The Elizabeth Bishop Bulletin
Volume 16, № 1 “All the untidy activity continues…” Spring 2010
Review of Words in Air
Richard Flynn, Georgia Southern University
Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008. 843 pp.
The publication of the complete correspondence between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop is a major event that surely has not escaped the readers of this Bulletin. This monumental volume has been reviewed in most of the dwindling number of newspapers and magazines that continue to devote attention to books. Most of that attention has been enthusiastic and favorable, and with good reason—Words in Air is a stunning achievement. It is indispensable even, or perhaps especially, for those of us who have read and reread the late Robert Giroux’s edition of Bishop’s letters, One Art, Saskia Hamilton’s edition of The Letters of Robert Lowell, and the generous selection of Bishop’s letters in Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz’s Library of America edition, Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters. Words in Air is also a reminder of the enormous changes that have taken place in literary culture, a culture those of us of a certain age look back upon nostalgically as the “world of letters.” One of the most enthusiastic reviews of the book, by Michael Dirda, appeared in the November 9, 2008 issue of the Washington Post Book World; this past February, Book World ceased its material (print) existence and retains only a tenuous existence in cyberspace. Now, I am not about to launch into some Randall Jarrell like jeremiad against “mass media”—if I could afford an Amazon Kindle, I surely would have loved to have downloaded the Kindle edition of these letters. But I can’t help thinking that there is an unintended irony to the title, Words in Air: had this correspondence been carried on today, much of it would likely have vanished into thin air. Thomas Travisano with the assistance of Saskia Hamilton have not only made these words available to us, but they have extensively and intelligently annotated the letters so well that I will refrain from correcting the very few insignificant errors I found.
Without words on paper, it is unlikely that we would have the pleasure of eavesdropping on a sustained epistolary conversation between two of the most important poets of the middle of the last century. As Travisano argues in his introduction, “the letters establish not just an ongoing dialogical interchange between peers and equals but a compelling narrative line.” Indeed, what Travisano describes as an immersion “in the quotidian” gives the collection its own leisurely rhythm, a rhythm distinct from the individual poets’ selected letters—and in some ways more pleasurable. Letters that might have seemed mundane or redundant in Bishop or Lowell’s selected letters are indispensable in capturing the flavor of the 30-year dialogue between “Cal” and “Elizabeth.” In the context of their lifelong, intimate, and often conspiratorial discussions about poetry, even previously published letters take on new resonance. For instance, I was struck by Bishop’s disagreement with Lowell’s review of Paterson Book Two in 1948, when they were brand new friends. Bishop’s objections to Williams’s use of private letters bring into sharper focus her later objections to Lowell’s use of Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters in The Dolphin (1973):
I still felt he [Williams] shouldn’t have used the letters from that woman [Marcia Nardi]—to me it seems mean, & they’re much too overpowering emotionally for the rest of it so that the whole poem suffers. I noticed in Eberhardt’s review in The Times he said the prose parts were made up, but I don’t think they are, are they? However—it has wonderful sections and I think Williams has always had a streak of insensitivity. (38)
I was struck by Bishop’s disagreement with Lowell’s review of Paterson Book Two in 1948, when they were brand new friends. Bishop’s objections to Williams’s use of private letters bring into sharper focus her later objections to Lowell’s use of Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters in The Dolphin (1973):
I still felt he [Williams] shouldn’t have used the letters from that woman [Marcia Nardi] to me it seems mean, & they’re much too overpowering emotionally for the rest of it so that the whole poem suffers. I noticed in Eberhardt’s review in The Times he said the prose parts were made up, but I don’t think they are, are they? However it has wonderful sections and I think Williams has always had a streak of insensitivity. (38)
“And then maybe I’ve felt a little too much the way the woman did at certain more hysterical moments,” Bishop adds, implying that she, unlike Lowell, has “experienced absolute loneliness for long stretches” (38). Not only does Bishop’s articulation of her aesthetic and ethical objections to using private letters in a public poem give us insight into the poets’ negotiation of their personal and professional relationships, but her revelation of “absolute loneliness” predates by more than a month the famous moment Lowell was to immortalize in “Water” (1962), when, as he wrote to Bishop in 1957, he first imagined that he would propose to Bishop after she had purportedly told him, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I am the loneliest person who ever lived” (225).
