“Bright and sharp and telling”: Robert Lowell and the Art of the Pen Portrait


Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

by Thomas Travisano

One of the most thought provoking notices I encountered of the much and flatteringly reviewed Words in Air: The Complete  Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell was by Paul Mariani in America magazine, “The National Catholic Weekly.” Mariani acknowledged at the review’s outset that

Though I have written a biography of Robert Lowell and have taught his and Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry for over 30 years, I have found myself guiltily lugging this three-pound volume around with me for months now, unwilling to give it up. I would randomly open the book again and again to re-enter Lowell’s Boston, Blue Hill, New York and Milgate Park, or Bishop’s Key West, Washington, Ouro Preto, Rio de Janeiro, Seattle, Cambridge, North Haven and (finally) Boston, fascinated by the chance it has given me to listen in on their at once shy and witty conversations, insights, aperçus and distinctive ways of absorbing and reporting back on the sights, sounds and names of those around them, or what Lowell called the literary (and political) gossip of the moment.

One of the things I agree with Mariani about—and was pleased to see so frankly reflected in print— is the fact that the book can be opened more or less at random and read for its local observations or its unabashedly gossipy commentary. I had the good fortune to be the principal editor of Words in Air and one of my own experiences in that role was to dive into a particular passage to address some incorrigible problem of transcription arising from their dauntingly illegible hands or some knotty problem of annotation arising from their dauntingly wide range of reference — and in the process found myself laughing out loud over some incisively phrased aperçu that I had already read several times before but that now confronted me again with an fresh jolt of comic surprise.

In fact, Mariani re-enacts this process of random opening in the course of his review, observing that:

I have just opened the book to page 272, and here is Lowell, 50 years ago, as if it were just this morning. He is telling Bishop that the poet Stanley Kunitz, who unlike Lowell would see 100, is now teaching at Brandeis and looks like “a small, sharp, orderly Bohemian little gray man…rather like Kenneth Burke.” Having myself met all three, I can say only that each of Lowell’s adjectives (and how he loved adjectives) is the precise epithet: bright and sharp and telling. And then comes the next sentence—comic and to the point—about big, bullish Theodore Roethke’s “escaping from a sanitarium dressed like a woman—and (believe it?) unrecognized for three days!” And a few sentences later there is his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, talking in the kitchen of their Boston apartment with Adrienne Rich, pregnant now with her third child and “bursting with benzedrine and emancipation” over her discovery of Simone de Beauvoir.

Kenneth Burke (left); Stanley Kunitz (right)

Bishop responds in like measure with her own witty observations of various denizens of the Brazilian literary scene, and so the conversation continues for nearly 900 pages, sustaining a level of gossip and observation that, in my own still-awestruck opinion, frequently approaches the level of high art. One suspects that just as Lowell drew out of Bishop—in her effort to engage and entertain him—a previously unforeseen willingness to indulge in literary shoptalk and to reflect on the theatre of ideas, Bishop drew out of Lowell—in his effort to engage and entertain her—a capacity for lively and precise observation and anecdote for which he possessed a latent talent that had not yet been so directly expressed in his poetry or letters. Indeed, Lowell’s ultimate mastery, in his verse, of the art of the pen portrait, by which I mean a brief, vivid, and telling sketch of another individual’s appearance and character combined with his integration of the idiom of correspondence into his later verse style, might be said to have emerged out of his three decades of continuous engagement with the “precise epithets” and “bright, sharp and telling observations” that appear in such profusion in Lowell’s thirty years of letter-writing to Elizabeth Bishop—observations for which Bishop served as the perfect audience and chief encourager. I am not quite sure whether Lowell’s deftness at pen portraiture is as yet fully appreciated and this partly intended to draw attention to this particular ornament of his mature style.

I would like to comment first on early pen portraits of Lowell’s parents: portraits that appear his letters to Bishop and that anticipate most tellingly the drift toward his more extended portraits of these immediate forbearers in Life Studies (1959). I would then like to draw attention to Lowell’s somewhat later mastery of the precise and concise individual portraits in his Notebook and History poems, a style that grows, I believe, in significant ways out of Lowell’s letters to Bishop. One can even find the genesis of specific images and phrases from Notebook and History about famous contemporaries in these letters—often letters written may years before the poem found its way into print. John Berryman, in a letter to his mother, asserted that “Letters can form a style,” and I think it can be argued that in Lowell’s case, his friend Berryman’s statement it is quite literally true.

Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, 1962

Lowell’s very first letter to Bishop begins with a series of kind but somewhat conventional remarks of sympathy and praise for Bishop. Then the letter abruptly leaps into an odd, and very funny anecdote, which seems readers of The Letters of Robert Lowell (2005) might think quite inconsistent with Lowell’s letter writing style to date. It seems as though Lowell had intuited the precise mode of address most likely to please this extremely desirable correspondent, just as Bishop had intuitively guessed that an invitation to the circus was the precise opening gambit with which to woo her eventual mentor Marianne Moore. In any case, after those two brief, polite paragraphs, Lowell launches into this perfectly shaped pen portrait.

Last night at three we had a fire. The man who started it fell asleep drunk

and smoking. He ran back and forth from his room to the bathroom carrying

a waste-basket with a thimble-full of water shouting at the top of his lungs:

“Shush, shush no fire. Stop shouting you’ll wake everyone up.” Then the

engines came out on the street. He kept saying: “An accident. Nobody

injured,” until a policeman shouted: “Nobody injured? Look at all the people

you’ve gotten up.” After it was over he went on talking: “I’m an American. I

fought the fire. If it hadn’t been for me you’d all be dead.” Today my room

smells like burnt tar-paper.

And thus the letter closes.

From this beginning their correspondence, at once jesting and earnest, continued for thirty years. Three years into this lifelong exchange, Lowell wrote to Bishop, on his father’s letterhead, from his parents’ last home together, about the death a few weeks earlier of his father. The letterhead and date read thus:

Mr. Robert T. S. Lowell

Beverly Farms, Massachusetts

September 18, [1950]

Lowell’s father’s full name was “Mr. Robert Traill Spence Lowell III”, and since his son Cal’s full name would read, in similar lofty style, “Mr. Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV,” the letterhead would apply equally to him in terms of the name, and at least temporarily in terms of the residence. It seems almost as if Lowell were symbolically assuming, for the wry amusement of his friend Bishop, the title and patrimony—if not the now-never-to-be-achieved support and approval—of his recently departed father.

Dear Elizabeth:

My father died quite suddenly on the 30th of August, and we have been

rusticating and maundering with my mother. His death was painless—not

really tragic, for he had little besides filling the days to look forward to. He

was not a suffering or heroic man, but rather as someone said “happy-

seeming”: always smiling or about to smile—and deep under, half-known to

him: apathetic and soured. There was at least one great might-have-been—a

first-rate Naval career. The death seems almost meaningless, as is perhaps al-

ways the case when the life has long resigned itself to a terrible dim, diffused


Robert Traill Spence Lowell III, with his son Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV, c.1920

Lowell’s impromptu summing up of father’s life and persona would later be explored extensively in Lowell’s verse, beginning, of course, with Life Studies, whose poems Lowell would send to Bishop, individually or in groups, as he completed them from 1957 on. That image of the happy-seeming father smiling a not-too-convincing smile appears throughout the Life Studies family sequence. For example, in the ironically titled “Commander Lowell” we have:

Smiling on all,

Father was once successful enough to be lost

in the mob of ruling-class Bostonians.

To be lost in an oxymoronic “mob of ruling-class Bostonians” is obviously anything but a commanding form of success, and thus the smile, and the rank of Commander, seem the ironic shadow rather than the true image of accomplishment. And then there are the lines from “Terminal Days at Beverley Farms,” where we are reminded that even as the end approached for this father, “He smiled his oval Lowell smile,” maintaining at least a surface image of health and good cheer as:

he wore his cream gabardine dinner-jacket,

and indigo cummerbund,

His head was efficient and hairless,

his newly dieted figure was vitally trim.

In “Terminal Days,” Lowell see his father maintain a tone of beneficence and joshing cheerfulness almost to the end, as the pen-portrait continues:

Each morning at eight-thirty,

inattentive and beaming,

loaded with his “calc” and “trig” books,

his clipper ship statistics,

and his ivory slide rule,

father stole off with the Chevie

to loaf in the Maritime Museum at Salem.

