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A Pair of Poets on 'Dear Elizabeth'

Two writers discuss the epistolary play with their own correspondence.
Feature | February 19, 2015 | By Bill Carty

Dear Elizabeth is Sarah Ruhl's adaptation of the letters of the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, a correspondence that began in 1947 and lasted until Lowell's death in 1977. The Seattle Rep's production of the play (running through March 8) moves through these years at a brisk, bantering clip, pairing the letters with occasional readings of the poets' poems. After seeing the show I exchanged emails with poet Katharine Ogle, where we discussed the play, the letters, and the complications that arise from adapting this correspondence to the stage. Somehow we didn't even cover Katharine's Elizabeth Bishop-inspired outfit, which was excellent.  

Katharine Ogle: At intermission last night, I caught your near-first note: “NO PANTS!” Regarding the play, that seems as good a place as any to begin. Thoughts? 

Bill Carty: Yes, I applaud Dear Elizabeth: you can't have questions like "boxers or briefs?" hanging, as it were, over the entire production. But sartorial concerns are relevant to the production as a whole—a lot was accomplished via the tying and untying of ties, the removal of coats, scarves, and sweaters. And I'm sure as a writer you can relate to the day's main drama being which direction the desk faces. 

I am just now tracking down some of the favorite bits of correspondence I wrote in my notebook. Most of them, of course, were Bishop: "I think I'd rather see the otters than make recordings..." Or, "I am feeling much better, maybe the drugs, maybe two new hats, or maybe just getting away from my friends who are so full of solicitude." 

This is a "before breakfast letter," to borrow a phrase from Lowell, so it must be brief (more briefs!). As someone who is more familiar with the letters than I, how would you compare hearing them performed, rather than read on the page? 

KO: I also enjoyed the minimal but versatile set-up of the play—each poet his/her own half of the stage with a desk and the same costumes the whole time, minor adjustments to indicate changes in time and place. Although it seems I enjoyed none of this as much as you enjoyed Lowell's boxers. In the book Words in Air, which compiles the complete correspondence between the two, there’s a photo of them walking together in the ocean, one of their rare face-to-face encounters. 

One such meeting, a trip to Maine in July 1948, forms a central pillar of the story of Bishop and Lowell. I was charmed looking at the photo, thinking of how familiar the play made this image without replicating it, exactly. Bishop rolls up her pants and puts on a hat. I forgot to pay attention to what Lowell did in that moment. Rolls up the sleeves, maybe? 

Which brings me to another thought—Bishop is the star, isn't she? Lowell is more famous (when they meet, at least) and historically hailed for hooking Bishop up with various editors, fellowships/residencies, etc. And he seems to drive the engine of the correspondence, always begging for the next letter. But still, Bishop is so cool, so witty. I think I laughed loudest at this one: 

(Bishop, Key West 1947) "I received a very obscene letter in verse from Dylan Thomas—A Street Car Named Desire is referred to as A Truck Called F---." 

I guess that's my answer to your question about the difference between seeing the letters performed vs. reading them on the page. The play makes a moment of it; the entire correspondence makes a life of it. Obviously the play has to create a story, a structured beginning-intermission-end. But the beauty of several decades of correspondence is that the letters endure many stories, many lovers, many countries, many books. 

I guess I see the play as an introduction to their relationship even though it's structured as an overview. It certainly cuts out content from the letters, and even chops them up to create a more immediate conversation between Bishop and Lowell. But it didn't bother me in the way that abbreviations of great works can. It just made me want to keep reading the letters. 

I'm currently carrying the book around everywhere I go. It's nearly 900 pages and my sweetheart reminds me of this as I'm leaving the apartment (and later offers to carry my bag when I realize my folly), but I can't be without it. 

The excerpting and arranging of the letters, then, becomes a sort of game to reassemble while reading the entire correspondence. The excerpting and arranging of the actual poetic works of Bishop and Lowell, on the other hand... 