This is a heavily mythologized moment—one that general readers have known about since David Kalstone’s judicious and nuanced account in Becoming a Poet—and I find it somewhat annoying to see reviewers like William Logan playing up the “star-crossed lovers” angle. The totality of the correspondence, I think, lays such notions to rest. While there is undoubtedly an erotic component to all deep friendships, here it is the friendship—both personal and literary that matters. Bishop’s refusal to respond to Lowell’s confession about “the might have been, the one towering change” might be chalked up to her legendary “reticence,” but it seems just as likely that she is merciful in ignoring it, coming as it did on the heels of Lowell’s hypomanic and inappropriate behavior that precipitated Bishop and Lota’s abrupt departure from their visit to the Lowells in Castine. Nevertheless, in later letters and in the successive revisions of “Water,” Lowell does allude to that day in Stonington, ME in 1948 a number of times—and, of course, he is far more obsessed with it than Bishop.
I might as well come right out and admit that I love gossip, and I find Bishop and Lowell’s frequent literary gossip humanizing and enjoyable. While literary historians of our current generation of poets may be disadvantaged by the lack of a paper trail, they may take comfort in knowing that Bishop and Lowell also frequently complained about the blandness of much of the poetry being published by their contemporaries. Bishop writes in 1960,
I get so depressed with every number of POETRY, The New Yorker, etc. (this one I am swearing off of, except for prose, forever, I hope) so much adequate poetry all sounding just alike and so boring—or am I growing frizzled small and stale or however you put it? There seems to be too much of everything—too much painting, too much poetry, too many novels—and much too much money, I suppose. (Although I certainly welcomed mine.) And no one really feeling anything much. . . . (344)
I found Bishop’s insistence on “really feeling” as a major criterion for poetry that transcends the merely adequate somewhat surprising. One might expect Lowell to insist more on “really feeling” but Bishop is consistently more critical of what she perceived as self aggrandizing sentimentality, always wary of works of art in which “emotion too far exceeds its cause. “ “That Anne Sexton I think still has a bit too much romanticism and what I think of as the ‘our beautiful old silver’ school of female writing which is really boasting about how ‘nice’ we were,” writes Bishop in July of 1960 (333). Nearly a year later, she responds to Lowell’s repeated praise of W.D. Snodgrass (“better than any of our other poets except Larkin” ) by citing a negative review by Donald Davie: “The point made is that Snodgrass is really saying, ‘I do all these awful things—but don’t you really think I’m awfully nice?’ This is the masculine version of that ‘our old silver’ feminine thing I wrote you about, too, and it is the vast vast difference between you and one of your better imitators” (359-360).
While some of the gossip might seem mean spirited and overly dismissive (the Beats, Louis Simpson’s review of a life of Byron, Stanley Kunitz and Richard Wilbur are quickly dispatched in one of Bishop’s 1959 letters [300-303]), these judgments are made in private, after all, and they are in service of a joint aesthetic inquiry by two very different poets. Again, it is the difficulty of finding the work of art’s emotional center that unites them. “And now having damned everyone,” writes Bishop, “I feel awfully cheered up—sure that your book will show them a thing or two, one of which is that poetry does have some connection with emotions. And I even think I may be able to write a few simple but gripping lines myself” (302-303).
As much as I enjoy snap judgments and one liners, what really matters is the lifelong support and critical attention the poets gave to each other’s work. Bishop reveals herself to be the more perspicacious critic, often giving line by line advice that is almost always on target. Lowell is more fulsome in his praise and less specific about the nuts and bolts, but this is surely the result of their different methods of composition. As the poems that bookend the collection show, Lowell’s tendency to make a mess, to “derange, or re arrange” (802) his poems contrasts with Bishop’s perfectionism, her practice of hanging her “words in air, ten years / unfinished” (vii). Through these letters, the reader understands much more fully how such stylistically different poets could become kindred spirits. It is indeed a pleasure to read Bishop and Lowell’s conversation, to follow their negotiation of a shared aesthetic that enabled them to encourage each other in developing their distinctive and original poems.
