Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop: A Love Affair of Letters

I used to love to write letters.

I think letters were my genre. I wrote better letters than I wrote short stories or poems or novels or scripts or journal entries.

I thought of my friendships through letters. I dashed to the mailbox each day with anticipation. I wrote letters that passed through days and weeks--full of confessions, observations, pretensions, aspirations.

But I no longer write letters. I'd actually feel a bit foolish writing a letter these days, especially the sort of literary letter I used to write. I suppose I'd feel foolish because all of my friends are on email (or Facebook or Twitter!), and they wouldn't respond to my letter with a letter. They might not respond at all, in fact--unless I emailed them.

I've wondered for a while whether the advent of email would spell the demise of collections of letters between authors or lovers or great leaders--and all of the interesting insights they provide.

After reading the New York Times review of Words in Air, the letters that Robert Lowell and Elizabeth, I think the answer is yes. Email just doesn't quite encourage the kind of luxurious indulgence in self and relation to another like a letter does. There's something about the process of writing a letter, sending it, and waiting for a response--the time and geography of it all--that creates a dramatic tension. And then there is the pen on the paper, the personality of a letter, the pauses between thoughts and sentences, the need to express more than just a passing thought.

Words in Air presents 30 years of correspondence conducted across continents and oceans as their poetry drove them together and their lives kept them apart. What a lovely premise for a friendship of letters--except that their letters also formed a peculiar love affair, a lively collaboration, a critical treatise, a comfort.

“I think I must write entirely for you,” Lowell wrote to her. (Somehow, I think the phrase, "I think I must email entirely for you," seems less poingnant)

Eight years before he died, he wrote, “I seem to spend my life missing you!”

William Logan writes, "Their admiration even made them light fingered — they borrowed ideas or images the way a neighbor might steal a cup of sugar. Lowell was especially tempted by this lure of the forbidden, using one of Bishop’s dreams in a heartbreaking poem about their might-have-been affair, or rewriting in verse one of her short stories. They were literary friends in all the usual ways, providing practical advice (the forever dithery and procrastinating Bishop proved surprisingly pragmatic), trading blurbs, logrolling as shamelessly as pork-bellied senators (Lowell was adept at dropping the quiet word on her behalf). There was a refined lack of jealousy between them — that particular vice never found purchase, though in letters to friends they could afford the occasional peevish remark about each other. "

Sure, it could have all happened online. Except that it wouldn't have, or it would have all transpired differently--with the cursory comments, the tiny jousts and flirts and ha ha's that define email, perhaps even the occasional emoticon, links, tired jokes and YouTube clips.

I'm sure there will be fascinating collections of email, especially since email is so easily archived. Still, something will be different.

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