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This review is taken from PN Review 186, Volume 35 Number 4, March - April 2009.

POSTMEN LIKE DOCTORS Words in Air. The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton (Faber) £40

On 10 February 1963, Robert Lowell wrote Elizabeth Bishop about his reaction to the death of Robert Frost, summing up: ‘I thought with some shame about how wrong I was to be bothered by his notoriety and showing off. Under the great display the life was really very bounded and simple.’ One could write this off as an example of the guilt that the living feel at another’s death and Lowell’s desire to make posthumous amends to a poet he had long regarded with some suspicion. But I think Lowell’s little obituary to Frost exemplifies the animating quality that makes his correspondence with Bishop so irresistible: their mutual generosity,not just toward each other but to writing as a way of organising their lives. In noting Frost’s death, Lowell turns immediately from his personal feelings to a pretty shrewd judgment of Frost’s career, noting the distinction between public and private or life and work, and then performance and the poems,finally delivering a dead-on judgement of how Frost managed to press the limits of his own self to create poems. In Lowell’s ‘very bounded’ one can hear all of Frost’s many poetic references to limits, from the road not taken to the famous wall that makes good neighbours - and good poems. Without any reference to Lowell’s well known manic depression, it is clear that when he was healthy, he was always ‘on’. And so with Bishop, an equal partner in this collaborative literary exercise. For the contemporary reader, the simple ...


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