Monday, July 26, 2010

Dear Elizabeth, Dear Robert

Recently, a writing class that I’m taking discussed Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and when the instructor mentioned in passing that some of Kafka’s best prose can be found in his collected letters, I realized to what degree I’ve been sleeping on all writers’ body of correspondence, having always been more of a fiction and poetry girl. So this past weekend, when rifling around in my book shelves for something to take with me on a trip to the beach with some friends, I grabbed Words in Air, The Complete Correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.

A few hours later, I couldn’t help but marvel at the degree to which the details of these two people’s lives mirrored my own. Just upon reading the chronology I learned that Bishop was a Vassar grad, as were two of my four beach companions, and while I’d always known that Lowell studied poetry at my Alma Mater (Kenyon College), I was interested to read that he had first attended and then left Harvard, the stomping grounds of my beau, small text messages and updates to whom had so far filled my day. Things really started to get creepy when I saw that Lowell also spent a not insignificant amount of time teaching in my beloved home city of Cincinnati. Perhaps most relevant, though, is the fact that it is abundantly clear from diving into Lowell and Bishop’s letters that they were constantly serving as support systems and consolers to one another, and one of the reasons that the my little beach going contingent had gathered was to provide company and good cheer for a friend who had just started the long process of mourning someone he loved. These people were treading on my territory or, to be fair, vice versa.

Moving beyond the chronology and diving into the meat of the letters, what I found continued to resonate. These two individuals who I have long considered gods of the 20th poetry world proved time and again just how human they are. They were gossipy, insecure about their contributions to their art form, full of regret (sometimes regarding their relationship to one another) and struggling with perhaps more than their fair share of demons and addictions. While it is no surprise to find an artistic soul struggling under the weight of psychological struggles or alcoholism, as so many of the greats have, to read Lowell’s very humble and anguished first hand accounts of his struggles stripped away any glamour that I might’ve attached to the dark side of the artistic temperament.

Perhaps it is their very real, very tangible humanness that makes the beauty of the words with which these individuals describe their plights, share their goals, and discuss their art that much more remarkable. Describing his experience in the early stages of sobriety, Lowell quite beautifully and hauntingly writes, “At first one feels removed from the living, that sociable drop gone that makes us all one species, in warmth, weakness and talkativeness. Then the air clears and steadies. I have so many holes in my soul, I imagine that this is the only way for me to go through the rich jungle of New York on my own feet.” Even when being a bit of a gossip Lowell’s wit and clever knack for words shines through, as when he writes, “Lesley Parker is just finishing a week with us, stonelike, sleeping in the sun, full of intense and unreal gossip that tries to be heroically ungossipy.” In what is so far my favorite letter in the compilation, Lowell takes my breath away with his passage about wondering what might have happened if he had asked Bishop to marry him: “I do think free will is sewn into everything we do; you can’t cross a street light a cigarette, drop saccharine in your coffee without really doing it. Yet the possible alternatives that life allows us are very few, often there must be none. I’ve never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry . . . But asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.”

It is probably because of the extent to which I found myself savoring these letters that I realized to what extent letters of this sort might be a dying species, and that the heavyweights of our current literary scene might not have any letters of this sort to be compiled for future generations. In today’s internet centric world, so many thoughts that might’ve been journaled or shared with only a good friend in the mid and late 20th century are posted on blogs, and an increasing number of online interviews and discussions. Further, we’re always available to our friends and family at the drop of a hat should they need to reach us, by text, or email, gchat, or skype. Struggles with issues it might not have been proper to discuss back then are no longer a thing to be kept hidden—accounts of addiction, abuse, and depression fill memoirs and reality shows. Perhaps if Lowell and Bishop were living and writing today, and Lowell was reflecting on having let Elizabeth get away he might’ve confessed his thoughts via what our generation refers to as a “drunk dial”—the tell-all after-hours phone conversation. Lowell might not have needed to unload his struggles with alcoholism and mania in an intimate letter to a close friend—his struggles would be perfectly acceptable to discuss openly with larger groups of people at any time. Even their less intimate stories and anecdotes—such as Bishop’s description of having watched a calf being birthed smack dab in the middle of one of her letter writing sessions--might’ve been posted to her blog, or recounted in an email going to a dozen friends as opposed to only one, since it is now possible to reach so many friends with one press of a button. So much of today’s conveyance of information, thought, and feeling is put out in the open forum, that sacred space like that between Lowell and Bishop seems so much harder to come by.

On top of this, I find that no matter how polished I try to make my reviews and blog posts for this site, or reader’s reports and emails to authors for my job, my casual email correspondence to friends and family takes on a decidedly more casual vernacular, and proper punctuation goes out the window. Is the same true for professional writers whose personal correspondence might one day be of interest?

Or perhaps our devolution to what seems like the excessively informal is just the continuation of a process that’s been ongoing since before even Bishop and Lowell’s time. Perhaps their letters were cutting edge and informal for their time. After all, you have a married man writing his deepest darkest secrets to a woman not his wife in letters laced with intimacy, and often addressing what would then have been considered off limits topics. These were two very gifted poets—perhaps for them casual prose was informal, not matter how poetic it sounds to readers. In one letter Bishop writes, “I started a letter to you a few days ago, but I seem to be having trouble getting to writing anything again, even letters,” as if letters are the easiest and least mentally taxing format in which to write.

Perhaps future generations will see the intimacy between the improperly capitalized lines of our generation’s preferred format and standards of correspondence and find the very human sentiments and emotional battles that lie at their heart and, when reaching out to a dear friend, at least, content will always trump form?

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