Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Odd Couple

If literary correspondence has gone the way of the passenger pigeon, then the newly published epistolary relationship of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop is a prime specimen, preserved behind metaphorical glass while the contemporary cacophony of Twitter rages outside the museum walls.

Bishop (the subject of a post last year) and Lowell (1917-1977) made quite a pair: she retiring, oblique, and lesbian; he irrepressible, oracular, and ambitiously heterosexual. But the two shared not only world-class poetry but also the shifting murk of mental illness. Bishop's mother was institutionalized and she herself struggled with alcoholism; her partner of fifteen years in Brazil suffered from depression and eventually committed suicide some time after the two separated. As for Lowell, while we often hem and haw these days about bipolarity and its nuances, in his case there is no subtlety: he suffered from recurrent, florid, and classically euphoric manic episodes and took lithium for years.

They complemented each other very well as poetic touchstones and as long-distance interlocutors, although Lowell had notions of proposing to her, which likely could have let to a perfectly disastrous relationship. Bishop never alluded to personal matters in her work, but Lowell's opposite inclinations heralded the "confessional" style of poetry. His poetic take on one of his several psychiatric hospitalizations, "Waking in the Blue," is here. Lowell was a mentor and supporter of Anne Sexton as well as she developed her poetic voice.

In what is for him a subdued tone, here is one of Lowell's last poems (he died of a heart attack):


Those blessed structures, plot and rhyme--
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter's vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
All's misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun's illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.

(Funny, how with every passing year, facts increasingly demand their due--even from poets).


Retriever said...

1 is a v distant relative (the genetic and cultural baggage familiar, right down to tormented poets or decent writers.The "and I alone survived" clods like me who are relatively healthy, look after and advocate for the tortured genii and wish we had their talent! Never read much Bishop but this reworking of a child's mnemonic game was interesting: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15210

Anonymous said...

Is there any fiction that can't be atomised into the particles of it's irreducible facts?

Facts dressed up as lies, lies dressed up as facts. Life lies in convenient fictions; art confesses life inconveniently. This is not the truth.