"Stamps are the Flags of My Small Country": Poets Writing Letters
Poets operate in the most elevated literary language, words that are, as Ezra Pound said, "charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree." At a slightly lower register are prose artists, less intense than versifiers but still seeking maximum valence from each phoneme, every unit of punctuation. At the lowest level, the deep sea divers of literature, are the letter-writers: self-conscious but more relaxed; studied yet supple and limber; espousing awareness but less harried by the punitive superego of style.
It so happens that poets are our best literary correspondents: better producers of missives than they are of memoirs or essays or criticism. The greatest example, of course, was John Keats, a man who not only produced a body of brilliant verse by the time of his death at 24, but also letters that created seismic shifts in the critical canon, with concepts like "Negative Capability" and "Cold Pastoral." Like Chekhov’s stories, these letters struck deep in the hearts of readers, and produced there a profound, ineffable alteration. People have been waiting for another Keats since his death in 1820, and may well have to wait forever. There was Dr. Johnson, accomplished with letters but not really a poet. There was Coleridge, sharing genres with Keats but with a longer life span, and so slightly less deserving of our amazement.
"Letters," Janet Malcolm has written, "are the great fixative of experience. Time erodes feeling. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to us that we once cared." Letter writing is also, to state the obvious, becoming a lost art in the age of e-mail, of everything Electronic. Hemingway famously said it was gratifying to write letters because "it is fun to get letters back." (Brad Leithauser wrote a great poem out of this quote alone.) When I wished to write for this publication, I proposed it to the editor in an old-fashioned paper letter. Sure enough, she wrote back, a little bewildered but delightfully grateful at the anachronism. And we were off to the races, or at least to the inkwell.
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People my age began college in the Sylvia Plath Era (early '70s), and her widower Ted Hughes was almost daily burned at the stake by well-meaning but single minded feminist critics. What remained lost to so many was his being the closest thing to a contemporary English poetic genius, second only perhaps to the younger Seamus Heaney and the still-living Larkin and Auden. He was clearly the greatest nature poet in the language since Lawrence. His hawk and vulture series are the gold standard of bestiary verse cycles, and he unashamedly explored that richest and most mystical terrain of animal consciousness, which he believed held the secret of human hatreds. One of the 1973 vulture poems has the ancient bird addressing Prometheus: "Today is a fresh start/Torn up by its roots/As I tear the liver from your body."
What is amazing in Hughes is how much of his primal, blood-moon, psychically violent poetic treatments receive their first blueprints in missives to fellow artists and friends. Christopher Reid has taken 2500 pages worth of letters, stretching through five of Hughes’s seven lived decades, and pared them mercifully down to about 750. Like Robert Graves, to whom some of the original group may have been addressed, Hughes was drawn to highly complex symbolic structures. Where the gyre system of Yeats was crafted from unearthly, intersecting abstractions, Hughes got his pastiche of shamanism and the group unconscious from the foul rag and bone shop of the British countryside.
This comes across in the letters he wasn’t forced to write, but felt obliged to, to the Queen Mother when he was serving as Poet Laureate. Hughes draws soaring, Blakean diagrams on the etymology of the Queen Mum’s name, with foxes and owls and meandering limbs of diagrammed sentences one can only imagine her nodding over after her legendarily copious bedtime gin and tonics. And much like a shaman, Hughes saw the poet as a healer, a bearer of medicinal powers that found tap-roots in ancestral magic and undiluted beauty rather than must-infested deities.
The letters well chronicle the war of imaginative systems Hughes maintained with critics and fellow symbol hunters and gatherers. After his virtually unreadable book on Shakespeare’s mimetic structures, Hughes answered pans of his tome with observations that "King Lear was the Llud who was Bran," and "Apollo, Asclepius and Bran were Crow Gods." Of course, he signed himself onto whatever lineage this was with declarations that "My hawk is the sleeping, deathless spirit of Arthur/Edgar/Gwyn/Horus -- the sacrificed a reborn self of the great god Ra." Sensing our need for reassurance with these references and correspondences, he concludes "I don’t just jot these things down, you know." Fine, but we still don’t get most of the allusions without annotation, something we are not used to in his kind of especially accessible "earth poetry."
