Robert Lowell

(1917 – 1977)



June 29, 2003

'Collected Poems': The Whole Lowell



By Robert Lowell.
Edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter.
1,186 pp. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $45

I am tired. Everyone's tired of my turmoil.'' The final line of Robert Lowell's ''Eye and Tooth,'' one of the many poems about depression in ''For the Union Dead'' (1964), feels ominously prescient of a decline in the poet's reputation after his death in 1977. Something like it happened to both Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot after their deaths in the mid-1960's. In Lowell's case, biographical accounts of his clinical dementia and concomitant unhappiness inflicted on others (''not avoiding injury to others, / not avoiding injury to myself,'' as words from ''The Dolphin'' put it) alienated some readers. In particular he was criticized for using, as material for poems, letters from his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, from whom he had separated. Although books and articles continued to appear about Lowell's life and poetry (biographies by Ian Hamilton and Paul Mariani; a collection of essays and memoirs about him edited by Jeffrey Meyers; an incisive short book, ''Damaged Grandeur,'' by Richard Tillinghast), claims for Lowell's centrality were less often made. It was as if, being early on crowned as America's premier poet and a ''political'' one to boot, Lowell had no place to go but down.

Frank Bidart, who writes the introduction to the ''Collected Poems'' he and David Gewanter have edited, was a student of Lowell's at Harvard in the 1960's and went on to become not only his friend but both ''amanuensis and sounding board'' for the poet's work. Bidart's efforts as a sounding board on Lowell's behalf were called into play particularly in the late 60's and early 70's, when Lowell wrote and rewrote the hundreds of unrhymed sonnets that appeared first in ''Notebook 1967-68,'' then in a revised ''Notebook'' (1970), then three years later -- rearranged, and with many new sonnets -- in ''History,'' ''For Lizzie and Harriet'' and ''The Dolphin.'' In one of the three sonnets from ''History'' titled ''Randall Jarrell,'' Lowell has his friend and fellow poet say to him, ''You didn't write, you rewrote.'' Bidart quotes this at the beginning of his introduction by way of admitting his own active participation in the process of Lowell's rewritings. That introduction (quite properly) doesn't make a case for Lowell's pre-eminence as a 20th-century American poet, but stresses instead the editors' attempt to look at every published instance of a Lowell poem and to include, in their notes, versions and lines that appeared elsewhere than in the published volumes. It is good to have included, among many other things in the notes and appendixes, magazine versions of such central poems to the Lowell canon as ''Beyond the Alps'' and ''Waking Early Sunday Morning.'' But I would hazard that, just as is the case with Yeats or Auden -- other great revisers of their own verse -- Lowell's interest for us does not depend upon his revisionary zealousness or obsession.

''Collected Poems'' includes 10 books of Lowell's, from ''Lord Weary's Castle'' (1946) to ''Day by Day'' (1977). ''Imitations'' is here, Lowell's renderings of other poets, but not his first book, ''Land of Unlikeness,'' which occupies the first of several appendixes. These also contain Lowell's versions of poems by Akhmatova and Mandelstam; various uncollected poems, some in manuscript; a short, delightful essay, ''After Enjoying Six or Seven Essays on Me,'' which he wrote near the end of his life; and a useful essay, ''On 'Confessional' Poetry,'' in which Bidart describes the sequence of the last four poems in the final section of ''Life Studies.'' There then follow 165 pages of notes, ranging from the very useful to the scarcely necessary. These notes avoid interpretations of individual poems and don't attempt to account for all textual changes.

Amodel example is the note to Lowell's early ''Colloquy in Black Rock'' (''Here the jack-hammer jabs into the ocean''), which locates the Connecticut neighborhood near Bridgeport where Lowell lived after his imprisonment for draft resistance. Black Rock was populated in part by workers at the Sikorsky helicopter factory, many of Hungarian descent, who attended St. Stephen's Roman Catholic Church -- thus the allusion to Hungary's first king and patron saint as well as to another Stephen, the first Christian martyr (''In Black Mud / Hungarian workmen give their blood / For the martyre Stephen, who was stoned to death''). Lowell's account of the poem's genesis is given, as well as a letter published in The Black Rock News about the geographical proximity of his house to the church. A query by T. S. Eliot, Lowell's editor at Faber, about the word ''detritus'' is mentioned, along with other bits of annotation that serious readers of Lowell will be informed by. At the other extreme, one wonders what conceivable reader of this volume will need to have Lent and Pax Romana glossed, to be informed that Tacitus and Juvenal are Roman writers, that ''Tess of the D'Urbervilles'' is by Thomas Hardy, and that Trollope is a ''novelist,'' Emerson an ''essayist'' and Thoreau the author of ''Walden.'' Still, assembling these notes is an achievement not to be minimized.

Bidart singles out Helen Vendler for her insistence that this edition of Lowell have notes, and over the past 35 years, she has provided, in a number of valuable essays that are the equivalent of a short book, the strongest case for Lowell's pre-eminence as the American poet of his time. The pre-eminence is clearly not a matter of superior technique -- in this realm he is excelled, or at least equaled, by his contemporaries Richard Wilbur, Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill and Anthony Hecht. But as Eliot put it, complicatedly, in ''The Sacred Wood,'' ''we cannot say at what point 'technique' begins or where it ends.'' Consideration of Lowell's technique as a poet must include the sense of how wide he cast his net, of how many men, women and events he engaged with, and of how much history or ''life'' he aspired to take in and send out in the poems. He once called Hart Crane the great poet of his (Crane's) generation in that ''he got out more than anybody else . . . he somehow got New York City; he was at the center of things in the way that no other poet was.'' In his poems and prose tributes, many of them to other writers, Lowell got more out of the midcentury American scene -- literary, cultural, political -- than anyone else. Vendler's name for his peculiar quality was ''difficult grandeur.'' No one will deny the grandeur, from ''Lord Weary'' through the hundreds of sonnets; but assessments of the difficulty that went along with it vary, as seen in the divergent verdicts by serious poets and critics of his contribution to poetry over all.

That important poets show a power of development over their careers has been the assumption on which we measure the majorness of a Yeats, an Eliot. But the notion has also been countered by as major a poet as Philip Larkin, who once alluded to Oscar Wilde's quip about how only mediocrities develop. There is no question that Lowell ''developed'' in the sense of a gradual stylistic unfolding over a career of books: from the rhymed, brutally enjambed pentameters of ''Lord Weary,'' to the modified free verse of ''Life Studies,'' to the public address of octosyllabic couplets in ''Near the Ocean,'' to the jammed unrhymed abruptness of the sonnets, to the final free verse explorations of ''Day by Day.'' But Lowell's development in the sense of an achieved maturity, a higher instance of the display of human powers in poetry, is a more contested subject, especially with reference to the poems written after ''For the Union Dead.'' I have in mind not only what Larkin most likely thought about Lowell's sonnets, but also what such good poets and critics of poetry as Donald Hall and Donald Davie, Denis Donoghue and Clive James said in print about them and about ''Day by Day.'' But then, as Jarrell once put it, ''if you never look just wrong to your contemporaries, you will never look just right to posterity.''

For this reader, a trip through ''Collected Poems,'' read in the order they appeared, enforces Lowell's sense of tonic -- and Eliotic -- restlessness with any perfected style. (As Eliot said in ''Little Gidding'': ''For last year's words belong to last year's language / And next year's words await another voice.'') So the unyielding rhetorical overkill of ''Lord Weary'' and its successor narratives in ''The Mills of the Kavanaughs'' (''The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,'' ''Between the Porch and the Altar,'' ''After the Surprising Conversions,'' ''Her Dead Brother'') provokes, with ''Beyond the Alps'' as a hinge or pivot, the rueful, humorous, ironic voice of the ''Life Studies'' section of ''Life Studies,'' from which lines like the following are as fresh and irresistible as when I first encountered them 45 years ago: ''Anchors aweigh, Daddy boomed in his bathtub''; ''Dearest, I cannot loiter here / in lather like a polar bear''; ''Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother's bed''; ''There are no Mayflower / screwballs in the Catholic Church.'' Humor is a feeble word for the deeply satisfying twists made by such lines, and they are all over ''Life Studies.'' Five years later, we hear the depressed, regretful tenor, again ''frizzled, stale and small,'' of most of the poems in ''For the Union Dead''; then at book's end the title poem, which moves beyond private turmoil into civic, momentous statement. About a number of poems in these two volumes it can be said what Jarrell said about ''one or two'' of them in ''Lord Weary'' -- that they ''will be read as long as men remember English.''

No such consensus exists about the late Lowell. After I. A. Richards read and reread ''Notebook 1967-68,'' he wrote a letter to the poet that was probably not sent, and one can see why Richards might have held it back as he explains to Lowell why he can't ''understand justly'' these poems: ''The tone, the address, the reiteration, the lacunae in convexity, the privacy of the allusions, the use of references which only the Ph.D. duties of the 1990's will explain, the recourse to contemporary crudities, the personal note, the 'it's enough if I say it' air, the assumption that 'you must sympathize with my moans, my boredom, my belches' . . . puzzle me.'' This from the great construer himself! Recurrent readings of those sonnets and further ones in ''The Dolphin'' never quite put Richards's complaints to rest. Even Lowell's loyal friend from Kenyon College days, John Thompson, noted that the sonnet's brevity ''relieves the poet of the burden of exposition and encourages him to get lyric about anything that catches his fancy.'' My own favorite sonnets are the ones about older writers -- Frost, Eliot, Pound, Williams, Ford and others -- where the ''convexity'' Richards had trouble with feels stronger and where Lowell's mischievous humor is most evident. (''Robert Frost at midnight, the audience gone / to vapor, the great act laid on the shelf in mothballs.'') Still, one could name 30 or 40 of the sonnets with passages gripping enough to lodge them in our minds and ears.

Bishop once told Lowell she envied him the authority granted him as a poet just by being a Lowell rather than, say, her Uncle Artie. A mixed blessing of course, but if the equivalent of Uncle Artie had written ''Day by Day,'' published shortly before Lowell died, it would have seemed slack and listless -- as, in fact, the book was judged to be by some reviewers. Only when we read ''Day by Day'' as a ''Life Studies'' written 20 years later, by a poet who knows his career as a writer and his life as a man are about to end, does its beauty and pathos emerge.

Some would call this special pleading; but read in this splendid edition and after the noise and flash of the sonnets, Lowell's final book has the ring of inevitability about it, as a last reinvention, painful and sometimes breathtakingly delicate, of the man who said to Bidart, months before he died, ''I don't know the value of what I've written, but I know that I changed the game.''

William H. Pritchard teaches English at Amherst College. A collection of his essays and reviews, ''Shelf Life,'' has just been published.


June 15, 2003

The Vicissitudes of Literary Reputation



Lost literary reputation is fragile and fleeting, and the reputation of poets especially so. Their stock is traded on a Nasdaq of singular cruelty and volatility. We still read Hemingway and Fitzgerald, for example, but who reads Edna St. Vincent Millay, in her lifetime just as celebrated as her two contemporaries? Almost as famous was Edwin Arlington Robinson, whose best-selling Arthurian trilogy -- ''Merlin,'' ''Lancelot'' and ''Tristram'' -- is something that few readers now would want to linger over, particularly if they were hoping to stay alert enough to drive or operate heavy machinery.