He called the curator

“the commander of the Swiss Navy.”

An “efficient and hairless” head, an “inattentive and beaming” face—these two paradoxical and ironic, yet somehow precise adjectival series might be straight out of Lowell’s letters to Bishop, but his father’s cheerful yet vacant image, as Life Studies sees it, at last gives way in his patriarch’s final moments:

Father’s death was abrupt and unprotesting.

His vision was still twenty-twenty.

After a morning of anxious, repetitive smiling,

his last words to Mother were:

“I feel awful.”

Call me crazy if you will, but I suspect that there is something redemptive—in Lowell’s own eyes—about his father’s reported last words. That is, at the last moment possible, Lowell’s father faces up to his condition (which till this moment he has been denying to himself and others) and—with twenty-twenty vision—looks his life in the face and frankly admits it to his wife, Lowell’s mother, the plain truth: “I feel awful.” In its own way, this is a sort of deathbed confession, and in the context of the sequence as a whole, it comes across—to me at least—with paradoxical force and an peculiarly leavening effect.

A little more than a year after Lowell’s letter from Beverly Farms about the death of his father, Lowell would write to Bishop, in November 1951, about a visit from his mother to Amsterdam, where Lowell and his wife Elizabeth Hardwick were then residing:

We are just finished with Mother’s visit. She is a very competent, stub-

born, uncurious, unBohemian woman with a genius for squeezing luxury out

of rocks. That is, she has a long memory for pre-war and pre-first-world war

service, and thinks nothing of calling the American ambassador if there’s no

toilet-paper on the train; etc. Well, under the best conditions, of course, I

can’t begin to make sense out of her or to her. Each year since I was eighteen,

it’s gotten worse.

Charlotte Winslow (Robert Lowell’s mother), c. 1915

What a stream of those curiously paradoxical adjectives Lowell so loved: “competent, stubborn, uncurious, unBohemian.” One is drawn almost inevitably to compare this list of modifiers to Lowell’s affectionate, if bemused, portrait of Stanley Kunitz, who, as we’ve seen, was—in the 1958 Lowell cited by Mariani—“a small, sharp, orderly Bohemian little gray man…rather like Kenneth Burke.” In these two comparisons, the adjectives on which each series pivots are respectively, “Bohemian” and “unBohemian”. It is his bohemian characteristics, along with the parallel to the brilliant and lively Kenneth Burke, that redeem Kunitz’s image as a “sharp, orderly…little, gray man” and make his persona spring precisely, and affectionately, into being. On the other hand, while the epithet “competent” might seem to be an asset in his mother’s case, and “stubborn” (surely a Robert Lowell characteristic) could certainly seem a positive in the right setting, the word “unBohemian,” especially when coupled with the fatal “uncurious,” pivots this pen portrait of his mother in an entirely different direction. In the poems for Life Studies that Lowell composed starting in 1957 and sent regularly to Bishop, he would extend this portrait of his mother as he would extend the parallel portrait of his father, but the general framework of the exploration—an exploration of his relationship with both parents that would continue until his death—  had already been laid out in these 1950 and 1951 letters to Elizabeth Bishop.

In For the Union Dead, the 1964 volume of Lowell’s that followed Life Studies, the use of language and imagery drawn from his correspondence with Bishop and others—a language which would have been difficult, if not impossible, in the heavily iambic and aggressively rhymed style of Lord Weary’s Castle (1946) or The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951)—was becoming increasingly instinctual, and no more importantly so than in the lead poem in the volume, “Water,” a poem that explores the emotional ambiguities and romantic incompletions of Lowell’s relationship with Bishop. This is a poem which was composed, quite famously, with particular reference to one of Bishop’s much earlier letters to Lowell. Lowell’s incorporation of Bishop’s letter into the texture of “Water” may already extremely familiar ground to either poet’s critics, but perhaps it’s worth quoting the interchange one more time in the current context. Bishop had written to Lowell as follows at the outset of a September 1948 letter, the justly celebrated “mermaid” letter:

I think you said a while ago that I’d “laugh you to scorn” over some conversation

you & I had had about how to protect oneself against solitude &

ennui—but indeed I wouldn’t. That’s just the kind of “suffering” I’m most

at home with & helpless about, I’m afraid, and what with 2 days of fog and

alarmingly low tides I’ve really got it bad & think I’ll write you a note before

I go out & eat some mackerel. The boats bringing the men back from the

quarries look like convict ships & I’ve just been indulging myself in a nightmare

of finding a gasping mermaid under one of these exposed docks. You

know, trying to tear the mussels off the piles for something to eat,—horrors.

