Elizabeth Bishop

Poets of the Post

There’s no doubt that Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell were two of the most gifted poets of their generation.  And there’s no doubt that theirs was a long-lived relationship of, to some degree, kindred spirits.  Nor is there any surprise in finding that their letters to each other are well worth reading—as glimpses into the working process, into the world of letters in the first exciting decades of post-World War II America, and into the always fraught and dramatic life that seemed de rigueur for any world-conquering poet of the day.  And Dear Elizabeth, the play by Sarah Ruhl adapted from the letters of Bishop and Lowell, and directed by Les Waters, at the Yale Repertory Theatre, dispels any doubt that poets in their prose can make for compelling, moving and satisfying drama. Granted, it helps to be interested in the writing life, and, perhaps, in the relation of these two rare birds, but Dear Elizabeth’s greatest assets are characters who are articulate about their lives, and a time-scheme that roves through the thirty years—from 1947 to 1977—during which the poets corresponded, finding the highlights that make a relationship a story.  The lifelong trade-off began shortly after they first met and continued until Lowell’s death—indeed, Bishop’s last letter to her friend was in the mail when she learned of his fatal heart attack at age 60 (Bishop, six years Lowell’s senior, outlived him by two years).

Creating theater out of the necessarily fragmented view of a relationship contained in letters is no small task, but it’s aided here by the considerable brio with which the letters were written, and by the fact that there was drama enough in the writers’ lives.  During the period covered by the play, Lowell moved from first wife to second to third, and had children with the latter two; Bishop’s partner, architect Lota de Macedo Soares, with whom she began living in Brazil in 1951, committed suicide in 1967.  And, from time to time, Lowell was placed under care for attacks of mania, while both poets had on-and-off affairs with the bottle.  In Ruhl’s version, all interlocutors are left offstage; this is a two-person play illuminating how, for writers (and their readers) what they say to each other in writing is the measure of whatever happens in the mundane world where real lives are led.

Ruhl’s script carefully weaves bits of the correspondence into a love story of sorts.  After years of collegial affection, Lowell (Jefferson Mays) seems ready to make things more intimate, perhaps even permanent—one of the most naked moments in the play is when Lowell looks back on an evening when it seemed possible to imagine Bishop and himself as husband and wife, stating that he nearly took the chance to propose but chose to wait for the right moment.  Whatever she actually felt about such confessions, Bishop (Mary Beth Fisher) plays it close to the chest, neither repudiating her would-be lover nor giving him any encouragement.  And yet, as played on stage, Fisher’s Bishop seems a woman who, initially, might be infatuated with Lowell enough to give him the impression he nearly acted on.  At times, Bishop’s replies to Lowell, as he exults about fatherhood or advertises a new bride, seem brittle with envy if not jealousy.

Lowell, meanwhile, tends to brood, moving into so-called ‘confessional poetry’ as a means to make his life meaningful as art.  The play gets some tension out of a terse and anxious exchange when Lowell, in his late poem “The Dolphin,” chooses to use excerpts—doctored to suit his purpose—from letters his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick wrote.  The strength of Bishop’s condemnation of mixing “fact and fiction” spills over into what we might consider to be the sacred and private bond between correspondents—whether Lowell and Hardwick or Lowell and Bishop—so that Bishop, we might say, is seeing her own confidence violated in Lowell’s betrayal of Hardwick.  Even more to the point, her harangue at Lowell might extend beyond his poem to Dear Elizabeth itself, where words never meant to be dramatized find themselves become a script.  Whatever Bishop’s misgivings might be, we accept Ruhl’s intervention: public lives are always to some extent theatrical, and those who write must be ready to be re-written.