BC: Yes, that's a great photo, to borrow from “Skunk Hour,” as though they "leap from an L. L. Bean catalogue"! That exchange—I believe Lowell rolled up his pant legs—definitely formed the emotional drama, for Lowell especially. I appreciate how we circle that encounter, without ever receiving a full explanation of what exactly happened on the Castine coast (so many great Maine place names in the play too! Maine accents, not so much.) 

In a letter ten years after the fact, Lowell says as much: "But asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had." 

The encounter is also described in his poem "Water," which eventually found its way into For the Union Dead, though in a letter Lowell notes that the poem is "more romantic and gray than whole truth, for all has been sunny between us." 

I think it's interesting to see how the letters provide something of an antidote to the very real emotional/psychological trauma that the pair went through. The audience gasped at Bishop's partner Lota's suicide and seemed likewise distraught when the one of the pair would have a letter dated from a institution of one sort of another.

Helen Vendler has pointed out that neither Lowell nor Bishop was particularly adept at maintaining a "practical life”; they turned instead to partners to fill that role, a role which they seem unfit to play for each other. Perhaps the distance in time and space created by the letters accounts for some of their relationship’s durability. 

As you mentioned, throughout the play, poems are excerpted, rather than read in whole, as they are in Sarah Ruhl’s original script. The 20 line version of Bishop’s “The Fish” seemed egregiously abbreviated. I took this as either a lack in faith for the poems to stand on their own, or a lack of faith in the audience to be entertained by them. On the other hand, I did appreciate the moment in "One Art" where the interjection "(Write it!)" is given to Lowell, who it seems, always needs Bishop to write more, both verse and letters. 

What did you make of the discussion—the closest thing to a fight in Dear Elizabeth—about The Dolphin? 

KO: I’m very interested in the fight about The Dolphin. As far as I've read, it's represented in the play as significantly as it operates in the entire correspondence. Both poets often send notes of praise and small notes of criticism (I liked the one near the end of the performance where Bishop suggests it's not so much a fishing town as a lobster town), but this issue with The Dolphin is...a whale. 

So Lowell has taken content from the letters of once-wife and writer Elizabeth Hardwick and used them in his poems. Bishop reads the book and writes to say she has "one tremendous and awful BUT," which is that it's immoral "to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way—it's cruel." She argues that a) he's changed Hardwick's letters, not to mention ripped them out of context; and b) he was not given permission to use them. 

This is the dilemma of all artists, right? What's fair use? Bishop writes, "One can use one's life as material—one does, anyway—but these letters—aren't you violating a trust?" It seems, then, that she's not addressing the life-large question of what's fair to take for art, but specifically what contract a writer has with those who write him letters. As Bishop shouted this rant on stage (which seems warranted by the many words capitalized, italicized, set aflame with dashes and exclamation marks on the page) I couldn't help but wonder what sort of personal stake Bishop felt in the argument. She was Lowell's chief correspondent! 

And then immediately another layer impossible to ignore: here we were, sitting in the audience of a play constructed from the letters of Bishop herself. "IF you were given permission—IF you hadn't changed them..." are the conditions Bishop gives for some iota of dignity in quoting Hardwick's letters. And what of her own? I'd guess Bishop might have been alright with the published correspondence as it appears in its entirety in the book Words in Air but not with the abbreviated, excerpted, altogether arranged set of letters which appear in the play Dear Elizabeth

It's funny, I think I'm okay with Lowell appropriating Hardwick's letter at his discretion. But in the context of the play—which excerpts chunks of the writers' poems as you mentioned—I find this same sort of appropriation insulting. The play gives us Bishop's "The Fish" and Lowell's "For Elizabeth Bishop 4" as smaller pieces but presents them as though they were the full poems (in both cases the poem's title is read and then whatever section is read appears to be that poem, implied: whole). As you said, this comes across as a “lack of faith for the poems to stand on their own.” For me, it makes the argument that the play knows better than the poems do. What did you make of this? The play must be designed to invite this conversation, because in the context of hundreds of letters, there are many other interesting moments that could have taken the Dolphin's place. 