Bishop, Lowell, Bidart Colloquium
Angus Cleghorn, Seneca College & Trent University
A colloquium celebrated Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell and Frank Bidart at the 20th annual American Literature Association conference from May 21-24, 2009 at the Westin Copley Place Hotel in Boston. The Bishop and Lowell Societies collaborated to organize events, which included six panels exploring the study of their poetry — greatly expanded with recent new editions. This exciting series of speakers, roundtables and discussions was capped magnificently with Frank Bidart’s poetry reading on Saturday evening.
For the purposes of this newsletter, I will focus primarily on the Bishop panels, which began with “Re-reading Elizabeth Bishop Through the New Editions,” chaired by Thomas Travisano of Hartwick College. Jonathan Ellis, of the University of Sheffield, England, in “’I’ve typed myself into a fine nostalgia’: Bishop and Lowell Remembering,” focused on Thomas Travisano’s recent edition of the Bishop-Lowell correspondence, Words in Air. Ellis looked at the ways in which Bishop and Lowell remember each other both in and through letters and how these acts of remembering were affected by their different treatment of letter writing as an art form. In addition to this, Ellis also reflected on the positive but at times slightly surreal critical reception to Words in Air, in which the poets’ writing styles were compared to animal activities, and the tendency of some reviewers was to rank one poet over the other. “Bishop’s Brazilian Politics” was explored by Bethany Hicok of Westminster College. Professor Hicok focused on Bishop’s account of her 1958 trip with Aldous Huxley to Brasilia, the new capital of Brazil. “A New Capital, Aldous Huxley, and Some Indians” was sent to The New Yorker but never published, apparently because Huxley did not say enough in it. Hicok contends that this polished essay serves as a kind of companion piece to “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” and a measure of Bishop’s sophisticated dialogue with Brazilian politics. Major poems written in and about Brazil, as well as recently published poems such as “Suicide of a Moderate Dictator” (about Brazilian President Vargas’s corruption) counter the utopian discourse surrounding the idea of Brasilia. Bishop’s anthropological perspective on indigenous people, informed especially by Levi-Strauss, contrasts Huxley’s utopian/dystopian dialectic, and may explain why The New Yorker dismissed the essay. A year later the magazine published “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” which draws on some of the same experiences. Taken together, the essay and the poem show Bishop linking Brazil’s violent historical past to the present exploitation of the country’s indigenous people. Portuguese conquistadores are linked to utopian Brasilia while implicating the tourist perspective relatable to readers today — one that Bishop saw through. In “The Art of Literary Friendship: Bishop, Lowell & Others,” Francesco Rognoni, of Universitа Cattolica, Milan, begins by setting up a number of analogies between the Lowell-Bishop correspondence and the recently published letters of two Italian writers, poet and essayist Cristina Campo (1924-77; an admirer of M. Moore) and novelist Alessandro Spina (1927—). The paper then focuses more on the Bishop-Lowell connection: while Bishop produces only “individual” poems (and, like Campo, is a perfectionist in her published work, but a most prolific, natural letter writer), Lowell, an endless reviser, writes sequences of poems (not unlike Spina, author of a cycle of historical novels). Near the end, Rognoni leaps from the technical to the existential, suggesting that the shape of their respective oeuvres mirrors Lowell’s gregariousness and Bishop’s need of solitude.
