Bishop and Lowell lived during a time of great loss in the literary world. In just one year, Allen notes, Robert Frost, Louis MacNeice, and Theodore Roethke died: and, over the years, many influential poets committed suicide, like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Hart Crane, and John Berryman. Death was a constant presence in the poetry community.
The giants Bishop and Lowell knew, and among whom they towered in their own right, provide much of the peculiar magic of Words in Air. Fascinated as I am by the correspondents themselves—Lowell’s mad brilliance and anointed career as a Famous American Poet; Bishop’s quiet mastery and self-imposed exile in Brazil; the 30-year artistic friendship that nurtured their best works—I can’t be the only reader who started looking up other writers as soon as I opened the book. Still, it may say something about my temperament, as well as the period the letters cover, that my search soon zeroed in on comments about other poets’ deaths.
“We are a brutal generation—brutalized—and yet admirable, too…” So Bishop mused to Lowell in 1963. They shared their middle years with those of their century, aging through the “confessional” movement Lowell inaugurated and Bishop carefully sidestepped. This was an era in which poetry had a fatality rate like 19th-century coal mining.
As it turned out, both poets were already nearing the end, and the continuing deaths of friends kept them sharply aware of their own destructibility.
When Berryman jumped off a Minneapolis bridge in January 1972, Lowell looked back with Olympian approval on his friend’s final years: “his heroism was in leaping into himself … bravely.” Whether he meant Berryman’s poetic output or his tenuous sobriety is unclear. Bishop’s response was far less grandiose, and free of morbid double entendres: “dreadful … an awful shock … so sad & awful.” It’s one of the most extended bursts of emotion she ever set to paper; reading such a horrified outcry from such a self-possessed soul, you feel the full weight of awful that had piled up over the years.