Words In Air

Elizabeth Bishop Robert Lowell

My husband and I mostly had a long distance, international, pre-Internet courtship. We wrote a lot of letters, and I have boxes of them still. One of my retirement projects will be to organize, scan, assemble, and annotate.

I’m a romantic about letters.

Thus, I fell in love with Words in Air. The book contains the correspondence between two soulmates, twentieth century American poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. They were not a romantic couple, just lifelong friends.

The name of the book comes from a poem that he wrote for her, “For Elizabeth Bishop 4.” Here is the part with the reference:

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?

But his love for her is crystal clear, his “unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect.” The smoothest compliment ever?

The correspondence between the two writers isn’t all profound and polished. Some of it tells of dental procedures and other mundane details of life. But when writing is your vocation, there is pleasure in “mere” functional writing. Laura Kipnis, in Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation, explains why writers love (email) letters, especially involving flirting:

There you are, sequestered at the keyboard hour after desperate hour, trying futilely to harness the vagaries of mental life into the discipline of prose, and email flirting is a far less taxing, though not entirely dissimilar, enterprise. At least it provides someone other than your own inner critic to commune with.

Bishop and Lowell didn’t have email, but they were steadfast correspondents. As I progressed through the long book, I started to feel sad about the end approaching. You never know when you are writing your final letter to a friend, sending those last words into the air. We might need to rethink our closings for our letters, just in case.

I hope our paths cross again soon and in any case, love to all,

p.s. Photo credit: the cover of the book, from the Vassar College Library Special Collections.

1 Comment

  1. laurakornish says: Reply

    Words In Air for the pandemic season:
    “Every time I reach out to someone, especially via email or text, I find myself giving the correspondence (and by extension, my friend) my full attention, and remembering the way words can bring you closer to the people that you love. I’m savoring their responses even more than usual, too — each text, each silly emoji, reminding me that my people are out there, their cursors blinking in the darkness just like mine.”

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