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Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
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A-Words in AirElizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, two giants of postwar poetry, correspond about life, love, and art.

The Topic: In 1947, the famous poetry critic Randall Jarrell gave a party. The cream of literary society attended, including two poets, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Bishop was shy and sharp, sensitive and observant; she occasionally drank herself into hospitals. Lowell was a literary sledgehammer, thrice married and raw. Yet that night, these two disparate writers began a friendship that lasted 30 years, ending only with Lowell’s death in 1977. Both believed that letter writing was a form of art as significant as poetry (Bishop would take weeks to tinker with her letters), and though each had feelings for the other, they never embarked on romance. This volume, a paean to their deep friendship, contains a great deal of wit, gossip, and, above all, heart.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 928 pages. $45. ISBN 0374185433

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Oh, these letters are just so good! … As Lowell and Bishop’s friend Randall Jarrell used to say: Anybody who cares about poetry will want to read it." Michael Dirda

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Eight hundred and some pages are a stretch, and since Bishop lived in Brazil for many years with her partner Lota de Macedo Soares, I read more about Brazilian politics than I wanted to. But this volume takes its place, along with the correspondence between Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov, or Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, as consummate examples of wit, affection, and indeed—in the case of Bishop and Lowell—love." William H. Pritchard

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"What finally gives Words in Air its emotional heft is its long continuity, which endows its pages with the immediacy of life. … The satisfying constant is their devotion to each other." Jamie James

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"The pleasures of this remarkable correspondence lie in the untiring way these poets entertained each other with the comic inadequacies of the world. … Admittedly … there are long stretches of nattering, antique gossip, ideas that come to nothing (Bishop habitually started things she could never finish). The late letters often confine themselves to worries over age, money and dentistry." William Logan

Critical Summary

How much one enjoys this volume—300 of the letters here have never before been published—depends on how much one embraces the poetry and lives of Lowell and Bishop. The critics themselves were quite pleased, often strutting out prose with a faintly purple hue in honor of these two postwar poetry giants. Of course, there’s a great deal of wit to go around—the usual savaging of colleagues and the mockery of modern society; Bishop takes the road less traveled and even flings some mud at old Robert Frost. A few critics called for stricter editing, given the inclusion of letters detailing dental appointments and job applications. But the unrequited love between Bishop and Lowell redeems any hint of banality; instead, Words in Air is an inspiring lifelong conversation between two great poets.