I went to see Dear Elizabeth, a play by Sarah Ruhl. It opened at the Yale Rep two years ago and just had a run at the Seattle Rep. The play is an animated exchange between poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, told through their letters. If you haven’t read the letters, you are in for a treat.
Back in 1982, when I was in Charlie Simic‘s class at the University of New Hampshire, my best friend was another young poet named Mark Webster. We sat in that class, two undergraduates in a world of graduate students. Charlie turned us onto Bishop, Lowell, James Wright, Donald Hall, Mark Strand and others.
Mark and I read and re-read these poets and we started crafting our own little lyric poems which we tentatively pushed forward to Simic. I remember thinking, as we read Bishop’s “The Imaginary Map,” that poems could go anywhere. Elizabeth Bishop’s poems never ended up where I thought they would. And Lowell! How classical but how personal he was in his concerns. This was baffling and compelling.
We sat in Mark’s room, lolling around on his bed and floor, testing out ideas. We aspired to be poets. And fiction writers too. Though the form was a bit demanding of us. So we read and looked at line breaks and chased literary references.
When I saw this play, a friendship story of real love, I thought of Mark. We corresponded and bantered and argued and tended. After college, I moved to San Francisco and then Seattle and married my sweetheart and Mark moved to New York City and married his sweetheart and then moved to Ann Arbor where he went to the MFA program at Michigan.
In the midst of that, I got a call from the poet Alice Fulton. She called to tell me that Mark had died. His heart was enlarged, too big for his chest. Later, this detail about his heart meant something to me. As I sat in the audience of Dear Elizabeth, I couldn’t help but think of Mark being Lowell and me as Elizabeth– forgive the vanity of the analogy, as I mean it purely as a gesture towards how deep a friendship can be when it centers on poetry. And ours did. At the end, when Lowell dies of heart failure in a taxi, I was weeping.
Mark Webster was already a poet. I, on the other hand, wasn’t really a poet yet, not a good one. From Mark I learned devotion and I learned how to truly read. I sat in the play, the other night looking at the two of them, Bishop and Lowell, holding hands and staring out to sea, over our heads, into the great beyond.