Monday

Life Writing (1): Genre


[Edvard Munch: The Scream (1893)]

Lecture 8:
Genre


Anthology texts to read:


Robert Lowell

"Once you master epic diction, epic diction will write your epic for you"
- Johann Wolgang von Goethe


Genre is the name we give to a kind of literary taxonomy, an attempt to reduce literature to order along the lines of the major Life Sciences: biology and geology, for instance.

One can certainly waste a lot of time debating whether a particular work falls into one category or another: travel writing or autobiography, for example. On the other hand, it's important to realise that the broad structure of genres does condition readers' expectations of any text they read.

Fiction and Non-fiction, for example: Verse or Prose. These are distinctions which have to be understood if one is to achieve any appreciation of literature at all.

I want to talk about the interaction of two creative personalities, two American poets, both close friends - one, Robert Lowell, the Dean of (so-called) "Confessional Poets"; the other, Elizabeth Bishop, a famously reticent and meticulous writer who nevertheless revealed almost as much about her life in her perfectly-crafted, elaborately calculated works.


[Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)]


Robert Lowell & Elizabeth Bishop:
A Chronology

1911 (8 February) - Elizabeth Bishop born in Worcester, Massachusetts. After the death of her father when she was eight months old, her mother had a nervous breakdown and was confined to an asylum in 1916. Bishop was brought up by her grandparents in Nova Scotia, Canada.

1917 (March 1) - Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV born in Boston, Massachusetts to a wealthy and influential family. After two years at Harvard, he transferred to Kenyon College, Ohio, to study under Southern Agrarian poet John Crowe Ransom.

1940 - Lowell marries novelist Jean Stafford (they were divorced in 1948). A sufferer from alcoholism and manic depression, Lowell was hospitalized many times throughout his life.

1944-45 - After converting to Catholicism, Lowell becomes a conscientious objector during World War II, and as a result serves several months at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut.

1946 - Lowell: Lord Weary's Castle [Pulitzer Prize for poetry].
Bishop: North & South.

1947 - Bishop is introduced to Lowell by writer Randall Jarrell.

1947-48 - Lowell is poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (an office now referred to as "Poet Laureate of the United States").

1949 - Lowell marries the writer Elizabeth Hardwick.

1949-50 - Bishop is poetry consultant to the Library of Congress.

1951 - Bishop travels to South America, settling eventually in Brazil with her companion, architect Lota de Macedo Soares.

1953 - Bishop publishes "In the Village" in the New Yorker.

1955 - Bishop: A Cold Spring [Pulitzer Prize for poetry].

1959 - Lowell: Life Studies.

1964 - Lowell: "The Scream," in For the Union Dead.

1965 - Bishop reprints "In the Village" in Questions of Travel.

1966 - Bishop returns to the United States. Her estranged lover Lota de Macedo Soares follows her there, eventually committing suicide in 1967.

1970 - Lowell leaves Elizabeth Hardwick for the British author Lady Caroline Blackwood.

1973 - Lowell: The Dolphin [Pulitzer Prize for poetry].

1977 (September 12) - Lowell dies from a heart attack in a New York cab on his way to see Hardwick.

1979 (6 October) - Bishop dies of a cerebral aneurysm in her apartment at Lewis Wharf, Boston.

2008 - Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, ed. Thomas Travisano & Saskia Hamilton.


[Robert Lowell (1917-1977)]

One of the more interesting events in the long relationship between the two poets is perhaps best summed up in this review of the last-mentioned book above, Words in Air, their collected correspondence:

Biographers have investigated in detail the rocky episodes in the relationship of the two poets, chiefly the deep difficulty that occurred over Lowell's use, in his volume The Dolphin [1973], of Elizabeth Hardwick's letters to him during his absence in England with Caroline Blackwood. Bishop had moral objections to the mixture of fact and fiction in The Dolphin, and brought up her heaviest guns to persuade Lowell that he was wrong on all counts. After praising the book as "magnificent poetry," she says (with uncharacteristic capitalization), "I have one tremendous and awful BUT." Against Lowell, she quotes a 1911 letter by "dear little Hardy," in which he said:

What should certainly be protested against...is the mixing of fact and fiction in unknown proportions. Infinite mischief would lie in that. If any statements in the dress of fiction are covertly hinted to be fact, all must be fact, and nothing else but fact, for obvious reasons.

