One Art: Letters
At Harvard, in the fall of 1971, Elizabeth Bishop taught a seminar entitled “Personal Correspondence, Famous and Infamous.” Because letter writing has traditionally been considered a minor art, even the best letter writers among the poets—Byron, Keats, Hopkins, dickinson—are taught and written about principally as poets. Almost no one knows how to account for the charm and power that letters can have. Because the writer of letters does not practice the “perfectly useless concentration” that Bishop saw as the mark of poetry, they can hardly be made the object of explication de texte in the classic sense.
Also, letters present an awkward stumbling block to those who take a high line about literature as a custodian of moral values. The letters of writers are—as often as not—about drinking and infidelity, about sponging and wasting time; in these letters, writers tend to complain about money, about aches and pains, about the commercial deals they have to make, about editors and publishers. Letters can be pornographic (like Joyce’s to Nora), or credulous (like Yeats’s on magic); they can be malicious, sly, gleefully spiteful, childish. One’s reverence for the poet as exemplary can often come in for a rude shock on contemplation of the poet’s letters: the soul that composed the poems and the self that wrote the letters can seem irreconcilable.
Those who are best at dealing with letters remember Yeats’s saying that the poet is not the bundle of accidence and incoherence that sits down to breakfast. That bundle of accidence and incoherence writes the letters; and yet, though letters may not emerge from the self-isolating trance of composition, the poet’s habit of observation and phrasing does. The noticings and formulations of every day are, in the poet, of a peculiar order: more than others, he or she cannot help noticing and finding the mot juste, and we read poets’ letters to share, for a moment, what it would be like to live with the alert eye and the accurate phrasing of the writer.
Elizabeth Bishop’s letters are recognizably the product of the person who wrote the poems, but they are not the equal of the poems; there is a larger gap between the two halves of what will now be seen as Bishop’s oeuvre than there is between the two halves of, say, Keats’s work. Bishop’s do not seem intellectual or theoretical letters; in fact, were it not for their fresh and lively style, one would not know, most of the time, that they had been written by someone immersed in literature and trying to evolve an original, if unformulated, poetics of her own. Bishop’s letters are almost exclusively descriptive rather than analytic. Yet to put it that way is to beg the question, since for Bishop, as I hope to show, description in letter writing was analysis.
Bishop (1911–1979) wrote letters, many of them, all her adult life. The first…
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