Sometimes death is the making of a poet's reputation, as in the case of Sylvia Plath, the details of whose suicide -- the towel under the door, the unlighted oven hissing gas, the sleeping children in the next room -- lent both poignance and a certain creepy glamour to her posthumous work. Sometimes a poet dies, spends a term in limbo and then is resurrected in a different guise altogether. This is what happened to Robert Frost, who at the time of his death in 1963 was generally considered to be a New England folkie -- the homespun bard of stony walls and snowy evenings. In 1977, the third volume of Lawrance Thompson's biography suggested that Frost was a much nastier piece of work than anyone had imagined; a few years later, thanks to the reappraisal of critics like William H. Pritchard and Harold Bloom and of younger poets like Joseph Brodsky, he bounced back again, this time as a bleak and unforgiving modernist.

But most of the time, death for poets is what it is for the rest of us -- the beginning of that slow, inexorable process of being forgotten. Take the case of Robert Lowell. When he died, in 1977, Lowell was by far the most famous American poet of his era. The only figure of comparable renown was Allen Ginsberg, but Ginsberg was never embraced by the critics the way Lowell was; with his ohm-ing and his finger cymbals, Ginsberg had become a kind of self-caricature. Lowell was cool, but he was also dignified, and his reputation seemed secure and indelible. Within a couple of decades, though, he had all but fallen off the map. His books slipped out of sight, his poems disappeared from reading lists and course catalogs. Almost nobody talked about him -- especially in the writing programs, where younger poets go to learn what they self-consciously call their ''craft.'' Increasingly, Lowell looked like the end of a line and the last of his kind -- the Great American Poet (White Male Div.).

How are the mighty brought so low? In Lowell's case it was probably inevitable. For a while, he loomed so large that he crowded everyone else off the stage. There was a time in the mid-60's when you couldn't pick up the paper without reading about Lowell. When he declined Lyndon Johnson's invitation to read at the White House in 1965, it made Page 1. Lowell actually took Shelley's wishful pronouncement seriously, believing that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world. He was a familiar figure at protests against the Vietnam War, and also on the campaign trail, where he served as unofficial consigliere to Eugene McCarthy (a closet poet himself).

Lowell had the good fortune to come of age at a time when poetry hadn't completely gone out of fashion. Eliot and the religion of modernism were still in high regard, and it was even possible for a poet to be awarded a photo spread in Life magazine, as Lowell was in 1947. He was also lucky in his genes. He was a Boston aristocrat -- a Winslow on his mother's side and, on his father's side, connected to the Cambridge Lowells, one of New England's formidable ruling clans. Lowell looked like a poet (White Male Div.). He was big and imposing, with handsome, almost Roman features that were never entirely obscured by those nerdy black glasses he often wore. As he aged and let his hair grow long, he came more and more to resemble someone out of the Old Testament. He also sounded like a poet, intoning his verse in an accent that was part Boston Brahmin, part Southern drawl (an overlay acquired from his teachers). Most of all, Lowell wrote like a poet, in language that was grand, sonorous and memorable. If you were an English major in the 60's, you probably still remember the first time you read ''For the Union Dead,'' with those excoriating last lines:

. . . Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

Even the dullest among us knew that this was the genuine article.

But fashions change, and waiting in the wings for Lowell to get off the stage were quieter, less stentorian poets like John Ashbery (whose style was more elusive and almost surreal) and James Merrill, who was more elegant and witty. The poet whose reputation most benefited from Lowell's demotion was his friend Elizabeth Bishop, the contemporary poet he most admired and who most influenced him. Hers was a case of a poetic stock that had been severely undervalued for years -- in part because she was the opposite of Lowell: private, retiring and unprolific. Though Bishop herself hated identity politics of any sort, her reputation also benefited tremendously from the groundswell of interest in feminist and lesbian poets, and on most campuses now she has far more stature than Lowell. She is indisputably part of the canon, while his ultimate ranking is still uncertain.

Even during Lowell's lifetime his reputation had a dark side: drinking, affairs, public outbursts. To a point this did him no harm; we like our poets to be tarnished angels. But in 1973, Lowell alienated much of the literary community with ''The Dolphin,'' a volume of poems describing his affair with the British novelist Lady Caroline Blackwood and the breakup of his second marriage, to Elizabeth Hardwick: not only did the volume explicitly refer to Hardwick and to their daughter, Harriet; it even quoted some of Hardwick's personal and imploring letters. Everyone to whom Lowell showed the manuscript counseled against publishing it, but Lowell somehow thought he could lessen the sting by simply rearranging the order of the sections. He was crushed by the hostile reception it got.

Lowell and Blackwood married a year before ''The Dolphin'' came out, and the union proved to be toxic and combustible. ''I'm manic,'' Lowell said once, ''and Caroline's panic.'' What began as bliss ended in exhaustion and distrust, and a nightmare for hotel chambermaids on both sides of the Atlantic as the couple left behind a trail of broken glass, bloody towels and empty vodka bottles. Worn out and in poor health, Lowell eventually left Blackwood and died in a cab on his way back to the long-suffering Hardwick. (He was clutching a portrait of Lady Caroline.)

The damage to his reputation was compounded in 1982 with the publication of Ian Hamilton's biography. While not unsympathetic to Lowell, Hamilton revealed a number of secrets that had been known only to intimates -- not only was Jean Stafford's nose shattered, for example, in an accident caused by Lowell's reckless driving (that was legend), but after they were married, in 1940, he socked her and broke the nose again. The last half of his book becomes a sad and unrelenting catalog of the cycle of mania, breakdown and hospitalization that dogged Lowell all his life. That he had been treated for mental illness was no surprise to his readers. A stay at McLean Hospital is the subject of his famous poem ''Waking in the Blue,'' the one whose third stanza begins:

This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean's;
the hooded night lights bring out ''Bobbie,''
Porcellian '29,
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig —
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.

But Hamilton's biography made it clear that mental illness -- its manic outbursts (Lowell would send cables to the pope, conduct operas while standing at his seat in the audience), its depressive aftermath -- was a more constant part of his life than anyone except his closest friends knew, and they of course also remembered the many happier, saner moments, which the biography inevitably tended to slight.

If you were going to orchestrate a poet's reputation, the biography would come out after a hefty selection of the poet's letters, perhaps, and certainly after a big, career-capping volume of the poet's collected work. The collected volume is the equivalent, in the poetry world, of the major museum retrospective; it's also what keeps poets in the syllabus and on the reading lists. The model here is the posthumous career of James Merrill. Whatever his biography (which is in the works) does or doesn't reveal about Merrill, it will be in the context of the sumptuous volume of his collected poems, which came out just six years after his death, in 1995, and demonstrated that Merrill was an even more considerable poet than had been thought.

In Lowell's case, that collected volume, so necessary to solidifying a poet's reputation, is only just now making its way to the shelves, edited by Lowell's literary executor, Frank Bidart, and by David Gewanter. There are several reasons for the 25-year delay, chief among them that Lowell, like Wordsworth and Auden, was a tireless and obsessive rewriter. Revising for him wasn't just an afterthought but an essential part of the creative process, and in a sense none of his poems were ever truly finished. Just assembling and sorting through the various texts was an exhausting editorial enterprise. Then, though this had not been part of the original plan, Bidart decided that the poems needed to be annotated. But finally what delayed the ''Collected Poems'' was the same thing that kept Penelope at her loom. The longer Bidart worked on the project, the more reluctant he was to finish. ''I loved Lowell -- he mattered enormously,'' Bidart said recently. ''And in a funny way to end this book was like losing him all over again.''

In fact the book restores him -- not Lowell the basket case but Lowell the master. And the ''Collected Poems,'' if you read it more or less in chronological order, supplies another kind of biography, the story of how a great poet finds and then refines his voice. Unlike Merrill, whose early poems were precociously (almost eerily) polished and proficient, Lowell was not a natural. He decided to become a poet while still in prep school, but his ambition far outstripped his early accomplishment. Among other things, he disdained the advice of one of his teachers, Richard Eberhart, that poetry ought to give pleasure. His early work, stiff, labored and artificial, was not much fun at all, and it was hardly a blessing for Lowell's poetry when in 1941 he briefly but fervently converted to Catholicism (so fervently, according to Ian Hamilton, that he stopped sleeping with his wife at the time, Jean Stafford). Lowell's first book, ''Land of Unlikeness'' (published in 1944), contains some promising poems, but also lots of dreadful, Hopkins-inspired verse:

Oh, if soldiers mind you well
They shall find you are their belle
    And belly too;
Christ's bread and beauty came by you,
Celestial Hoyden, when our Lord
Gave up the weary Ghost and died. . . .

Lowell's next two volumes, ''Lord Weary's Castle'' (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947) and ''The Mills of the Kavanaughs,'' which came out in 1951, were notable improvements but not exactly easygoing. Written mostly in enjambed blank verse, these poems stomp on the sound-effects pedal (lots of alliteration and piled-up consonants) and are so dense in their layers of reference that you don't so much read them as unpeel them, layer by layer.

Lowell's great breakthrough came in 1959 with the publication of ''Life Studies,'' a book that transformed American poetry. Lowell dropped the pentameter line in favor of one that was shorter and freer, and he discovered so-called confessional poetry: he wrote about his family and his ancestors, about his own breakdowns and depressions. What resulted was poetry that was both formal and colloquial (and even funny), both personal and public, as Lowell turned himself into a kind of midcentury Everyman. The poems were memorable in a way that so much contemporary verse is not, because of the way they managed to combine language that was genuinely ''poetic'' with the ease and naturalness of everyday speech:

One dark night,
My Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the
  town. . . .

These and the poems that followed in ''For the Union Dead,'' five years later, were the ones that so many English majors thrilled to, and that made Lowell, in his way, the rock star of American lit -- the heartbreaking poems about Lowell's father, humming ''Anchors Aweigh'' in the bathtub or swaying, ''bronzed, breezy, a shade too ruddy,'' after downing his bourbon old-fashioned; the sexy poems about his marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick:

. . . Oh my Petite,
clearest of all God's creatures, still all air and nerve:
you were in your twenties, and I,
once hand on glass
and heart in mouth,
outdrank the Rahvs in the heat
of Greenwich Village, fainting at your feet —

Had you stumbled on these poems from someplace else on the assigned reading list, you might have been taken aback. They weren't ostensibly about the great poetic subjects: mortality, good versus evil and beauty and truth and the like. They were about getting along with your relatives, about being horny and depressed, about waking up in the loony bin. But they talked about these subjects in language at once so natural and so elevated, so classical and colloquial, that they invested ordinariness with a kind of grandeur.

If Lowell had never published another word after ''For the Union Dead,'' he would still deserve a place in the anthologies, but in fact he went on to write a great deal more -- so much that the critics and scholars, those who haven't written him off, are still trying to come to grips with it all. In 1973 alone, he published three separate volumes of what he termed sonnets -- unrhymed 14-line poems -- and then toward the end of his life, in ''Day by Day,'' there was a last, late flowering of poems in a relaxed and conversational meter. Not all of these are great, the sonnets especially. Some are boring, some almost impenetrable, but they are written with a conviction that now seems almost quaint. Unlike so many contemporary poets, Lowell never wrote poetry about poetry, or worried about the insufficiency of words to stand for what they signify.

