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Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell
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Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

4.16  ·  Rating Details ·  255 Ratings  ·  60 Reviews
Robert Lowell once remarked in a letter to Elizabeth Bishop that "you ha[ve] always been my favorite poet and favorite friend." The feeling was mutual. Bishop said that conversation with Lowell left her feeling "picked up again to the proper table-land of poetry," and she once begged him, "Please never stop writing me letters—they always manage to make me feel like my ...more
Hardcover, 928 pages
Published October 28th 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2000)
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Jun 04, 2009 Buck rated it it was ok
You’ve probably come across this harmless little hyperbole in Sunday book reviews – you know, the one that goes something like, ‘Joe Blow is such a brilliant writer that I could cheerfully read his grocery lists.' Well, I’ve now read the grocery lists -- figuratively-speaking -- of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, and let me tell you, I’m none too cheerful about it.

The one inescapable problem with a ‘complete correspondence’ such as Words in Air is that it’s so damn…complete. It’s all here:
Rebecca Foster
I paused at page 140. I was enjoying this very much but am setting it aside because it’s an enormous book that I’ve had out from the university library for months and months, and I was making very little visible progress. Like Airmail, the collection of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer’s letters that I read last year, it’s a delightful mixture of the two poets’ reading, writing, travels, and relationships, including their own burgeoning friendship. I need to get hold of a secondhand copy so I ca ...more
Dec 12, 2008 Lisa rated it it was amazing
The cover photo says it all; these are two people who loved each other an arm's length. This ideal platonic love was sustained through decades of passionate correspondence. The loves of their daily lives were not as enduring. Two of Lowell's marriages ended with divorce; two of Bishop's love affairs ended with suicide.
Lowell's joy at seeing Bishop in person tended to explode into mania, so perhaps it was best he didn't get to see her all that often. Lowell reflected on "how ideally
Jan 10, 2012 Adam rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2012readingyear
I spent two and a half years reading Words In Air – reading fifty- or hundred-page chunks between other books – and I think it is the best thing I have read in a very long time. I knew nothing about Elizabeth Bishop or Robert Lowell when I entered their thirty year correspondence (I just like books of letters) and I got to know them, their brilliant poems, their debilitating faults, and the lives of poets (or some poets) from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. I spent more time than I ever expected ...more
Gerry LaFemina
Feb 22, 2015 Gerry LaFemina rated it really liked it
These letters are amazing, but there are so many of them, and they are do chock full of lush sentences, insights into the work of these poets, and lots of poetry gossip, that I had to read them in small bites. Lovely.
Dec 16, 2015 Kayla rated it it was amazing
Shelves: letters
I fell into this book for several weeks and I'm having a difficult time returning to my time period. Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell were dear friends and wrote prolifically to one another for thirty years. They talked about their poetry, their loves and struggles, and other poets loves and struggles. Bishop deconstructed Lowell's poetry with an eye for detail and authenticity. Lowell provided her unwavering support when she was most in need of it. Although one feels like one is peeking into ...more
Lynn Kearney
Apr 10, 2009 Lynn Kearney rated it really liked it
Wonderful letters. Didn't know much about either poet, but their correspondence gives real flavour of their times. One LOL reference from EB who was, I think teaching Freshman English. Students were writing essays on Romeo and Juliet. From one: "Lady Capulet is older than Juliet but she remains a woman". And another refers to Romeo making his way "into the tomb of the Catapults". Puts me in mind of a a goldie from my teaching days. The play - Julius Caesar, where "this old guy shouts 'Hey ...more
RH Walters
Feb 26, 2013 RH Walters rated it liked it
Shelves: sampled
I started this book because I lost my beloved penpal and wanted to read someone else's letters, then I got a letter from Bill in Palo Alto, and Maggie in Eden Prairie and Bailey in Washington and felt I could go on again. I liked it when Elizabeth compared the disheveled harbor outside her window to her desk. A hideous offhand comment from Robert about Elizabeth's allergies and a "negress named Florence." Interesting to read their comments about Eliot's "protestant seriousness" in Middlemarch, ...more
Dec 20, 2014 Leslie rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, poetry
I have never read correspondence before (except in epistolary novels) so I was pleasantly surprised by how readable it was. These letters cover a 30 year span which allows the reader to really get to know Bishop and Lowell. I would recommend either reading their poetry first or having it handy to refer to as (not surprisingly) there are a lot of references to specific poems (even to specific lines or words in the poems).
Richard Jespers
Aug 04, 2016 Richard Jespers rated it it was amazing
Reading the published letters exchanged between two important figures in twentieth-century American literature, among many things, has allowed me the proper venue for being a voyeur! The details Lowell and Bishop reveal about themselves, their families, and friends is astounding. The entire enterprise took me the better part of seven months, not because I was a particularly slow reader or because I found the reading boring but because each time I opened the book I was only able to take in ten or ...more
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It's sad when the end of a book means coming to the end of the real lives in it. Especially after having settled into the correspondence between two people and getting to feel like you know them just a little. You don't exactly want to finish, but it's too good to stop so you keep going.

