One of the most complicated and interesting friendships in American literature was that of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Both of these qualities are on exhibit in this excerpt from their correspondence in the mid-1960’s.
Rio, March 11, 1965
How wonderful to hear from you again . . . It is true that I had half-suspected, of course, but kept trying to believe I was wrong. Then just before I heard from you I had a letter from Bob Giroux mentioning your return from Hartford very naturally. He also sent me the pages from LIFE. As you say, they didn’t make a very good choice, probably, of either photographs or quotations,—but, then, they never do. And some of the photographs aren’t so bad! I rather like the one with both hands up, as if you were being held up (by LIFE), and the one with the actors. You do look a lot like the cousin Charles R[ussell] L[owell] now that I study it—the same shaped forehead, the same upper lip. And the hands are good in all of them—very animated! What is this about a trip to Chile? Is it true, and why, and when, and will you be coming to the east coast, too? I am so glad to hear you are out and about, and you how can the poet see red flight? and would like do sound well. Nevertheless, you are probably being brave and stoical about it. But I have a feeling there will soon come a time when the bloodstream you refer to will just refuse to carry the poison one more time and throw it out forever. You will then look back and wonder that it ever happened at all, and that will be as miraculous in its way as Hardy writing all that poetry in his old age & better than ever,—only you’ll undoubtedly be doing that, too, dear Cal…
I’ve just been re-reading all the Hopkins letters all over again to get myself through a hideous cold in the head,—and so I am full of these strict questionings he gave all his friends’ poems. The “fireworks”—“set-pieces” we called them—image is fine, too. In fact it’s all brilliantly clear and grimly beautiful, except for this one detail of circumstance that bothers me. Because of the broken windows it would seem to be really abandoned. Well—probably one or two words would make it clear to my literal mind, or perhaps I am somehow missing something—but I don’t think so. . .
I agree with what you say of Randall [Jarrell]—exactly. I did write him with all the compliments I could truthfully pay—now I think I have some more and shall write again. I dislike the ones on “women”—more than you do, no doubt—and wonder where he gets these women—they seem to be like none I—or you—know. But still & all,—he’s so much better than anyone else one reads, almost. He does write about a class of American life that is strange to me—perhaps it is the “west.” He makes me feel scarcely American at all, and yet I am, through and through.
Giroux is being very nice about my book [Questions of Travel], I think, and I wish I felt better about its contents. I decided I’d put in “In the Village,” too—to go with the several Nova Scotian poems.— At first he said no, it was imitating you too much (it was)—but then when he’d read the story he changed his mind, and is now all for including it. IF Houghton Mifflin will release it, etc. He sent me a copy of the Court Circular about Eliot’s funeral—and told about Pound’s appearing, etc . . . With the Stravinsky music, etc., it must have been wonderfully impressive . . . I did a piece (just for money) for the NY Times—magazine—last Sunday, I think. But if you didn’t see it, please don’t. First they wanted only 2,500 words—then more, then more, & more—and I hate to think how they stuck it all together finally. They’re as bad as LIFE—spent $100’s in cables—4 or 5, I think—before they got through. So silly. But I’m glad I did it because I did it, and rather quickly, for me—and now I feel I can try more sketches, and possibly better ones. I don’t remember if I’ve told you or not that I’ve said I’ll go to teach at Un. of Washington, Seattle—2 terms, next spring? Lota is against it (I was hoping she ’d join me for part of it and we could see some of that—west I’ve never seen), and I am beginning to get cold feet when I hear how rude students are these days
. . .Send me some more poems! That’s what I love getting—I’m sorry the one for you won’t make this book—damn. Maybe they’ll slip it in. Will you be going to Maine or what? Do take care of yourself—I am so happy you are better again
[Postcard: Photograph of the Space Needle, Mt. Rainier in the distance]
Seattle, Wash., May 23, 1965
I’m here for the moment for the Roethke memorial reading. Met a nice deaf old man who thinks you are the best poet in the world. Everyone is looking forward to your presence here tremendously. You’ll like the calm & landscape.
Did you get a Rockefeller application?
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and many other distinctions and accolades for her work.
Robert Lowell (1917–1977) was the renowned and controversial author of many books of poetry, including Day by Day, For the Union Dead, and Life Studies, and was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
Excerpted from Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted in the Fall-Winter 2008-09 issue of Poetry Northwest.