As theatrical experience, Dear Elizabeth uses scenic ingenuity to distract us from the fact that everything this play means is in the writing, in the fascinating signals, suggestions, confessions, comments, poem crits, and corrections that these two gifted persons choose to share with one another.  Les Waters and Scenic Designer Adam Rigg have concocted some technical marvels—waters flood the stage at certain times, either stranding the two poets high and dry or allowing Lowell to pace about like a lecturer wading into the shallows.  Elsewhere, Lowell, in one of his manic phases, hitches a ride on a crescent moon through a door.  And, in a tableau that seems quite eloquent about the poets’ respective reputations after death, Bishop, saying she would like to write from another planet, ascends on a mini-planetarium while Lowell gazes up at her from below.  Such stunts could be said either to distract us unnecessarily from the main matter at hand or to provide some moments of visual stimulation in an otherwise static setting—the basic set is a stunningly accurate early Sixties-ish “brown study,” lit to give us times of day and projected upon to give us a sense of the outdoors that the oft-traveling duo travel through.  Such effects mostly work and add interest, though that’s not to say one couldn’t easily imagine a stripped-down version of the play, without the Rep’s technical resources, dispensing with special effects and letting glowing prose provide all the color.

As Bishop, Fisher ages well into the part, from bright-eyed and young, she becomes bright-voiced and older.  Her sense of Bishop’s steadiness never really flags, not even when the poet is getting a bit sloshed and an able stage-hand (Josiah Bania) has to come in to relieve her of her bottle, nor when she's forced to type one-handed due to an operation.  We can intuit Bishop’s demons, but, in the letters used here, she mostly presents Lowell with a stoic outlook on her own travails and his, and crisp commentary on the same.  And Lowell is recreated in a spot-on interpretation so close to the original it's magical: Mays wields the vaguely distracted air and the intense glare, the voice of bemused befuddlement delivering choice aperçus, and, of course, his Lowell is readier than Bishop to wear his Weltschmerz on his sleeve, but never—here anyway—becoming tedious about it.

Dear Elizabeth is a wonderful evocation of friendship, of the passion for the word that can unite lives that but rarely shared the same space—a few “interludes” presented in dumb-show capture the sometimes awkward, or worse, occasions when these two geniuses found themselves in each other’s presence.  The play is wise and wistful, and delights with its slightly arch attitude toward persons who, in their rather single-minded pursuit of the art they shared in common, led messy lives they were never done commenting upon.  Ruhl and Waters also let us consider that behind or beside the gimmicks of art, the rhetoric of poetry, and the feints of personality is, as Dickinson would say, “where the meanings are.”

Dear Elizabeth By Sarah Ruhl A play in letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and back again Directed by Les Waters

A World Premiere

Scenic Designer: Adam Rigg; Costume Designer: Maria Hooper; Lighting Designer: Russell H. Campa; Sound Designer: Bray Poor; Projection Designer: Hannah Wasileski; Production Dramaturg: Amy Boratko; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Stage Manager: Kirstin Hodges; Original Music by Bray Poor and Jonathan Bell

Photographs by Joan Marcus, courtesy of The Yale Repertory Theatre

Yale Repertory Theatre November 30-December 22, 2012

Everybody’s Critic

William Logan, Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue, Columbia University Press, 2009, 346 pgs. Disclosure 1: I haven’t read much Logan previously, though I know he is notorious for poking holes in inflated poetic reputations; Disclosure 2: I don’t read a lot of poetry criticism because most of it is ego-stroking blather aimed to curry favor with the poet reviewed; Disclosure 3: I wanted to read this book because Logan includes two essays on later novels by Thomas Pynchon: Mason & Dixon and Against the Day, respectively.