The letters were great slow reading material. They know what to include and how much, the material is rarely boring. A mix of life, art, observations and a little gossip. It's like overhearing a good conversation
Diann Blakely
Among the annual lists of "best poetry books of the year," there's one title that may be missing, though it was written by two of the defining poets of the 20th century. WORDS IN AIR: THE COMPLETE CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN ELIZABETH BISHOP AND ROBERT LOWELL, edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton, contains the barest snippets of verse, and there's as much commentary on the dailiness of their own lives as on their work (including Bishop's "The Armadillo" and Lowell's "Skunk Hour," probably ...more
Jan 16, 2015 Lia rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Cal. 7 settembre 1948. «[...] Magari avessi letto Confucio da giovane, ma Dorothy sostiene che sarei stato il più insopportabile trombone mai esistito [...] Mi sento bene, però: "Anni trentuno, risultati nessuno" mi ronza nella testa; e l’idea di preparare i bagagli mi fa rabbia»; Elizabeth. 8 settembre 1948. «Caro Cal, qualche tempo fa dicesti che “ti avrei sfottuto” durante una nostra chiacchierata su come proteggersi dalla solitudine e dal tedio – ma non è vero. È appunto il tipo di ...more
Apr 05, 2015 Laura rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry-related
Finishing this book I realize it was kind of a blur, like each day of real life is, the details. I appreciated it for its intimacy and not for something more exciting I would go to fiction for. It kept my interest and I remember a few odd lines that struck me as funny or witty. Lowell said he was like a rheumatic old aunt who wanted to ruin Bishop’s fun by having her all to himself, and alluded to it in another letter which made me laugh, and made me feel in on it. Lowell is funny, Bishop is ...more
Jul 19, 2009 helen rated it liked it
I only made it through 1947-1951. It was visits with Ezra Pound, stays in Key West on the Hemmingway property and stays at Yaddo with the likes of Flannery O'Connor, stays on the rocky coast of Novia Scotia. Coercing Dylan Thomas to make a recording of his work for the poetry collection at the Library of Congress, because that's where you work. Attending a reception for Edith and Osbert Sitwell at New York City's Gotham Book Mart with Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Tennessee Williams, ...more
Bookmarks Magazine
Jan 08, 2009 Bookmarks Magazine rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Jan 28, 2010 Lynne-marie rated it really liked it
That two writers could have an entirely epistolary relationship -- though they DID meet occasionally from time to time briefly -- and yet reveal their most important thoughts to one another is an artifact from another age. Who will save the e-mails of today? It is certainly significant that at several points, Bisop & Lowell considered marrying, but both knew it would have been a disaster for them. But as help-meets in their most important phase of life: their writing, they were withough peer ...more
Dec 19, 2008 Annie rated it liked it
This is a huge book, and I confess to random browsing -- and now it's overdue at the library. I am fascinated by letters between writers, the documentation of the evolution of friendship. The early letters are tentative -- they are not even sure how to address each other. Then later there is the evident admiration and respect for each other as poets, and the development of intimacy as friends. They share work, critiquing each others' and their own, and come to understand and love each other. The ...more
Nov 14, 2009 Angie rated it really liked it
I like this book! It is all the correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell over their lifetimes. They shared poetry and reviewed poetry of other poets of the time. It's a snapshot of literature history. It's romantic that they had a longstanding relationship, deep and true but were never lovers. Sometimes I read the pining in between the lines of their letters or their poetry. My favorite poem is by Lowell for Bishop, just a bit of it below
Have you seen an inchworm crawl on a leaf
Feb 09, 2009 MJ rated it really liked it
Fantastic book. I loved reading the decades of correspondence between Bishop and Lowell, especially as it illuminated the details of Bishop's poems. The letters are entertaining-- gossipy and witty, alternately full of anxieties and ripe with joy. Read consecutively, they form a surprisingly complete narrative of the friendship between two major figures of twentieth-century American poetry. The editors did a nice job with the footnotes-- not too intrusive, but enough to give background when ...more
Mar 13, 2015 Abby rated it really liked it
It feels very strange to be rating the complete letters of two famous American poets. But they were great letters: so frank and funny and sincere. This collection of the complete correspondence between poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell is for the serious fans only; I can't imagine anyone with even a passing interest slogging through all 928 pages of their letters. Someone else's letters are, after all, only interesting up to a certain point, even if the someones in question are Bishop and ...more
Emily Flynn
Nov 17, 2008 Emily Flynn rated it it was amazing
I love writing letters and this is a book of letters between two of the most established and prolific poets of the 20th century. Two quirky and brilliant people form a very unusual friendship based mostly on written correspondence which spans three decades and several continents, making one hell of an unusual read. Some of the dated slang is almost worth it in and of itself, but overall this is just a fascinating and touching read. It's great this rainy time of year with some tea and a house ...more
Nov 09, 2009 Eden rated it liked it
I took my time with this book, started in in January '09 and read a few letters each weekend, and just finished it in September '09. I enjoyed the fiercely loyal friendship between Bishop and Lowell (even while Lowell seemed to be a rotten and disloyal husband); their give-and-take discussion of the creative process; and, as with most books of letters, the silent mysteries alluded to that are never really explained (Bishop would go on alcoholic benders, Lowell would spend months on end at a ...more
Feb 13, 2009 Mitch rated it it was amazing
It is not only an exchange between two great minds but a history of the high point of twentieth century art, before junk took over. They talk of meter, rhyme, form , and gossip about fellow writers: Jarrell etc. Mutual love too. It makes one think of better days. You experience their first discovery of DeSica, anti war protests, civil rights, modern concert music including Webern, Thelonious Monk and more (and Moore)
Feb 27, 2016 Joanna rated it really liked it
Only 4 stars because I thought the editing could have been better (I am using the Virginia Woolf letters & diaries as my standard). I read quite a lot of Lowell and Bishop in high school, though by the time I got to college I was academically interested in other things, so I never studied them formally. But it was wonderful to meet them again as humans rather that abstracts. Must read some bios and other collections of correspondence.
Melanie Faith
Apr 18, 2010 Melanie Faith rated it it was amazing
I'm only about 50 pages in, and already I'm hooked on the letters between these two marvelous poets. For anyone interested in either Bishop and Lowell (or both poets') poems OR for fans of literary correspondence, you can't do much better than this compendium of over thirty years of notes and discussions of travels, life, love, love-gone-away, and the writing life. The introduction is also fascinatingly in-depth and well worth at least a perusal.
Jun 11, 2011 Rachel rated it it was amazing
When I purchased this book, my dad's comment was that Lowell and Bishop were "slutty alcoholics." But even though she's gay and he's a man-whore, these two are in lurrrrrrv. It is basically the sweetest thing you have ever seen.

