To readers of Offcourse, at least the faithful ones, the following dream will not seem farfetched. You enter a palace. Past the monumental doors and the unflappable ushers, you stand in a circular hall, undecided about which direction to take. There are many, and soon you realize that, no matter which you may happen to choose, it will lead you into more halls with more corridors all around, more nooks and unexpected patios, loggias and cloisters, portals opening to gardens, glens and forests, and that in all those places there are things of supreme importance to you. Reading—or reading into—this book is such a dream come true.
Words in Air begins in 1947 and ends in 1977, when Lowell died. During those thirty years the Cold War covered the globe with a vast discomforter of terror (the downing by the Soviets of a US spying plane, the Cuban missile crisis, etc., pop up in these letters as ghastly presences); then the political assassinations in the US and the Vietnam War, followed by the prevalent inclination among the young to drop out of the whole thing, make Bishop write on August 28th, 1968, after a visit to Haight/Ashbury and a TV viewing of the violence in Chicago:
“Well—I don’t know what is happening to us all. (I’ve returned to trying to finish a poem I started about Charlemagne years ago—based on Einhard Life—and it is strange the way things that struck me as unbelievably naive and pathetic in their intellectual pretensions then (700 AD), now seem, after about 20 years, idealistic and honest.)”
Already in the above paragraph we see a poetic trait visible in any other passage of this Correspondence—on both sides: namely the unwillingness to plunge into general explanations, coupled with the skill in the choice of chunks of lived experience so as to communicate a state of mind, a trait which makes the reading of these letters a powerful chunk of lived experience in itself. Neither Bishop nor Lowell seems to possess, or to miss, a general scheme of the world on which to stretch what’s happening to them. Lionel Trilling, in his 1956 review of Santayana’s Correspondence, writes that, beyond the one under review, the only modern collections of letters that “aren’t deeply depressing in their emptiness and lack of energy” are D.H. Lawrence’s and G.B. Shaw’s. Trilling’s reason for this is that Santayana, like Keats (and perhaps like Lawrence and Shaw?) felt the “impulse to think about human life in relation to a comprehensive vision of the nature of the universe.” This cannot be said of either Bishop or Lowell, yet their letters are not empty or lacking in energy, rather the contrary; but Trilling’s pronouncement, tinged as it is by the Arnoldian stratospheric stance, is interesting nevertheless, because it points to a break—a break between two sensibilities, two ways of understanding modernity, of which Bishop’s and Lowell’s turn out to be much the more modern.
Here’s how Elizabeth Bishop, in a letter dated “January 29th, I think—1958, I know,” attempts to describe what she feels on listening to Anton Webern’s instrumental pieces:
“They seem exactly like what I’d always wanted, vaguely, to hear and never had, and really ‘contemporary.’ That strange kind of modesty that I think one feels in almost everything contemporary one really likes—Kafka, say, or Marianne, or even Eliot, and Klee and Kokoschka and Schwitters… Modesty, care, space, a sort of helplessness but determination at the same time. Well, maybe I’m hearing too much. (—and admission of final ignorance!)”
“Modesty, care, space (the italics are Bishop’s), a sort of helplessness but determination at the same time” (Beckett’s “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” vibrates somewhere in concord). Modesty precludes Trilling’s sort of comprehensive vision of the nature of the universe, yet care prescribes attention to all details therein, from the photographs in National Geographic to the grains of sand between a sandpiper’s toes. And space—but let us leave space for a bit later, and cling for a while longer to modesty and care.
One of the pleasures afforded by these letters is the confirmation that the practice of Weltliteratur, the cross-fertilization of texts in different languages and coming from different countries, is not something abandoned after Goethe wrote about it in 1827, or perhaps after Eliot and Pound, but is (or at least was until a few decades ago) alive and well. This is hard or impossible to notice if we only look at our colleges and universities, where literature is kept, for the most part, absurdly departmentalized. Bishop and Lowell often write each other about poems in languages other than English, compare them with their own, comment on them, translate them, and are not stopped by the language barriers which frighten lesser souls. If we want to understand the intriguing couple, “modesty, care,” and “helplessness and determination” a little better, it might help to look at similar couples embedded in Bishop’s and Lowell’s favorite poets.