There is enough mention of Plath and his subsequent wife, Assia Wevill [her "thickened mongol-tent of hair"] to keep the gossipers happy. (Upon learning that Wevill also put her head in an oven and brought their drugged toddler with her, an undergraduate friend of mine titled a freshman composition "Ted Hughes: Bad Luck With Girls.") Hughes states that Plath biographies are "a perpetual smoldering in the cellar for us; there’s always one or two smoking away." He could never acclimate to such deeply personal, life-altering errors of his becoming "public domained," and saw, as one commentator has it, the Plath brigade as ravening dogs and hyenas battening off the cornucopia of her dead body. But guarded as he was with his (their) children, shielding them from the perpetual fallout of her suicide, his best treatment of his marriage with Plath is not found here but rather in the masterful, late-released collection called, ironically, Birthday Letters.
The gems here are notes on poetic technique and academic stress relief dashed off to fellow artists: discussions of scansion with Robert Lowell, of the religious impulse with the diehard, crankily atheistic Larkin, and the simple peace of fishing and "lake-wandering" with younger, later friends like the novelist Graham Swift. These letters, as much as his poems, are filled with what replenished his energy: the stench and texture of animals and their unknowable, strangely imagined homes; the ululation of bird-crowded, piping orchestral forests; the sensation of teetering in a boat barely big enough to contain his giant frame, the line for his next idea laying slack on the lee water, waiting to stiffen with a strike.
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Sometimes the imagined, hypostasized recipient of a letter may bear little resemblance to the actual person who opens it. And sometimes correspondents have the power to change the exchangers of letters into something much closer to what their mutual readers wish them to be. Words in Air: The Collected Letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, shows how much one can like the idea of someone better than the someone themselves, and how the fantasies built up by distance make for ravishing letters but greatly disappointing eventual meetings.
Each of these poets had numerous literary friends and spouses, but the closest to each were architects and novelists, leaving them with one another to bounce off ideas and supply suggested revisions. Accordingly, they were ferociously drawn to one another, and their exchange never faltered in three decades. All this survived mutual alcoholism, moral recriminations, and public scandals involving the major literary figures of our age. More than anything, each emerged from violently haphazard childhoods and needed, quite desperately, to be taken care of. They were one anothers’ epistolary saviors, one thinks, largely because they never had to confront the glaring, painful mirror of frequently encountering one another. Yet their constant, mutual introduction was like a perpetual parting, and in that way a kind of unreal, infatuated affection. "Love and death are made of the same stuff," Jeanette Winterson has written: "[T]he moment of finding that you love someone is like the moment of knowing you will never see them again; its clarity is dazzling, and it alters everything -- not just everything that will come after, but everything that has gone before."
Again, letters gave each of these poets discursive freedom from poetry’s formalism. Bishop lived in Brazil and could speak English with few others on a daily basis: "Oh dear -- now I don’t want to stop talking." She says at the beginning of one letter, "so I’ll write two -- or 200 -- more sentences on this page." Lowell was often recovering from a manic swing or depressive breakdown, unsteady on his poetic feet and needing prose exercise to ease himself back into rarefied language.
The exchanges are almost constantly humorous and entertaining. This is partly because their authors are conscious of the special role of letters in literary life. Bishop offered a course at Radcliffe in 1971 on "Personal Correspondence, Famous and Infamous," and wrote to Lowell the year before that "[A] very good course could be given on poets and their letters -- starting away back. There are so many good ones -- Pope, Byron, Keats of course, Hopkins, Crane, Stevens, Marianne [Moore]."
Many of Lowell’s longer letters are hilarious comedy-of-manners send-ups of illustrious contemporaries and skewered, crank ancestors. There were Bishop’s grim Nova Scotian parents, who gave her up, and their equally strange extended family and neighbors who took her in. Lowell was the quintessential American literary blueblood, unafraid of presenting his famous aunts and uncles as an abundant aviary, unfit not only for the practical world but also for their own self-created, eccentric atmospheres. He was a lost child among constantly aging yet seemingly pastless people. Living relics rolled their wheelchairs through the halls of Beacon Hill houses, weaving him into their underworld of shades, calling him by the names of the dead.