Also on Friday afternoon was “Elizabeth Bishop’s Boston,” with chair, Lloyd Schwartz, of the University of Massachusetts. Dan Chiasson of Wellesley College discussed “Elizabeth Bishop’s Boston,” with particular attention to Bishop’s apartment at Lewis Wharf as a kind of living poem, both in terms of its interior arrangement and its exterior positional view of the harbor. Kathleen Spivack, of Universitй de Versailles-St Quentin, spoke of “Talents in a Teapot” — Bishop and especially Robert Lowell as experienced when Kathleen was a student in Boston. Goisa Gabrys, of Ohio State University, Lima, presented “Crusoe at Harvard,” an interesting view of Bishop’s teaching time as somewhat alienated and out of place, after her travels. Friday evening included a wonderful party hosted by Thomas and Elsa Travisano. It was a great opportunity to celebrate the success of the new editions, and for readers, scholars and editors to mingle informally.
The most anticipated event for me was Saturday afternoon’s “’Editing as a Polemical Act’: Editions of Poems, Prose and Letters by Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, 2003-2008,” a roundtable organized by the Bishop and Lowell Societies and moderated by Steven Gould Axelrod. The editorial authorship on this panel is the reason why this colloquium occurred, aside from the original literary brilliance of Bishop, Lowell and Bidart. The major editions published and highlighted here are responsible for causing this resurgence in mid-century poetry studies. From this roundtable it is clear the momentum will continue for a while. First, Frank Bidart of Wellesley College spoke on “Robert Lowell, Collected Poems (2003).” As an editor, Bidart made decisions based on his assessment of what the author, Lowell, and his reputation needed at that point in 2003. Bidart must be credited, then, for the increased literary reputation of Lowell during this decade. Lowell studies are enriched tremendously by “Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (2008),” as assembled and presented by Thomas Travisano. The extensive and generous reviews of Words in Air are testimony to the successful goals set by Professor Travsiano: to enlarge attention on the culture of poetry, art and correspondence in America through an edition of letters that is of popular and scholarly interest. Lloyd Schwartz shares some of these objectives in his and Robert Giroux’s Library of America edition of “Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, & Letters (2008).” In putting together an everlasting Bishop opus, Schwartz chose poems not fragments. He also restored Bishop’s books to the way she originally published them (which included two versions of “Arrival at Santos,” restoring “In the Village” to its central position in Questions of Travel, and restoring “Objects and Apparitions” to its original location in Geography III). Shwartz mentioned the challenge of having a co-editor, Giroux, who had previously made editorial decisions he disagreed with; he briefly touched on his selection of fully complete Bishop letters (although he had originally wanted to include the complete Bishop/Stevenson correspondence), and the inclusion of the most complete poems from Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box.
Alice Quinn, former New Yorker editor, and current Executive Editor of the Poetry Society of America, spoke about the groundbreaking and controversial Bishop collection, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, 2006. Alice Quinn talked about the difficulty of making choices based on what the readership could best see (from Bishop’s almost illegible scrawl), and including successive versions of archival poems. Quinn praised reviewers and critics of her editorial work, such as Marilyn Hacker, William Logan and Helen Vendler, while also revealing the pleasures of assembling a new book of Bishop material enabling young scholars to follow the interpretive trail left in the copious endnotes of The Juke-Box. I, for one, am thankful for such a brilliant, textually-expanded Bishop full of imperfections and desires that enrich understanding of all her work. Saskia Hamilton, who worked with Thomas Travisano to produce Words in Air, was unable to make the colloquium and present on “The Letters of Robert Lowell (2005).” Her replacement was Jonathan Galassi, President of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Galassi was full of exciting publishing information and insights about authorial editorial processes. Of Frank Bidart, Galassi said he was scrupulous about the published presentation of text, unlike Lowell, who was more like a “wiki-author.” Bishop was somewhere in the middle, and perhaps more tentative than her fastidious reputation held dear by traditional readers. This tentativeness is evident in Quinn’s edition. Galassi also discussed the fruitful publications in store at F. S. G.: Lowell’s college “Notebook”; next is “The Complete Correspondence Between Bishop and The New Yorker.” Galassistates that this volume will display “where the rubber meets the road,” meaning that students will learn even more about Bishop’s writing processes, and instructors will have everything necessary in this paperback to teach it right. Galassi seems aligned with Quinn, stating that “some drafts are more important than canonized works to interpret Bishop.” On the question of whether an author’s unpublished work should be left alone after she’s gone, Galassi said that “once a great author dies, she becomes her admirers.” Roland Barthes’ “death of the author” is perhaps not so tragic. Alice Quinn is currently editing Bishop’s “Notebooks” to be published by Farrar. In addition, Galassi promises an “epical” edition of “Letters between Marianne Moore and Bishop.” This magnificent panel concluded that while “Editing is a Polemical Act” upon the actual canon, the potential canon is formed by editorial acts of love.
