Read more about DEAR ELIZABETH in The Poetry Foundation's interview "Lettering the Stage."
The great poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell were great friends, and they wrote over eight hundred pages of letters to one other. When I was on bed-rest, pregnant with twins, a friend gave me their book of collected letters Words in Air: the complete correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. I already had a long-standing obsession with Elizabeth Bishop; my obsession with Lowell and their friendship now began. I could not put the letters down. I hungered to hear them read aloud; I particularly longed to hear letter number 157 read out loud. Number 157 is Lowell’s most confessional letter to Bishop, and I think, one of the most beautiful love letters ever written. In it, he says, about not asking Bishop to marry him: “Asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.”
Reading these eight hundred pages, these strands of two lives, intersecting, rarely meeting--I thought: why do I find this narrative so compelling, even though theirs is not a story in the traditional sense? I was desperate to know how the “story” would come out—how each life would progress, how the relation would end. But I also loved how the letters resisted a sense of the usual literary “story”—how instead, the letters forced us to look at life as it is lived. Not neat. Not two glorious Greek arcs meeting in the center. Instead: a dialectic between the interior poetic life and how the pear-shaped, particular, sudden, ordinary life-as-it-is-lived intrudes.
For example, Elizabeth Bishop’s great love and partner Lota commits suicide without much warning. Bishop has multiple asthma attacks, and often needs to be hospitalized for alcoholism and depression. Robert Lowell dies suddenly of a heart attack in a taxi cab en route to see his ex-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. As he died in the taxi he held a painting of his third wife, painted by her ex-husband, Lucian Freud. Lowell had bipolar disorder, and often found himself quite suddenly in a sanitarium. Bishop and Lowell’s carefully built, Platonic poetic worlds are intruded on constantly by the vagaries of life and the body. And through such sudden disturbances, their letters were like lanterns sent to one another across long distances. Bishop lived in Brazil most of her life, and Lowell lived in New York, Boston and London. Their friendship was lived largely on paper, though they met at crucial times in their lives.
Bishop was in New York when Lota commited suicide, and she stayed at Hardwick and Lowell’s apartment. They paid for her ambulance ride through Central Park, a result of a bad fall she took, perhaps induced by too much drink, after Lota’s suicide. Bishop was plagued her whole life with alcoholism; at one point a friend eliminated all the liquor in her house and Bishop was reduced to drinking rubbing alcohol and ended up in the hospital. Lowell visited Bishop in South America and was hospitalized in Argentina for a manic episode.
Their correspondence spans political epochs—coups in Brazil, the Vietnam war—personal epochs, and literary epochs. Bishop observes Lowell’s trajectory as he creates the confessional movement in poetry. I love, in the letters, the extraordinary dialectic between Lowell’s more confessional mode and Bishop’s formal restraint. Her disgust for the confessional, however, didn’t keep her from loving Lowell’s poetry. They both carried each other’s poems in their minds and in their pockets. Lowell carried Bishop’s Armadillo (a poems she dedicated to Lowell) in his wallet, a kind of talisman for how a poem ought to be. Lowell wrote Skunk Hour for Bishop, as well as many sonnets, and a poem called “Water”, about a seminal weekend the two of them spent in Maine.
After Lowell divorced Jean Stafford in July of 1948, he visited Elizabeth Bishop in Maine. It’s a visit they would both return to again and again in their letters and in their poetry. It’s impossible to reconstruct exactly what happened; we know from letters and poems that they spent the weekend together, at one point standing waist high in water, and Bishop said to Lowell, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” Bishop wrote later that they were: “Swimming, or rather standing, numb to the waist in the freezing cold water, but continuing to talk. If I were to think of any Saint in his connection then it is St. Sebastian—he stood in a rocky basin of the freezing water, sloshing it over his handsome youthful body and I could almost see the arrows sticking out of him.”
We know that shortly after that visit, Lowell told some friends he was going to marry Bishop. Soon after, they had a drunken weekend at Bard where many poets were gathered. Lowell was rumored to have proposed to her that weekend. Bishop wrote to another friend, “Saturday night was worst—a really drunken party, I’m afraid, with everyone behaving very much the way poets are supposed to.” In another account, Bishop remembers that she and Elizabeth Hardwick had helped a drunken Lowell back to his room, taken off his shoes and tie, loosened his shirt, upon which Hardwick said, “Why, he’s an Adonis!” and Bishop said “from then on I knew it was all over.”
