The Letters

In the age of social media, we’ve forgotten about the art of writing letters. As a way to honor that art form, I’ve added several collections of letters by poets to my summer reading list. Currently, I’m reading Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. The collection is an 800-words opus, but it is well worth the time for anyone interested in 20th Century American poetry. The letters begin early in Bishop and Lowell’s career, when Lowell was being mentored by William Carlos Williams. What I especially like about the collection is Bishop and Lowell’s comments on American poetry giants. Lowell refers to Williams’ third book of Patterson as “the best poetry written by an American.” He later refers to Theodore Roethke as large, but “elfinlike” man, a poet who began every day with “a shot of bourbon.”

The letters grow haunting in tone by the period of the 1960s, when Lowell remarks on the assassination of J.F.K. and describes staying inside all day, crying, watching the news. This is the same decade when many of Lowell and Bishop’s contemporaries died. After Randall Jarrell died from walking in front of a car, which Lowell and many others suspected was a suicide, he writes, “Oh, but he was an absolutely gifted, and noble man, poisoned and killed, though I can’t prove it, by our tasteless, superficial, brutal culture.”

They also have several letters back and forth about Sylvia Plath’s suicide and John Berryman’s suicide. Bishop refers to Plath’s death as “a tragic loss,” but then admits she can “scarcely bear to read her poems through, they are so agonized.” She also refers to Plath’s work as a bit formless, but “really a talent.” Bishop is less kind to Anne Sexton’s poetry.

The letters include a lot of funny moments too, especially Bishop’s complaints about teaching at Harvard and other schools. She gripes about the creative writing students refusing to read and wanting to tell her about their LSD trips. Then she complains that their poems are “competent and so DULL,” before joking that she’ll issue “dexedrine or pot.”

Words in Air is a great account of American poetry in the 20th Century, especially in the 1950s-1970s, the peak of Bishop and Lowell’s careers. The letters offer detail about their relationships with some of the most prominent poets of the last 100 years, and insights into their writing and revision process, their struggles with alcoholism and mental breakdowns, and the loss of their contemporaries. If you are interested in that period of American poetry, I also recommend the memoir Poets in Their Youth by Eileen Simpson, which recalls the tumultuous years she was married to Berryman. The book offers a fascinating perspective into the relationship among Lowell, Berryman, Jarrell, and Delmore Scwhartz, and like Words in Air, it is a reminder of a time when poetry occupied a larger space in the public sphere.

Next up, I plan to read the collection of letters from T.S. Eliot, published about a year ago.

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