Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, two giants of 20th century American poetry, first met in 1947 when both were young poets in the early phase of their careers. They began an intense friendship, sustained by frequent letter-writing, that stretched across three decades and ended with Lowell’s death in 1977. A volume of their complete correspondence, Words in Air, was published in 2008.
When the playwright Sarah Ruhl first read this collection on bed rest while pregnant with twins, she said she “felt that they demanded to be read aloud.” Their letters became the raw material for her 2012 play, Dear Elizabeth which previews next Friday, February 6, at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
If you’re not already familiar with the poetry of Bishop and Lowell, here are two great collections in which to discover their singular voices. Published in 2011 on the centennial of her birth, Poems collects all of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry in one volume. This definitive edition of Bishop’s work includes her subtle, moving elegy to Lowell, “North Haven.” For an excellent introduction to Lowell’s poetry, try Selected Poems, which contains many poems about Bishop, including “Water,” about a key weekend they spent together in Maine.
Ruhl is not the only author to find source material in the lives of Bishop and Lowell. Carlene Bauer’s 2012 epistolary novel, Frances and Bernard, is loosely based on the real-life relationship between Lowell and Flannery O’Connor. And The More I Owe You by Michael Sledge recreates Bishop’s tumultuous relationship with her Brazilian lover, Lota de Macedo Soares, in intimate and authentic detail.
Seeing Bishop & Lowell’s letters come to life on the stage may have inspired you to pick up the pen and write to a loved one. In this age of digital communication, chances are it’s been quite some time since you’ve sent a handwritten letter. The Art of the Personal Letter provides wonderful guidance on how to compose thoughtful and expressive correspondence that will delight its recipients, and includes helpful examples of common letter types.
For more books and recordings related to Dear Elizabeth, try this Beyond the Theatre list.