The Tortoise & the Hare Redux: Lowell & Bishop

Having finished the letters of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, I feel greatly affectionate towards them both. I can imagine how the plotline would get sexed up, but I’m stating here for the record that I think a future biopic should without question cast Robert Downey, Jr. as RL, and for EB, perhaps Meryl Streep: I think she’s more petite than her outsized talent makes her seem, and, well, Meryl Streep = Awesome.  Someone should definitely get to work on this.

I’ve begun on the poems now. What a striking contrast it is to hold RL’s Collected Poems in one hand, and EB’s Complete Poems in the other! As a result, yes, I do think RL’s output is more uneven, but I’m still finding much I love, particularly his book of sonnets, For Lizzie & Harriet (1973). Maybe I can appreciate them more now because of my own growing family, but his poems from the stance of fatherhood really move me.

Yes, reading the letters first was putting the cart before the horse, but it’s reading the letters that gave me a new appreciation for RL & EB as poets, strange as that may sound, and compelled me to go back to the poems.

Because there’s a lot of poem-talk between them, with drafts going back & forth.  Real discussion ensued RL’s troubling inclusion of Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters in some poems, and my thoughts about this action, which always seemed patently mean, has evolved.

Not that it would be, or is, any of my business, generally, but this was/is an issue 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 vis-à-vis Elizabeth H.’s letters becoming grist for his poetic mill were not made lightly or in spite. And that changes a lot for me, as a reader. He did what he thought the poems required, but not coldly or without heartfelt debate.

I know it should be all about the poems, and when I read a poem, I do try to leave biography out of it. However, intentions matter. If a poet holds certain prejudicial beliefs, I might be able appreciate his/her work, but I’d never admire it in a meaningful way. I’d never be able to carry such a poet’s poems in my heart.