Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell
edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $45)
They met at a New York City dinner party in 1947. Elizabeth Bishop, 37, had just published her first book of poetry, North & South. Robert Lowell, 30, was about to win a poetry Pulitzer for Lord Weary’s Castle. “I loved him at first sight,” Bishop wrote later. “It was the first time I had ever talked to someone about how one writes poetry.” There was nothing typical about the 30-year romance that sprung up between the two. It was carried on mostly from a distance—and mostly in witty, astute, exuberant letters. Lowell once confessed to Bishop that his failure to propose to her one day in Maine represented “the might-have-been for me.” Bishop suggested he get a new shrink.
Words in Air may be the first book ever to capture “the lifelong correspondence of two artists of equal genius,” said Dan Chiasson in The New Yorker. Lowell was a towering figure in American poetry when he died, in 1977. Bishop’s reputation has only grown since she followed two years later. When the two wrote to each other, they enjoyed showing off their talent with words even when they were being most candid, and “the result is exhilarating, consistently so, for hundreds of pages at a time.” Of course, even 800 pages of charming interplay can get “a little wearing,” said Julie Phillips in The Village Voice. But this is a book “you can dip into at any point and come out with a gem of insight or observation.”
“Some of the most interesting pages in Words in Air are shoptalk,” said Christopher Benfey in The New Republic. While Bishop and Lowell are often generous in assessing their literary peers, there are exceptions. Lowell at one point notes that Allen Ginsberg and two other Beat poets had “made a lot of publicity out of very little talent.” But gossip isn’t the principal joy, said Jeff Simon in The Buffalo News. When a collection of letters works as well as this one, it’s like a novel about two people in which the author is God and the “narrative line is life itself.”