About Logan’s rep: he seems to me to live up to it in this collection of his critical pieces from the recent decade, the earliest review first appearing in 1997 and the latest in 2008.  If you read poetry crit with some regularity, you’ve probably heard some of the best bits, for Logan’s pithiness has a way of excerpting itself into anti-blurbs: Billy Collins is “the Caspar Milquetoast of contemporary poetry, never a word used in earnest, never a memorable phrase”; on Tony Hoagland: “You don’t ever get the feeling that he reads, or is affected by anything he can’t shut off with a remote control”; “Readers adore Bishop and adore themselves for adoring her”; “Nobody does a better Heaney imitation than Heaney”; “Drama queens can be charming at thirty; at sixty, they’re insufferable.” And so on, in reviews that cover front-runners like Robert Hass, Geoffrey Hill, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Mark Strand, Richard Wilbur, Charles Wright, and newcomers like Natasha Trethewey, Cathy Park Hong, and a host of others.  I found myself laughing aloud quite often, which is to say that watching Logan handle the Pulitzer-prized poets of our day and other notables is way more entertaining than reading most of them ("There's nothing natural about Muldoon's poems now--they're full of artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, and probably regulated by the FDA.").  And it’s also true that I rarely found myself disagreeing with him, even about poets I read and admire.  Here’s a comment about Robert Pinsky that seems to me quite accurate:

“Well-meaning, often charming, sincere as a traffic sign, he has all the gifts that education and rationality can provide; but you never feel he’s actually moved to write.” Logan gives us all the “good” qualities of Pinsky while making them seem inadequate for poetry, where the important thing is the passion or feeling that compells composition.  While it would be naïve to suggest that one writes out of emotion (even Wordsworth said poems were based on “emotion recollected in tranquility”), we still have to concede that a problem with Pinsky is how controlled and deliberate it all is.  No rapture, no divine afflatus.

Or, on Ashbery: “when you read Ashbery you have to forget much of what you know about reading poetry.  You have to take satisfaction where pleasures are rarely given and never let yourself wish for what isn’t there. (There’s so much that isn’t there.)”  While I can’t imagine someone saying that “pleasures are rarely given” in Ashbery’s poems (if there’s any poet writing today who seems to live by Stevens’ dictum “It Must Give Pleasure,” that poet must be Ashbery), I do concede that the kinds of pleasures Logan means may well be rare in Ashbery—“so much that isn’t there” (echoing, it seems to me, Stevens’ “the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”) calls to mind the things other poets do that readers of such poets seem to like.  Which is to say that the pleasures of Ashbery are the pleasures of Ashbery; you’ll never confuse him with Lowell, or Auden, or Larkin, or any of the other poets that Logan uses as a measuring rod.

Then there’s this, from the close of his review of the Library of America edition of the complete Hart Crane:

Crane was no innovative genius like Whitman; he was perhaps closer to a peasant poet like John Clare, an outsider too susceptible to praise and other vices of the city. Defensive about his lack of education, a Midwestern striver out of a Sinclair Lewis novel, Crane tried to make it among the big-city literary men, a rum in one hand and a copy of The Waste Land in the other.  Had beauty been enough, he might even have succeeded.

This review apparently brought down much complaint upon Logan’s head, for it’s the only review here that is followed by a response to critics of his criticism.  The objections to what Logan has to say about Crane are easily imaginable—is it worth mentioning that someone is “no Whitman”?  But what’s instructive here is how Logan makes Crane critique-able.  He raises an issue that is often lost sight of when we try to appraise those (seemingly) secure in the canon: how much of what they did is truly remarkable, how much of it achieved what was intended?  Logan’s assessment of Crane—that he was too ambitious for his abilites, that he was out of his league with his intentions, that he was a writer of gorgeous lines rather than completely satisfying poems—is accurate, as far as it goes.   And that’s far enough to offset the outrageous claims for Crane as one who achieved more than he did.  But, though I’m sympathetic to Logan’s effort to be even-handed here (and entertaining—that rum and Eliot remark is funny but also sadly true: you don’t become the next Eliot by worrying so much about the current Eliot, and drinking to escape your inadequacies), I also find his appraisal to be ungenerous, not simply to Crane, but to the value of beauty in poetry.  No, it’s not enough simply to be gorgeous, but Crane, arguably, is never simply gorgeous—the beauty he courts comes, when it does, at considerable risk, costing, it may be, “not less than everything”—including the kind of sense that Logan would like more of.

