Though I have written a biography of Robert Lowell and have taught his and Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry for over 30 years, I have found myself guiltily lugging this three-pound volume around with me for months now, unwilling to give it up. I would randomly open the book again and again to re-enter Lowell’s Boston, Blue Hills, New York and Milgate Park, or Bishop’s Key West, Washington, Ouro Preto, Rio de Janeiro, Seattle, Cam-bridge, North Haven and (finally) Boston, fascinated by the chance it has given me to listen in on their at once shy and witty conversations, insights, aperçus and distinctive ways of absorbing and reporting back on the sights, sounds and names of those around them, or what Lowell called the literary (and political) gossip of the moment.
The correspondence between the two began in May 1947, after they met for a dinner hosted by Randall Jarrell in his New York apartment at the beginning of the new year. Lowell was 29 and separated from his first wife, the novelist Jean Stafford, who by that point was living uptown under psychiatric care. By then his Catholic phase (he had become a Catholic several years earlier) and the extraordinary poetry his new faith had generated and for which he would win the Pulitzer that year, was over. Bishop was 35 and still nine years away from receiving the Pulitzer for her own North & South—A Cold Spring. If it took longer for Bishop to receive the attention her work deserved, what matters here is that Lowell knew a classic when he read one, and indeed confessed to Bishop that she was the model he wished to follow as he developed the poems that would go into his groundbreaking Life Studies, published in 1959.
The great might have been for both these poets is the thought that they might have married. It is certainly what Lowell dreamt of, and Bishop is on record as saying that if she ever had anyone’s child, she would want that child to be Lowell’s. The fact that Lowell suffered from bi-polar disorder, was married three times and often took up with younger women during his manic phases, promising to marry them as well, together with the deterrent of Bishop’s own lesbianism, suggests that it was better the two did not marry. Instead, as with Yeats and Maude Gonne, the relationship took a deeply literary turn, which lasted until Lowell’s death, continuing even afterwards in Bishop’s letter/poem to her dead friend in “North Haven,” where she tells him as she looks out into the Atlantic that his visioning and revisioning of his thousands of poems is finally over.
We owe a great debt to both Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton for the staggering amount of editorial work that has gone into making this extraordinary correspondence available to us. There are thousands of footnotes, as well as a full chronology and a fascinating introduction, which make clear what Lowell or Bishop writes in the familiar shorthand of old friends who knew each other and each other’s worlds, including contemporaries like Randall Jarrell and Adrienne Rich as well as such eminences as Pound, Eliot and Williams. And then, of course, there are the great dead whom both evoke, ranging from Aeschylus, Sappho and Cicero through Baudelaire, Emerson, Melville, Hawthorne, Hopkins, Yeats, Dostoyevsky and Turgenev.
I have just opened the book to page 272, and here is Lowell, 50 years ago, as if it were just this morning. He is telling Bishop that the poet Stanley Kunitz, who unlike Lowell would see 100, is now teaching at Brandeis and looks like “a small, sharp, orderly Bohemian little gray man…rather like Kenneth Burke.” Having myself met all three, I can say only that each of Lowell’s adjectives (and how he loved adjectives) is the precise epithet: bright and sharp and telling. And then comes the next sentence—comic and to the point—about big, bullish Theodore Roethke’s “escaping from a sanitarium dressed like a woman—and (believe it?) unrecognized for three days!” And a few sentences later there is his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, talking in the kitchen of their Boston apartment with Adrienne Rich, pregnant now with her third child and “bursting with benzedrine and emancipation” over her discovery of Simone de Beauvoir.
And here is Bishop, in her own chatty return, writing from the apartment in Rio de Janeiro she shared with her lover and companion of 20 years, Lota de Macedo Soares. She has, Bishop reports, made a new friend while on tour in Brasilia with Aldous Huxley, namely the editor of the city’s best newspaper, the Correio de Manha, “a real darling, if only he didn’t write, too,” and who keeps sending her books “all autographed in the Brazilian way.” And then the breathless mention (so very unlike her poems) of one Kimon Friar, who recently invited her to read his “333,333 line translation” of Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, which takes up, she winks, “where Homer left off. Odysseus goes to Africa and meets Hamlet—and Napoleon, I think,” she comically sums up, and then “dies adrift on an ice floe at the South Pole.”
And these are simply shards of two paragraphs in a book that reaches nearly a thousand pages. It is a marvelous collection, containing a thousand brilliant insights into so much that made up our world in the three decades between 1947 and 1977. It is a book—a musical instrument, really—for anyone interested in replaying the literature, poetry, history, culture and, yes, life lived in this explosive period in American history (North and South) when Lowell and Bishop created a world for which we are the richer.