As chair of “Frank Bidart and the American Subject,”Lloyd Schwartz remarked: “if anyone had told me in 1962, when Frank Bidart and I arrived at Harvard as graduate students, that there would be an American Literature Assoication panel about his work, and he’d be a featured reader at an ALA conference, I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised.” The first speaker, Steven Gould Axelrod, of the University of California, Riverside, discussed “Bidart’s ‘Inauguration Day,’” written unofficially upon Barack Obama’s arrival into office. This poem is typical of Bidart’s complex poetry as its spare language hits hard while enabling multiple readings. Axelrod offered a scrupulous reading of Bidart’s syllables in echo of Civil War Whitman, while rendering the American contemporary spirit: “hope made wise by dread begins again.” In “Frank Bidart and the West,” Jeffrey Gray of Seton Hall University explores the implications of the West, particularly the west coast, in a few poems of the California-born Bidart, who, having “made myself an Easterner,” as he writes in an early poem, has been engaged nevertheless in working out problems of western-ness, whether through autobiographical poems about childhood and California, or through a series of troubled historical personae who are maddened by the givens of their lives—especially the given of the body. Bidart’s poems suggest that the West of absence (a-historical, a-traditional) and promise (of realization and fulfillment) is also necessarily the West of contingency, the place where givens are not as given as they have seemed, precisely because of the western condition as “unstoried, artless, unenhanced” as Robert Frost wrote and the Bidart poem interrogates. Gray’s paper sees the West and the west coast as the place where what Derrida calls “the disorder of identity” takes some of its most aggravated forms, heightening the desire for memory, and driving the “genealogical fantasy” to despair. In “Frank Bidart and the Gift/Curse of Imaginative Embodiment,” Craig Svonkin, of the Metropolitan State College of Denver, argued that Bidart explores a complex mixture of desire for and anxiety concerning embodiment throughout his oeuvre, from his early dramatic monologues such as “Herbert White” and “Ellen West” to later lyric or elegiac poems such as “In Memory of Joe Brainard.” In his dramatic monologues Bidart uses personae such as the anorexic, suicidal Ellen West and the murderous Herbert White as dark doubles to explore personal embodiment anxieties, whereas in his lyric, elegiac poems Bidart explores the limitations and problems inherent in the poet’s attempt to embody people or ideas in language. Bidart thus revises the old Romantic concept of sympathetic imagination into a more complex and conflicted sort of imaginative embodiment.
Frank Bidart stepped up to the microphone to read his poetry on Saturday at 5 p.m. Bidart read from various collections, such as Golden State, The Book of the Body, Star Dust and his recent volume of lyrics, Watching the Spring Festival. Bidart answered many energized questions about the creative process generously and graciously. Thomas Travisano asked an intriguing question about whether Bidart could feel a change in writing in his recent lyric volume, and Bidart answered that the words surprisingly seemed to lock into place on the page as they’d never done before. Ernest Smith ended the audience discussion by saying that he was still recovering from Bidart’s powerful reading.
Laura Menides hosted a champagne brunch for Colloquium presenters on Sunday, May 24th at her home in Worcester. Those present—including Rise and Steve Axelrod, Lloyd Schwartz, Kathleen Spivack, Elsa and Tom Travisano—shared readings from the letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Highlights included Tom reading Robert Lowell on opera, and Kathleen sharing unpublished, “domestic” letters to her from Bishop and Lowell. Many thanks to Thomas Travisano, Steven Gould Axelrod and Ernest Smith for putting together these events.