Also there’s a small lobster-pound with 4 posts at the corners that reminds

me strangely of your sunken bedstead-grave.

The closing reference from the citation alludes a passage from Lowell’s as-yet-unpublished “Mills of the Kavanaughs,” which Bishop was reading in typescript, which includes the evocative phrase: “as your disheartened shadow tries / The buried bedstead, where your body lies.” Although earlier passages of Lowell’s “Water” may allude fleetingly to images in Bishop’s letter, the most famous moment of quotation, or perhaps appropriation, comes in the poem’s penultimate stanza:

One night you dreamed

you were a mermaid clinging to a wharf-pile,

and trying to pull

off the barnacles with your hands.

The stanza that concludes the poem, however, is Lowell’s own inspired extrapolation.

We wished our two souls

might return like gulls

to the rock. In the end,

the water was too cold for us.

Moreover, we can see from Bishop’s citation of Lowell’s “buried bedstead where your body lies” that just as Bishop inspired Lowell with phrases and images that he incorporated into one of his finest and most subtly suggestive lyrics, Bishop’s own rumination in her 1948 letter had been in part inspired and emotionally authorized by Lowell’s reflections on the writer’s battle against “solitude & ennui” and by images from Lowell’s not yet published work then floating through her own imagination.

By the time Lowell embarked on his late sequence of five interweaving books composed as unrhymed sonnets—that is, Notebook 1967-1968 published in 1969, a revised and expanded Notebook in 1970, and the 1973 trilogy History, The Dolphin, and For Lizzie and Harriet. In these unrhymed sonnet sequences Lowell had discovered a form that lent itself quite freely to the art of pen portraiture.  And in these books one can readily see that use of letters (both those written by him and to him) had come to permeate the texture of Lowell’s verse. Lowell’s quotations from, or appropriations of, his estranged wife Elizabeth Hardwick’s anguished letters to him are the most famous case of this use of letters, but in fact the employment of letters—to and from—as a kind of mine or granite quarry out of which raw material for poetry might be hewn had come to feature as an essential element of Lowell’s poetic arsenal. It is thus ironic that Lowell’s correspondence with Bishop may have provided him with the technique and disposition to use Hardwick’s letters in his poems, an act to which Bishop objected in a series of 1972 letters in the most strenuous terms. Yet, as I’ve suggested, the letters from Hardwick are only one of many examples of the use of letters in the sonneteering volumes. I think this suggests just how important the elements of quotidian observation and intimate discourse between friends had become for Lowell, a poet whose style had at one time seemed remotely formal, forbidding—indeed, awash in a briny sea of arcane references and violent symbols.

Thus, we find observations made in long ago letters to Bishop turning up in the poems from History, a sequence within the book—frequently wonderful, I think—that Lowell devoted to his poetic elders and contemporary. Thus, in a 1947 letter, Lowell writes to Bishop about William Carlos Williams that:

Had a fine week-end with the Williams’ very much like the lunch. He

took me to see his old Spanish mother—91, and was like a Dickens character

patting her hands and laughing and making her laugh and saying: “Mama,

would you rather look at us or 20 beautiful blonds?”

This becomes, in the version that appeared in History 26 years later:

His Mother, stonedeaf, her face a wizened talon,

her hair the burnt-out ash of lush Puerto Rican grass,

her black, blind, bituminous eye inquisitorial.

“Mama,” he says, “which would you rather see here,

me or two blondes.”

The blondes have shrunk from an extravagant 20 to a mere 2, and the pen portrait of Williams’s aged mother has grown darker and sharper, but here Lowell reaches back to a core of series of perceptions composed in a letter to Bishop a quarter of a century before.

To look at another and similar example, in 1958 Bishop had referred to Robert Frost as “the Bad Gray Poet” because of his tendency to pass along scandalous gossip about his poetic friends and rivals. Lowell wrote back, not quite accepting Bishop’s characterization:

“The bad gray poet.” Frost. Monstrous vanity—talking about controlling

elations, he said he thought of how little his success did for his relatives.