We also know from their friend Joseph Summers that at the end of the Bard weekend, “He and Elizabeth seemed to be very much in love that weekend. He was saying, ‘Now let me know when you are coming back.’ And she said, “I don’t know.’ “Let me know where you are,” and so on.” Another friend reports, “She told us at one point she loved Cal more than anybody she’d ever known, except for Lota, but that he would destroy her.” And from another friend: Lowell “was the one of the few people Bishop addressed in her poems. She said that he had proposed to her, and she had turned him down.” Apparently her greatest regret was not having a child, and she considered having one with Lowell early on, but worried about the history of mental illness in both of their families.
The gaps between their letters, the mysterious interludes in which Lowell and Bishop actually saw each other, leaves much to the imagination. Their letters are so hyper-articulate that one almost has the impression that no bits of life were lived without been written down. These silences between the letters fascinated me as much as the letters themselves. But rather than invent dialogue for these interludes in which they actually met, it felt important to me to let Bishop and Lowell speak only in their own words. Bishop’s reserve, and her insistence on not mixing fact and fiction, was always with me as I arranged the letters. All the words from the play are taken from their letters and from their poetry.
There are many ways to do this play. One can imagine the full spectacle I have suggested in the stage directions, complete with planets appearing and water rushing onto the stage, as in its premier at Yale Repertory Theater. I wanted to see the images in their letters made three-dimensional, to somehow see the reach of their imagery. But I’m also interested in how much the language can do all by itself. One can imagine, for example, a simple book club version. I saw pictures of one such event in Illinois and was very moved by the simplicity of non-actors who loved poetry reading the letters out loud to fellow travelers. One could also imagine doing the play in a library, at a poetry foundation, or even doing the play on the set for another play on its dark Monday night. You really need nothing more than a table and two chairs for two wonderful actors who could even read the letters straight from the page rather than memorizing them. You might then use someone to read stage directions rather than projecting subtitles.
Regardless of how the play is performed, in a theater or in a room, when I first read the letters, I felt that they demanded to be read out loud, whether by actors or by lay-people. Bishop and Lowell had unerring, consummate ears, and they wrote poetry for a time when Lowell could command massive crowds in Madison Square Gardens, all gathered to hear him read his poems out loud. I offer this arrangement, then, in the spirit of a contemporary hunger to hear poetry out loud. I think we are starved for the sound of poetry. I wonder if Bishop and Lowell are among the last great people of letters to write out their lives in letter form. Their letters become almost a medieval church constructed in praise of friendship. It’s difficult to write about friendship. Our culture is inundated with the story of romantic love. We understand how romantic love begins, how it ends. We don’t understand, in neat narrative fashion, how friendship begins, how it endures. And yet life would be unbearable without friendship.
I see a postman everywhere
Vanishing in thin blue air,
A mammoth letter in his hand.
Postmarked from a foreign land.
The postman’s uniform is blue.
The letter is of course from you
And I’d be able to read, I hope,
My own name on the envelope
But he has trouble with this letter
Which constantly grows bigger & bigger
And over and over with a stare,
He vanishes in blue, blue air.
--Elizabeth Bishop, Uncollected Poems, Drafts and Fragments
“Elizabeth told me about Robert Lowell. She said, “He’s my best friend.” When I met him a few years later, I mentioned that I knew her and he said, “Oh, she’s my best friend.” It was nice to think that she and Lowell both thought of each other in the same way” (Thom Gunn, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop, 244.)
“While we were with her, she managed to finish ‘North Haven,’ the poem [or elegy] for Lowell. She read it to us and walked about with it in her hand. I found it very moving that she felt she could hardly bear to put it down, that it was part of her. She put it beside her plate at dinner” (Ilsa Barker, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop, 344)
“I can remember Cal’s carrying Elizabeth’s “Armadillo” poem around in his wallet everywhere, not the way you’d carry the picture of a grandson, but as you’d carry something to brace you and make you sure of how a poem ought to be.” (Richard Wilbur, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop, 108)
For Elizabeth B and Elizbaeth C as in Charuvastra who covered her typewriter with bandages and typed out all the poetry she could remember when she was far from home
A woman, between the ages of forty and sixty, to play Elizabeth Bishop.
A man, between the ages of forty and sixty, to play Robert Lowell.
For expediency’s sake I call Elizabeth Bishop EB and Robert Lowell RL.
The following words are all Bishop’s and Lowell’s. On occasion I repeated a phrase that they once used, and I often cut internally within their letters. A careful reader can go back to the original letters (WORDS IN AIR: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizbaeth Bishop and Robert Lowell) to see the letters in entirety.
I don’t believe the actors should ever pretend to actually WRITE the letters. They are speaking the letters to each other and to the audience as though they are in the act of composing them. They should feel in the moment of discovering the thought for the first time.
They might even read them from the page at times.
One might use subtitles to indicate the place and date of the letters.