Review of Degrees of Freedom
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Bethany Hicok. Degrees of Freedom: American Women Poets and the Women’s College, 1905-1955. Bucknell University Press, 2008. 209 pp. + viii index.
Bethany Hicok’s Degrees of Freedom: American Women Poets and the Women’s College, 1905-1955 studies the influence that women’s colleges had on the creative careers of three of America’s foremost poets in the 20th century: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath. Moore graduated from Bryn Mawr, Bishop from Vassar, and Plath from Smith. Hicok’s book is beautifully written and deeply argued; her focus on the college experience and how it continues to reverberate in the poetry of these great women poets is groundbreaking and important. Her study demonstrates how academic communities provided young women with a sense of cultural authority at different times, and in different ways, throughout the 20th century in America. Moore, Bishop and Plath were, of course, highly idiosyncratic poets, but they were unquestionably aided by finding communities of like-minded women during their college years. Hicok demonstrates this fact over and over again in her powerful readings and in the cogency of her overall critical narrative.
Degrees of Freedom is three or four books seamlessly blended into one. Hicok gives us a social history not only of American women’s poetry, but of the women’s college during the first half of the 20th century. Focusing on Bryn Mawr, Vassar and Smith in the years when these poets were in attendance, allows Hicok to create a compelling snapshot of the evolving role of women’s colleges in helping their graduates attain some degree of cultural power, authority, and authorization. The story of the American women’s college in the 20th century is not a monolithic one, nor is it a narrative of unbroken progressiveness. Surprisingly, as Hicok demonstrates, the Bryn Mawr from which Marianne Moore graduated in 1909 was more enlightened in certain respects than was Smith College in the 1950’s, when Sylvia Plath swept all the awards in English. For one thing, in Plath’s day women were under more pressure to marry. But all three poets under consideration in this book shared the formative experience of serious involvement in college literary journals, whether authorized or “underground,” and Hicok does an especially good job of tracing the career-long importance of this early introduction to the ways of literary editing and marketing. The main point Hicok drives home when discussing the role of the women’s college in fostering these poets’ careers is that the college served to encourage literary ambition in Moore, Bishop and Plath. The rest is poetic history.
Degrees of Freedom is most certainly also a history of American poetry in the 20th century told from the perspective of Hicok’s trio of women poets. One of the prime virtues of this book lies in Hicok’s ability to concentrate on the development of these individual poets, especially in their early years, while also relating their finding of poetic voice and stance to overall poetic movements of the time. Hicok never considers her poets in isolation from their contemporaries or their precursors, the former in particular. Hicok’s emphasis on the importance of the women’s college to the belief held by these poets, either ratified by later events, or cruelly mocked, in the possibilities of female community, extends to experiences outside the university or the literary world. Indeed, the experience of the women’s college helped these poets learn what to draw from in the wider world of writing—as well as what to avoid. Community fosters cooperation, but also breeds rivalry. Hicok captures the subtle dynamics of literary relationships in exemplary fashion, for she knows how to balance biography and critical interpretation, moving with ease between the two realms of analysis. Degrees of Freedom serves as a model for the writing of cultural poetics. It might also be thought of as the kind of critical biography that succeeds admirably in the task of interpreting individual poems and thickly describing the contexts of the lives lived in order to produce those poems.
For the Bishop scholar, one of the most important aspects of Hicok’s book lies in its detailed exploration of Con Spirito, the unofficial “rebel” literary journal that Bishop and her circle founded in opposition to the college’s established magazine, as well as the growth of Bishop’s aesthetic during her college years, as expressed in college essays and journal entries. Hicok makes the point that Bishop in certain respects was more advanced in her criticism during her college years than in her poetry—as was true for Moore and Plath as well. Hicok’s archival work demonstrates a number of “teaser” moments in which later Bishop poems seem to exist in kernel form during her college years. In particular, Hicok does a brilliant job of linking “The Monument” to Bishop’s evolving aesthetic credo, demonstrating the extent to which this important (and mature) early poem captures Bishop’s strong preference for the kind of poetry that captures the process of thinking, a feature of Stevens’ poetry that she commented on while still at Vassar. The rich genealogy adduced for this poem highlights its significance for Bishop’s oeuvre.
