BOOK REVIEW / The importance of elsewhere: One art: The Selected Letters of Elizabeth Bishop ed Robert Giroux, Chatto pounds 20

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THERE ARE a few great poets - Keats, Coleridge, Emily Dickinson - whose letters have become integral to their whole literary performance, packing almost the same kind of punch as their best lyrics. With the publication of Robert Giroux's edition of her letters, Elizabeth Bishop joins this exclusive company. Sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, but always luminously detailed, the letters reveal someone with a remarkable gift for friendship and an insatiable appetite for new places.

In her lifetime, Bishop's reputation rested on four extremely slim volumes of intricately crafted verse, published at roughly 10-year intervals. She made no public statements about poetry or anything else, and though she won recognition from Randall Jarrell, the greatest critic of the day, and from fellow poets such as Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell (John Ashbery called her a 'poet's poet's poet') she kept herself to herself. Her reputation rests on her spare but marvellously mobile poems, which are built around what she called 'questions of travel' and out of local knowledge of ordinary human habitats and habitations across the Americas, from filling stations to fishhouses and Nova Scotia to Rio.

Since her death in 1979, the small museum of her poetic observations housed in Complete Poems 1927-79 has been supplemented by the Collected Prose, now reissued (Chatto pounds 9.99), which brings together her troubled Hawthornesque fables of estrangement and a handful of brilliant autobiographical memoirs. And now this compulsively readable cornucopia of her personal correspondence, which, although apparently only a 'fraction' of her output, weighs in at 650 pages and at one stroke transforms our sense of the scale and resonance of her art.

Giroux's title - from Bishop's late, desolating villanelle about the 'art of losing', a catalogue of losses ranging from her doorkeys to her lover - suggests connections between poetry and letter-writing, yet while Bishop's letters are candid and spontaneous, her poems are the fruit of labour, reticence and delay: 'The Moose', first mentioned in 1956, was completed 16 years later; a waterspout described in a letter to Marianne Moore in 1943 turns up in 'Crusoe in England', not published until 1976. Bishop deplored the vogue for the 'confessional' launched by Robert Lowell, and objected strenuously to his use of her own recollections of her mother in 'The Scream'.

On the other hand, she advised an aspiring writer to read 'all' of a poet, then their 'life and letters' and then 'see what happens'. During her late, reluctant teaching career at Harvard she ran a course on the letter as an 'art form' which drew on correspondence not only by Keats and Co, but by her Aunt Grace and on letters 'found in the street'. Though her own letters and poems don't in general resemble each other, they do grow out of the same compost of everyday life.

Bishop described herself to Lowell as 'the loneliest person who ever lived', and she certainly bore more than her fair share of tragedy. She was an only child whose father died when she was a couple of months old, and whose mother was permanently confined in a psychiatric institution when she was five. Farmed out to various relatives throughout her childhood, she also led a wandering adult life, dogged by illness, alcoholism and self- doubt (she feared being seen as a 'minor female Wordsworth'). She suffered serious breakdowns and had to cope with those of two lovers and of her closest friend Lowell, as well as the suicide of her lover, Lota. Yet though they provide a vivid record of the kinds of misery her generation of poets was particularly prone to - Berryman, Jarrell, Plath, Sexton and Lowell himself lived equally ill-starred lives - the overall impression is far from bleak.

Bishop's letters, like her poems, shuttle between 'here' and 'elsewhere', 'civilised' and 'primitive', North and South, hot and cold, the city and the country. She writes from an enviable range of exotic addresses, but speaks often of homesickness. 'It is funny to come to Brazil to experience total recall about Nova Scotia,' she remarks, and her letters to distant friends provide bridges between worlds. If she was always 'an expatriate of sorts', she turned expatriation into a kind of vocation. Identifications with place give the letters and poems their raison d'etre.

As 'a New Englander herring-choker bluenoser' she made herself at home in dilapidated tropical Key West and Third World Brazil, but remained a tireless tourist, and her letters are, among other things, a pictorial travel diary. She is always sending Marianne Moore seeds, fruit, pictures of flora and fauna, and whether describing salamanders or toucans, fishes she's caught or bread she's baked, she wants to bring it home to the reader.

But travel is only one side of the coin. 'Crusoe in England', her great ex-colonial elegy and homosexual love poem, exclaims: 'Home-made, home- made] But aren't we all?' Perhaps because of her sad and unsettled early life, Bishop's poems and letters reveal an obsession with the home-made (amateur painting, nave art, samba, blues) and home-making. Most of the letters revolve around the pleasures and pains of the places where she lives - city apartments in Greenwich Village and Rio, an old colonial house in Ouro Preto, the modern house she shared outside Petropolis, her expensive wharfside apartment in Boston ('One is only old once'). One of the most dazzling letters, an inventory as succulent as any in Homer, is simply a list of places to shop in Boston.

At the book's centre, however, is Bishop's love-affair with Brazil and with a remarkable Brazilian woman, Lota de Macedo Soares, with whom she lived for 15 years. 'Wishes seem to come true here at such a rate one is almost afraid to make them,' she wrote in 1952. The letters to friends (those to Lota herself were later burned by Lota's family) give an intimate portrait of their relationship, from the honeymoon in Petropolis to the crisis during Lota's career as the architect resonsible for Flamengo Park in Rio and the terrible end with Lota's suicide in New York. Although she never 'came out' in public, the letters depict an often happy lesbian menage. They confirm that the more complex cultural settings and more intimate art of her last two books of poems are the fruit of her finding and losing a continent and a lover.

'The art of losing isn't hard to master', she writes in 'One Art', but the letters speak with endless fascination of the art of finding, 'the shock of recognition'. They also speak, like Keats's, of the recognitions of art - paintings (she opted for watercolour), music (she played the clavichord), and poetry (her idol was Hopkins). Above all they dramatise the dialogues with Moore and Lowell which shaped her poetic development.

The dazzling letters to Lowell are as central to the book as the affair with Lota. Worrying about his details, she speaks humorously of her 'Washington handicap': 'I can't tell a lie even for art, apparently; it takes an awful jolt to make me alter facts.' The letters show a writer brilliantly incapable of the kind of 'fine writing' which puts eloquence before fidelity. Fidelity, though, is complex, and 'At the Fishhouses' like many of her poems, grew out of a dream. She reminds us that 'it takes an infinite number of things coming together, forgotten, or almost forgotten, books, last night's dream, experiences past and present - to make a poem'. She never leaves us in any doubt that the hard-won formal life of her lyrics, like the vitality of these marvellous letters, is rooted in an obstinately unpostmodernist fidelity to what she calls in her last letter 'the way it is in real life'.