Lowell first mentions Tristan Corbière very early in the Correspondence: February 25 1948. I imagine Lowell came first upon Corbière via T.S. Eliot. Or perhaps he found out from Randall Jarrell, who in his 1952 “Poets and Poetry” tells how he “went from bookstore to bookstore in Paris, hunting for one copy of Corbière,” and only finding poems, letters by, letters from, essays on and biographies of, Mallarmé. In any case, Lowell compares his own poem, “Mother Marie Therese,” which became part of The Mills of the Kavanaughs (and which he calls “my nun poem”) with Corbière’s “Le Poète contumace”, the last piece of Les Amours jaunes, and Lowell writes:
“I felt with a shock all the things he could say that I couldn’t.”
In Lowell’s poem, a nun evokes her drowned Mother Superior; in Corbière’s the poet writes to his beloved as if he was dead. Bishop replies, March 1948:
“That is such a marvelous poem—some of the others I find almost unbearable—too much reality, as Eliot would say—but they’re good I guess because I can see in them the kind of thing one should/could try to do but somehow half-consciously shies away from—.”
“Too much reality.” Corbière, who died at age thirty in 1875, was on familiar terms with death and the macabre, somewhat like the medieval poet Villon (another favorite of Lowell), and perhaps a bit too familiar for our modern sensitivities. But going back to “modesty and care,” and to “helplessness and determination.” Here’s the antepenult stanza of Corbière’s "Le Poète contumace" :
"J’ai pris, pour t’appeler, ma vielle et ma lyre.
Mon cœur fait de l’esprit—le sot—pour se leurrer…
Viens pleurer, si mes vers ont pu te faire rire ;
Viens rire, s’ils t’ont fait pleurer…"
(To call you I’ve taken up my hurdy-gurdy and my lyre./
My heart pretends to wit—the fool—only to fool itself… /
Come to me and weep, if my verses made you laugh; /
Come and laugh, if they made you weep…)
There’s a poetic program there. The hurdy-gurdy and the lyre; laughter and tears. Those last two lines remind me of the last two lines of Rilke’s 29th “Sonnet to Orpheus”:
"zu der stillen Erde sag : Ich rinne,
Zu dem raschen Wasser sprich : Ich bin."
(Say to the motionless Earth: I flow, / To the rushing water say: I am.)
Rilke is here attempting a conciliation—or relativization—of being and becoming, of Parmenides’ perpetual rest and Heraclitus’ perpetual motion. Something metaphysical no doubt. But Corbière is attempting a conciliation of the traditional Democritus’ laughter and Heraclitus’ weeping, two attitudes before the world, two feelings, two moods or, if you wish, two masks. Something psychological, yet for all that not less metaphysical.
Helplessness and determination. Hurdy-gurdy and lyre. Weeping and laughing. Rest and motion? In any case, modesty and care. Which leads us straight into another French poet, Jules Laforgue, the third pillar of modernism according to Pound and Eliot (Rimbaud, Corbière, Laforgue), another poète maudit who died at twenty-seven in 1887. On November 8 1957 Lowell writes:
“Did I tell you I’ve been deep in Laforgue (Smith’s prose and the poems in French); it’s the saddest story since time began; yet as he says contrasting himself with Corbière, ‘I have humor.’ It never leaves him. How few writers are readable after one has finished his Hamlet!”
At some point between May and July of 1883, Laforgue wrote to his sister:
"Je trouve stupide de faire la grosse voix et de jouer de l’éloquence Aujourd’hui je suis plus sceptique (…) je possède ma langue d’une façon plus minutieuse, plus clownesque".
(I find it stupid to adopt a deep, eloquent voice. Now I am more skeptical … I wield my language in a way that’s more meticulous and more clownish.)
To helplessness and determination, modesty and care, hurdy-gurdy and lyre, weeping and laughing, we may now add for good measure, « minutieuse et clownesque », meticulous and clownish. One could go on searching for more couplings, in more poets, until one achieves a critical mass and the whole thing finally explodes with sense. It is one of the countless tempting paths in my dream palace. Another possibility, which should also help illuminate Bishop’s and Lowell’s style and what seems to them both likeable and contemporary, is to take a look at well-known contemporary poets and writers they did not like.