"You have changed [Lizzie's] letters," Bishop adds. "That is 'infinite mischief,' I think." She then brings up Hopkins on the idea of a "gentleman," commenting, "It is not being 'gentle' to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way—it's cruel." She concludes by adducing a letter by Henry James objecting to a roman à clef: "His feelings on the subject were much stronger than mine, even."

- Helen Vendler, "The Friendship of Cal and Elizabeth."
New York Review of Books 55 (18) (20/11/08)



[J. L. Castel: Elizabeth Bishop (1954)]

Here are a few more extracts from that famous letter:

March 21, 1972

I've been trying to write you this letter for weeks now, ever since Frank [Bidart] & I spent an evening when he first got back, reading and discussing The Dolphin. I've read it many times since then & we've discussed it some more. Please believe I think it is wonderful poetry. It seems to me far and away better than the Notebooks; every 14 lines have some marvels of imagery and expression, and also they are all much clearer. They affect me immediately and profoundly, and I'm pretty sure I understand them all perfectly (Except for a few lines I may ask you about.) I've just decided to write this letter in two parts - the one big technical problem that bothers me I'll put on another sheet - it and some unimportant details have nothing to do with what I'm going to try to say here. It's hell to write this, so please first do believe I think Dolphin is magnificent poetry. It is also honest poetry - almost. You probably know already what my reactions are. I have one tremendous and awful BUT.

If you were any other poet I can think of I certainly wouldn't attempt to say anything at all; I wouldn't think it was worth it. But because it is you, and a great poem (I've never used the word "great" before, that I remember), and I love you a lot - I feel I must tell you what I really think. There are several reasons for this - some are worldly ones, and therefore secondary ... but the primary reason is because I love you so much I can't bear to have you publish something that I regret and that you might live to regret, too. the worldly part of it is that it - the poem - parts of it - may well be taken up and used against you by all the wrong people - who are just waiting in the wings to attack you. - One shouldn't consider them, perhaps. But it seems wrong to pay right into their hands, too.

(Don't be alarmed. I'm not talking about the whole poem - just one aspect of it.)

Here is a quotation from dear little [Thomas] Hardy which I copied out years ago - long before Dolphin, or even the Notebooks, were thought of. It's from a letter written in 1911, referring to "an abuse which was said to have occurred - that of publishing details of a lately deceased man's life under the guise of a novel,with assurances of truth scattered in the newspapers." (Not exactly the same situation as Dolphin, but fairly close.)

"What should certainly be protested against, in cases where there is no authorisation, is the mixing of fact and fiction in unknown proportions. Infinite mischief would lie in that. If any statements in the dress of fiction are covertly hinted to be fact, all must be fact, and nothing else but fact, for obvious reasons. The power of getting lies believed about people through that channel after they are dead, by stirring in a few truths, is a horror to contemplate."

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.

[...] 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 [Gerard Manley] Hopkins's marvelous letter to [Robert] 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.

[...] 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 sick of poems about the students' mothers & fathers and sex lives and so on. All that can be done - but at the same time one surely should have a feeling that one can trust the writer - not to distort, tell lies, etc.

The letters, as you have used them, present fearful problems: what's true, what isn't: how one can bear to witness such suffering and yet not know how much of it one needn't suffer with, how much has been "made up," and so on. [...]

- Elizabeth Bishop. One Art: Letters. Selected and edited by Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994): 561-62.


Perhaps the real politics of this exchange go back a few years, though, to the publication of her story "In the Village" (included in your anthology) in The New Yorker in 1953. She wrote to one friend about it:

I'm nervous about your seeing it. I know I'm not a story writer, really - this is just poetic prose. And completely autobiographical [...] I've just stuck a few years together. Fortunately the aunt most involved in it all - my only nice relative - likes it very much and even corrected some names, and reminded me of this and that. We have equally literal imaginations ... (Bishop, 1994, p.291)

What was her surprise, then, in 1962, to receive a typescript of Robert Lowell's new book of poems For the Union Dead, which included his poem "The Scream" (also included in your anthology):

"The Scream" really works well, doesn't it? The story is far enough behind me so I can see it as a poem now. In the first few stanzas I saw only my story - then the poem took over - and the last stanza is wonderful. it builds up beautifully, and everything of importance is there. But I was very surprised. (Bishop, 1994, p.408)

I suspect that "I was very surprised" was putting it mildly! Later she referred to it as "that story of mine ... Cal wrote a poem on" (431), and emphasised again, to another correspondent - in 1967, after the story had reappeared in her book Questions of Travel (1965) - that "'In the Village' is entirely, not partly autobiographical. I've just compressed the time a little and perhaps put two summers together, or put things a bit out of sequence - but it's all straight fact [my emphasis]" (p.477). So you can see that the subject preoccupied her. And I don't think it's hard to understand why (Lowell didn't - as his own letters on the subject reveal. But that's another story ...)