UPDATE: As of today, I have literally been reading this book for an entire year. But man, I am still so fond of these snobby ass-hats.

Sam Schulman
Nov 16, 2009 Sam Schulman rated it it was amazing
I had forgotten this until I came across a note to myself - "quote EB [Elizabeth Bishop:] on Natty Bumppo." Well, I can't now find the quote, but this is a marvelous narrative of the on-again, off-again relationship between our two greatest anti-Communist poets who were, essentially, romantically in love with one another without being sexually attracted. It's pure bliss - and if you read it please tell me what EB DID say about Natty Bumppo.
Barbara Mader
May 01, 2009 Barbara Mader rated it liked it
Very interesting, very long, very involved, required lots of looking up and reading many poems, took me forever. Part of me left thinking these (brilliant, articulate, witty) people didn't know how to live well--it does seem they at times went out of their way to make their lives complicated and even miserable.
Jan 07, 2009 Laura added it
I read every word of the first half, then started skimming because life is short. This work is compelling, like a novel, where you looked forward to each night's read. You really get to see their relationship develop, you get to live in an unlikely world in which people make their living writing poetry, and they were both good and kind people- to each other, at least, and this seems rare.
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Five Stars!! 5 9 Mar 04, 2013 08:21PM  
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet and writer from Worcester, Massachusetts. She was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1949 to 1950, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1956. and a National Book Award Winner for Poetry in 1970. She is considered one of the most importa
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“I do think free will is sewn into everything we do; you can't cross a street, light a cigarette, drop saccharine in your coffee without really doing it. Yet the possible alternatives that life allows us are very few, often there must be none. I've never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry. No doubt if I used my head better, ordered my life better, worked harder etc., the poetry would be improved, and there must be many lost poems, innumerable accidents and ill-done actions. But asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.” 11 likes
“One shouldn't get too involved with people who can't possibly understand one” 8 likes
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