21 February (1949): Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell

After meeting at a New York dinner party, Elizabeth Bishop, who had just won the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Prize Fellowship, and Robert Lowell, fresh off winning the Pulitzer Prize, began a friendship that would include over three decades of intimate and revealing correspondence. Here, Bishop, addressing Lowell as  “Cal” (short for Caligula), writes of an impromptu trip to Haiti with Hemingway’s ex-wife’s sister, including a gossipy description of a talk given by Selden Rodman, a poet, writer, and champion of Haitian folk art.

[Grand Hotel Oloffson, Avenue Christophe, Port-au-Prince, Haiti]
February 21st, 1949


Dear Cal,

I was sort of hoping to hear from you before I suddenly left Key West for a petit changement–in fact I meant to write to you again but I didn’t. I was afraid that, 1. you are sick. 2. you are MAD. 3.–well, various wild fancies. After my 38th birthday I fell into a slough for a few days & then decided to come with Pauline’s sister, Virginia Pfeiffer, to Haiti for about 10 days, & see if I could get out of it. It was a very good idea & has worked perfectly–nothing could be more of a charge than this unlikely country & I think it is much more interesting than I’d ever dreamed any of the West Indies etc., could be. I’m having one batch of mail forwarded here. I think we’re going back next Saturday, & shall hope to get a note from you in that, to quiet my uneasy imagination.

Selden, of course, is here, & 2 nights ago gave a talk (in French) on “Primitivism in Modern Poetry.” I understood every word but still don’t know what he means by “Primitivism”–although I missed the first 1st 5 minutes of it & so maybe the definition. It was a grand tour in his anthology–introduction style, bringing in every name since 1900. I was in the front row (between the Lewis Gannetts) but kept turning around to see what the effect of all this was on his mostly black audience. A good many slept. Mr. & Mrs. G got the fidgets & embarrassed me considerably by tearing open envelopes rather noisily & then writing each other notes on them which they handed back & forth across my knees. They are staying here, too, & presented a slight problem at first because they wanted us to go on the long trip (3 days) to Christophe’s Citadelle with them & we didn’t want to, but now things seemed to have worked themselves out. We’re going on it Wednesday. Today we are going spear-fishing, out to islands in the harbor where you can see coral-gardens, etc. You spear-fish wearing goggles, using an oxygen-tube, & carrying an 8 ft. spear, that works by powerful springs, under your arm, so you can swim only with your legs. If Jinny doesn’t spear me I’ll have to write you an account of it.

The social situation is the most interesting thing about Haiti, I guess–always thorough mixture everywhere, at everything, & yet with it all a caste system that’s supposed to be worse than India’s.

We have a little black man who stays outside our door to protect us from burglars–clutching a knife over 2 ft. long in one hand & a large rock in the other. Mass starts at 4 am in the churches so that the very poor (90%), who haven’t any decent clothes, can come in the dark. We went to the 10 o’clock mass in the cathedral–for the “elite,” & then saw a lot of elite black babies baptized. The god-parents holding then shook them up & down just like cocktail shakers & it was a rather riotous baptism.

I haven’t tried to work at all but yesterday morning I woke up at 4–the poorly clad were trooping by my balcony in the dark on their way to church–& wrote a lot of stuff.

Have you any further plans about Italy? The reason I ask is–Jinny lives in Rome & has just come from there. She says this is the summer to go if possible; next year is the Holy Year & they expect millions of Catholics from all over the world– If she’d known I had considered going a little sooner I could even have had her apartment there–I guess that’s rented now, though. If you can get out of the U.S. I really think it would be the time for you to go–but I guess I sound interfering.

J. just took this picture of me with the new Polaroid camera that develops instantaneously. I really don’t look quite so fat, nor so much like a French postcard.– This other picture is like one of Selden’s primitives, only better.– I’ll be in KW by next week & do hope to hear from you that you’re all right, etc.–oh I read that girl’s story in PR & thought it had brilliant spots, particularly imagery–