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Harper's Magazine
Friday, March 19th, 2010
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Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

by Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

Words in Air

A review by John Leonard

Helplessly lyrical till death did them part, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell wrote so many wonderful letters and postcards to each other from 1947 through 1977 that it's amazing they ever found the time to publish their poetry. Words in Air (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40) edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton, is their complete correspondence, 800 pages of epigrams and gossip, anxieties and epiphanies, logrolling and backbiting. There are lapses, of course: Lowell, a manic-depressive, disappeared regularly into mental hospitals even after lithium had finally been prescribed for his bipolarity; Bishop, an alcoholic with an autoimmune disorder, was forever breaking her bones. But they clearly savored each other's joy in language, odd-angled perspectives on the world, and unbuttoned intimacies. Their poetry -- negotiating the tricky currents between public appearances and private self -- profited form the cross-pollination. And just as Bishop, hiding out in Key West or Brazil, needed help in managing her career, Lowell in Boston or New York loved to network.

So there is as much here about artists' colonies, teaching jobs, prize-giving, and Library of Congress stipends as there is about foreign countries, newborn children, cast-off lovers, and books in progress. Ezra Pound and Randall Jarrell show up so often you'd think they were parents. So do Marianne Moore and Partisan Review, which was the magazine of choice until Lowell and his wife Elizabeth Hardwick helped launch The New York Review of Books. Generous remarks are made about William Butler Yeats and George Santayana. Unkind things are said about Mary McCarthy, Phyllis McGinley, Kenneth Rexroth, and the Richards Wilbur and Eberhart. Ambivalence is expressed about Dylan Thomas and Simone de Beauvoir. Lowell will compare psychotherapy to the stirring-up of the bottom of an aquarium. Bishop, studying German, is amused to note that "Freud" means "joy" -- and sends Lowell a pair of lion's paws. In one of his last letters, before he dies of a heart attack in a taxicab in Manhattan, Lowell tells her, "The intoxicating thing about rhyme and meter is that they have nothing at all to do with truth, just as ballet steps are of no use on a hike." Her lovely poem "in memoriam" to him notes that he was always revising his work: "…And now -- you're left/for good. You can't derange, or re-arrange,/your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)/The words won't change again. Sad friend, you cannot change."

John Leonard was the New Books columnist for Harper's Magazine and a media critic for New York Magazine, The Nation, and CBS News Sunday Morning. His books include Lonesome Rangers, When The Kissing Had To Stop, and The Last Innocent White Man In America.


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