Reading the letters of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. endured far longer than any more intimate relationship sustained by either poet. How the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell became each other's tragic Still, the books vividly dramatize the mysterious relationship. Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick with their newborn daughter of Lowell's relationship with Hardwick in particular, and with women more generally. Meyers's does, but would be forced to reckon with Elizabeth Bishop.
Against all of this, there was the effort of work for both poets: As personalities, the two poets are easy to contrast, with Lowell's worldliness and ambition playing against Bishop's self-effacement and reserve.
Elizabeth Bishop and Modern American Poetry
In their letters, such contrasts become more matters of fact, things accepted naturally by both parties in a close relationship. Lowell is impressively candid - about his poetry, but also about himself - when he tells Bishop that "my great fault is rhetorical melodrama" and "how easy it is for me to lay it on, and mean it"; while Bishop in writing about her poetry shows an equal personal candour, when she mentions "Modesty, care, space, a sort of helplessness but determination at the same time".
Lowell understood determination, but not helplessness; it was Bishop's genius as a poet and affliction as a woman to comprehend both. If these letters had a motto, it would be the last line of Bishop's poem "The Bight": Both terms are the poets' common currency, parts of their lovers' language, which resonates through the whole correspondence.
'I seem to spend my life missing you'
InBishop writes to Lowell about a hairdresser, "a nice big hearty Maine girl": I was turning gray practically 'under her eyes'. And when I'd said yes, I was an orphan, she said 'Kind of awful, ain't it, ploughing through life alone. There's no place like New England. InBishop considers her own life without ruefulness as "having a lovely time just being lonely I am so damned cheerful all the time I can't believe it.
For Bishop, the awfulness and the cheerfulness in life were ways of understanding - and, occasionally, of making - works of art. Lowell's plans seem to stalk through a different, grander element, but without her caution, and at their own peril.
Agony and ecstasy of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop - The Boston Globe
InBishop wishes that "we could have a more sensible conversation about this suffering business", warning "I think it is so irresistible and unavoidable there's no use talking about it". Yet about suffering Lowell was often wrong, and his major artistic failure was also a moral failure, when he used his estranged wife's letters in books of his own poetry; and Bishop's objections to this are made with the clarity and courageousness of deep affection.
In writing about one of Lowell's greatest artistic successes, Life StudiesBishop sees how "it's the whole purpose of art, to the artist not to the audience - that rare feeling of control, illumination - life is all right, for the time being". While Lowell was grappling in the s with the nature of a publicly responsible art, Bishop reminded him of the fate of any art that kept one eye on its public: Bishop's influence, on the other hand, took time to make itself felt and is still something of a well-kept secret.
While each of her four collections of poetry gained recognition from her peers in the form of various fellowships and prizes, this acclaim did not immediately translate into much academic interest or popular success. At the time of her death there was just a single critical book on her work, a short introductory study by the poet Anne Stevenson.
Much has changed since the s. Bishop, rather than Lowell, is the poet new writers usually cut their teeth against. While Pinsky props Bishop up as a late Modernist, Epstein denigrates her as a watered-down confessional, too shy to own up to her own autobiographical impulses. These two positions are the twin poles around which most scholarly activity now revolves.
She has either to be an anti-Romantic like H. Free to steal and borrow across countries, cultures and languages, they do not seem as impelled as others to fit Bishop into a particular tradition or school. Her evasiveness may in fact be the reason behind their attraction to her poetry in the first place. When did she suddenly become such an imitated poet? The truth of course is that Bishop was always admired among her peer group. Influence works both ways. The Bishop-Moore relationship, for example, is one of the most keenly debated literary friendships in the twentieth century.
Some even see Bishop as providing Moore with poetic examples to follow in her later writing. Critics and readers often discover forgotten or undervalued poets through the praise and recommendation of their more famous friends. They can borrow and steal from whomsoever they please. The truth about influence in this particular case is surely somewhere in between both versions.
If contemporary poets are imitating Bishop now, they are perhaps imitating a little of Moore through her, just as Moore in turn famously appropriated all kinds of other writings.
The same ambiguities that characterise the Bishop-Moore relationship are also at work in regard to Bishop and Lowell. Revising the way we think about their relationship revises the way we think about the development of American poetry in general. For many years, the idea of a breakthrough narrative dominated discussion of post-war American poetry. According to the majority of critics, Lowell was the main transitional figure in this story. His single collection of poems, Life Studies, was credited for bridging various disparate schools and traditions under one banner: This type of narrative obviously privileges certain kinds of poetry above others.
In terms of Confessional poetics, the life of the poet becomes the main object of attention. Political engagement is preferred to political detachment, sexual frankness to sexual reserve.
There is no place in this kind of tradition for poets like Bishop who always made a point of effacing their lives from the work. Bishop thus freed Lowell to write autobiographically rather than the other way round. This undermines the idea that Lowell is responsible for a sudden breakthrough in American poetry or even that there was one at all.