And it’s here that I can say I grew tired of Logan when read at such length.  If we find it hard to imagine Pinsky being moved to write, we also find it hard to imagine Logan ever being transported by the pleasures of poetry, or simply overwhelmed by beauty.  Logan is Lowellian, it seems, and that puts him off to the side of the leading taste of our day, I’d say, but I share his admiration for Life Studies and feel it’s the rare poet who can achieve as much as Lowell does in such deceptively simple diction.  But the chaos and crazed ambition that lurk everywhere in Lowell’s work inspire, it seems to me, a bit more acceptance of a poet like Crane who wrestles with many of the same problems—a Lowell who never got from Lord Weary to Life Studies, let’s say.  Logan, as a critic, is too-much enamored of his Johnsonian parallels—reading Logan’s criticism at length makes one feel trapped in an apothegm factory—and too-little concerned with poems as affective experience (which requires, I’d suggest, assuming a bit more what the poem assumes).

But, that said, Logan is to be praised for doing what he does with such aplomb, wit, and succinctness.  The book opens with a reflective essay on his work as a critic, “The Bowl of Diogenes; or, The End of Criticism,” where Logan claims that the critic’s “besetting vice is generosity,” so I suppose it’s pointless to rebuke him for showing too little vice, and the essay is valuable for showing what Logan thinks of criticism, which he seems to regard as largely a necessary vice.  How else to decide what is worth our time?  We can’t read everything, so we look to critics to give us some idea of what we’re missing, maybe making claims that send us to things we’d otherwise avoid or convincing us to avoid something we’d otherwise waste time with.

In an interview included here, Logan, a poet, modestly refuses to claim company with grander poet/critics (such as Eliot and Jarrell), and that seems more than fitting.  Logan, as critic,  has the assured and captious tone of the entertaining friend one values for his ability to find fault with disarming confidence.  One rarely feels antagonized by his pronouncements, and even more rarely does one feel challenged to delve more deeply into his meaning.  His is the strength of the surface assessment; it’s often enough for him to quote a few damning lines of a lackluster poem to convince us that poetry is often simply the name for willful idiosyncracy in writing, but the effect is more like punching buttons on a radio to see if one catches a sound that will make one stay and listen.  Logan gives us a pretty good idea of what he’s hearing, but apparently doesn’t feel he has to bother to spell out what he’s listening for—which Eliot and Jarrell were not so reticent about.

And what about the Pynchon reviews?  I was pleased to find that Logan admires the audacious pleasures of Pynchon’s style, though as critic he also has to provide a caveat (on Mason & Dixon): “This intensity of imagery, this continual and immodest word-by-word invention, ruptures the plain understandings most fiction now requires.”  And this assessment comes fully informed by the challenges even a sympathetic reader of Pynchon is apt to find: “Joyce and Proust offered character in lieu of plot, and many novelists substitute plot in lieu of character.  It’s difficult for a novel, even a novel everywhere touched by brilliance, to offer so little of either.”  And Logan is even less accepting of Against the Day (as were most).  The point, we might say, contra this judgment, is that a writer like Pynchon wants us to get out of the habit of thinking in terms of plot and character as the mainstays of what the fictive reading experience offers, and I would like to think that dedicated readers of Pynchon have done so.  And yet there is much justice in Logan’s assessment, but, as is often the case when one tries to hold the willfully slippery still long enough to deliver one’s plodding objection, his criticism boils down to wanting Pynchon to stop goofing around and simply give us the story.

Pynchon may have conceived Mason & Dixon as a supreme fiction, a poetic act freed of the slavery of plot and character; but conventions are cruel to those who betray them.  As his stand-up comedy becomes merely a seven-hundred-page improvisation, the jokes grow hollow as the Earth itself.  Here Pynchon’s poetics have seduced him: it hardly matters if most poems mean what they say.  Poetry is the saying, but fiction (the drama, the action, the consequence, the regret) is the having said.