(They needn’t be read aloud.)
A spare set, with two stools.
One record player.
The possibility of the stage becoming, for a moment,
the sea and a giant rock,
and then back to two private spaces for two writers.
Stage-hands might be used to deliver props and glasses of wine to the actors.
FIRST PART: (Water)
46 King Street New York, May 12th, 1947
Dear Mr. Lowell,
I just wanted to say that I think it is wonderful you have received all the awards; the Guggenheim, the Pulitzer, and—I guess I’ll just call them 1, 2 &3…
Maybe if you’re still in town you would come to see me sometime, I should like to see you very much, or just write me a note if you’d rather…
2. 202 East 15th St., New York, NY May 23rd 1947
Dear Miss Bishop,
Sorry to have missed dining with you yesterday, and reading with you. You are a marvelous writer, and your note was about the only one that meant anything to me.
Last night at three we had a fire. The man who started it fell asleep drunk and smoking. He ran back and forth from his room to the bathroom carrying a waste-basket with a thimble-full of water shouting at the top of his lungs, ‘Shush, shush, no fire. Stop shouting you’ll wake everyone up. An accident. Nobody injured,’ until a policeman shouted: ‘nobody injured? Look at all the people you’ve gotten up.’ Today my room smells like burnt tar-paper.
I’m going to Boston on the 2nd and then to Yaddo. I hope that I will see more of you some day.
Subtitle: Briton Cove, August 14th, 1947
3. Briton Cove, Cape Breton, August 14th 1947
(I’ve never been able to catch that name they call you but Mr. Lowell doesn’t sound right, either.) I had meant to write you quite a while ago, to answer the note you sent me in New York, and I certainly meant to do it before your review of my book appeared, it’s too late now.
It is the first review I’ve had that attempted to find any general drift or consistency in the individual poems and I was beginning to feel there probably wasn’t any at all...I suppose for pride’s sake I should take some sort of stand about the adverse criticisms, but I agreed with some of them only too well—you spoke out my worst fears as well as some of my ambitions…
Elizabeth Bishop turns away from the audience for a moment.
Robert Lowell looks up, looking for her.
The vague sound of wind and an indeterminate cow sound.
Robert Lowell looks confused.
Elizabeth Bishop turns back towards the audience.
Heavens—it is an hour later—I was called out to see a calf being born in the pasture beside the house. In five minutes after several falls on its nose it was standing up shaking its head and trying to nurse. They took it away from its mother almost immediately. It seems that if they take the calf away immediately then they don’t have the trouble of weaning it—it will drink out of a dish.
The calf’s mother has started to moo, and the cow in the next pasture is mooing even louder, possibly in sympathy.
I hope you’re liking Yaddo—I almost went there once but changed my mind.
Subtitle: Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, August 21, 1947
4. Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, August 21, 1947
(You must be called that; I’m called Cal, but I won’t explain why. None of the prototypes are flattering: Calvin, Caligula, Caliban, Calvin Coolidge…)
I’m glad you wrote me, because it gives me an excuse to tell you how much I liked your New Yorker fish poem. Perhaps, it’s your best. Anyway, I felt very envious reading it.
I might question a little the word breast in the last four or five lines—a little too much in its context perhaps; but I’m probably wrong.
EB thinks he is wrong.
P.S. I’d like to have you record your poems when you come here. I hope you’ll really come this fall and we can go to the galleries and see the otters.
6. New York, N.Y. September 22nd, 1947
I think I’d rather see the otters than make recordings, but I am quite sure I’ll be there for a day or two, and I’d like to see you, recordings or no.
8. October 1st, 1947
P.S. I’ll have a canary with me…
Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop see each other in person.
Elizabeth Bishop carries a canary.
She puts the canary down.
She shakes Robert Lowell’s hand.
She is nervous.
He puts on head phones and records her saying this poem into a microphone:
“I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all. …
I stared and stared
And victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
She looks at him.
And I let the fish go.”
12. November 3rd, 1947
I’ve at last heard the records and some of them couldn’t be better—Fish and Fish-Houses are wonderful. Since your visit several weird people have shown up here. Major Dyer, who takes [Ezra] Pound ice-cream, was a colleague of Patton’s, and teaches Margaret Truman fencing. And Mrs. Lowell Conger, a mystic and a relative who—but the language fails me, and anyway she’s gone back to California.
Elizabeth Bishop puts on a sun hat and sun-glasses.