But the highlight of Hicok’s Bishop chapters comes with her reading of “Florida” and Florida, Key West in particular. Hicok makes a crucial connection between Key West and Vassar:
Florida became an extremely productive site for her poetic production of the 1930s and early 1940s, as would Brazil later. Her community there was very much an extension of the Vassar community she had formed from 1930 to 1934, particularly Louise Crane, Margaret Miller, and Frani Blough. Critics have focused primarily on Bishop’s letters to Marianne Moore during this period, but Bishop’s letters to Blough are more candid about what Florida truly represented for Bishop—at least partly an escape from the sexual constraints of northern (specifically New England) culture. Key West was the “corrupt state,” as Bishop calls it in “Florida,” or as Stevens put it, land of “venereal soil.” (124)
This quotation gives a good idea of Hicok’s strengths as critic of poetry and culture. The claims she makes about the importance of cultural contexts are always backed up by masterful readings of individual poems. And no small part of that exegetical mastery comes from Hicok’s ability to select those moments in the formation of poetic identity that are best elucidated by studying the resonance of the cultural surround. As she demonstrates over and over again in this superb and widely applicable study, the experience of the women’s college played a crucial role in helping this trio acquire the necessary self-authorization to launch their poetic careers.
The Other Life
Donez Xiques, Brooklyn College, CUNY
On February 8, 2009 the Cell Theatre in Manhattan was the site of a splendid reading of “The Other Life: Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell” written by Monique Fowler. With impressive credits in Broadway and Off-Broadway theatre as well as television and film, Fowler has skillfully arranged passages from poems and letters between Bishop and Lowell. In doing so, she has given a distinctive narrative voice to the dynamic relationship between those remarkably gifted poets.
Although the actors sat on stools with neither stage setting, exits or entrances, the magic of theatre, especially in the hands of such experienced actors as John Wojda and Monique Fowler and was palpable. Fowler has drawn on Tom Travisano’s scholarly edition of Words in Air as well as collections of poems by each poet. But the special ingredient that made the evening’s reading such a success was the understanding and appreciation of Bishop and Lowell’s contribution to 20th century literature that Monique Fowler brought to the enterprise. Her enviable achievement lies in her ability to lift the written word from the page and seamlessly transform it into lively dialogue, one so natural that the audience felt it was overhearing a nuanced conversation between Bishop and Lowell. Their struggles and achievements, their self disclosure and their lively wit, apparent in the letters, were tangible in the performance.
During the reading, several watercolors by Bishop and a number of scenes from the poets’ times together and from each’s life were projected on a large screen behind the actors. This added dimension was enhanced by the subtle use of music such as the themes from Bach’s B minor Mass, and works by Scott Joplin. The significance of place which is so integral to an appreciation of Bishop’s work was clear throughout the event.
Mentioning the elements incorporated in that event, however, cannot do justice to the evening as a total experience. Many in the audience remained for the Q & A session that followed the reading and appreciated the opportunity to speak with the actors as well as Professor Tom Travisano, primary editor of Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. “The Other Life: Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell” deserves a wide audience and one hopes this production will soon come to a Broadway theatre.
The Poets’ Theatre at the 92Y
The Poets’ Theatre: The Correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell with Kate Burton and Michael Cumpsty. Date: May 24, 2010. 8:00 at the 92Y, NYC.
In her first letter to Robert Lowell, dated May 12, 1947, Elizabeth Bishop wrote, “I was supposed to read, too, up at the YMHA Saturday evening but couldn’t make it, and I hope my absence was a help rather than a hindrance.” While the poets never shared an evening at the Poetry Center, the recently published Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell makes clear that they shared much during their 30-year friendship. In a dramatic presentation of their letters and some of their poems, Tony-nominated actors Kate Burton and Michael Cumpsty bring that friendship to life.
