Among the annual lists of "best poetry books of the year," there's one title that may be missing, though it was written by two of the defining poets of the 20th century. Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 928 pp., $45), contains the barest snippets of verse, and there's as much commentary on the dailiness of their own lives as on their work (including Bishop's "The Armadillo" and Lowell's "Skunk Hour," probably each poet's most-anthologized work). But on any such list, Words in Air inarguably belongs.
Lowell gave Bishop a belief in the narrative importance of her own life. She gave him a belief in the importance of simplicity at a time when he was struggling to throw off the muscle-bound, Miltonian style of his first book, Lord Weary's Castle. She also gave him a much-needed jauntiness that comes from a life-long familiarity—in their case, 30 years—of marrow-deep acquaintance in the art.
"I believe," Bishop wrote Lowell, "in swimming, flying, and crawling, and burrowing." Lowell, too, believed in burrowing: Even apart from the time he spent in asylum beds—where he went almost yearly for attacks of mania—he preferred to write in day beds piled high with notebooks, volumes of history and poetry, and discarded socks. "Fun, it always seemed to leave you at a loss," Bishop wrote in "North Haven" after his death.
Lowell, it is true, ceaselessly rewrote his poems, even recasting "The Water," originally in free verse, as a sonnet titled "Water, 1948," in which he regretted his decision not to marry Bishop, despite her bisexuality: "[A]sking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had." Bishop, who also struggled with alcoholism, replied with characteristic New England practicality: "Get a good shrink and don't drink."
Lowell's ventures into anything that might be called "light-hearted" took the form of mania and serial infidelity. Bishop herself remained a serial monogamist, and perhaps her greatest poem, "One Art," written in fear that her late-life companion and literary executor, Alice Methfessel, might leave her after an extended binge, counts as the century's best villanelle, at the very least after Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night."
Even readers who devoured One Art, Bishop's voluminous edition of letters (1994), and Lowell's own collection, painstakingly put together by Saskia Hamilton (1995), must not omit this volume, which adds more than 300 pages of new epistles. As Bishop's elegy "North Haven" ends, "You can't derange, or re-arrange, / your poems again." Nor can these letters be changed. They are a monument to one of the great literary friendships of all time, and a testimony to how two colleagues can serve not only each other but also the art they share.
There were plenty of jumps and screams at the severed-head reveal at the Sunday night…
I just...this recap...why did I not know these were here until now?! 4 times on…
So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
It was so great being one of those kids in Dayton.
I miss Iodine.
^ It's nice to see an official acknowledgement by management. Kristen Mcarther Miles (the girl…