[Words in Air (2008)]

Further quotations from Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, ed. Thomas Travisano & Saskia Hamilton. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008:

  • Lowell to Bishop, Letter 244 (March 10, 1962):

  • ... I tried versing your "In the Village." The lines about the heart are Harriet's on her kindergarten society, the rest is merely your prose put into three-beat lines and probably a travesty, making something small and literary out [of] something much larger, gayer and more healthy. I let the scream throw out the joyful clang. Anyway, I send it with misgivings. maybe you could use it for raw material for a really great poem. ... (390)

  • Bishop to Lowell, Letter 247 (April 4, 1962):

  • I don't know why I bother to write "Uncle Artie" really. I shd. just send you my first notes and you can turn him into a wonderful poem. he is even more your style than the Village story was. "The Scream" really works well, doesn't it. The story is far enough behind me so I can see it as a poem now. The first few stanzas I saw only my story - then the poem took over - and the last stanza is wonderful. it builds up beautifully, and everything of importance is there, But I was very surprised. (401-2)

  • Lowell to Bishop, Letter 248 (April 14, 1962):

  • I was rather on tiptoe that my poems had been intrusive, and read your letter with great relief. ... Glad ... my tampering with "In the Village" didn't annoy you. When "The Scream" is published I'll explain, it's just a footnote to your marvelous story. (405)

  • Bishop to Lowell, Letter 249 (April 26, 1962):

  • No - I was very pleased with "The Scream." I find it very touching to think you were worried for fear I might be annoyed. - I thought it was only I who went around imagining people were cross with me when I didn't hear from them. But living here [Brazil} has almost cured me. I just have to give them the benefit of the doubt; think their letters got lost, or mine did. All letter-writing is dangerous, anyway - fraught with peril. (412)

  • Lowell to Bishop, Letter 300 (June 15, 1964):

  • ... there is no tolerance or place for the unconvinced bystander.

    There's a connection between how the world is and what the imagination lights on. What it usually lights on now is some grueling murk or release at all costs. Well, why not? It has always been so. (542)

  • Lowell to Bishop, Letter 319 (June 15, 1965):

  • In my classes, I read poems aloud, comment, ramble and ask questions, oh and also listen. The students have either anthologies or mimeographed copes of the poems so there's no question of a performance or declamation. Classes are not lectures so much as arranged conversations, and you need do nothing but take things casually and trust yourself to your humor, sense, knowledge and personal interests. (576)

  • Bishop to Lowell, Letter 390 (March 21, 1972):

  • I wish I had here another quotation - James wrote a marvelous letter to someone about a roman a clef by Vernon Lee, but I can't find it ... His feelings on the subject were much stronger than mine, even. (708)
    [Footnote: Henry James to William James (January 20, 1893), The Selected Letters of Henry James, ed. Leon Edel (1955).]

  • Lowell to Bishop, Letter 412 (January 24, 1973):

  • I think a writing course in poetry might be half reading modern poetry. (738)

  • Lowell to Bishop, Letter 422 (July 12, 1973):

  • Your old letter of warning - I never solved the problem of the letters, and there and elsewhere of fact and fiction. I worked hard to change the letters you named and much else. The new order somehow makes the whole poem less desperate. And the letters, as reviewers have written, make Lizzie brillant and lovable more than anyone in the book. Not enough, I know . ...

    My immorality, as far as intent and skill could go, is nothing in my book. No one, not even I, is perversely torn and twisted, nothing's made dishonestly worse or better than it was. My sin (mistake?) was publishing. I couldn't bear to have my book (my life) wait hidden inside me like a dead child. (752)

  • Bishop to Lowell, Letter 423 (July 22, 1973):

  • We all have irreparable and awful actions on our consciences - that's really all I can say now. I do, I know. I just try to live without blaming myself for them every day, at least - every day, I should say - the nights take care of guilt sufficiently. (But for God's sake don't quote me!) (753)



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