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.

Poets on Stamps

The United States Postal Service has decided to create stamps in honor of some of some of the most influential 20th Century American poets. The list includes Sylvia Plath, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, E.E. Cummings, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Theodore Roethke, Denise Levertov, and Joseph Brodsky (who was actually born in Russia, but moved to the U.S. in the 1970s, after he was exiled by the Soviet government). If you like poetry and haven’t heard of most of these names, pick up a contemporary American poetry anthology or their collections. A lot of them shaped and influenced the genre not only through their poems, but also through their essays on craft.

 

As is, this list stands as a pretty good representation of some of the most influential poets of the last century. I did wonder why some names were left off, though. It’s funny to see William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens pictured on stamps, but not T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the other two godfathers of Modernism. Sure Pound and Eliot spent part or even most of their careers oversees, but they were born in America. I also wonder why Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell (Sylvia Plath’s early mentor), don’t get a stamp. And what about Whitman and Dickinson?  I’m hoping there will be another set of stamps to feature some more poets. But it’s cool the USPS is even releasing this set, which I’ll buy and save once it’s released.