June 4, 2013
One of the great modern American literary friendships was between the poets Robert Lowell (1917-1977) and Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979). They met in the late 1940s and remained friends, despite some turmoil, until Lowell’s death in 1977. Bishop only survived him by two years, passing away suddenly on the day she was to give a rare public reading at Harvard University. Rare, because Bishop was very shy, especially when it came to crowds, unlike Lowell who was voluble, more than a little manic, and quite the great man of American letters.
Despite, or perhaps because of, their contrasting temperaments they bonded over poetry. It was a literary friendship in two senses: they were both fiercely committed to their craft and it was a relationship that was conducted almost entirely by mail. They were rarely in the same part of the world at the same time, not least because Bishop spent almost two decades in Brazil, living with her partner Lota de Macedo Soares. So the friends grew close by writing letters to bridge the physical distance between them.
Both Lowell and Bishop were extraordinary correspondents. Does anyone write letters anymore? But Lowell and Bishop were among the last of the generations that considered letter writing an art form. Composing experiences and thoughts in a way that was coherent and reflective, Lowell and Bishop viewed letters as minor works of art, as well as a way to keep the mind alert to writing poetry. In the lives of strong writers, one is always struck by the sheer quantity of writing that they do, and letters form the bulk of this writing. Both Lowell and Bishop were remarkable correspondents both with each other and with others. But their correspondence is sufficiently important that it has been collected in the 2008 volume Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Trevisano and Saskia Hamilton.
The title is taken from an affectionate poem that Lowell wrote (and rewrote. .. and then rewrote again!) for Bishop in which he characterized her methods of composing poems. And this is the other great thing about Bishop and Lowell: they wrote poems in response to each other. Their letters were private communications but the poems were a public dialogue carried out in counterpoint. For instance, from Brazil Bishop dedicated a poem to Lowell called it “The Armadillo.” It begins with a beautiful image of a popular religious celebration, a mingling of the secular and the sacred:
This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,
rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.
It’s impossible not to imagine that in that image of the paper filling with light, “like hearts,” Bishop was referring to letter-writing. But the fire balloons can be dangerous, and when they fall to earth they flare into brushfires that disturb the animals: “Hastily, all alone,/a glistening armadillo left the scene/rose flecked, head down. . . “ Are these fires a warning not to get too close? Bishop and Lowell had quarreled in their letters about Lowell’s use of quotations and personal details in his poems without having asked for permission. Exposed to the public, private correspondence could detonate, injuring innocent bystanders Bishop could be saying.
Lowell responded to Bishop’s armadillo with a poem called “Skunk Hour” set in Castine, Maine, where he summered. Society is all unstable: “The season’s ill—we’ve lost our summer millionaire. . .” Half way through Lowell turns on himself. Watching the cars in Lover’s Lane: “My mind’s not right. . . .I myself am hell;/nobody’s here—//only skunks, that search in the moonlight for a bite to eat.” Lowell was frequently hospitalized throughout his life with mental illness and you can hear the desperate sense of holding on as everything seems to be falling apart in this verse. “Skunk Hour” ends with an image of obdurate resistance that the poet fears he cannot share: the mother skunk, foraging in a garbage can, “drops her ostrich tail,/and will not scare.”
The title for their collected correspondence comes from Lowell’s poem for Bishop that includes the lines: “Do/you still hang your words in the air, ten years/unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps or empties for the unimaginable phrase—unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect?”
Unlike the voluble Lowell, Bishop was a very deliberate writer and Lowell is referring to her habit of pinning up the sheets of a work in progress and making it, essentially, part of the furniture of her life. She mulled over the work, considering and reworking the poem until she was finally satisfied with it; reportedly she worked on her well known poem “The Moose” for nearly two decades before publishing it.
Lowell was just the opposite, not least because he revised and rewrote poems even after he had published them, causing a great deal of trouble and confusion for his editors in establishing an accurate final text. Indeed, he fiddled continually with his poem to Bishop, turning it into something rather more formal and monumental in the final version.
Lowell never read Bishop’s response: it came in a memorial poem called “North Haven,” a poem like “Skunk Hour” about the seacoast. It’s a lovely tribute, full of rueful knowledge of Lowell’s character: “(‘Fun’—it always seemed leave you at a loss. . .)” and ends with
You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue. . .And now – you’ve left
for good. You can’t derange, or rearrange,
your poems again. (But the sparrows can their song.)
The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.
It’s uneasy to cite sadness or depression as a cause of artistic creativity; most depressives aren’t great poets. Both Lowell and Bishop were sad in their various ways. Poetry, Robert Frost wrote, provides a “momentary stay against confusion.” But that’s not all it does. Indeed, in the case of Bishop and Lowell it could be argued that it was the letters that provided a structure of meaning and feeling for both poets that helped them make sense and order their experience. The poems themselves are something else entirely: expressions of feeling and self-knowledge that appear as art.
October 15, 2012
“I, too, sing America,” begins the arresting poem by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. Using the simplest of metaphors, Hughes indicts a bigoted American society. But he does not simply rid himself of it. He writes, “They’ll see how beautiful I am/ And be ashamed–/ I, too, am America.”
The words and feelings, plain as they are, gain their urgency by directly addressing contemporary life. According to historian, curator and poet David C. Ward of the National Portrait Gallery, that is what all good poetry does. “The poet had to respond to the immediacy of modern society–which I think is the core characteristic of modern poetry.”
Now these great poets of America will get the chance to once again confront the public, only this time instead of words, it will be with their lesser-known portraits. “Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets” opened October 12th at the National Portrait Gallery and features more than 50 poets, including Langston Hughes, Anne Sexton and Allen Ginsberg.
The show spans the Modern era from the late 19th century through the 1970s and provides a personal glimpse into the history of a national art form. The story begins with Walt Whitman’s iconoclastic Leaves of Grass, published in 1855. Whitman’s book of poetry was noted for its free verse and focused on the daily experiences of working class Americans. “Whitman kicks down the doors, and brings the street into the genteel world of American poetry,” says Ward.
As the years progressed, poetry became an increasingly democratized space. Some of the poets in the show even held other occupations and did not come from the esteemed halls of learned language. Wallace Stevens, for instance, was vice president of an insurance company. William Carlos Williams–now remembered for his sparse poem about eating the plums in the ice box, This Is Just To Say–was a physician.
A handful of the poets on display, including Walt Whitman, receive special attention as makers of America’s modern voice. Ezra Pound is likewise spotlighted with a photograph taken by Richard Avedon, as well as with a sculpture in bronze, a sketch and a print. A vivid pastel of Langston Hughes compliments the sepia-toned gelatin silver print also on display.
The works themselves are often produced by well-known artists, as is the case with the Richard Avedon photograph. “There’s an artistic combination,” says Ward. “These people all tended to know each other.” Ward liked the way visual artists tried to capture their verbal counterparts.
With more than 75 portraits and evocative quoted material from the poets’ work, the show casts a contemplative mood, showing both the range and lineage of the modern American voice.
“Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets” runs October 12, 2012 through April 28, 2013 at the National Portrait Gallery.