Lowell may have belonged to the last generation to believe seriously in the poetic vocation. His friends and colleagues, all born around World War I, included Bishop, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman and Theodore Roethke. They didn't imagine themselves teachers of creative writing who would turn out the occasional slim volume; they saw themselves as the heirs to, and the equals of, Yeats and Eliot. (Lowell on occasion even compared himself with Milton.) They believed, as Eileen Simpson, Berryman's first wife, wrote in her memoir, ''Poets in Their Youth,'' that poetry must be the ''ruling passion'' of life.

They were all a little nuts, of course -- or, in the case of Lowell and Schwartz, more than a little sometimes. Except for the teetotaling Jarrell, they were all alcoholic, and they smoked like chimneys. Berryman killed himself, and Jarrell most likely did. The rest died, in poor health, long before they should have. Major American poet, mid-20th century -- it's not a job description or a lifestyle that you would wish upon anyone.

Part of their misery was that so few people were paying attention. Poets have always complained about the smallness (and unfitness) of their audience, of course, and in fact the mid-20th century was not such a bad moment for being a poet in America. It was a far better moment than the early 21st century is -- when poetry has become an art form with more practitioners than actual readers. But already back then, Berryman and Schwartz, in particular, were complaining bitterly about the poet's insignificance in American culture, about a decline in readership and in critical attention. The poet must dedicate himself to poetry, Schwartz wrote, even though ''no one else seems likely to read what he writes; and he must be indestructible as a poet until he is destroyed as a human being.''

What kept them going was that they were besotted with poetry and, despite themselves, with dreams of its possibilities. They stayed up all night reciting, arguing and declaiming, and then the next day they wrote impassioned letters of quarrel and encouragement to one another.

Poems still get written, naturally, but the flames, one suspects, don't burn quite so hot these days. Poets behave better, live longer and probably settle for less. If someone of Lowell-like talent and Lowell-like ambition were to come along now, it's not a given that poetry would be his or her No. 1 career choice. If you had a literary bent and really wanted to become famous and leave a stamp on your generation, you would write novels or screenplays. Or, better yet, you would set your verses to a bass line and become a rap artist.

Charles McGrath is the editor of The New York Times Book Review.



Turbulence and Grace
'Collected Poems' by Robert Lowell

Reviewed by Sunil Iyengar

Sunday, August 3, 2003; Page BW05

By Robert Lowell
Farrar Straus Giroux. 1186 pp. $45

It is unfortunate that a talent so vast and varied as Robert Lowell's should have been labeled "confessional" upon publication of his groundbreaking volume, Life Studies, in 1959. There is nothing remotely illicit about Lowell's revelations, though what he chooses to tell us is often tinged with sacramental awe. Reviewing Life Studies, one would be better advised to call Lowell (1917-1977) a documentary poet, since everything he writes has the aura of authenticity, an insistence on a public dimension.

In "Epilogue," the poem that closes Lowell's last book, Day By Day (1977), he embraces fidelity as his ruling aesthetic:

Pray for the grace of accuracy

Vermeer gave to the sun's illumination

stealing like the tide across a map

to his girl solid with yearning.

As Lowell's Imitations (1961) suggests, however, accuracy is not always best served by literal translation. In that volume, "written from time to time when I was unable to do anything of my own," Lowell strove to replicate "tone" more than content, and his versions of Rilke, Montale, Villon and Baudelaire almost contend as original poems. Nevertheless, Lowell's manipulation of his source material betrays a gruff, at times awkward bid for mastery that runs throughout his career. ("I have dropped lines, moved lines, moved stanzas, changed images and altered meter and intent," he says in the preface, a freewheeling boast that only hints at his true desperation: Lowell will realign the very planets if his own constellations can stand out more starkly.)

"Robert Lowell was above all an audacious maker," Frank Bidart writes in the introduction to Collected Poems, and certainly the overpowering presumption of Lowell's genius was evident at the very start -- right from Lord Weary's Castle (1946), the Pulitzer Prize winner with its tour de force "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket." In this elegy, patterned after Milton's "Lycidas" -- a poem Lowell coveted all his life -- the violence of a cousin's drowning is echoed by rocky enjambments and cold consonants:

Guns, cradled on the tide,

Blast the eelgrass about a waterclock

Of bilge and backwash, roil the salt and sand

Lashing earth's scaffold, rock

Our warship in the hand

Of the great God, where time's contrition blues

Whatever it was these Quaker sailors lost

In the mad scramble of their lives.

Seamus Heaney has remarked of the poem: "Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Rimbaud, Lycidas himself . . . all of them press in at the four corners of the page, taut-cheeked genii of the storm. . . . 'Take note, Hopkins,' [the poem] cries, 'Take note, Melville. And reader, take that!' "

Small wonder that Lowell appropriated poetic tradition with the deftness of an heir-apparent. This was the poet, after all, who arrived in 1937 at Southern poet-critic Allen Tate's front door, demanding tutelage; when told there was no room for him, Lowell drove to Sears and returned with a tent, which he promptly pitched in Tate's front yard.

Besides demonstrating Lowell's uncanny forcefulness, the incident portrays the poet's heightened sense of self -- a poor euphemism for the manic-depressive episodes he would soon encounter, repeatedly, in full force. It is a delicate task to merge case history with literary criticism, but in an era when Lowell's "personal struggle with manic depression" is advertised in the flap copy of the Collected Poems, what's a reviewer to do? Certainly one troubling aspect of the Collected Poems is a self-intoxication that haunts The Dolphin (for which Lowell earned another Pulitzer), For Lizzie and Harriet and History, all published in 1973. Employing unrhymed 14-liners, a prosy approximation of the sonnet form, this section of Lowell's oeuvre "sticks like a fishbone/ in the [book's] throat" -- to savage a phrase from his earlier masterpiece "For The Union Dead."

Although Lowell endorsed his metrical innovation as "a roomier stanza," able to "say almost anything conversation or correspondence can," the 1973 volumes read like a voice trained inward. Lacking the momentum or sudden shift in register (the "turn") we seek in a genuine sonnet, Lowell's 14-liners expose his mannerisms as liabilities. He could always be unrepentantly obscure: Schooled by the New Critics of the '30s and '40s, he dispensed symbols and Catholic religious imagery in his early years as if trying to supply model texts for William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). By the late 1960s, though, Lowell was not observing the rules of high modernism. Instead, his opaqueness resulted from his compulsion to engage with everything under the sun, without priority or selectivity. (Titles from History include "Mary Stuart," "Thoreau 2," "Che Guevara," "Stalin," "Israel 3" and "Norman Mailer.") Too often, consequently, the 14-liners come off as transcripts, abetted by Lowell's controversial practice of poaching correspondence from his second ex-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick.

For all the forcefulness, there are moments in these volumes, particularly in History, when Lowell strikes the note of tranquil, unmediated observation he first sounded in Life Studies. In "The March 2," he recollects with gratitude his delivery from a Vietnam War protest, where he nearly got trampled.

Health to those who held,

health to the green steel head . . . to your kind hands

that helped me stagger to my feet, and flee.

Such concessions of grace and vulnerability would not be so affecting without more turbulent stanzas to set them off. The "Our Lady of Walsingham" section within "The Quaker Graveyard" realizes a similar cooling-off function. Life Studies and For The Union Dead (1964) are rich with angles of repose; in "My Last Afternoon With Uncle Devereux Winslow," the child Lowell cannot resist

daydreaming, despite his intimations of mortality:

I picked with a clean finger nail at the blue anchor

on my sailor blouse washed white as a spinnaker.

What in the world was I wishing?

. . . A sail-colored horse browsing in the bulrushes . . .

A fluff of the west wind puffing

my blouse, kiting me over our seven chimneys,

troubling the waters

In Near The Ocean (1967), Lowell calls this kind of reverie the "criminal leisure" of boyhood. The poem is "Waking Early Sunday Morning," and in a stanza adopted from Andrew Marvell, it quests for an absolute freedom, which is of course elusive:

O to break loose. All life's grandeur

is something with a girl in summer . . .

elated as the President

girdled by his establishment

this Sunday morning, free to chaff

his own thoughts with his bear-cuffed staff,

swimming nude, unbuttoned, sick

of his ghost-written rhetoric!

Poems such as the frequently anthologized "Skunk Hour" also crave that freedom, even as they diagnose the sickness and decay of an old order. Lowell, with the double burden of his madness and his distinguished New England heritage, thirsted for liberation more than most. He ultimately found it in several places -- by becoming a conscientious objector during World War II, by befriending Southern writers such as Peter Taylor and Randall Jarrell, by participating in the political life of the 1960s -- but nowhere is his pained quest more obvious than in Collected Poems, a monument to his sprawling, untidy talent and his courageous attempts to make it cohere. •

Sunil Iyengar is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.



A Life's Study
Why Robert Lowell is America's most important career poet.
By A.O. Scott
Posted Friday, June 20, 2003, at 12:32 PM PT

In his introduction to Robert Lowell's Collected Poems, just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Frank Bidart writes that Lowell, his friend and sometime mentor, was "above all an audacious maker—in poetry, one of the greatest makers of the twentieth century." This is, of course, what the editor of a book like this—nearly 1,200 pages, with textual variants, explanatory notes, and no fewer than seven appendices—is supposed to say, but there is something implicitly revisionist (and even slightly defensive) about Bidart's claim. When Robert Lowell died at 60 in 1977, he was a literary celebrity with the kind of renown granted few poets. The two biographies that have subsequently appeared—the first by Ian Hamilton and the second by Paul Mariani—are both, accordingly, high-minded exercises in celebrity dish, full of gossipy detail about Lowell's marital troubles, mental illness, and illustrious friendships. For more than 20 years, Lowell seemed to be more read about than read. Bidart's goal of restoring Lowell to his rightful place as a great poet may therefore require rescuing the poet from his biographers. But this, in turn, may entail rescuing his poems from their content. In her back-cover blurb, Helen Vendler argues that "The subject of these poems will eventually become extinct … but the indelible mark of their impression on a single sensibility will remain, in Lowell's votive sculpture, bronzed to imperishability." (Or, as Lowell himself might have put it, rather less humidly, "The immortal is scraped unconsenting from the mortal.") All the strange, shocking, fascinating detail in the biographies—the Brahmin childhood, the religious crises, the imprisonment for refusing military service in World War II, the three scorched marriages, the breakdowns and hospitalizations—was in the poetry first.

So, can Lowell be appreciated, as Vendler and Bidart propose, on primarily formal grounds when his poems rely so formidably on acquaintance with the staggering range of his worldly and personal references—from Aeneas to Jonathan Edwards to Lowell's beloved cousin Harriett Winslow? And will the poems survive the passing of the culture that spawned them? 

This volume is imposing, and, like any such collection, it poses a challenge to the most determined reader. Even the greatest poets, nowadays, survive mainly through the study of a small number of essential, widely anthologized texts. In Lowell's case, these probably include "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," "Skunk Hour," "For the Union Dead," "Waking Early Sunday Morning," "The Dolphin," and "Epilog," a selection that gives some sense of his stylistic range. The Collected may expand that canon somewhat, inviting renewed appreciation for previously underrated work, like the elegant Marvell-esque epistles from Near the Ocean or the dramatic monologues, some of the best in the language since Browning, that make up most of The Mills of the Kavanaughs. More likely, though, the handsomely printed book will reward browsing, and only scholars will read it through.