BC: You’ve reminded me of another point in the letters: after Lowell is giving something of a romantic reminiscence about their first meeting ("I see you as rather tall, long brown-haired, shy but full of description and anecdote"), she good-naturedly counters each claim ("Never, never was I 'tall,'" "was already somewhat grizzled"), then insists, "please don't put me in a beautiful poem..."

I loved that. What could be worse than being confined within a poem? In a footnote to one of the letters, I found this quote from Bishop that was used in a profile of Lowell in Time magazine: "There have been diaries that were frank—and generally intended to be read after the poet's death. Now the idea is that we live in a horrible and terrifying world, and the worst moments of horrible and terrifying lives are an allegory of the world." And then, speaking of other confessional poets, the “imitators” of Lowell: "The tendency is to overdo the morbidity. You just wish they'd kept some of these things to themselves."

I think you are right in pointing out that Bishop may have been concerned about the potential for Lowell to use their correspondence. I'm not sure however, that she'd object to the way that the play condenses the story; her issue, I think, would be with the attention. She is consistently self-effacing.

In a podcast interview with the Poetry Foundation, Ruhl argues that the letters themselves have a performative quality—they aren't the correspondence of two unknown writers. In Bishop's first letter, she's congratulating Lowell on his recent Guggenheim, American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Pulitzer prizes ("I guess I'll just call them 1, 2, & 3"), and it's quite likely that the pair had the sense that these letters would be saved, would be reread, and would outlive them.

One potential guide could be the way that Bishop, in the way she quotes Kierkegaard's "law of delicacy" as a rule for using personal materials: "The law of delicacy, according to which an author has a right to use what he himself has experienced, is that he is never to utter verity but is to keep verity for himself & only let it be refracted in various ways." While Dear Elizabeth isn't personal in this sense, it certainly represents two lives refracted. And it’s a refraction that, in one way or another, both Bishop and Lowell have endorsed. As a whole, the play is delicate in this sense. The dialogue (like the letters themselves) often circles each poet’s tragedy and loss and sickness, but doesn't dwell there.

My new favorite game? Scanning the index for proper names and seeing what they've said about them. Bishop: "The interview is awfully good, I think—I think you are too kind about Bob Dylan however... (I tried; even bought 2 records)." And Lowell: "the optimistic James Dickey is one of the most desperate souls I know of, dreaded by the faculties where he has read..."

There aren't really any questions there, but what are your parting thoughts?

KO: My parting thoughts are not unlike what hooked me to these letters, and the play, in the first place. How unlucky we are to have lost letter-writing! Though I do enjoy and appreciate (and rely on) email, Dear Elizabeth reminded me what's forgone in the more immediate exchange: the limerence that builds with waiting for a reply. There's love in these letters, and I think much of it is carried in the genre/medium. There's no need, nowadays, to invoke Kierkegaard's "law of delicacy" with regard to standard correspondence because we know the record of any exchange is logged forever, and the onus of delicacy is more on the writer than the reader of the letters.

At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I think the letters represent a romance that no longer exists, and that's why I love them. There used to be a potent metonymy to these artifacts.

I feel like I should balance this out by talking about the advantages of contemporary technology, or admitting that I'm 28. But I'm not arguing that one is better—it’s just that the letters between Bishop and Lowell create the same pull—of limerence, I said earlier, but maybe eros—that they use as their own engine.

I want! I want their wanting. I want to write letters. I want to be Elizabeth Bishop. I want my Robert Lowell.

Katharine Ogle earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature and Poetry Writing at the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Poetry from the University of Washington. She works as a writing instructor, curriculum developer, and caregiver. She is an associate editor at Poetry Northwest.

Bill Carty teaches at Edmonds Community College and the Richard Hugo House and edits book reviews for Poetry Northwest. He has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the Hugo House. His chapbook Refugium was published by Alice Blue Books, and poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, Iowa Review, Boston Review, the Volta, Sixth Finch, and other journals. 
Photos of Suzanne Bouchard and Stephen Barker Turner in the Rep's Dear Elizabeth by Alan Alabastro. 
February 6, 2015 to March 8, 2015
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