As one would expect, the finest portraits are of literary contemporaries, or -- even better -- revered demi-gods finally befriended and presented as emperors with no clothes. Lowell stays in the London flat of a former professor who he had deified, the magisterial William Empson of Seven Types of Ambiguity:
Each room is as dirty and messy as Auden’s New York apartment. Strange household: Etta Empson, six feet tall, still quite beautiful, five or six young men, all sort of failures at least financially, Hetta’s lover, a horrible young man, dark cloddish, thirty-ish, soon drunk, incoherent and offensive, William [Empson]. Frank Parker red-faced, drinking gallons, but somehow quite uncorrupted, always soaring off from the conversation with a chortle. And what else? A very sweet son of 18, another, Hetta’s, not William’s, Harriet’s age. Chinese dinners, Mongol dinners. The house had a weird, sordid nobility that made other Englishmen seem like a veneer.
The ambiguities here are classist, generational, cultural, and above all genetic. Balzac couldn’t have painted an odder or better detailed family of misfits.
Conversely, Bishop’s letters have little sociological content, or even social observation. They are as vivid and colorful as her elaborately mannered but transparent lyrics. She escorts us over the Amazon’s steaming tributaries and waterfalls, its mountains glistening with "little floating webs of mist, gold spider-webs, iridescent butterflies... big pale blue-silver floppy ones." She has a toucan named Uncle Sam, wields her lover Lota’s revolver, and acts as auntie to her neighbors’ kids and cats and stone collections. She finds Lota walking in her nightgown out onto their veranda to see the stars "because they had never looked so close before -- close and warm -- apparently touching our hair." But for all her painterly detachment, she honestly portrayed suffering, early on through her lost boy cousin (‘First Death In Nova Scotia’) and later in outraged letters about the Brazilian junta’s murder of street children in Rio’s hovel-hilled favelas. And she wanted to be able to better portray privation, fearing a lack of humanity in her work and admiring Hardy’s poems for their being "about the real relations between men and women."
Since both saw poetry as the deepest, most serene of moral enterprises, neither pulled punches in re-assessing old friends and castigating each other for violations of trust. When Lowell extracted portions of letters from his estranged wife [Elizabeth Hardwick] and spun them into the flawless poems of The Dolphin, Bishop was outraged. Dignity and confidentiality, central as they were to the human personality, were in that sense more important than poetry, indeed than any art. She quoted to Lowell G. M. Hopkins’s notion of the necessity of the literary "gentleman": "It isn’t being ‘gentle’ to use personal, tragic, anguished letters in that way -- it’s cruel." When Lowell countered with his notion that disloyalty was our privilege as free beings ("[N]othing is perversely torn and twisted, nothing’s made dishonestly worse or better than it was [by being written about])," she stood her ground, saying "[W]e all have irreparable and awful actions on our consciences." The trick was to keep from repeating them, especially in page after page sent out into the world.
After this, and with less than a decade for each to live, they flamed each others’ kindling with Aoleus gusts blown over thousands of miles, all at the mercy of Brazil’s mildewed, dilapidated airmail system. They traveled across dangerous continents, in dangerous times, to bask in the warmth of one another’s insight. They finished one another’s thoughts and completed one another’s first draft stanzas. For both of them, belief and knowledge and even hope were not given qualities of mind, but fragile constructs that could fall apart at any time; their letters, as well as their lyrics, propped up everything. Lowell loved her posting strings of words on bulletin boards for years until a line of poetry congealed -- her essential method of composition. He saw each word as exalted, lucky to be so handled, thrown into the sky like confetti or graduation mortar boards, signifying revision but also completion:
Have you seen an inchworm crawl on a leaf, cling to the very end, revolve in air, feeling for something to reach to something? Do you still hang your words in air, ten years unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps or empties for the unimaginable phrase -- unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect?