Magazine article The Spectator

Love between the Lines

Magazine article The Spectator

Love between the Lines

Article excerpt

WORDS IN AIR: THE COMPLETE CORRESPONDANCE BETWEEN EILABETH BISHOP AND ROBERT LOWELL edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton Faber, £40, pp. 875, ISBN 9780571243082 Why does this book need to exist?

It's a legitimate question -- the correspondence of both these poets has been published in generous selected editions -- but an easy one to answer.

Quite apart from the fact you'd need prehensile thumbs to follow their exchanges properly through those two fat volumes, the unexpurgated version gives you not only ease but texture: their 'helter-skelter shop-talk'; gossip about Ezra Pound and Marianne Moore and Randall Jarrell; Lowell 'exhaustingly' changing his typewriter ribbons; Bishop getting 'some of a very old & liquefied jelly bean' stuck to her letter.

This was one of the great epistolary friendships of the 20th or any other century, and a hopeless love story to boot: manic-depressive toff seeks orphaned lesbian alcoholic for poetry, self-torment and perhaps more. In one celebrated letter, Lowell writes that asking Bishop to marry him was 'the might have been for me'. Bishop -- with her characteristic Nova Scotian reserve -- blanked the subject in her letter back. It wasn't mentioned again. Their love always belonged between the lines rather than between the sheets. 'One of the strange things about poets, ' Bishop quotes a friend remarking, 'is the way they keep warm by writing to one another all over the world.' The first letter here is from Bishop, concisely courteous and dated 12 May 1947. It is addressed to 'Mr Lowell' and sent care of his publisher. The last is from August 1977, a month or so before Lowell's unexpected death. It was a poets' friendship, and not always a high-minded one. The log-rolling was relentless: each of them hitting the other up for blurbs, conspiring to fix grants and fellowships and prizes and teaching jobs at universities. 'One more boring request -- do you think you could write a short new sentence about me for Bob Giroux?' Bishop asked in one postscript, adding, in the certain knowledge she'd be extravagantly disobeyed, 'But short -- and please don't exaggerate, Cal dear'.

These pages are scattered, too, with feline dismissals of the competition. The Beat poets, thinks Bishop, are hopeless -- and yet I sympathise with them . . . the trouble is mostly ignorance, don't you think -- and lack of education, as well as talent. (I guess that takes care of them! ) Spender is 'pleasant -- no poet, though'.

Ben Belitt 'so egotistical one just doesn't know what to say to him'. Richard Eberhart produces an 'endless ubi sunt poem'. An unadmired critic is 'a Clive James, or James Clive . . . who is he?' At one point, Bishop exclaims: 'WHO wrote those idiotic movie reviews? I think she must be somebody's mistress?' A footnote soberly informs us. Jeepers. It was Pauline Kael.

Neither of them found being in the world easy, and they understood that about each other. 'Sometimes I wish we could have a more sensible conversation about this suffering business, ' she wrote to him in 1948. 'I imagine we agree pretty well.' They did and did not. After another of Lowell's breakdowns -- he suffered manic attacks and was hospitalised every year or two throughout his adult life -- she wrote: 'Sobriety & gaiety & patience & toughness will do the trick. …

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