For example, on December 2nd, 1956 Bishop has this to say:
“Also can’t think anything—or react in any way at all, to René Char. Philip [Rahv] asked me to do a review on him for Partisan Review but I had to refuse. What do you think? I SUSPECT there’s nothing in it, as the Hindu said after contemplating his navel for 7 years.”
And on February 2nd, 1959:
“I’d like [Pierre Boulez’s “Marteau sans maître”] better if it weren’t a setting for René Char, whom I really cannot abide—or rarely.”
René Char was not intellectually modest: very few French Surrealists were; his voice is deep, vatic, momentous and premonitory, like a prophet’s, and obscure, like a Greek oracle. For sure he has a comprehensive vision of the nature of the universe: from the stone ages to our time, he proclaims, the history of man has been but a long and sad dégringolade, a precipitous tumbling down. Technology has ruined us and our world. What could save us, or just help?
"Lorsque, parmi nous, se trouve un être porteur de frissons."
(When among us there is a being that brings shudders.)
No wonder that when Heidegger visited France in 1955, he wanted to meet Char most of all, and so we have those funny photos of Heidegger dwarfed by Char under the chestnut trees in Provence. But I should be wary of allowing myself to wander into those gloomy Wegmarken. Let me only add to all this one more telling comparison. On July 2, 1948, Bishop writes Lowell:
“You should like [La Fontaine], in French, at least—so solid, shrewd, tender, unromantic, worldly wise, full of people—hard and soft where he should be—a perfect craftsman. He might be much larger than the other extreme, Rimbaud.”
For Bishop, as for Lowell, Rimbaud’s celebrated “dérèglement de tous les senses” held no more attraction than the Haight/Ashbury scene, and years later they shared a predictable dislike for the Beat poets—Ginsberg, Corso, et al.
Now for Bishop’s italicized space. To my sense, her space is faithful to etymology: it is tension, stretching and expansion, rather than the settling at a fixed place, a standing locus like Heidegger’s Black Forest or Char’s turquoise flowing Sorgue. Bishop had been uprooted as a child, an orphan, taken from Worcester, Mass to Nova Scotia, then back, years later, to a New England boarding school. This pendular motion, this back and forth of the soul upon the globe seems to be a leitmotif of Bishop’s life and art. Her first book of poetry is “North and South,” and the first poem in it, “The Map;” her last book is titled “Geography III.” It must have been day-dreaming at maps that she conceived the wish to sail all the way “down”—into the Strait of Magellan with perhaps a stop at Port Famine, like Darwin, then go on to the Pacific and up all the way to the West Coast. She did make sail in 1952, but stopped her voyage short at Rio de Janeiro, and then stayed for fifteen years.
“I am awfully happy with Lota, odd as it is in some ways, and with living in such a hopeless, helpless country, too,” Bishop wrote on January 23rd 1962, after almost a decade of living in Brazil with her partner, Lota (Maria Carlota Costellat de Macedo Soares); such or similar words she writes on many occasions—Brazil is a disaster, yet she is happy there. She delights and remarks on language quirks: the Brazilian tongue cannot stop at a consonant—so “Nova Yorky,” “Elizabethchy,” etc.; Lota calls psychiatric sanatoriums “Luna Bins” and speaks of signing a “blanket check.” Bishop appreciates the pervasive diminutives of Portuguese and Spanish, rare in English as in French, and playfully addresses the Lowells as “Lowellzinhos”; and how, coming from the awful blackish concoction that was taken for coffee back then in the U.S., she must have enjoyed those Brazilian cafezinhos: the warmth of the demitasse, the warmth of the diminutive, and the warmth of her Lucky Strike. And, of course, the warmth of the Latin-American abraços, the hugs. She acquired a toucan who survived the house cats only to succumb to its master: Bishop was assured by a salesman that a certain insecticide was innocuous to pets, but it killed the bird. Losing a toucan isn’t hard to master.
