Elizabeth Bishop

in correspondence with

Robert Lowell

“I AM HAVING A LOVELY TIME JUST BEING LONELY—
PERHAPS IT IS THE WAY I SHOULD LIVE, ANYWAY.”
Words rendered in all-caps in this correspondence:
BURPEE
LUZ!
STUPID
POEMS

When Elizabeth Bishop met Robert Lowell, in 1947, she had just published her first collection of poems, North & South. Lowell had just published his second, Lord Weary’s Castle, which later that year would win the Pulitzer Prize. Despite Bishop’s overwhelming shyness (she once described herself as “painfully—no, excruciatingly—shy”) they hit it off, so much so that the following year Lowell would come close to proposing to her (“Asking you is the might have been for me,” he wrote her a decade later, “the one towering change, the other life that might have been had”). And Bishop would later admit that she might have accepted.

In 1951 Bishop moved to Brazil, where she lived with her partner, Lota de Macedo Soares, for the next eighteen years. Her relationship with Lowell was kept alive, though, largely through their letters—the pair exchanged nearly five hundred over the next three decades. (Their complete correspondence, from which this edited selection is drawn, will be published later this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) The letters act as a kind of topographical map of the poets’ personal and creative lives. They chart Lowell’s periodic descents into psychosis, his three marriages, and his rise to become the most influential postwar poet in America. Of Bishop, living more quietly in Brazil, they offer elaborations on a sensibility that, combined with technical mastery, would cause her to win the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The letters also offer vivid glimpses behind the scenes of what poet James Merrill has called “her own instinctive, modest, lifelong impersonations of an ordinary woman.”

—Dominic Luxford

*

Samambaia,
December 5th, 1953

Dear Cal:

Yes—I first saw about Dylan Thomas in Time, that awful magazine that you have to read here because it has the news first, at least. Then I got some letters. I suppose he had a cerebral hemorrhage or something, poor man. I liked him so much. Well, “like” isn’t quite the word, but I felt such a sympathy for him in Washington, and immediately, after one lunch with him, you knew perfectly well he was only good for two or three years more. Why, I wonder… when people can live to be malicious old men like Frost, or maniacal old men like Pound[.]

Well, I got a car, too—I guess since I wrote you. I think I’ll even enclose another bad picture that looks as if I were heading into the Andes in it, when as a matter of fact I can’t even get my license yet. I made enough on a story [“In the Village”] in the New Yorker to get it—a slightly second-hand MG, almost my favorite car, black, with red leather. It zooms up the mountains with the cut-out open, but really I only like speedy looking cars that I can drive very slowly.

Best wishes and love to you both.

Elizabeth

*

Samambaia, May 20th, 1955

Dearest Cal:

I have just finished the Yeats Letters—900 & something pages—although some I’d read before. He is so Olympian always, so calm, so really unrevealing, and yet I was fascinated. Imagine being able to say you’d always finished everything you’d started, from the age of 17. And he is much more kind, and more right about everything than I’d ever thought—right, until the age of 65, say. And it’s too bad he discovered s-e-x so late, I feel. I have a theory that all this business of psalteries and chanting, etc., was because he was completely tone-deaf and even the normal music of spoken verse wasn’t too apparent to him, so he felt something was missing. This is based on an imitation Pound once gave me (I don’t know whether it was the time I went to see him with you or later) of Yeats’ singing, to show how tone-deaf he was. The imitation was so strange & bad, too, that I decided they were both tone-deaf.

I just went out and screamed LUZ! to the black mountains in a most un-Goethe like way (more like God) and miraculously someone down at the house heard me and turned on the generator. It is dark and cold and rainy. Sometime, sometime I do wish you & E. would visit me here.

With love,
Elizabeth

*

From Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton, published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Writings of Elizabeth Bishop copyright © 2008 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Compilation copyright © 2008 by Thomas Travisano. Editorial work copyright 2008 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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