Re: Draft of the Week, #11.

I’ve read various poems by both Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, and I have a copy of Lowell’s Complete Prose that, although I haven’t finished it, I’ve read a fair amount of. (I got it for $1 in 2008, what a steal!) But somehow I never realized what true friends they were to each other until last year, when I read all the brouhaha that accompanied the publication of Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.

I at last borrowed a copy from the library last week and am slowly making my way through it, but first and foremost I am moved by the great affection they have for each other on display in every letter.  For example, I’ve read up to 1961, and Lowell is about to publish Imitations, his book of translations.  He sent the MS to Bishop for her opinion, as he did many of his poems. However, Bishop was more than a little ambivalent about this book:

I’ve at last made up my mind to attempt something very difficult. You said “Let me know things you question,” and I’m going to and I pray you will please not be proud and sensitive. I am very much worried by the French translations, particularly the Rimbaud ones. Your English, your force and meter, are very over-riding and of course the meter of the Racine is a tour de force, I think….But once in a while I think you have made changes that sound like mistakes, and are open to misinterpretation. … I don’t want to sound scared, over-cautious, afraid of criticism, but I do want you to keep your reputation for solid, severe, painstaking workmanship. Your star is so very high right now.

Bishop is so manifestly worried for her friend, she writes two letters in this vein, detailing her concerns.  I found it very moving, the care with which she clearly chose her words, how much she seemed to agonize over it all.

I’m about halfway done, and absolutely need to read much more: I requested a biography of Bishop, and of course the poems of each, from the library, with Lowell’s biography next on the list. Does anyone have a recommendation for a good one? It looks like the two to choose from are the Paul Mariani and the Ian Hamilton, and I’m leaning towards the Hamilton at the moment.

It would be lovely to begin the New Year with a brand new draft, but the poem I’m working on right now is, wonder of wonders, a bit long, for me, a poem in four parts, and not yet finished. I could post part one, but the sections really are integral to each other, so I’ve decided that you’ll have to take my word for it: I am indeed writing & being ever so industrious. Thanks for visiting me here and keeping me honest. Thank you for reading, whether you comment or not, and thanks to the legion of other writers in the blogosphere who have immeasurably enriched my life through their posts and friendship. Here’s to another poetry-filled year!

7 responses to “Re: Draft of the Week, #11.”

  1. Awwww, that’s so sweet of her! Trying to critique without being critical. It’s almost romantic.

  2. Yes! They really doted on each other.

  3. That’s amazing! I’ve always overlooked both Bishop and Lowell, and I was really happy to see this beautiful post. I actually had read those translations of Lowell — have you read them? Some are … not so hot. Well, not that I could actually translate them myself and can really talk. But still. 🙂

  4. I want to read this too! I read the review in the New York Times Book Review some time ago, but this is a good reminder to look for it at the library.

  5. I’m really enjoying it! Just the right mix of craft & poem talk, with a smattering of mild gossip, and their mutual affection makes it such an easy read. Highly recommend!

  6. No, Emma, I haven’t read more than what’s excerpted in the letters. But I imagine I will soon, once the rest of the books I requested from the library come in…

  7. […] of ethics in poetry (as EB said in a letter, “…art just isn’t worth that much.”). Reading Words in Air, I could see how RL grappled with his choices, as a poet/husband/father, how his decisions […]

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