When she visits the U.S. she’s appalled by “the millions of automobiles on the endless highways,” and concludes: “But I really can’t bear much of American life these days—surely no country has ever been so filthy rich and so hideously uncomfortable at the same time” (August 28, 1957). But surely no safety-minded American has ever witnessed the reckless Brazilian passion for fireworks and firecrackers without being appalled. Every year, on the night between December 31st and January 1st, many people die or are badly burned. May God forgive us, we don’t remember who they are, but we do remember Bishop’s terrified armadillo, and those “frail, illegal fire balloons” rising and steering “between the kite sticks of the Southern Cross.”
Bishop is appalled by the U.S. and she’s appalled by Brazil. With the years it becomes worse; in her letters we get glimpses of the military coups, the wreck and the corruption of Brazilian politics; the American reader should need no reminder of what it was like in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s. Yet few are as sensitive as she was to beauties of gesture, language, creatures and landscape, in both countries. The North has its Big Dipper, the South its Southern Cross—who will decide which is more beautiful, or better? Only silly souls; not her. She must stay torn between North and South. We may say she must feel those lines of force, the stress and strain of the earth’s magnetic field, all over her flesh. Forever? Perhaps, but when disaster struck full force Bishop sought refuge in the North. That the place she chose for her recueillement is called North Haven, in an island off the mid Maine coast, might be ascribed to mere chance; but there is no such thing in the lives of the poets.
In her day silly critics called her poetry “detached,” “cool,” even “eely.” It is saddening. They didn’t know that what they took for detachment was really torment: it was Bishop’s italicized space, that poignant rack, and its concomitant, “a sort of helplessness but determination at the same time.”
He called her Elizabeth; she called him Cal. In matters of taste, I have found nothing in Elizabeth but much in Cal to cavil about. Sometimes Bishop points out to her friend the howlers, most notably in his free translations or imitations from the French, or in his 1973 The Dolphin, incrusted with fragments of letters from his estranged wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, or in his Buenos Aires poem, where Lowell did not resist the trivial commonplace, the obelisk as phallic symbol. But sometimes Elizabeth lets Cal off the hook with faint and doubtful praise, as in her comments on his Heine translations.
In his letter of Sept 4 1957 Lowell mentions two late poems by Heinrich Heine: “Morphine” and “Der Scheidende” (The Departed). About this latter Lowell writes:
“The ending very Jewish and German with its bluster, comicality, clicking sounds, confusion of pronouns is about the wittiest poem I know of.”
A few years later, in Lowell’s Imitations (1961, dedicated to Bishop), there appeared free translations of three of Heine’s later poems: the two mentioned above plus “Mein Tag war heiter” (My Day was Cheerful). Here are the first seven lines of Heine’s “Morphine”, where Sleep and Death are compared:
"Groß ist die Ähnlichkeit der beiden schönen
Jünglingsgestalten, ob der eine gleich
Viel blässer als der andre, auch viel strenger,
Fast möcht’ ich sagen: viel vornehmer aussieht
Als jener andre, welcher mich vertraulich
In seine Arme schloß – Wie lieblich sanft
War dann sein Lächeln, und sein Blick wie selig!"
(Great is the likeness between both beautiful//
and youthful figures, though one of them/
is much paler than the other, and much more austere too;/
I might even say: he seems much more distinguished/
than the other one who used to take me, trusting,/
and enfold me in his arms – How lovingly sweet/
was then his smile, and how blessed his glance! )
This is what Lowell “freely” makes with it:
“Yes, in the end they are much of a pair,
my twin gladiator beauties—thinner than a hair,
their bronze bell-heads hum with the void; one’s more austere,
however, and much whiter; none dares cry down his character.
How confidingly the corrupt twin rocked me in his arms …”
What in heaven or hell could have caused a fine mind to transform Heine’s delicate, ironic plucking of the Homeric theme—“Húpnoi xúmbleto, kasignétoi Thanátoio” (he encountered Sleep, brother (or cousin) of Death)—into a Roman gladiatorial contest with humming helmets and one of the twins corrupt? And what could have caused Lowell to add the trivial thought, “goosestepping,” into the second stanza of Heine’s “Der Scheidende”:
"Der Vorhang fällt, das Stück ist aus,
Und gähnend wandelt jetzt nach Haus
Mein liebes deutsches Publikum"
(The curtain falls, the play is over,/
and now, yawning, they go back home,/
my dear German public.)
