To read Bishop’s letters on the heels of the public prose is to shift abruptly from the achieved personal impersonality of the most crafted literature into relaxation of the emphatically personal. I don’t mean “personal” in terms of contents but in terms of address. A poem or an essay is intransitive; it aspires to a universalized reader sensibility. A true letter, no matter how carefully written, is never anything but a one-to-one transitive document. These letters are of interest — how could they not be? — yet they also are valuable not only for the characteristic grace of expression but for the glimpses they offer of a literary time and place. Recipients include Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, Frank Bidart, May Swenson, and editor Schwartz. Bishop comes across as a vigilant, sensitive, engaged correspondent, not afraid to offer literary opinions, or, when need be, to set an editor straight (as a four-page itemized response to an article about her work in the journal Salmagundi attests). Whether a canon-making volume like this needs to reprint letters when they exist in a substantive separate volume is another question.
Finally, Schwartz and Giroux have provided a richly annotated chronology of the poet’s life, almost a mini-essay in itself. Reading it in conjunction with the selections, which are arranged chronologically within their respective genres, we partake in the densely woven to-and-fro between the art and the life. To close the book is to realize how the former has now fully absorbed the latter.
“CELEBRATING ELIZABETH BISHOP” | Lloyd Schwartz et al. reading from her work | MIT Room 6-120, 77 Mass Ave, Cambridge | March 6 at 7 pm | 617.253.7894
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