Which is a shame because the best way to read Lowell's Collected Poems is straight through, from beginning to end. I'm exaggerating slightly, of course. The three sonnet sequences Lowell published in 1973—History, For Lizzie and Harriett, and The Dolphin—occupy nearly 300 pages, and reading them, one damn sonnet after the other, induces more stupor than rapture. But every great novel has its longueurs to compensate for the moments of high drama and vivid description. To read Lowell in sequence is to discover that he was indeed a supreme maker—not just of individual lyrics, but of sequences, of books (which he ordered and reordered with the same fanatical care he brought to lines and stanzas), and, above all, of his own biography. This is not to say that the book is an accidental memoir. It is, instead, a big, sprawling novel, the narrative of a career, an epic story of poetic ambition. Which means, given the poet and the times, that it is a story about both the eclipse and the apotheosis of such ambition.

The story starts with Lowell's first major book, Lord Weary's Castle. (His first published book, Land of Unlikeness, which includes earlier versions of many of the poems in Lord Weary, is exiled to an appendix.) "A talent whose ceiling is invisible," Randall Jarrell exclaimed in The Nation, and Lowell's youthful command of the machinery of English verse is indeed impressive. His harshly enjambed iambic lines have extraordinary momentum, propelling you though dense thickets of metaphor and allusion, which resolve into moments of gorgeous clarity and calm. The language is heightened, formal, thunderous, and it articulates a severe, uncompromising religious vision, calling down the judgment of God on an errant civilization.

The poems are populated by figures from New England's past, including some of Lowell's own ancestors. But Lowell, descended on both sides from prominent Yankee families, had undertaken a twofold rebellion against his inheritance, rejecting Harvard for Kenyon College and the bleached-out Puritanism of the Congregational Church for a notably sanguinary, "fire-breathing" Catholicism. Kenyon, where Lowell went to study with John Crowe Ransome and Allen Tate, was the northern outpost of the Southern Agrarians, a group of writers who saw the traditional values of the South as an antidote to modern technological capitalism. Lowell's newfound literary and religious allegiances were, in his mind, complementary because they shared a common historical enemy: northern, Protestant, industrial American civilization. Opposition to it, and the ransacking of the past for alternatives, had been, throughout the first half of the 20th century, a central impulse of literary modernism, linking such otherwise disparate figures as Van Wyck Brooks, William Carlos Williams, and T.S. Eliot.

Lowell's beliefs were sincere, but they were also, given the nature of his ambitions, quite useful. To write from the perspective of eternity—to be able to say, at the end of "The Quaker Graveyard," that "The Lord survives the rainbow of his will" and to know whereof you speak—is to have access to an authoritative language that very few modern, secular poets can claim. And not many have cared to. At least in America, those who attempt visionary rhetoric do so in the Whitmanian, democratic vein while others, following William Carlos Williams, prefer a language that is practical, skeptical, and conversational.

Perhaps for that reason, the confident, militant faith of Lowell's first poems came, almost immediately, to crisis. Lord Weary ends with an ecstatic perception of divine presence, in the form of the "dove of Jesus" descending over the golden dome of the Massachusetts statehouse. Its sequel, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, begins and ends with God's silence. In the final poem, "Thanksgiving's Over," the speaker, a Catholic New Yorker, prays feverishly to soothe the memory of his wife's death: "I counted to ten thousand, found/ My cowhorn beads from Dublin and ground/ them, Miserere? Not a sound."

The Mills of the Kavanaughs, a strange, often obscure book, is Lowell's most neglected—Lowell's pal Randall Jarrell disparaged him for "grinding away at all the things he does best" in it. But it is the crucial chapter in the poet's saga. The theological argument that animated Lord Weary is refracted here, in a series of historical narratives, which attempt to rewrite the dynastic history of New England in a Faulknerian key. The title poem, prefaced like several others by a convoluted plot summary, is a harrowing, semiopaque story of murder, jealousy, and quasi-incestuous love set in a decaying aristocratic mansion—a plantation Gothic whose ruined textile mill is in Maine instead of Mississippi.

No longer haunted by God, these poems are haunted by history, shaped (and perhaps misshapen) by the impulse to implant individual destinies and memories within a grand and comprehensive scheme. The failure of this project is the subject of Life Studies, which begins with the poet coming down to earth— "Much against my will/ I left the city of God where it belongs"—and entering the mundane world of family, career, and prose. The poem is about Lowell's abandonment of Catholicism, but it also foretells the transformation of his identity as a poet, a transformation that gives Life Studies its pathos and its shape. As the lofty vistas of history give way to the details of domestic life, the charged, hurtling meters and furious rhymes give way to a looser, softer prosody. In an interview, Lowell described the book as "a breakthrough back into life." Certainly, it helped open the door for a literature of introspection and personal disclosure—known as the "confessional" tradition—that has since come to dominate both poetry and prose.

The poetry of Lowell's Southern/Catholic phase had been at once patricidal and patriarchal, obsessed with the demonic and heroic personalities of his aristocratic, warrior ancestors. But in the dry irony of "91 Revere Street," a prose fragment that constitutes the second section of the book, these are revealed to be figures of Henry James, not Faulkner. In some sense, the decline of Robert Lowell's father from naval officer to middling, buffoonish executive at the Lever Brothers' soap company completes Lowell's heroic phase. Whomever his ancestors might have been—murderers, conquerors, apostates—his immediate background was banal and bourgeois, and his calling was to be neither scourge nor prophet, but rather a middle-class man of letters.

And, as such, he flourished, gathering more and more laurels and composing mordant, memorable lyrics on his own affairs and affairs of state. Which is not to say that he was happy. But the political anxieties expressed in "For the Union Dead" and "Near The Ocean," the marital collapse wrenchingly recorded in "The Dolphin," and the melancholy intimations of mortality in "Day by Day" are addressed with a weary equanimity that seems, today, remarkably candid about both the limits and the capabilities of poetry.

And yet the question that continues to trouble Lowell—what keeps him writing against paralyzing forces of distress, in the long half of his career following Life Studies—is still how the individual human destiny is linked to a larger history and how poetry, in illuminating the link, can protect the human image from oblivion.

Whether poetry can do so at all, of course, will always be in doubt. ("I'm learning to live in history," Lowell wrote. "What is history? What you cannot touch.") Lowell's story, of heretical, Promethean ambition dragged to earth and chastened, has struck a number of critics over the years as overly melodramatic, and Lowell, since his death, has been somewhat overshadowed by less self-aggrandizing contemporaries like Elizabeth Bishop or Frank O'Hara, who neither made inordinate claims for the authority of poetry nor a big fuss when those claims proved to be untenable.

They left behind bodies of work, whereas Lowell, like Yeats and Milton and very few others, left behind the monumental narrative of a career, which may well, curiously enough, be remembered longer than any single poem he wrote. It is the entirety of that story—the saga of an audacious maker struggling with the raw materials of history, personality, and language—that gives so many of the poems their aura of courage and pathos.

A.O. Scott is a film critic at the New York Times.

"Reading Myself" reproduced courtesy of the estate of Robert Lowell and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.


Madness and scandal, outlived by art

Collected Poems., Robert Lowell Edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1,186 pp., $45

By Caroline Fraser

June 22 2003

In the words of his friend Frank Bidart, Robert Lowell was "not quite civilized," not because Lowell was occasionally outrageous or intermittently out of his mind, although he was. He once camped, uninvited, for months on the lawn of his mentor, Allen Tate; he broke the nose of his first wife, Jean Stafford, once by accident, once on purpose; he altered and published the personal letters of his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, in his lacerating poems about his third, Lady Caroline Blackwood. Lowell was "not quite civilized," Bidart says, because he was "unfashionably — even, at times, ruthlessly — serious." He once told Bidart: "When I'm dead, I don't care what you write about me; all I ask is that it be serious."

Lowell died in 1977, so there has been a rather extraordinary delay — a quarter of a century — in publishing his "Collected Poems," remarkable considering that Lowell was nothing less than the most renowned, most lauded, most influential poet of his day, the last to command the public stage, featured on the cover of Time and called, by one critic, "the greatest poet writing in English." Indeed, Lowell's celebrity was so exalted that he still inspires envy: The poet Donald Hall recently went so far as to suggest in the Boston Globe that Lowell's reputation has dwindled, saying, "You don't hear his name much."

But the delay — having allowed the melodramatic dust of the life to settle — has resulted in an edition as unfashionably, ruthlessly serious as the poet himself, one he doubtless would have appreciated. Edited by Bidart and David Gewanter, it features an unusually elaborate scholarly apparatus for a collected work: notes, chronology, bibliography, even a glossary. While I am not persuaded it was necessary to unearth every magazine version of virtually every poem on the chance it might yield material for those notes — an eccentrically Lowellian, revisionary task that Bidart attempts to justify in the introduction, which doubtless added years to the project — its riches will be a treasure for any curious, involved reader eager to penetrate Lowell's allusive poems.

Regardless of the current state of the poet's reputation or how often his name is bandied about by lesser lights, the magnitude of Lowell's achievement — an achievement won against horrific odds — can now come fully and magnificently into view. "We only live between / before we are and what we were," Lowell once wrote, but his work in this "Collected Poems" stands secure, timeless, outside the relatively brief span that was his bedeviled life.

That life, the subject of an excellent biography by Ian Hamilton and a mediocre one by Paul Mariani, should be approached with caution: The narrator of the poems is an ever-evolving voice, not a literal autobiographer, but the life is nonetheless a crucial starting point. Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV was born in Boston in 1917 — scion of Winslows and Lowells, Boston's oldest, most illustrious clans — and the only child of a weak-willed, mumbling naval officer, Robert Lowell III, and his cold, overbearing wife, Charlotte Winslow Lowell. A truculent boy, nicknamed by classmates "Cal" — short for Caliban and Caligula — famously expelled from the Boston Public Garden for fighting, the young Lowell transferred his aggressions to intellectual pursuits, organizing a punishing summer curriculum — Homer, Shakespeare, Spenser, the Bible — for himself and his teenage friends, Frank Parker (whose frontispiece illustrations for Lowell's books are reproduced in this edition) and Blair Clark, who would eventually run Eugene McCarthy's campaign for president in 1968.

Grown up, Lowell looked like a "matinee idol," according to his friend John Berryman. In photographs he resembles a young Tom Hanks: tall, lanky, with a quirky, off-kilter grin, his pale skin set off by curly dark hair. After a year at Harvard and a near-break with his family — he had abruptly become engaged to be married at 19 and socked his father over a perceived insult to his fiancée — the young poet, "full of Miltonic, vaguely piratical ambitions," set out for the South (having lost interest in the fiancée) and Tate, one of the Southern agrarian Fugitive poets. He had not been invited to stay the summer, and when Tate told him the house was full — joking that if he wanted to stay he'd have to pitch a tent on the lawn — he went to Sears, bought a tent and set up camp in the yard. He then transferred to Kenyon College, where he majored in classics, studying with John Crowe Ransom and becoming a close friend of student-poet Randall Jarrell.