“The curtain falls, the play is done;
my dear German public is goosestepping home, yawning.”
About those dreadful translations Lowell writes Bishop in April 1960:
“I enclose a translation of Heine, almost an original poem from three of his. How marvelous to have had a life that could be so written about even in terrible pain.”
To which we can only reply, Ouch. On May 19, Bishop writes back:
“I like the Heine very much. When those dead translations enter the Cabinet of Dr. Cal, they become almost too much alive.”
The editors helpfully footnote: “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, dir. Robert Wiene (1920),” though in view of the massacre it may be rather Dr. Caliban, or Dr. Caligula. Try as I may, I will never, alas, be able to convey my disapproval of a friend’s work, or my dismay, in such witty, engaging and deflecting manner.
My dismay at Lowell’s lapses of taste is not limited to literary subjects. Bishop and Lota smoked Lucky Strikes, Philip Morris or Chesterfields, no filter. Lowell smoked Salems, mentholated and filter-tipped. When in August 1961 Cal goes for a while on the wagon, he tells Elizabeth that at the excruciating cocktail hour he drinks ginger ale and a whole bottle of Welch’s grape juice, to which he has become addicted. Elizabeth judiciously recommends instead tonic-water with lots of ice, lemon and a drop of bitters—
“tastes almost exactly like a gin & tonic. Maybe I’ll bring you some matte, too.”
Matte or maté: here Bishop is referring to Ilex Paraguayensis, yerba mate, the green tea consumed mostly in Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Southern Brazil. Back then, in 1961, it was not easy to get in the U.S.; to my knowledge, only at Cardullo’s across the street from Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass, and at Casa Moneo on W 14th Street in New York City. The latter has disappeared since.
Regardless of maté and ginger ale, worse than Chesterfields or Salems, alcohol was a permanent blight on both lives; in this respect they were not exceptional among the literary and artistic Americans of their generation. In Lowell’s case there was, on top of it, mental illness, which sent him to hospital at unpredictable intervals. For both the worst suffering, however, came from loneliness and divorce, and in this also they were far from exceptional. Their very exceptional correspondence was a conscious, concerted and long effort at a cure.
After Lowell’s death in 1977 (of a heart attack, inside a New York taxicab while returning to Elizabeth Hardwick, his estranged wife), Bishop wrote a poem in memoriam of Robert Lowell, titled “North Haven,” appropriately included at the end of Words in Air.
In Memoriam: Robert Lowell
I can make out the rigging of a schooner
a mile off; I can count
the new cones on the spruce. It is so still
the pale bay wears a milky skin; the sky
no clouds except for one long, carded horse's tail.
The islands haven't shifted since last summer,
even if I like to pretend they have—
drifting, in a dreamy sort of way,
a little north, a little south, or sidewise—
and that they're free within the blue frontiers of bay.
This month our favorite one is full of flowers:
buttercups, red clover, purple vetch,
hackweed still burning, daisies pied, eyebright,
the fragrant bedstraw's incandescent stars,
and more, returned, to paint the meadows with delight.
The goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the white-throated sparrow's five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.
Years ago, you told me it was here
(in 1932?) you first "discovered girls"
and learned to sail, and learned to kiss.
You had "such fun," you said, that classic summer.
("Fun"—it always seemed to leave you at a loss...)
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.
The main theme of “North Haven” is the most traditional pairs of metaphysical opposites: same and other, permanence and change, being and becoming—as in Rilke’s 29th Sonnet to Orpheus mentioned earlier—here brought to bear upon the death and the memorial of a poet. This happens to be, too, the theme of a famous sonnet by Mallarmé, “Tombeau d’Edgar Poe”. I find it helpful to compare the two memorial poems, Bishop’s and Mallarmé’s, if we want to reckon the enormous distance between the styles and spirits. A difference only in part, perhaps a small part, attributable to the hundred years (exactly) separating the composition of the two.
