The Book Life

Making Friends with Dead Poets | June 1, 2009

I did it!

…finished the collected letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Words in Air, that is.

It took me four months (800 is a lot of pages, and I am easily and often distracted), so now that I’ve finished, I feel sort of adrift, and abandoned. This large, hardback book from the Worthington Public Library has been a constant feature on my desk since before Christmas.

I read these letters with only the barest exposure to the poetry of either writer, and in total ignorance of their biographies – which turned out to be a fascinating way to dive into people’s lives. There’s so much that you miss, but it’s such an interesting way in. Plus, these two in particular were so in love with each other! And reading each of their letters, I couldn’t help but fall in love with them both, as well.

So encountering, at the end, “North Haven,” by Elizabeth Bishop, in memory of Robert Lowell, after a perfectly cheerful letter from Elizabeth to Cal (as she called him), was somewhat shocking. And then to jump to the footnote and see that Lowell died, in a cab, on the way back to Elizabeth Hardwick, his estranged wife…

well, I read the poem, and tears welled.

You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,

afloat in mystic blue . . . And now–you’ve left

for good. You can’t derange, or re-arrange,

your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)

The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.

The words won’t change again. All of the sadness is right there, in the word won’t, and in the finality of the simple sentence, the ceasura in the middle of the line.

So sad to see them go.

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