Saturday, February 12, 2011

Robert Lowell's influence on Elizabeth Bishop

Poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop met in 1947 and remained friends until his death in 1977.  These two poets were at the cutting edge of a golden age in literature and they shared their poetry with each other, praising or not praising, always honest in evaluating each other's poems.  They realized  that though they shared many common interests, they each brought something different to the table.  Bishsop's exactness, precision and nuanced observation was something that Lowell treasured.  Lowell's force and directness were traits that Bishop assimilated to some degree.

Both poets experienced trying childhoods that left scars: Lowell was hospitalized many times for his manic depression (bipolar disorder) and Bishop, tossed from grandparent to grandparent to aunt, dealt with asthma and depression and battled alcoholism for much of her life.  Bishop was exceedingly shy; Lowell was outgoing, more famous, and had a huge circle of connections which he readily put at Bishop's disposal.   Both thought of letter writing as an art.  There are over 400 letters between them in the book, Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.

After Lowell's death in 1977 Elizabeth Bishop wrote her poem, "North Haven, In Memoriam: Robert Lowell"
The last two stanzas are:
Robert Lowell & Elizabeth Bishop

Years ago, you told me it was here
(in 1932?) you first "discovered girls"
and learned to sail, and learned to kiss.
You had "such fun," you said, that classic summer.
("Fun"--it always seemed to leave you at a loss...)

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.


  1. I promise not to comment on everything. I love how you're pointing out these literary relationships. It's interesting to me that Lowell is considered a Confessional Poet, but I don't think Bishop is. They went different directions in their work, but had similar hardships in their personal lives. Thanks for highlighting their friendship. -Kate

  2. Kate, we welcome and encourage comments on all our posts, all of Elizabeth Bishop's poems, her influences, and her 100th anniversary celebration.

    It's interesting that she was influenced by these two diverse writers, first Moore, who Bishop said "brought a brilliant precision to poetic language" and then Lowell, who was, as you say the "Confessional" writer. From these two poets she created her own unique style that incorporated both influences.

    Look at this gem from "The Grave" by Marianne Moore:

    "The firs stand in a procession, each with an emerald turkey- / foot at the top, / reserved as their contours, saying nothing;"

    And from "At the Fishhouses"

    "Back, behind us, / the dignified tall firs begin. / Bluish, associating with their shadows, / a million Christmas trees stand / waiting for Christmas.

    And then the last several lines of this same poem are "Confessional."