After graduation, he married aspiring novelist Stafford, converted to Roman Catholicism and threw himself into another scourging program of study and spiritual self-improvement. According to Ian Hamilton, "Lowell imposed a stern domestic regimen: mass in the morning, benediction in the evening, two rosaries a day. Reading matter was vetted for its 'seriousness' — 'no newspapers, no novels except Dostoevsky, Proust, James and Tolstoy.' " As if this systematic self-abnegation were not enough, in 1943, Lowell — having previously attempted to enlist in the Navy and the Army — sent a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt and "the heads of the Washington Press bureaus," declaring himself a conscientious objector and the war "a betrayal of my country." "Member of Famed Family Balks at Military Service," read one headline. Sentenced to a year and a day in the Federal Correctional Center at Danbury, Conn., and paroled after a few months, Lowell later described himself as "a fire-breathing Catholic C.O." making a "manic statement," although his first breakdown was still several years in the future.

Lowell's Catholic zealotry lent structure and coherence — and a vigorous dash of bombast — to his early work about sin, damnation and salvation. Published in 1944 in a limited edition titled "Land of Unlikeness" (reproduced in an appendix here) and then, in 1946, with many revisions and additions, as "Lord Weary's Castle," these early poems — with their weird amalgamation of Catholic theology, Puritan history and family mythology — are wildly stirring. Flying in the face of the free verse espoused by early 20th century masters — hammered out in rhyme and iambic pentameter — the poems are built like brick houses out of solid Anglo-Saxon diction and New England names: "The Drunken Fisherman," "At the Indian Killer's Grave" and, most famously, "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," in which Lowell weaves a Miltonic, elegiac narrative out of the drowning at sea of one of his Winslow relatives, Warren Winslow, who assumes Christ-like stature, rising from the underworld to harrow humanity:

A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket, —
The sea was still breaking violently and night
Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet,
When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light
Flashed from his matted head and marble feet,
He grappled at the net....

The thrilling rhetorical skill of its author — the pleasure he took in brandishing these lancing, enjambed lines like a harpoon — is unmistakable:

You could cut the brackish winds with a knife
Here in Nantucket, and cast up the time
When the Lord God formed man from the sea's slime
And breathed into his face the breath of life,
And blue-lung'd combers lumbered to the kill.
The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.

Reviewers marveled over "Lord Weary's Castle," and in 1947 Lowell won the Pulitzer Prize, a Guggenheim fellowship and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was 30. Everything seemed possible.

Shortly thereafter, he and Stafford were divorced. He left the Catholic Church and accepted an invitation to serve as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, then another to spend time at Yaddo, the writers colony near Saratoga Springs, N.Y. It was at Yaddo, in 1949, that he began to suffer the first of the manic episodes that would define the rest of his life and irrevocably alter his work.

That first breakdown — and the many that would follow cyclically throughout his life — consisted of a period of manic activity (much roaming, drinking, hysterical talking and little sleep, for himself and the friends who were trying to cope with him), followed by depression. Lowell later recalled his experience just before he was placed in a straitjacket in Bloomington, Ind., in the spring of 1949: "The night before I was locked up I ran about the streets ... crying out against devils and homosexuals. I believed I could stop cars and paralyze their forces by merely standing in the middle of the highway with my arms outspread.... To have known the glory, violence and banality of such an experience is corrupting." Lowell once described these manic phases as attacks of "pathological enthusiasm."

While recovering from this first episode, he married Hardwick, the journalist and critic who would become, by all accounts, the stabilizing force in his life and the person who repeatedly arranged for his care during illness. Over the next few years, Lowell would recover and teach, in 1951 publishing "The Mills of the Kavanaughs," a volume in the traditional manner of his first major work; it contains the beautiful "Falling Asleep Over the Aeneid," a less blustering, more heartfelt poem than any he had yet written. By the late 1950s, both of Lowell's parents had died, he had had a child with Hardwick and he had suffered two more breakdowns. Engaged in therapy, he was working on the autobiographical prose and poems that would become "Life Studies," published in 1959, a volume so groundbreaking it would be compared to Whitman's "Song of Myself" and Eliot's "The Waste Land."

Leaving aside the great early modernists, it is worth remembering how abstract and aridly academic much American poetry was before "Life Studies," full of phony apostrophes ("And learn O voyager to walk") and sentimental doggerel ("The sunlight on the garden / Hardens and grows cold, / We cannot cage the minute / Within its nets of gold") in the manner of Archibald MacLeish and Louis MacNeice. Poets simply were not writing about their experience, or if they were, they were masking the details — as Eliot did in his work — in a private mythology. "Life Studies," which won the National Book Award, swept aside such conventions. Lowell's new poems were saturated with life's disorder: His patrician family and powerful Freudian childhood attachments ("In the mornings I cuddled like a paramour / in my Grandfather's bed"); his contempt for his father (" 'Anchors aweigh,' Daddy boomed in his bathtub"); sojourns in prison ("Memories of West Street and Lepke") and in "the house for the 'mentally ill' " ("Waking in the Blue"); and — shocking in the 1950s — sexual politics, in the dramatic monologue " 'To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage' ": "Each night now I tie / ten dollars and his car key to my thigh .... / Gored by the climacteric of his want, / he stalls above me like an elephant."

The poems were so new, so disturbing in their subject matter and their break from Lowell's previous style that Tate — in perhaps the most fruitless poetic argument since Emerson tried to persuade Whitman to edit the sex out of "Leaves of Grass" — urged his former acolyte to abandon them: "[A]ll the poems about your family, including the one about you and Elizabeth, are definitely bad. I do not think you ought to publish them.... They have no public or literary interest."

But as Bidart notes in his useful afterword, "On 'Confessional' Poetry," the poems of "Life Studies" are anything but raw confession; indeed, they include fictional details, alterations and omissions, and they exhibit the same intense craft and eerie eye for detail of the earlier poems. In employing his personal history, Lowell accomplishes a kind of counterintuitive miracle: As his voice becomes more personal — more confessional in the purest sense (Bidart calls it "candor ... not covert self-promotion or complaint") — it becomes more universal, more applicable to every reader's experience, as in "Skunk Hour":

A car radio bleats,
"Love, O careless Love...." I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat ....
I myself am hell;
nobody's here —

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.

Rich with references, classical and popular — St. John of the Cross' "Dark Night of the Soul," Marlowe's Faustus, Milton's Satan, the blues song "Careless Love" — the poem revisits ancient themes with American idiom and imagery. The lines could not be simpler, yet they teem with alliterative rhythm and true and off-rhyme. The tone — rueful, plangent yet unapologetic — is like no other in our poetry:

I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air —
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the
   garbage pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.

"Most people take the skunks as cheerful," Lowell wrote in explication, "[but] they are horrible blind energy, at the same time ... a wish and a fear of annihilation."

In "For the Union Dead" (1964), Lowell put his personal meditations to public use. Its title poem — an examination of Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Boston monument memorializing Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the white officer who led the country's first black regiment into battle in the Civil War, dying with his men — is among the fiercest, finest political poems ever written. It moves from the poet's recollections of the "old South Boston Aquarium" — now "boarded" — where he once yearned "to burst the bubbles / drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish"; to the wreck of the Boston Common, undermined by "yellow dinosaur steamshovels" excavating parking garages; to the monument at the top of the Common, facing the gilded dome of the Massachusetts State House:

Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.

He lingers over Shaw's image — his "angry wrenlike vigilance," his "peculiar power to choose life and die" — and pauses on Boylston Street, at a photograph of "Hiroshima boiling / over a Mosler Safe, the 'Rock of Ages' / that survived the blast." The bully banned from the Public Garden for fighting has become a pacifist, and the self-righteous Catholic dogmatist has matured into the voice of America's moral ruin:

When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessèd break.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

As images of fish, bubbles and balloons progress through the poem, humanity seems to regress to the reptilian and its "dark downward and vegetating kingdom." If every American president, every anchorman fawning over "the greatest generation," every pundit touting patriotism read this poem every day, the world might be a different place. If Lyndon Johnson had read it, he might have saved himself the trouble of inviting Lowell to a White House Festival of the Arts in 1965. According to Hamilton's account, Lowell accepted the invitation but, after considering his opposition to the war in Vietnam, declined, and declined publicly, sending a copy of his letter to LBJ — in which he suggested that "we are in danger of imperceptibly becoming an explosive and suddenly chauvinistic nation" — to the New York Times, where it made front page news, becoming a cause célèbre.

Lowell's political concerns carried over into his next volume, "Near the Ocean" (1967), and the poem "Waking Early Sunday Morning," which has not suffered any diminution in relevance:

Pity the planet, all joy gone
from this sweet volcanic cone;
peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war — until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.

Lowell had become a public figure, perhaps the last poet-as-statesman, after Robert Frost, in American life. He marched on the Pentagon in October 1967, an event immortalized in Norman Mailer's "The Armies of the Night": "Robert Lowell gave off at times the unwilling haunted saintliness of a man who was repaying the moral debts of ten generations of ancestors." In February 1968, he called for a "national day of mourning" to commemorate those killed in the war on both sides, those "we have sent out of life." And during the early days of the 1968 campaign, he accompanied McCarthy, whose handlers were dismayed to see that their candidate enjoyed joking and drinking with the poet more than running for president.

But throughout these extraordinary years, he continued to suffer disruptive, exhausting attacks of his old "enthusiasm." During manic periods, he would routinely declare his devotion to women he'd just met, who had no knowledge of his mental history. On a trip to South America, he became so psychotic that he had to be hustled into a straitjacket by six men and flown home; he developed a fixation on Jacqueline Kennedy, with whom he had an acquaintance; and he made spectacular public scenes at the Metropolitan Opera, one friend recalling: "[T]here's a scene in 'Don Carlos' where a chap is shot.... So there's this shot and dead silence, and Cal said in a loud clear voice, 'Oswald!' " In 1967 he was prescribed the new drug lithium, which seemed to help for a time but would ultimately fail him.

Inspired by Berryman's "The Dream Songs," Lowell embarked on what remains his most controversial work, a seemingly endless series of sonnets into which he emptied the details of his daily life and thought — meditations on friends, lovers, poets, poetry, politics — loosely grouped together under titles such as "Harriet" (his daughter with Hardwick) or "Writers." The poems were originally published in 1969 as "Notebook 1967-68," subsequently revised and reissued as "Notebook."

In 1970, Lowell, who had gone to Oxford as a visiting fellow — still married to Hardwick, his wife of more than 20 years — began a relationship with the married Irish writer Blackwood. In 1971 she bore Lowell a son; in 1972, Lowell and Hardwick were divorced and Lowell married Blackwood. As if this sequence of events were not enough of a scandal, in 1973 Lowell published three books simultaneously: "History," which consisted of revised versions of the sonnets of "Notebook," along with 80 new ones; "For Lizzie and Harriet," more revised sonnets about Hardwick, his daughter and the end of his second marriage; and "The Dolphin," sonnets in which Lowell presents a partly fictionalized narrative about leaving Hardwick, his love for Blackwood and the birth of his son. "The Dolphin," which won Lowell's second Pulitzer, contains quotations from Hardwick's letters, some edited or altered, and his apparent callousness ignited a firestorm of controversy.

Before the book was published, Elizabeth Bishop tried to persuade Lowell to forgo such material: "You have changed her letters. That is 'infinite mischief,' I think.... [A]rt just isn't worth that much." Adrienne Rich, once a close friend, publicly rebuked him, describing "The Dolphin" in a review as:

... a poor excuse for a cruel and shallow book.... The inclusion of the letter poems stands as one of the most vindictive and mean-spirited acts in the history of poetry, one for which I can think of no precedent: and the same unproportioned ego that was capable of this act is damagingly at work in all three of Lowell's books.

