Elizabeth Bishop was born on this day in 1911. In the early seventies, her friend Robert Lowell sent her the poems that would form his collection The Dolphin—in which, without permission, he’d quoted the distraught letters his partner Elizabeth Hardwick had sent him after he left her. (“your clowning makes us want to vomit,” one poem goes: “you bore / bore, bore the friends who … wished to save your image / from this genteel, disgraceful hospital.”) Bishop, shocked to read the new work, sent him the impassioned rebuke excerpted below. The Dolphin, when it was eventually published, won a Pulitzer Prize. Read more of Bishop and Lowell’s letters in Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (2008), edited Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton.
It’s hell to write this, so please first do believe I think Dolphin is magnificent poetry …
I’m sure my point is only too plain … Lizzie is not dead, etc.—but there is a “mixture of fact & fiction,” and you have changed her letters. That is “infinite mischief,” I think. The first one, page 10, is so shocking—well, I don’t know what to say. And page 47 … and a few after that. One can use one’s life as material—one does, anyway—but these letters—aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission—IF you hadn’t changed them … etc. But art just isn’t worth that much. I keep remembering Hopkins’ marvelous letter to Bridges about the idea of a “gentleman” being the highest thing ever conceived—higher than a “Christian” even, certainly than a poet. It is not being “gentle” to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way—it’s cruel.
I feel fairly sure that what I’m saying (so badly) won’t influence you very much; you’ll feel sad that I feel this way, but go on with your work & publication just the same. I also think that the thing could be done, somehow—the letters used and the conflict presented as forcefully, or almost, without changing them, or loading the dice so against E. [(] but you’re a good enough poet to write anything—get around anything—after all [)] It would mean a great deal of work, of course—and perhaps you feel it is impossible, that they must stay as written. It makes me feel perfectly awful, to tell the truth—I feel sick for you. I don’t want you to appear in that light, to anyone—E, C,—me—your public! And most of all, not to yourself.
[…] In general, I deplore the “confessional”—however, when you wrote LIFE STUDIES perhaps it was a necessary movement, and it helped make poetry more real, fresh and immediate. But now—ye gods—anything goes, and I am so sick of poems about the students’ mothers & fathers and sex-lives and so on.