Talk to Me in Letters


By Alissa Wilkinson

Dearest Cal: Please never stop writing me letters—they always manage to make me feel like my higher self (I’ve been re-reading Emerson) for several days.
— Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell, July 27, 1960

Dearest Elizabeth: I think of you daily and feel anxious lest we lose our old backward and forward flow that always seems to open me up and bring color and peace.
— Robert Lowell to Elizabeth Bishop, March 10, 1963

My office bookshelves are segregated topically, and one entire shelf is devoted to books of letters between writers. Most are towering mid-century literary figures about whose lives I obsess like one might Facebook-stalk a crush, looking for new bits of information or examining the edges of pictures for other famous people lurking in the blurry background.

There’s the correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, the missives Simone de Beauvoir sent Jean-Paul Sartre, decades of letters between Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt, others between Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, the love letters Vladimir Nabokov sent his wife Vera, stacks more.

Obviously I’m not alone in this: Carlene Bauer wrote Frances and Bernard, a fictionalized correspondence (and entirely fictional romance) between characters modeled on Lowell and Flannery O’Connor, who met at Yaddo in 1948. I have my students review the book every term, purely for my grading pleasure. [Read more...]

Poetry and Restraint: Teaching as T’Shuvah

Restraint. A poet’s restraint. A teacher’s.

The penultimate moment of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station”:

… Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.

As I do with most poems assigned for class, I began our exploration of “Filling Station” by reading the poem aloud. But after that, instead of asking a question or two or however many it takes to get a discussion going, I took my seat, turned the poem over to the students, and told them that I would not guide or interfere with the discussion, at least not until late in the hour.

Restraint. That’s what I had to practice that day. Even when it meant letting a promising comment go undeveloped, maybe even undetected.

Practicing restraint, I listened, on the first of what turned out to be two full periods devoted to “Filling Station,” to their animated discussion. [Read more...]