set off by the sensitivity and detail with which he discusses his manic episodes, repeatedly managing a clear-eyed, self-deprecating tone that may strike readers who dislike his poetry’s repetitive morbidity as a breath of fresh air. Writing to Bishop after a gap of several months in 1954, he admits:

I have been sick again, and somehow even with you I shrink both from mentioning and not mentioning. These things come on with a gruesome, vulgar, blasting surge of “enthusiasm”, one becomes a kind of man-aping balloon in a parade—then you subside and eat bitter coffee-grounds of guilt etc.

The trademark string of three successive adjectives is sincere; Lowell is describing himself at his lowest ebb, but his style is still there, he is still being himself, and the effect is admirable.

Lowell and Bishop’s letters have already been published in separate editions but, by restoring the dialogic integrity of their correspondence, Travisano’s new book brings out the shared intimacy of letters like these. The image of Lowell not only shrinking “both from mentioning and not mentioning” his illness to his friend but also admitting such vacillation is genuinely touching. Perhaps the most poignant moment occurs in the letters of August 1957, when Lowell, briefly glossing Bishop’s lesbian partner Lota de Macedo Soares, blurts out his (former?) desire to propose to her: “asking you is the might have been for me”. Her reply gently ignores his admission, convivially describing highway trips and New York life instead.

While Bishop and Lowell’s emotions toward each other are unarguably sincere—though she clearly holds back from fully criticising his later work—Travisano’s book also provides us with the illuminating, matter-of-fact chronicle of two poets pragmatically going about their business in the literary world, ensuring and extending their (justified) reputations. This is something Lowell does directly, Bishop more obliquely.

Excepting occasional trips to the United States, Bishop lived much of her adult life in Brazil, where sheer geographical distance on top of her almost neurotic shyness left her isolated from the literary culture Lowell thrived upon and came to exemplify. As such, he could often show his affection best by helping her career onward in her absence, getting her grants and posts she hesitated to apply for. Self-consciously playing the passive female to his (arguably less self-conscious) active male—for there is indeed an element of flirtation throughout these letters—she acknowledges his support with frequent gratitude. In a letter written in October 1960, she registers her delight at a grant received from the Chapelbrook Foundation with a characteristic aside: “It seems to me that I have a lucky streak every once in a while that I don’t deserve—or perhaps it is awfully good friends.”

If there is one gesture that defines Bishop’s epistolary prose, it is her tendency to this kind of dashed-off final clause, a little prose excrescence that strikes the reader like an afterthought. While this device repeatedly buoys the jokey, affectionate, sensitive vernacular of her letters, it perhaps comes to the fore in what Lowell calls her “tremendous descriptions” of natural or urban beauty. On her partner Lota’s apartment in Rio:

It is such a wonderful apartment that we’ll never rent it again, no matter what heights rents soar to, I think. Top floor, 11th, a terrace around two sides, overlooking all that famous bay and beach. Ships go by all the time, like targets in a shooting gallery, people walk their dogs—same dogs same time, same old man in blue trunks every morning with 2 Pekinese at 7 AM—and at night the lovers on the mosaic sidewalks cast enormous long shadows over the soiled sand.

This description captures what Tom Paulin calls the “taut nowness” of Bishop’s epistolary style, which conveys experience with an extraordinary poetic immediacy, always aimed, however, at her correspondent: “I’m sure you’d like it”, she continues, “… now that we have the apartment we can really invite you and Elizabeth at the weekends.”

Later in the same letter she mentions her aunt writing her “long descriptions of the ‘fall colors’ in Nova Scotia”, and wonders if that’s where she “shouldn’t be, after all”, back in Canada where she lived as a child with her grandparents. When we take this apparently casual remark and focus it back on the felt sensuousness of her take on Rio, we get the full sense of what these descriptions meant to Bishop, who also notably refers to her late masterpiece “The End of March” as a mere “bit of description, for what it’s worth” when she sends it to Lowell in September 1974. To describe one’s surroundings in all their vivid multifariousness to friends is to give them a unique gift, to somehow make one’s own sustained act of attention, with all the personal effort that went into it, imaginatively transferable; it’s not just a party trick. For Bishop, such descriptions provide the closest one can get to seeing through another’s eyes, and she is putting herself on the line whenever she enables her closest friends, like Marianne Moore or Lowell, to do so: “all letter-writing is dangerous”, she tells him.

One could go on citing such “tremendous descriptions” of Bishop’s, or Lowell’s witty anecdotes; Travisano has put together a treasure trove of such pleasures which, despite his contention that the collection be read as a kind of novel, is perhaps best appreciated in small doses. There is an extraordinary density to this kind of writing, and the complex emotional states circulating beneath the correspondents’ magnificent sprezzatura occasionally become overbearing. For although Bishop repeatedly mentions her delight at reading other writers’ letters—Keats, Hopkins, Yeats, Stevens, Santayana—and although Travisano argues persuasively that Bishop and Lowell would have known their own letters were bound to be read one day, there remains something voyeuristic about our interest in such writing. How can we justify this to ourselves? Bishop may supply the answer, when in May 1960 she tries to differentiate Lowell’s brand of confessionalism from Anne Sexton’s:

She is good, in spots,—but 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, has been made intensely interesting, and painfully applicable to every reader. I feel I know too much about her, whereas, although I know much more about you, I’d like to know a great deal more, etc.

Once again, we get that typical “etcetera” sprinkled throughout Bishop and Lowell’s correspondence, a friendly, unpretentious dismissal of a discourse that could be endlessly extended by academia. Enough of that, she seems to be saying—but she’s also saying so much more, proposing a form of self-revelation which is not morbid but an act of generosity, a way of helping others come to terms with their own singularity. Reading through this hefty book, our gossipy desire to “know a great deal more” is balanced by what its accumulated deep subjectivity tells us about ourselves. There is much in the range of experience Bishop and Lowell so painstakingly, exuberantly record—and in their own fluctuating, long-distance relationship—that will be “intensely interesting, and painfully applicable” to both the academic and general reader.

Vidyan Ravinthiran is a graduate student and lecturer at Balliol College working on Elizabeth Bishop’s poetics of prose.