This cooled him down. Yet a mountainous, marvelous man. He’s about the

only friend I have who wants to hear the details of my crack-up, what I think

of girls, etc.

In History, some fifteen years later (in the final version of a poem first appearing in Notebook 1967-68), Lowell begins his sonnet on Frost:

Robert Frost at midnight, the audience gone

to vapor, the great act laid on the shelf in mothballs,

his voice is musical and raw—he writes on the flyleaf:

For Robert from Robert, his friend in the art.

The sonnet ends:

And I, “Sometimes I’m so happy I can’t stand myself.”

And he, “When I am too full of joy, I think

how little good my health did anyone near me.”

Again, Lowell takes a passage from a much earlier letter to Bishop and gives it a new context and, I think, a more complex meaning as he embeds it in the texture of a fourteen line pen portrait.

Robert Frost

Lowell dedicated four poems in History to Elizabeth Bishop, more poems than to any other contemporary literary friend. The first two of these poems are (one an abbreviation of “Water”), in my view, not very successful. The third adopts his now familiar strategy of turning a friend’s—in this case Bishop’s—letter into a poem, perhaps somewhat to Bishop’s discomfiture, though I think the resulting poem is very good. However, I’d like to focus on the fourth and best of these Bishop sonnets. I am grateful to this poem for providing the evocative surtitle Words in Air, to the complete correspondence between these poets, thus solving a problem over which I had long been tearing out my hair, but I’d like to focus now on another and epistolary feature of the poem, in this case its use of a letter, not from Bishop or another literary figure, but from the painter Albert Pinkham Ryder, who, along with the abstract artists invading the lofts of Soho in the early 70’s, and Bishop herself, stand as one of the three points of reference in the artistic triad outlined by the poem. For Elizabeth Bishop 4 begins:

The new painting must live on iron rations,

rushed brushstrokes, indestructible paint-mix,

fluorescent lofts instead of French plein air.

Albert Ryder let his crackled amber moonscapes

ripen in sunlight. His painting was repainting,

his tiniest work weighs heavy in the hand.

Who is killed if the horsemen never cry halt?

Have you seen an inchworm crawl on a leaf,

cling to the very end, revolve in air,

feeling for something to reach to something?

The lines describing the inchworm had always struck me as a brilliant Lowellism, so it came as a bit of a shock when an artist friend of mine pointed out that these lines—well known to his fellow artists—are drawn from a letter from Ryder to one of his own artistic friends. Ryder’s letter reads: “Have you ever seen an inchworm crawl up a leaf of twig, and then, clinging to the very end, revolve for a moment in the air, feeling for something to reach something? That’s like me. I am trying to find something out there beyond the place on which I have a footing.” Every nip and tuck of Lowell’s version deftly compresses and focuses Ryder’s meditation into Lowell’s own uniquely informal poetic idiom, yet the still more informal more essence is, of course, there in the Ryder epistle. Somehow the knowledge of Ryder’s contribution makes me feel that a poem I thought had just become even better. It becomes, indeed, more clear a tribute to Ryder’s aesthetic—whose weighty, expressionistic style and heavily impastoed canvases would otherwise seem in telling contrast to Bishop’s own plein air—as well as a tribute to Bishop’s lighter style—a style the placed words in air, since both Ryder and Bishop embarked throughout life on a style that might be called–and indeed was called by Lowell—exploratory, “feeling for something to reach to something.”

The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse), Albert Pinkham Ryder, 1895 – 1910

In part through his friendship with Bishop, Lowell learned to master this exploratory art, though he cast it in his own distinctive language and style. And a key element of that style, as it matured, was the art of the pen portrait, an art, as he learned to make it, that was consistently bright, sharp and telling.

About the Author:

Thomas Travisano is the Chair of the Department of English & Theatre Arts at Hartwick College.  He specializes in modern and contemporary American literature and in American poetry. He is particularly well known for his critical and editorial work on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), Robert Lowell (1917-1977), and the poets of their generation. Along with many articles, he has published such books as Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development  and Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman and the Making of a Postmodern Aesthetic.