13. Subtitle: Key West, Florida, November 18th, 1947
It has been very pleasant at Hemingway’s house but I really couldn’t get to work at all of course and am just beginning. The swimming pool is wonderful—it lights up at night—I find that each underwater bulb is five times the voltage of the one bulb in the light house across the street, so the pool must be visible to Mars—it is wonderful to swim around in a sort of green fire, one’s friends look like luminous frogs. I received a very obscene letter in verse from Dylan Thomas—A Street Car Named Desire is referred to as A Truck Called Fuck. I still think it would be nice if you could visit here sometime—maybe Christmas—if turtle soup can attract you…
14 November 20, 1947
I tried swimming—was nearly drowned and murdered by children with foot-flippers and helmets and a ferocious mother doing the crawl. Then came down with a cold.
Had a fine weekend with William Carlos Williams. He took me to see his old Spanish mother—91—and was like a Dickens character patting her hands and making her laugh saying “Mama, would you rather look at us or 20 beautiful blonds?”
I heard Anais Nin read—pretty thin stuff, though not unattractive personally.
Key West tempts me.
18. 630 Dey Street, Key West, Florida, January 1st, 1948
Happy New Year!
I’m sorry not to have written before, I’ve been sick most of the last month—asthma—it doesn’t completely incapacitate one but it is a nuisance. I am feeling much better, maybe the drugs, maybe two new hats, or maybe just getting away from my friends who are so full of solicitude.
19. January 21, 1948
So sorry to hear about your asthma—how I thank God that my imaginary asthma was cured by a chiropractor.
Here’s my poem, in time I hope to cheer you.
She reads his poem.
23. March 18th, 1948
I’ve read your poem. I like it more than I can say. In fact I can shed tears over it very easily and I hardly ever do that except over trash, frequently, and over something at the other extreme, very rarely. I think one weeps over two kinds of embarrassment—and this is so embarrassing in the right way one wants to read it without really looking at it directly. That damned celluloid bird… I made the mistake of reading it when I was working on a poem and it took me an hour or so to get back into my own meter. There are only about 3 words I’d take objection to, at my most carping…
I’m going back to New York in April and hope to stop off in Washington to see a couple of friends—including you—will you be there then?
24. Washington, D.C., March 22, 1948
I’m delighted you liked my poem. I was afraid you’d find it violent and dry.
I won’t mail you any more poems, if they take you from writing your own.
How would August be for a visit? Do you think you might have room for my friend Carley? Her little boy is here now, an angelic child, I think, and I’m not soft on children.
33. Subtitle: Wiscasset, Maine, June 30th, 1948
I really feel you should struggle against your feeling about children, I suppose it’s better than drooling over them like Swinburne. But I’ve always loved the stories about Shelley going around Oxford peering into baby-carriages, and how he once said to a woman carrying a baby, “Madame, can your baby tell us anything of pre-existence?”
34. July 2nd, 1948
My feeling about babies is mostly a joke.
At last my divorce is over. While I was in New York, I saw Jean—all very affectionate and natural, thank God. It’s funny at my age--all the rawness of learning, what I used to think should be done with by twenty-five. Sometimes nothing is so solid to me as writing. I suppose that’s what vocation means—at times a torment, a bad conscience, but all in all, purpose and direction, so I’m thankful, and call it good.
35. Sunday, July 11th
Thank you for your letter which did me a great deal of good.
It’s very hot today, and I guess I must hike down to that so-called beach and get into that icy water for a while. Having just digested all the New York Times and some pretty awful clam-chowder, I don’t feel the slightest bit literary, just stupid. Or maybe it’s just too much solitude. Wiscasset is beautiful and dead as a door-nail. I think its heart beats twice a day when the train goes through.
I think almost the last straw here is the hairdresser—a nice big hearty Maine girl. She told me: 1) that my hair “don’t feel like hair at all” 2), I was turning gray practically “under her eyes.” And when I’d said, yes, I was an orphan, she said “Kind of awful, ain’t it, ploughing through life alone.” So now I can’t walk downstairs in the morning or upstairs at night without feeling I’m ploughing. There’s no place like New England.
36. July 14th, 1948
I know the solitude that gets too much. It doesn’t drug me, but I get fantastic and uncivilized. Tell me how to get to your house. Are you sure one more visitor won’t be too many? In Maine your friends pour in like lava—hot from their cities. I’ll understand if you want a rest.
P.S. There’s something haunting and nihilistic about your hair-dresser
They see each other in Maine.
Suddenly the stage is full of water and a rock.
They stand waist high in cold water, holding hands, looking out.
She turns to him.
“When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”
She starts laughing at herself.
Suddenly it’s not funny.
He stops laughing and touches her face.
A SUBTITLE FLASHES:
He thinks the question: Will you marry me?
She thinks: What did you say?
The gulls, the sea, and a wave, almost engulf them.
They come up for air.
The water dries rapidly.