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.

Rita Dove Talks 20th Century American Poetry

Rita Dove, one of my favorite contemporary American poets, former U.S. Poet Laureate, and author of Thomas and Beulah, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, recently sat down with journalist Bill Moyers to talk 20th Century American poetry. Dove recently edited The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. In the interview, Dove talks with Moyers about some of the selections in the book, which include some of the most well-known poems of the last 100 years, including T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Lucille Clifton’s “Homage to My Hips,” and some lesser known selections.

The interview is worth a watch and can be seen here. I love Dove’s readings of some of the poems in the collection, including one of her own. I also like her commentary on some of the poems, including Eliot’s “Prufrock” and all of the uncertainty and dread the poem captured about entering a new century. The interview also features archived clips of some of the anthology’s poets reading their work, including Lucille Clifton and Stanley Kunitz, both deceased now.


Dove was also asked what she would do if she was made director of education for the United States. She replies that she would make teachers end the day by reading one poem. Students would not have to analyze the poem, but simply listen to it. That way, poems will become a greater part of their lives and they will get accustomed to listening to poetry daily. Pretty good idea, eh?

If you aren’t familiar with 20th Century American Poetry, and its different movements, everything from Modernism to the Harlem Renaissance to Confessionalism to Neo-Formalism, then you should consider picking up Dove’s collection because it does seem like she did a good job selecting poems that accurately represent the most important poetic movements of the last 100 years. The only other anthology I can think of that did so is 20th Century American Poetry, edited by  Dana Gioia, Dave Mason, and Meg Schoerke. But Dove’s collection may be a little more diverse.