There is undoubtedly truth to such characterizations, but scandals die quicker than art. For space reasons, the "Collected Poems" excludes "Notebook" (although two sequences from the earlier book are included for comparison) in favor of the three later, better-written, better-organized volumes. Seen as a whole, those three represent an ambitious attempt to transform the lyric into a catchall genre that could collect the daily debris of life, much as Virginia Woolf's stream-of-consciousness tracks the evanescent quality of human consciousness. As Lowell wrote in an "afterthought" in "Notebook," "Accident threw up subjects, and the plot swallowed them — famished for human chances."

Of course, when lyric is harnessed to do the heavy lifting of epic — think of Wordsworth's "Prelude," which has moments of surpassing beauty amid stretches of plodding dullness, or Pound's "Cantos," which rise to brilliance after much ranting — it can collapse under the strain. In places, the tone seems weary and flat, alternating between repetitive observation and hectic questioning. Some sonnets ("Mother, 1972," for instance) revisit, less memorably, material covered in "Life Studies."

But there are also exceptional passages: In "History's" "The Nihilist as Hero," "In the Back Stacks" and "Reading Myself," Lowell sees his own "confessional" dilemma as lucidly as anyone ever has: "I want words meat-hooked from the living steer, / but a cold flame of tinfoil licks the metal log, / beautiful unchanging fire of childhood / betraying a monotony of vision." And this:

No honeycomb is built without a bee
adding circle to circle, cell to cell,
the wax and honey of a mausoleum —
this round dome proves its maker is alive;
the corpse of the insect lives embalmed in honey,
prays that its perishable work live long
enough for the sweet-tooth bear to desecrate —
this open book ... my open coffin.

How many volumes of poetry contain lines so surpassingly, sweetly unforgettable? Even "Dolphin," the poem that concludes Lowell's most controversial book, condemned by Rich as cruel and shallow, seem more self-incriminating than sparing:

I have sat and listened to too many
words of the collaborating muse,
and plotted perhaps too freely with my life,
not avoiding injury to others,
not avoiding injury to myself —
to ask compassion ... this book, half fiction,
an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting —

my eyes have seen what my hand did.

By all accounts, Lowell's and Blackwood's was a chaotic relationship, since Blackwood was an alcoholic who was herself prone to breakdowns. The last years of Lowell's life were plagued by outbreaks of mental illness and turmoil. In 1976 his "Selected Poems" appeared, and the following year, his last book, "Day by Day." On Sept. 12, 1977, Lowell flew from England to New York, returning to Hardwick. He died, of heart failure, in the taxi on the way from the airport to her apartment. He was 60.

In "Day by Day" he left the sonnet behind, returning to looser forms, alternating between epigrammatic terseness and his old genius for observation. The last poem in his last published volume is "Epilogue," one of the greatest poems ever written about art, the need to make it, the failures it entails, the solace it confers:

... sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
All's misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun's illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.

Robert Lowell's "Collected Poems" is that "living name."

Caroline Fraser is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and the author of "God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church."




Lowell's violent, generous work
New collection gives overview of perhaps best poet of 20th century
Reviewed by Peter Campion
Sunday, July 13, 2003

Robert Lowell

Collected Poems

Edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter


Hungry for experience, and hungry to embody that experience in poems, Robert Lowell moved through the 60 years of his life with ferocious propulsion.

He won two Pulitzer Prizes. He was widely considered the best poet of his generation. He was the admired acquaintance of Jackie Kennedy as well as of T. S. Eliot. But Lowell never stopped to bask in the glow of his acclaim. In a late poem titled "Golden Summer," he wrote:

I will leave earth

with my shoes tied,

as if the walk

could cut bare feet.

These lines became sad truth on Sept. 12, 1977. The poet had left England and his third wife, the novelist Caroline Blackwood. He had wanted to salvage his marriage to the book critic Elizabeth Hardwick. But in the backseat of a taxi somewhere between Kennedy Airport and Hardwick's brownstone on West 67th, Lowell died of a heart attack.

Now, for the first time since the poet's death, readers have a volume of his collected poems. Thanks to the editorial direction of Frank Bidart, this book traces the full span of Lowell's career with thoroughness and accuracy. An excellent poet in his own right, Bidart worked for several years as Lowell's first reader, suggesting changes to Lowell's poems and helping him to order the poems in his books. Bidart's introduction and afterword to this collection, as well as the notes that he wrote with his co-editor, David Gewanter, are impressive works of literature in and of themselves.

The editing must not have been easy. Lowell peppered his poems with allusions: Flipping through the notes, you learn about Wagner and Watergate, French philosophers and '50s pharmaceuticals. Lowell also revised his poems again and again; many of them exist in several versions.

He approached each new stage of his work with the same voracity. He once wrote that he wanted his poems "meat-hooked from the living steer." This nearly violent approach to composition reflected the 20th century in which Lowell lived. Reading the poems, you enter a space where public and private life interchange, where history and the present collide. In "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," his first tour de force, the poet makes a visionary connection between the terrors of World War II and the lives of 19th century whalers:

To Cape Cod

Guns, cradled on the tide,

Blast the eelgrass about a waterclock

Of bilge and backwash, roil the salt

and sand

Lashing earth's scaffold, rock

Our warships in the hand

Of the great God, where time's

contrition blues

Whatever it was these Quakers

sailors lost

In the mad scramble of their lives

Charging across the lines, like the "mad scramble" it describes, this single sentence has the smash and vehemence typical of Lowell's early poems.

A new style came in the late '50s, with the breakthrough collection "Life Studies." Shedding some of the formality of the earlier work, Lowell gained a winning immediacy, a freshness that Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott has called "slackened-tie assurance." These poems speak with frankness about family history, marriage and mental illness.

Critics have called the style confessional poetry. But the term is worth ignoring. Lowell's poems were never merely personal; he always wanted to invoke collective experience. The Cuban missile crisis, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War all found their way into the poems. When the poet turned down President Lyndon Johnson's invitation to the White House, his letter to the president was printed on the front page of the New York Times. "We are in danger," Lowell wrote, "of imperceptibly becoming an explosive and suddenly chauvinistic nation."

These concerns about public life carried over into one of Lowell's greatest poems, "Near the Ocean." Unlike so many anti-war poems, "Near the Ocean" never swells into a rant. But it doesn't shy away from outrage, either. This is from the last stanza of the opening section, "Waking Early Sunday Morning":

Peace to our children when they fall

in small war on the heels of small

war -- until the end of time

to police the earth, a ghost

orbiting forever lost

in our monotonous sublime.

During his last years, Lowell continued to write from inside the most crucial moments of public and private life. This collection includes the poet's blank verse sonnets from the late '60s and early '70s, and his final book of poetry, "Day by Day." This poetry has never received the critical attention it deserves; tired of being eclipsed by Lowell's shadow, younger poets and critics merely shrugged at the work when it first appeared.

Now the poems will finally get fresh appraisals. It may be impossible to predict how a new generation will respond to the poet. But following the development of Lowell's poetry in this definitive book, and seeing his verbal gifts rise again and again out of personal and national pain, it is hard not to think of his work as an act of tremendous generosity.

Peter Campion is a Berkeley writer.


An oeuvre of vigor and variety

By Anthony Moore, 7/27/2003

T. S. Eliot was well versed in fickle literary taste when he warned us that no poetic reputation ever remains fixed; ''it is a stock market in constant fluctuation.'' The public's response to Robert Lowell's work proves how shrewd his assertion was. Lowell outperformed the market for three decades, was garlanded with prizes and talked up often as the greatest living American poet. But his stock suffered a long decline in the quarter-century after he died and has been trading at bargain prices. Here is the long-awaited ''Collected Poems'' to prompt a reevaluation of what was always an asset-rich artistic enterprise. In it Lowell makes good his magnificent boast in an elegy to Berryman: ''- we are words. /John, we used the language as if we made it.''

Frank Bidart and David Gewanter are tender and magnanimous to the poems. They devote a thousand sumptuous pages to most of those Lowell printed and give many drafts and variants in the voluminous notes. The persistent vigor and variety of his creative energy is astonishing now that we see the whole career get its due. It commands history, politics, religion, science, psychology, philosophy, and, as everyone knows, marital turmoil and a modern life's miseries and joys. Lowell never doubted his ability to affirm poetry's broader cultural role.

His imposing set-piece public meditations on politics and the American imperium are enough to bear him out. They continue to speak to us. Seamus Heaney thought ''Waking Early Sunday Morning'' one ''of the finest public poems of our time.'' With the hindsight available today from books on US conduct of the Vietnam War, it may be better than that, perhaps one of the greatest political poems of all time. It stands as a landmark at the center of the 1960s. Lowell reimagines for America Andrew Marvell's complex ''Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell's Return From Ireland.'' Like its 17th-century rival, ''Waking Early'' is weighty, strong on moral principle, patriotic. Lowell's ambiguous sketch of President Johnson (''girdled by his establishment/this Sunday morning, free to chaff/his own thoughts with his bear-cuffed staff, /swimming nude, unbuttoned, sick/of his ghost-written rhetoric!'') is charged with the static of skeptical words and phrases. His couplets gained more satirical force when we learned last year, from Robert Caro's third volume of Johnson's life and times, that he tried to conceal his girth with a heavy girdle and, as a gambit to control those whose ungirdled support he needed, perfected making his private parts public.

The editors prefer ''History'' and ''For Lizzie and Harriet'' over the two ''Notebooks'' from which those later books sprang. Bidart says ''a choice had to be made'' (that's what editors do, after all). Now that it has been, this reviewer grumbles. To some of us, the manner of the grasp in ''History'' - 400 deliberately roughened unrhymed sonnets, in chronological order by subject - fails its reach for the title's ambitious matter - in debt to Pound's ''An epic is a poem including history'' and Emerson's ''Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. ... All public facts are to be individualized, all private facts are to be generalized.'' In contrast, the ''free-wheeling catch-as-catch-can improvisations'' of ''Notebook'' (Bidart) seem a more modest but integrated recognition that although a gifted poet cannot capture, he can suggest our life's shifting discontinuity. But I defer to Bidart; he was Lowell's friend and collaborator. Without him, I suspect, Lowell could not have brought out 10 books in his last eight years. Bidart can be trusted as guardian of the poet's intent.

Randall Jarrell was wrong, for once, when he said, reviewing Lowell's verse novella ''The Mills of the Kavanaughs,'' that narrative ''is often beyond his powers and knowledge.'' There is an exultant narrative drive through all the work. He mastered the dramatic monologue and, like Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams, disposes a cast of vivid characters and many different voices across his poems (''Mr. Edwards and the Spider,'' ''To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage''). He found the familiar epistle and verse short story congenial (''Jean Stafford, a Letter,'' ''Off Central Park''). Poem titles often trail a drama (''Memories of West Street and Lepke,'' ''Thanks-Offering for Recovery'') while they support the development of each publication; that is, the books don't only gather individual lyrics, they engage the governing principle of a coherent plot. One exemplary case of revision shows Lowell alert to integrating poems so they mean more than their parts. The scathing public protest ''Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts' 54th'' (now titled ''For the Union Dead'') was tacked on as the last poem in the 1960 paperback ''Life Studies.'' Lowell saw he was wrong to disrupt the unity of the much-admired final personal sequence with a poem that castigates the state of the nation, and never reprinted the arrangement.

