cover image One Art

One Art

Elizabeth Bishop. Farrar Straus Giroux, $35 (725pp) ISBN 978-0-374-22640-4

This selection of poet Elizabeth Bishop's (1911-1979) letters is, as Giroux observes, a virtual autobiography. And though large, the book contains only a fraction of her correspondence. Among the most interesting letters are those to literary friends, including Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and Marianne Moore; among the most disturbing are the anguished letters concerning personal tragedies, letters she asked the recipients to destroy but which the editor has printed because they ``have remained extant.'' The letters show a continuity with the character presented in Bishop's poems: apparently, she really was a brilliant, modest and kind person. They also show the poet's eye and ear for detail (``Someone asked my landlord . . . if he didn't have an `author' living in his house, and he replied, `No, not an author, a writer' ''). There is also a disarming, even dogged sense of humor, striking given the fact that much in the letters is dark: the poet's struggles against alcoholism, loneliness and a 15-year relationship that ended in the suicide of her lover, Lota Soares. Bishop's correspondence may have been a bulwark against emptiness; the letters engage the reader not with startling revelations, but with everyday acts of courage. Thus Bishop pleads with Lowell in 1960, ``Please never stop writing me letters--they always manage to make me feel like my higher self.'' (Apr.)