The Armadillo and The Skunk

Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Crunchable’s 10-year mini-cosmos of literary community

I usually keep Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell on my writing table, open to whatever last letter or postcard I read the morning before. Over tea and toast, I get to peer for a few moments into this literary friendship that spanned three decades. Bishop and Lowell, of “One Art” and “For the Union Dead” fame, respectively, were prolific in their correspondence — writing news of friends and family, but mostly writing about fellow writers, what they were reading, their work, their teaching, writing prizes, and fellowships.

What made their friendship so intense, Bishop once wrote, was the shared ability to talk about poetry with someone else who also wrote poetry; it was like exchanging recipes with someone, she said. From contributing to Crunchable and other writing groups, I know what Bishop meant: The writing community is for most of us not just a way for us to have social contact in this sometimes dreary, often lonely writing life, but is really a way to see how others do things, to find how we too might find a way out of a sticky plot point (I have yet to solve the problem of moving story characters smoothly across a room instead of jarringly, like possessed Lego figures, no matter how many times my fiction writer friends have tried to explain the solution to me) or step away quietly from the end of a poem instead of slamming it closed. We might learn other ways of baking the cake, or how to make something else entirely new.

Over 30 years, Bishop and Lowell praised each other when their work was good, and chastised each other when they had committed some sort of lazy mistake (Lowell, apparently, was a fair bit too free with his French translations). They calmed each other’s insecurities: “I wouldn’t worry about the Amazon poem — it’s the best fairy story in verse I know,” Lowell wrote to Bishop on April 28, 1960. “It brings back an old dream of yours, you said you felt you were a mermaid escaping barnacles off a wharf-pile.”

Later that year, Bishop was working on a new poem that she and Lowell discussed through the course of several letters. In July 1960 (“Friday, at any rate”), she writes “I have re-arranged the Trollope poem, taking your advice, and I think it is improved. … It probably should be quite a bit longer.”

Bishop and Lowell weren’t always so complimentary of each others’ work; they gave strong critiques when needed. “I’ve made up my mind to attempt something very difficult,” Bishop wrote about Lowell’s French translations. “You said ‘Let me know things you question,’ and I’m going to and I pray you will please not be proud and sensitive.”

And both Bishop and Lowell, sometimes scheming together, encouraged newer poets and fiction writers as well, though Lowell much more actively than the somewhat more isolated Bishop. Lowell told Bishop he wrote “a ‘ringing trumpet note’ blurb for Snodgrass” in 1959, while a year later Bishop ruminated on Anne Sexton‘s work (“a bit too much romanticism”). Isolated from the American writing community in Brazil, Bishop longed for news of fellow writers — Lowell was her link to this larger, deeply networked community. “Tell me what you hear of Randall,” she wrote, “Delmore Schwartz? I must write to Marianne again. Some of her poems appeared in the newspaper here, in Portuguese. (Pound, too).”

I like to think of Crunchable and our online writing community in the same way as I do these two poets’ friendship, though without the alcoholism, frequent hospitalizations, divorces, or the troublesome bother of carbon paper. At its simplest, Crunchable is just a bunch of writers writing online articles, articles that can be both silly and serious; a group of writers, online, exchanging those recipes Elizabeth Bishop talked about.

Writing, good writing, is a community act. Reading, drafting, revising, re-writing, reading again are all part of this community act that involves fellow writers, guest editors, the editor, the editor’s sounding board, and the hypertext process (or the correction proof, in Bishop and Lowell’s day), just to name a few. We might be able to write without a literary community, but we don’t do it as well.

After all, a writing community such as Crunchable is a little bit like a recipe website: I go to Epicurious to find recipes so I don’t feed myself the same three meals over and over again and to find surprising methods of making my husband eat vegetables. I explore the site to find other ways of doing things, read the comments and suggestions to add this or to grill instead of bake and serve with acorn squash or barley, then forget half of the ingredients, add the ones I actual have in the house or bought by mistake. Sure, it’s a messy process, and I’m not always happy with the results, but that’s what writing (and cooking) is about. Getting in there with a genre and playing around until you create something different, something unexpected, thanks to your writing buddies who patiently read five different drafts, or your new husband, who (though he doesn’t know it yet) will have to endure experimental meals for the rest of his life. (Bacon chocolate cupcakes with maple-syrup-cream-cheese frosting apparently are a win).

It’s an endeavor that goes best with friends, as Bishop knew well. “It is all thanks to you,” she said to Lowell, “I know perfectly well.”

Article © 2011 by Heather Blain