Years ago, I bought a copy of One Art: Letters for my husband. How many years? I’m not sure: it came out in 1994, but it was probably not quite so long ago as that. Ten years ago? Twelve? Anyway, he never read it, and it sat there, looking imposing, on our shelf. Last month, I took it down, all 650 pages of it, and started reading.
Elizabeth Bishop is one of the truly great American poets. She is an undisputed master of form (see “One Art” or “Sestina”) and lived by advice she got early from her friend Marianne Moore: no matter how long it took her, she never published a poem until she felt she had perfected it. (Her long poem about Nova Scotia, “The Moose,” was begun when she was in her early twenties and completed when she was in her sixties.) Her brilliant, subtle impressions of the physical world are not confessional or autobiographical, yet as Randall Jarrell says in one of his astute reviews of her work, they could all say under them: I saw it.
Bishop’s letters are her second great art. This book, edited by Robert Giroux, is far from being a complete collection, even at this length: not only was she prolific, not only did she have many friends and a passion and talent for correspondence, but she lived in Brazil for fifteen years with her partner Lota Soares, and could keep in touch with the poetry world only by letter. She had a talent for long, deep friendships with other poets, with whom she could be completely frank about her own work and about theirs. (To be honest, she talks smack about other poets, too — what fun that is to read!) Some of her closest friends were Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, and May Swenson. She knew dozens of other poets, musicians, and literary people, along with less rarefied friends; she was private and shy, but with a strong sense of connection.
Bishop’s voice is lively and engaging, even when — maybe especially when — she’s not talking about much. I loved the years when she was writing in Brazil, dealing with day-to-day events, restoring the house she lived in with Lota, worrying about the servants’ babies, enjoying the scenery. She struggled with her health her entire life, from allergies and asthma to debilitating alcoholism, and this crops up in many of her letters to friends and doctors. Her eye for brilliant bits of detail is unerring: the color of a fruit, or a snatch of dialogue, or exactly what a toucan said. Not a surprise for someone who’s read much of her poetry.
Every once in a while come letters that are purely about poetry: explaining her own poems, very rarely, or more often appreciating someone else’s. There are long letters going through a new book of Robert Lowell’s, for instance, criticizing a word here or there, or confessing confusion about a line; saying what’s done well. There are letters talking about poetry as an art, too: what sacrifices is it worth? What can, and can’t, an artist do with poetry? What is e.e. cummings, or Frost, or Eliot, doing these days? These letters show Bishop as absolutely uncompromising. She wants her poetry taken on its merits, with exactitude, with no admixture of personality or pity or malice, as if the poems are carved from quartz. Yet she herself is generous, loyal, hungry, funny, sad and difficult. It’s revealing and lovely.
I’d never read a book of letters like this before. The oddest thing about it was reading only half of the conversation: hearing what Bishop says to Marianne Moore, for instance, but not hearing what she says back. The best thing about it was reading Bishop’s poems as she wrote them. When she mentioned publishing a poem, I went and read it, or if she mentioned publishing a book, I read the book. Questions of Travel was particularly good along those lines, with all the references to Brazil — I could almost see it before my eyes. I loved exploring this, and all the poetry, and the brilliance. I’d like to do it again, with someone else.