As a statement this can’t be argued against (except that M&D is the one Pynchon novel where “the regret” becomes palpable in the character of Mason).  But IF M&D is a seven-hundred-page improv, then it’s all about the jokes and that might well grow tedious, but what’s at issue is what Pynchon is joking about (the thematics of the work) and part of what he’s joking about are the very conventions that, to Logan’s mind, he has “betrayed.”  But is mocking, lampooning, satirizing, tickling, poking, needling, and slapping in the face with a custard pie the same as “betraying”?  And, while it may sound wonderfully Johnsonian to say "poetry is saying and fiction the having said," it only makes sense to the degree that poetry is a form valued for its immediacy and fiction a form valued for its ability to impose order on what has occurred.  But poetry’s order and fiction’s order are likewise impositions, the more so when convention becomes determinate for what can be said or shown.  Logan wants more matter, less art, and certainly understands that Pynchon writes from a perspective in which that distinction becomes indistinct.   No one can fault a critic for saying "something too much of this," and Logan earns respect for reading Pynchon carefully; if at times he sounds like a school teacher trying to hold his most irreverent student to the standard of his "best students," so be it.

Again, there is no deficiency in Logan’s position, it simply isn’t one that best serves the work under discussion.  If poetry is the saying, and fiction the having said, I suppose that criticism is having one’s say.  If not always saying much, Logan’s say is always well-said, and that’s saying something.

May I ask...

I’ve recently received the four volume set of The Paris Review Interviews. These books, colorful inside and out, are a pleasure to look through and laugh or cringe at the pith and wit of the 20th century’s best writers. Here are some noteworthy excerpts from my morning skim: Interviewer: Are there any authors you’d like to have known but haven’t? Harold Bloom: No. I should like to have known fewer authors than I have known, which is to say nothing against all my good friends. Interviewer: Are there any characters you would like to have known? Harold Bloom: No, no. The only person I would like to have known, whom I have never known, but it’s just as well, is Sophia Loren.


Interviewer: Do you ever think about where your creations are coming from while you’re in the process of writing? Stephan King:Once in a while, something will declare itself so obviously, that it’s inescapable. Take the psychotic nurse in Misery, which I wrote when I was having a tough time with dope. I knew what I was writing about. There was never any question. Annie was my drug problem, and she was my number one fan.

* Interviewer: Was your adolescence a calmer time?

Elizabeth Bishop: I was very romantic. I once walked from Nauset Lighthouse-I don’t think it exist anymore-which is the beginning of the elbow (of Cape Cod), to the tip, Provincetown, all alone. It took me a night and a day. I went swimming from time to time but at that time the beach was absolutely deserted. there wasn’t anything on the back shore, no buildings. *

Interviewer:Have you ever drawn from those years (childhood) for story material?

Dorothy Parker: All those writers who write about their childhood! Gentle God, if I wrote about mine, you wouldn’t want to sit in the same room with me. Interviewer:What, then, would you say is the source of most of your work? Parker: Need of money, dear. Interviewer: And besides that? Parker:It’s easier to write about those you hate-just as it’s easier to criticize a bad play or a bad book.


Interviewer: What tools do you require? Ted Hughes: Just a pen. Interviewer: What do birds mean for you? The figures of the hawk and the crow-so astonishing. Are you tired to death of explaining them? Hughes: I don’t know how to explain them. There are certain things that are just impressive, aren’t there? One stone can be impressive and the stones around it aren’t. It’s the same with animals. Some, for some reason, are strangely impressive. They just get into you in a strange way...


Interviewer: a Blackjack? Jack Kerouac: It’s a blackjack. Bill says, “I pulled out my underneath drawer, and underneath some nice shirts I pulled out my blackjack. I gave it to Danny and said, ‘Now don’t lose it, Danny’-Danny says, ‘Don’t worry I won’t lose it.’ He goes off and loses it.” Sap...blackjack...that’s me. Sap...blackjack. Interviewer:That’s a haiku: Sap, blackjack, that’s me. You better write that down. Kerouac: No.