Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 9, 2015

What I’m Reading: Dear Elizabeth

Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell is composed of parts of poems and the more than 400 letters that the two poets sent each other between 1947 and 1977. Playwright Sarah Ruhl was inspired to compose this chronicle of friendship after reading Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. She wrote that she loved “how the letters resisted a sense of the usual literary ‘story’ – how instead they forced us to look at life as it is lived. Not neat. Not two glorious Greek arcs meeting in the center.”

The tone is alternately intimate and restrained, formed from not actions but words spoken to someone both far away and trusted. Still there is a shape, partly made by the placement of a seminal letter which refers to a conversation they had wading in cold Maine seawater, when Elizabeth said, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”


There’s a sense not only of looking back at this in the letters, but anticipating the loneliness even within the friendship of two very different people over the course of Robert Lowell’s marrying and divorcing, and Elizabeth Bishop settling in Brazil with Lota de Macedo Soares. Elizabeth and Robert carry poems by each other like talismans. They sympathize and misunderstand. Tension comes from the space between letters, which like spaces between lines of poems, suggest something beyond the words. Weeks pass, decades pass, memories come and go, which we feel as natural, familiar. Elizabeth writes near the end, “Why all this change? My favorite eye shadow – for years – suddenly comes in 3 cakes in a row and one has to use all one’s skill to avoid iridescence.”

Here are two people who care for poetry and each other, even through their arguments and different literary choices, with Elizabeth preferring more formalism and restraint, while Robert chose a wider range of forms and claimed a right to every subject, even while Elizabeth pleaded with him to keep out his wife Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters from his collection, Dolphin. This argument comes near the end of the play, where we get a sense of the hundreds of letters that have passed between them – all those dears – both the missed marks and tenderness.

Sarah Ruhl arranged these letters into a play as she wanted to hear them out loud, but I very much enjoyed them reading silently in a big soft chair, hearing voices that came together across years and continents, often with the memory of a conversation standing in cold water, about loneliness and love.




  1. Oh, how I love this . . . what a unique idea, to create a play from letters of real people (not like the play “Love Letters.). This makes me want to run out and get the book, write letters to someone and make up replies, because hardly any one writes real letters any more.

    • I think a book of letters even without the replies could be sort of fascinating. But then again, a lot of writing is based on imagining between the facts. And I think this play allowed for that, too, which was what I loved, with gorgeous words and gaps and silences in between. But the sense of real folded paper behind these was certainly more evocative than if they’d been printed off computers. We need that smell.

  2. Fascinating! Souls bared, poetry discussed, the humanity and the craft. You made me run right to google and read about these two in the National Poetry Foundation entries.

    • Their biographies probably aren’t as compelling as their letters and poems. Another era. Though going to the Ritz (sadly, now the Taj, isn’t it) across from the Public Gardens and talking about poetry over cocktails: I could get into that.

  3. You always find the best books! I love reading real letters and like the idea of shaping a drama with them, making a play.

    • Yes, I, also thought that was a fascinating idea, and it truly worked. There’s an afterword in which Sarah Ruhl talks a bit about the process, paring down long narratives, but then using the original voices left a strong/delicate impression. This was just one of those books that I picked up in the poetry section at the local library and stuck with me.

  4. Thank you, Jeannine, for your graceful comments. Both your thoughts, and their subjects, are compelling. I want to read both this play–and the original book of correspondence.

    • Thanks, Brad. I loved reading the play, but was kind of glad to be spared all the drinking (Elizabeth does resort to downing rubbing alcohol here), romantic disasters (we get the edges) and even the everyday. Looking through Elizabeth Bishop’s ONE ART: LETTERS I was charmed by a story about how E.B. White transported a spider from Maine to NYC where it started a family on a hairbrush on his bureau that he would not disturb. But then she confided that she found CHARLOTTE’S WEB awful, and closed the book, reminded of the power of what’s kept out. I think in Dear Elizabeth, Sarah Ruhl found just the right balance between saying too little or too much. But you may be more forgiving! I can’t say I might not try again. There must be others who don’t love Charlotte’s Web, but I don’t think I’ve faced them! And then I there are Lowell’s letter collections, and a volume (at Jones!) bringing in Marianne Moore, too. I’ll go back… sometime.

  5. “[O]ne has to use all one’s skill to avoid iridescence.” Ha, this paints such a clear picture of her, doesn’t it? My son bought me a book of her poems one year for Christmas. I think I’ll pull it from the shelves, read some of them again, with fresh eyes.

    • What a sweet gift! I love The Art of Losing. Bishop is a bit too formal and restrained and sometimes ironic for my taste on the whole, but she’s certainly written great lines here and there. I do like the freer voice she has in her letters. Thanks for reading and heading to your shelf, Melodye!

  6. That’s my take on her, too, but I want to find the part of EB that resonated with my son & inspired him to give me her poems.

    • A noble and interesting goal: Nancy Drew Casts her Flashlight over Elizabeth Bishop, Chapter one.

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