Just a note of congratulations to Elizabeth & you on the arrival of Hattie Winslow Lowell. I hope everyone is doing nicely - What should I bring her from Brazil, I wonder – an aquamarine for future use?”
- From a letter by Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell, January 25, 1957
During my stay at the Elizabeth Bishop House I found myself drawn to a collection of letters between Bishop and the American poet, Robert Lowell. More than just a few letters in a slim volume, Words in Air is an 800-page doorstop, laying out a thirty-year correspondence between two close friends who happened also to be literary titans. It’s a fascinating book; their letters have left us, years later, with an archive of their friendship.
Once upon a time I wrote letters regularly. I enjoyed the feel of pen against paper, lingering over bits of news, the luxury of words sprawled on page after page. The simple act of addressing and stamping an envelope and walking it down the street to the mailbox gave me much pleasure, as did the anticipation of a letter in return. A few weeks would pass, then I’d start to keep an eye on the mail slot. When the return letter finally slipped through the slot, it was like a treasure. I’d read and re-read the letter, pleased that my friend took the time to answer my questions, comment on my news, and offer news of her own. I could tell by her handwriting what sort of mood she was in, what kind of day she’d had, before even reading the letter. I’d set aside some time to think about things, and sit at my desk and start all over again with pen and paper. Then I’d fold the letter from my friend and put it in a box with the rest of her letters, something to look at on a rainy day.
Email has changed all that. It’s quick and it’s easy – no more weeks-long waiting between letters – but it’s impermanent. I doubt that fifty years from now our current inbox storage system will still be accessible, that we’ll have hung on to our email correspondences. Some emails I do print and save, although not many.
Within some of my emails I do try to maintain a certain letterly structure:
How are you these days?
But it’s not quite the same.
The whole point to letter-writing is that it takes time and care; that it creates a deeper connection to the recipient than does a hastily-typed email. Staring out the window while shaping the next thought is time well spent, not wasted.
It’s sad to think that in fifty years, even twenty years, there won’t be much left in the world of the archives of our friendships.
I hope you are well. I must tell you about…