The collection keeps the prose ''91 Revere Street'' in its right place as Part 2 of ''Life Studies.'' This comic masterpiece was blurbed by the original publisher, not Lowell, as ''an autobiographical fragment.'' In truth, it's a glorious farrago, more witty mischief than reliable source. ''Battleship Bilge Harkness,'' introduced as Lowell's father's roommate at Annapolis, is a social wrecking bar. Lowell invented him as the lord of misrule licensed to blow fresh air through his parents' arid marriage and stifling Beacon Hill house. It is the same teasing writer who says, ''My verse autobiography sometimes fictionalizes plot and particular.'' Sometimes? Autobiography was a wellspring for his creativity. Yet the domestic, intellectual, and sexual drama in his mature poetry is an artfully made fiction. As artificial in its way as the Southern vowels he affected in life. As staged as the Romantic-genius intensity of his photo portraits by Richard Avedon, Cartier-Bresson, Guy Fleming.

Lowell looked up to ''Uncle Tom'' (his pet name for Eliot) as a man of letters. So it's no surprise to catch him lifting his mentor's metaphor for judging value. What does jolt, though, is that he foresaw precisely what has come about. Three days before his death, in September 1977, he told Blair Gowrie, an English friend, that when he died Elizabeth Bishop's ''shares will rise and mine will fall.'' Then, ''But mine will come back.'' Surely he will be right again.

Anthony Moore teaches English in Boston University's Metropolitan College.

Collected Poems

By Robert Lowell

Edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter

Farrar, Straus & Giroux,

1,186 pp., $45

This story ran on page E9 of the Boston Globe on 7/27/2003.



The Difficult Grandeur of Robert Lowell

June 18, 2003


One day, discussing the reviews of his late work [with the poetry critic Helen Vendler], Lowell lamented, "Why don't they ever say what I'd like them to say?"

"What's that?" Vendler asked.

"That I'm heartbreaking," he said.

 —Peter Davison, "The Poetry of Heartbreak" (July/August Atlantic)


Robert Lowell was one of the twentieth century's most esteemed American poets. As a manic depressive who experienced alternating bouts of depression and mania, he was also one of its most tormented.

Poems by Robert Lowell in The Atlantic Monthly:

"Fourth of July in Maine" (March 1966)

"The Voyage" (August 1961)

"For the Union Dead" (November 1960)


Twenty-five years after his death, Farrar, Straus & Giroux has issued a comprehensive collection of Lowell's poetry (selected by the poets Frank Bidart and David Gewanter), inspiring a renewal of interest in both his life and his work. In "The Poetry of Heartbreak" (July/August Atlantic), Peter Davison reviews this collection and situates his extensive body of work within the context of his chaotic life.

By the time Lowell died at age sixty, he had been married and separated three times, had renounced his Protestant roots for what turned out to be a temporary obsession with Catholicism, and had spent much of his adult life in and out of mental hospitals. During his manic spells, he was overtaken by surges of larger-than-life emotion that ended up reflected in his poetry. As Davison describes it,

Ambition, religious passion, poetic genius, and dementia throbbed together in verses that gave off a powerful music, enthralling to some readers but puzzling to others.

His early poems tended to employ elevated diction to address grand themes, frequently tied in with references to his own aristocratic family and its Boston Brahmin milieu. But at midlife, Lowell grew tired of the elaborate, archaic style he was known for, and abandoned it in favor of a more raw and personal approach—using colloquial language, he described the trauma of his inner experience. His 1959 collection, Life Studies, dealt intimately with his madness, his difficult relationships with his family, and his time spent in mental hospitals.

A decade later, Lowell left his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, moved to England with his third wife, Caroline Blackwood, and began churning out countless poems in yet a new style—the unrhymed sonnett. Before long, however, his third marriage faltered, and his spiral of mania and depression, along with a pattern of excessive drinking, started taking a physical toll. In 1977 Lowell died in the backseat of a New York taxicab on his way from the airport to his second wife's apartment. Davison quotes Blair Clark, a longtime friend of Lowell's:

I thought there were … two dynamos within him, spinning in opposite directions and tearing him apart, and that these forces would kill him at last. No one, strong as he was, could stand that for long.

To young poets who considered Lowell a revered mentor, his madness seemed an integral component of the example he was setting for them. In "The Mad Poets Society" (July/August 2001), Alex Beam described how Lowell's periodic hospitalizations at the renowned McLean mental hospital in suburban Massachusetts helped lend cachet to the hospital as an aristocratic, literary place, and influenced two of his talented but unstable students, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, to exploit their own psychological turmoil for literary material.

Lowell's own psychosis was at times extreme:

He would shower his closest friends with bitter, mocking curses, or proclaim undying love to an airline stewardess and insist on leaving the plane with her to start a new life. He once delivered a gibbering lecture lauding Adolf Hitler. Some stereotypes are true: there are people in mental institutions who want to assume the power of Napoleon, or of Jesus Christ, and at times Robert Lowell was one of them.

But while institutionalized he also continued to write poetry and correspond with colleagues, including several fellow poets such as Theodore Roethke and Ezra Pound, who also suffered from mental illness. Inspired by Lowell's evocative poetry about his experiences at McLean, Plath went on to write the best-selling novel The Bell Jar, based on her own experiences there, and Sexton went on to teach a writing seminar at McLean for its patients, and eventually became a patient there herself. "I must admire your skill," Sexton wrote in a 1959 poem addressing Lowell. "You are so gracefully insane."

"Madness in the New Poetry," written in the mid-sixties, Peter Davison commented on the appeal that madness was then coming to have among the poetic set. "Madness," he wrote, "can be construed—and is by some poets—as the regular and inescapable concomitant of the reach beyond reality; and sanity is construed as the dullness of those who refrain from reaching." He assessed the efforts of a number of then-current poets—including Lowell, John Berryman, Alan Dugan, William Meredith, and Theodore Roethke—whose work was in some way touched by madness. He was less than enthusiastic about Lowell's recent efforts; the despairing form that Lowell's madness had lately taken, he argued, seemed to be sapping the vitality of his work.

Over and over the agonizing tunes are played: helplessness, desperation, impotence, the lapse of the present from the promise of the past, flawed vision, the malign dissociation of the self from the senses. They are played so brilliantly that the reader finds himself forgetting that life and poetry have major keys as well as minor, victories as well as defeats. But … Lowell's keys are minor only. The note of triumph is never struck.

Despite such criticism, Davison asserted two years later, in "The Difficulties of Being Major" (October 1967), that Lowell, along with James Dickey, might be one of only two contemporary poets worthy of the title "major poet." He cited a set of qualifications for such an honor that had recently been proposed by the poet W. H. Auden:

1. He must write a lot.

2. His poems must show a wide range in subject matter and treatment.

3. He must exhibit an unmistakable originality of vision and style.

4. He must be a master of verse technique.

5. In the case of all poets we distinguish between their juvenilia and their mature work, but [the major poet's] process of maturing continues until he dies....

He then surveyed Lowell's work up to that time, emphasizing the superiority and distinctiveness of his prolific output and his evolution through a series of different approaches and styles. He reiterated his earlier criticism, however, that Lowell's recent work was lackluster compared with the main body of his writing. Of Lowell's 1967 collection, Near the Ocean, Davison wrote,

The new poems reveal more clearly than his past work the tug-of-war between the impulse to personal poetry on the one hand, and the Imperial Style on the other. Alas, the Emperor has won out ….

Lowell has written better.

But Lowell had by no means exhausted his resources. Following Near the Ocean he went on to write five more books of poems—one of which, The Dolphin, won him a second Pulitzer prize (he had been awarded the first in 1946 at the age of twenty-nine for Lord Weary's Castle). In "The Difficult Grandeur of Robert Lowell" (January 1975), the eminent poetry critic Helen Vendler reviewed History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin—three poetry collections that Lowell had published simultaneously in 1973. Vendler suggested that what was perhaps most notable about the poems in these new collections was their expansiveness, in that they included everything from historical events (both famous and obscure) to wide-ranging literary allusions to the most intimate details of his family life. Given the "comprehension of its atlas, historical and geographical," she suggested, this new poetry represented "the whole litter and debris and detritus of a mind absorptive for fifty years." In her view, he had tapped a rich new vein:

The subjects of these poems will eventually become extinct … but the indelible mark of their impression on a single sensibility will remain, in Lowell's votive sculpture, bronzed to imperishability.

Finally, in "Lord Weary" (July 1982), James Atlas recalled his own brush with Lowell as an awestruck Harvard student in the late sixties. By then Lowell had become a legendary figure, and to Atlas, a young Midwestern boy craving culture and exposure to literary greatness, Lowell had assumed an almost godlike status. Atlas described his initial impression of Lowell, at the beginning of a poetry seminar with him:

Our first glimpse of the famous is often disappointing; they seem diminished, ordinary. Lowell seemed, if anything, larger; he was taller than I had expected, and his corolla of whitening curls trailed back from his broad, marbled forehead.

Atlas and his classmates hung eagerly on every word Lowell uttered, despite the fact that, having been in and out of mental hospitals for years, dosed with lithium, and ravaged by alcohol, he often seemed somewhat addled. He made peculiar associations, became lost in thought, or spoke familiarly about long-dead literary figures "the way other people gossip about their friends … as if they were colleagues and contemporaries." Atlas and other literarily inclined students competed desperately for Lowell's attention, seeking him out during his office hours and tallying up the minutes Lowell devoted to their poems during class. It even became a mark of distinction to be present during one of Lowell's infamous breakdowns:

I had never witnessed one of these breakdowns, but I had heard about them in grim detail: Lowell showing up at William Alfred's house and declaring that he was the Virgin Mary; Lowell talking for two hours straight in class, revising a student's poem in the style of Milton, Tennyson, or Frost; Lowell wandering around Harvard Square without a coat in the middle of January, shivering, wild-eyed, incoherent. In the seminar room on the top floor of Holyoke Center, we waited nervously—perhaps even expectantly, given the status accorded anyone who had been present at one of these celebrated episodes—for it to happen before our eyes.

Why, Atlas asked himself in a more reflective moment, were he and his classmates so eager for attention from this troubled poet? The answer, he decided, was that, to them, Lowell represented literary history incarnate. "The one question that tormented everyone else had been decided for him: he had made it into the pantheon of great American poets. His work would last."

—Sage Stossel                                    


 The Atlantic Monthly | July/August 2003
Books & Critics

The Poetry of Heartbreak

The new collection of Robert Lowell's poems will doubtless stand from now on as The Work
by Peter Davison

Collected Poems
by Robert Lowell
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 800 pages, $45.00


When Robert Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle appeared, in 1946, it was as welcome as a bumper crop. The sheer gorgeousness and encrusted bookishness of this poetry startled readers used to the plain talk of Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams. The book—the first of his to find a general publisher—won Lowell a Pulitzer Prize at twenty-nine. From there his fame accelerated, owing to his hoary New England heritage (his great-granduncle was, among other things, a founding editor of this magazine), the passionate intensity of his writing, and the streak of madness in his life. By the early 1950s Lowell and his contemporary Richard Wilbur were ranked by oddsmakers as the two young poets to watch. (We are still happily watching Wilbur at eighty-two.)