The Elizabeth Bishop Centenary
The Elizabeth Bishop Centenary is a world-wide celebration of the 100th birthday of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979) to honour her continuing influence in art and letters. Events are being organized in New York City for February 8, 2011 at Cooper Union. Alice Quinn, President of the Poetry Society of America, and Editor of Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, is organizing events with The Elizabeth Bishop Society. We will announce further details as they develop in the coming months.
In Nova Scotia events extend from February to October 2011. Many are centered in Great Village which was her childhood home. The Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia will create and sponsor a number of activities and events, including a short-prose writing competition and a writers’ festival. Many artists — writers, musicians, painters, film-makers, photographers, actors, dancers, artisans, etc. — arts groups and universities in Nova Scotia will create events to mark the centenary. The guiding lights behind much of this exciting work are renowned soprano Suzie LeBlanc and poet and independent scholar Sandra Barry. Both will also be involved in a number of specific events. For more information, see http://www.elizabethbishop.centenaryblogspot.com
ALA Bishop & Lowell Panels – 2010
Hyatt Regency, San Francisco. May 28-29
Robert Lowell’s Friendships. May 28, 9:30 – 10:50
Chair: Steven Gould Axelrod, U. California, Riverside
1. “Robert Lowell, Isabella Gardner, and Others,” Marian Janssen, Radboud Univ., The Netherlands
2. “’Bright and sharp and telling’: Lowell and the Art of the Pen Portrait,” Tom Travisano, Hartwick College
Robert Lowell, Creator. May 28, 11:00 – 12:20 Chair:
Craig Svonkin, Metropolitan State College of Denver
1. “Lowell and the Beowulf Poet,” Thomas Schneider, University of California, Riverside
2. “’You cannot change’: Lowell, Bishop, Bidart, and the Sonnet,” Meg Tyler, Boston University
3. “The bulwark where I stand: Lowell’s Last Poems,” Frank Kearful, Bonn University, Germany
Robert Lowell & Elizabeth Bishop. May 28, 3:30- 4:50
Chair: Lorrie Goldensohn, Independent Scholar
1. “Intimacy and Agency in Robert Lowell’s Day by Day,” Reena Sastri, Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford
2. “Words in Air: Bishop, Lowell, and the Aesthetics of Autobiographical Poetry,” Richard Flynn, Georgia Southern University
3. “Lowell and Ungaretti,” Francesco Rognoni, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan, Italy
The New Elizabeth Bishop: Reading the 21st-Century Editions (I). May 29, 2:00-3:50 Chair: Catherine Cucinella, California State University at San Marcos
1. “Dreaming in Color: Bishop’s Notebook Letter-Poems,” Heather Treseler, University of Notre Dame
2. “Elizabeth Bishop’s Drafts: ‘That Sense of Constant Readjustment,’” Lorrie Goldensohn, Cabot, Vermont
3. “Foreign-Domestic: Elizabeth Bishop at Home / Not at Home in Brazil,” Barbara Page, Vassar College
The New Elizabeth Bishop: Reading the 21st Century Editions (II) May 29, 3:30 – 4:50 Chair: Thomas Travisano, Hartwick College
1. “‘Composing Motions’: Bishop and Alexander Calder,” Peggy Samuels, Drew University
2. “‘An Almost Illegible Scrawl’: Elizabeth Bishop and Textual (re)Formations,” Jacqueline Vaught Brogan, University of Notre Dame
3. “‘A Lovely Finish I Have Seen’: Voice and Variorum in Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box,” Christina Pugh, University of Illinois at Chicago.
|The Elizabeth Bishop Bulletin, a semi-annual publication of The Elizabeth Bishop Society, is edited by Angus Cleghorn at Seneca College, with assistance from Josie Sage.
Elizabeth Bishop Society Advisory Board
Sandra Barry, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Bethany Hicok, Westminster College
Laura J Menides, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Barbara Page, Vassar College
Camille Roman, Washington State University
Thomas Travisano, President, Hartwick College
Jacqueline Vaught Brogan, Notre Dame University