Let us set aside the somewhat outmoded vatic, prophetic image of the vengeful poet, the doomed warrior against the Philistines (even though it was still alive in 20th-century French poetry); the voice of the Mallarméan sonnet resounds as if from inside a crypt. Everything here is dark: quelque noir mélange, désastre obscur, noirs vols du Blasphème. Whether it’s the darkness of the poet’s study, protected by heavy curtains from the timid sun out on the rue de Rome, or the marmoreal gloom inside a real tomb, is of little importance: this is a voice enclosed, cryptical.
Tel qu’en Lui-même enfin l’éternité le change,
Le Poète suscite avec un glaive nu
Son siècle épouvanté de n'avoir pas connu
Que la mort triomphait dans cette voix étrange !
Eux, comme un vil sursaut d’hydre oyant jadis l'ange
Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu
Proclamèrent très haut le sortilège bu
Dans le flot sans honneur de quelque noir mélange.
Du sol et de la nue hostiles, ô grief !
Si notre idée avec ne sculpte un bas-relief
Dont la tombe de Poe éblouissante s’orne
Calme bloc ici-bas chu d’un désastre obscur,
Que ce granit du moins montre à jamais sa borne
Aux noirs vols du Blasphème épars dans le futur.
Bishop’s memorial poem, on the contrary, breathes the grand air. The sea, the sky, the trees and clouds, and above all, the light, make their entrance right at the start. We are, chosen from among the many places of his life, at the place where Cal, as he had told Elizabeth long ago, “‘discovered girls’ and learned to sail”; the place of his “classic summer.” And instead of the Wagnerian triumph of death, of the Platonoid Lui-même, éternité, idée, ici-bas chu, and the trombonic black flights of Blasphemy, Bishop gives us a true, modestly scientific, careful formulation of the grand theme of sameness and otherness, announced by the song of the sparrows:
“Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.”
In "On the Departure Platform," Thomas Hardy said it thus:
"We have penned new plans since that fair fond day,
And in season she will appear again—
Perhaps in the same soft white array—
But never as then!"
In his 1973 History, an avalanche of poems inspired by other poets, Lowell had freely translated—under the title “Will Not Come Back,” included in the Collected Poems, page 514, with no authorial attribution—Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer’s “Volverán las oscuras golondrinas”, where the swallows are the same year after year, and yet are not the same: “volverán … no volverán”—both. No doubt Bishop had read Lowell’s translation, and perhaps they had talked about it. Bécquer, however, the foremost Spanish Romantic poet, does not appear in the excellent indices of Words in Air, nor in the embarrassingly paltry one of Lowell’s Collected Poems.
Above all else, the way death casts its shadow in Bishop’s poem is true to life, while in Mallarmé’s sonnet it is not. It is not true that death, or eternity, changes anyone, far less a poet, into his real self, his Lui-même. For the living will go on transforming the memory, the readers will go on recreating new Poes and new Lowells, new ways of reading them. What is undoubtedly true is that the poet, Lowell himself in the case, will not have the chance of reviewing, deranging or re-arranging, his poems ever again. And she adds, masterfully and between parentheses: “But the Sparrows can their song.” It is the living’s business to effect change—revise, revise, revise; the dead must let the living do the revising, without interfering in the process, however perverse.
To finish with—since we must wrench ourselves off from this substantial dream—a word about the edition. It is superb, a shining counterexample to current editorial practice. I will point out a couple of boo-boos, only to show I’ve really read the book. Racine’s Phèdre is consistently degraded into Phédre. On page 278, “The woman of stone” is given as the translation of “Teresópolis”: it is not. And sometimes, but not too often, the editors let themselves be carried away by helpfulness. When Bishop writes that she has “always wanted to know someone named ‘Featherstone’,” they give us the footnote: “Cf. Miss Featherstone, the stage name of Isabella Paul, British actress who made her name in 1853 playing Captain Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera.” All the same, we owe the editors unstinted thanks.
R. Nirenberg is editor of Offcourse