Twenty-five years after his death, selected Lowell poems have been gathered into a single volume by his friend and executor, Frank Bidart, on whom Lowell relied toward the end of his life. Long awaited, richly documented, and, yes, definitive, this volume must have been daunting to assemble. Bidart and his co-editor, David Gewanter, have faced frankly the uneasy but intimate relations between Lowell's harrowing life and his poetry, both in their choices of what to print and in their commentary and documentation. Collected Poems will doubtless stand as The Work.

Lowell did not attract notice beyond his native Beacon Hill until he reached adolescence, when his oddities became apparent. His boarding-school classmates nicknamed him Cal, perhaps after President Coolidge, but more likely—owing to his physical strength, his habit of command, and his unwashed charisma—after the mad Roman emperor Caligula or the zealot John Calvin. The nickname stuck. Within a few years young Cal had knocked his father down, attended and prematurely departed Harvard, moved on to Kenyon College (where his fellow students included Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, and Robie Macauley), graduated summa cum laude in classics, married the novelist Jean Stafford (but not before smashing her up in an auto accident while driving drunk), studied at Louisiana State University with Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, and converted to Roman Catholicism. In one of his early poems, "The Boston Nativity," he staged Christmas on Beacon Hill but sneered at his home turf: "Child, the Mayflower rots / In your poor bred-out stock ... / Here Concord's shot that rang / Becomes a boomerang."

A naval officer's son, Lowell twice attempted wartime service and was rejected for myopia; when, in 1943, soon after the fire-bombing of Hamburg, he was drafted, he wrote a manic "Declaration of Personal Responsibility" and declined to serve. As a matter of course, he addressed his conscientious objection to President Roosevelt, man to man. (He later confessed, "I thought that civilization was going to break down, and instead I did.") He was convicted and sentenced, for conscientious objection, to a year and a day in prison, of which he spent part at the Federal Correction Center in Danbury, Connecticut, and part mopping floors on parole.

In Lord Weary's Castle, Lowell rounded up, rewrote, and enriched poems written before 1944, and also included fresh work. The new lines were crammed with allusions to haughty Boston brahmins as well as with the traffic of his reading and his personal experience. They resulted in a poetry that combined richness of diction and the dislocation of sense that had been pioneered by the high modernist poets. Both Lowell and Wilbur, however, had disregarded T. S. Eliot's notorious advice not to seek a model in the magniloquence of John Milton. Lowell's favorite poem was "Lycidas"; during his periodic mental breakdowns he would sometimes adopt Milton's poem as his own and rewrite it. On happier occasions he transmuted Milton's Latinate rhythms into an original, plainspoken New England rumble.

What are we in the hands of the great God?
It was in vain you set up thorn and briar
    In battle array against the fire
    And treason crackling in your blood;
        For the wild thorns grow tame
And will do nothing to oppose the flame ...

    ("Mr. Edwards and the Spider")

However, other poems in Lord Weary's Castle adopted a resonant, overworked, and often obscure manner, which Seamus Heaney has called a "monotone of majesty," and they adverted to Lowell's private life and family as though these were public property. His emotional life when out of control colored history and personal fact alike. (As his friend Flannery O'Connor told a friend after Lowell, in 1949, called out the FBI to rid the artists' colony Yaddo of the pack of communists he thought were undermining the place, "I was too inexperienced to know he was mad, I just thought that was the way poets acted.") The past—all the dramatis personae of written history—would not leave him alone. Ambition, religious passion, poetic genius, and dementia throbbed together in verses that gave off a powerful music, enthralling to some readers but puzzling to others.

Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors,
Sea-monsters, upward angel, downward fish:
Unmarried and corroding, spare of flesh
Mart once of supercilious, wing'd clippers,
Atlantic, where your bell-trap guts its spoil
You could cut the brackish winds with a knife ...

    ("The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket")

After four more lines of threnody apostrophizing the Atlantic Ocean, the poem concludes with a booming Lowell fanfare.

The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.

The vowels balance one another, and the sound is glorious, but how can an ocean cut winds with a knife? And whatever does that last line signify? Now, as I read the nearly 1,200 pages of Collected Poems, it becomes apparent that Lowell's poetry is burdened with hundreds of conclusions like this one—conclusions that, whatever else they do, don't conclude.

Lowell insisted that "a poem needs to include a man's contradictions." He himself contained multitudes of contradictions, and he struggled to include them in nearly every poem. Toward the end of his life he observed, "What I write always comes out of the pressure of some inner concern, temptation or obsessive puzzle ... All my poems are written for catharsis; none can heal melancholia or arthritis." Indeed, the poems healed no more than they concluded. In one poem he wrote, sadly, "Is getting well ever an art, / or art a way to get well?"

At forty Lowell found himself impatient with the "clotted" poetry (his own epithet) of Lord Weary's Castle and its successor, The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951). He threw back an autobiographical curtain to make explicit the horrors of his emotional life and to admit, along with the pain, the radiance of his natural wit and humor. His religious faith faded, and he began to emulate the vigor of William Carlos Williams and to enable his poems to speak to his neighbors in the world, not only to his caste in Boston and the universities. Life Studies, which he published in 1959, after much agony, ventured to speak openly about his madness.

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town ...
My mind's not right.

    ("Skunk Hour")

Lowell wrote about his imprisonment, his marriage, his relatives, himself. His most publicly accessible and poetically integrated poem, "For the Union Dead" (1960), was stirred by memories of his childhood, yet it handled without pomposity or evasion one of the largest of American themes, the heritage of slavery, dwelling on the black Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment, led in the Civil War by Robert Gould Shaw (a distant kinsman of Lowell's). Vying with James Russell Lowell, who put the same subject to verse a century earlier, Robert Lowell wrote,

Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead ...
Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.

It is characteristic of his apocalyptic outlook that, in the poem's inconclusive conclusion, he looked forward, with nearly sensual European relish, only to decadence, corruption, and peril.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

Even these famous lines escape finality. Lowell's poems seldom find stability, whether or not they are seeking it; nearly every one of a thousand poems ends by making us surer of instability, personal and social. "Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small" ("Home After Three Months Away"). "The disturbed eyes rise, / furtive, foiled, dissatisfied / from meditation on the true / and insignificant" ("Hawthorne"). "I am tired. Everyone's tired of my turmoil" ("Eye and Tooth").

Lowell's psychic fragility excited those who somehow fortify themselves by tracking the spoor of celebrities' private lives: "The news of his periodic breakdowns spread with amazing speed, penetrating without difficulty to even the most remote recesses of the world," the poet Anthony Hecht once wrote. Lowell participated in anti-Vietnam protests (marching on the Pentagon with Norman Mailer, campaigning with Eugene McCarthy). At the height of this middle period he touched the national conscience with passages like this one:

Only man thinning out his kind
sounds through the Sabbath noon, the blind
swipe of the pruner and his knife
busy about the tree of life ...

    ("Waking Early Sunday Morning")

His public activities heaped fuel on the fire, even though he spent most of his time laboring inconspicuously on his writing, producing an immense, sprawling body of work: poems, plays, translations, and essays. For years he also commuted from New York to Boston to teach at Harvard, the university he had declined to graduate from.

After Near the Ocean (1967), Robert Lowell at fifty changed his voice, and his life, another time. He left his devoted second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, and decamped for a third marriage, in England, to Caroline Blackwood. The move was appropriate: Lowell had always looked eastward across the Atlantic, to our European heritage and its history, at a time when many American poets thought to nourish themselves on the literatures of the Orient. He lived in England for much of the rest of his life, and today he may be more read there than in his native country.

Lowell's work accumulated, piling up in more than a thousand unrhymed sonnets known as the notebook poems. Was the stagnation evident in these poems provoked by his bipolar illness, by the lithium prescribed to control it, by his drinking, or by some other cause? Two books of these short poems were published under the title Notebook in 1969 and 1970. Three additional sequences, containing many poems revised and republished, emerged. History (366 poems) dealt principally with Lowell's reading and thinking and literary relations. For Lizzie and Harriet (sixty-six poems) detailed in melancholy fashion the dismantling of his marriage to Hardwick. Dolphin (104 poems) chronicled the advent of his new love and his Drang nach Osten. The three volumes came out simultaneously in 1973, causing a rueful reappraisal even by Lowell's friends, some of whom could not forgive him for incorporating in his poems, nearly verbatim, parts of personal letters from Hardwick and their daughter. The English critic Michael Schmidt has written moralistically of the "confessional" qualities that make some readers uneasy with these poems: "The focus on self, the confidence that self is of sufficient interest to readers that its unraveling is a sufficient subject, and the—call it—solipsism which appropriates the literal language of others' suffering to lend veracity to his own account: this is a radical approach to subject-matter, a setting of poetry not within but above life."

But Lowell, embarking on fatherhood once more in England, and his mind somewhat clarified by his new life, arrived at yet another renewal of style. He wrote scalding, blistering poems, as he had done on each rising tide in the past, though some of the poems now were slightly Oriental in tone. Their conclusions were still weak, but their fragments had more edge than ever.

The struck oak that lost
a limb that weighed a ton
still shakes green leaves
and takes the daylight,
as if alive.

    ("We Took Our Paradise")

The humpback brick sidewalks of Harvard
kick me briskly,
as if allowed the license of age;
persons who could hardly walk or swallow,
when I was a student,
angrily grate like old squirrels
with bandages of white hair about their ears.

    ("To Mother")

The night dark before its hour—
heavily, steadily,
the rain lashes and sprinkles
to complete its task—


Lowell's health gradually declined (by the end of his life he had been treated in dozens of psychiatric hospitals) and his third marriage gradually crumbled, but his dedication to writing and teaching poetry never flagged. He died in 1977 in a New York taxicab, on his way from Kennedy Airport to his second wife's apartment, carrying a portrait of his third wife painted by her first husband.

Poems do not, of course, write themselves, and Lowell's poems and translations always underwent a heroic but particularly bewildering degree of concentrated literary attention, scribbled in dozens of versions, displayed to friends and colleagues, rewritten, kibitzed over, altered, recast, published, revised, rewritten, and published again. The sheer bulk of Lowell's work—he produced a total of nineteen volumes, including plays and prose—makes one especially grateful for the appearance of a discriminatingly selected volume. Collected Poems includes not only 838 pages of the corpus, a glossary, notes, a chronology, and appendices with notes and insights of their own, but also variants on a number of poems and a few fragments of Lowell's excellent prose. This apparatus condenses twenty-five years of biography, criticism, and gossip. In certain respects it hints at the conclusions that Lowell's poems themselves never quite attained. By its tender editorial attention to Lowell's contradictions it may present the best case for his poetry.

Blair Clark, a lifelong friend of Lowell's, once wrote,

I remember ... a dozen years before he died, bringing him back to my house in New York in one of his crazed escapes from home. Watching him breathe in heavy gasps, asleep in the taxi, the tranquillizing drugs fighting the mania, I thought that there were then two dynamos within him, spinning in opposite directions and tearing him apart, and that these forces would kill him at last. No one, strong as he was, could stand that for long.

But the most desperate insight, as might be expected, comes from Lowell himself. The critic Helen Vendler has described how one day, discussing the reviews of his late work, Lowell lamented, "Why don't they ever say what I'd like them to say?"

"What's that?" Vendler asked.

"That I'm heartbreaking," he said.

Another page on this author, here