poem index

About this poet

On March 1, 1917, Robert Lowell was born into one of Boston's oldest and most prominent families. He attended Harvard College for two years before transferring to Kenyon College, where he studied poetry under John Crowe Ransom and received an undergraduate degree in 1940. He took graduate courses at Louisiana State University where he studied with Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks.

His first and second books, Land of Unlikeness (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1944) and Lord Weary's Castle (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946), for which he received a Pulitzer Prize in 1947 at the age of thirty, were influenced by his conversion from Episcopalianism to Catholicism and explored the dark side of America's Puritan legacy. Under the influence of Allen Tate and the New Critics, he wrote rigorously formal poetry that drew praise for its exceptionally powerful handling of meter and rhyme. Lowell was politically involved—he became a conscientious objector during the Second World War and was imprisoned as a result, and actively protested against the war in Vietnam—and his personal life was full of marital and psychological turmoil. He suffered from severe episodes of manic depression, for which he was repeatedly hospitalized.

Partly in response to his frequent breakdowns, and partly due to the influence of such younger poets as W. D. Snodgrass and Allen Ginsberg, Lowell in the mid-1950s began to write more directly from personal experience, and loosened his adherence to traditional meter and form. The result was a watershed collection, Life Studies (Faber and Faber, 1959), which forever changed the landscape of modern poetry, much as Eliot's The Waste Land had three decades before. Considered by many to be the most important poet in English of the second half of the twentieth century, Lowell continued to develop his work with sometimes uneven results, all along defining the restless center of American poetry, until his sudden death on September 12, 1977, from a heart attack at age sixty. Robert Lowell served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1962 until his death.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Day by Day (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977)
Selected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1976)
The Dolphin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973)
For Lizzie and Harriet (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973)
History (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973)
Notebooks, 1967-1968 (1969)
The Voyage and Other Versions of Poems by Baudelaire (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1968)
Near the Ocean (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967)
Selected Poems (Faber and Faber, 1965)
For the Union Dead (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1964)
Imitations (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1961)
Life Studies (Faber and Faber, 1959)
The Mills of the Kavanaughs (Harcourt, Brace, 1951)
Poems, 1938-1949 (Faber and Faber, 1950)
Lord Weary‘s Castle (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946)
Land of Unlikeness (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1944)

Prose

The Collected Prose (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987)

Anthology

Prometheus Bound (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969)
Phaedra and Figaro (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1961)

Drama

The Old Glory (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965)


Multimedia

From the Image Archive

 

Memories of West Street and Lepke

Robert Lowell, 1917 - 1977
Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston's 
"hardly passionate Marlborough Street,"
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is "a young Republican."
I have a nine months' daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants' wear. 

These are the tranquilized Fifties,
and I am forty.  Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.

Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow ("it's really tan")
and fly-weight pacifist,
so vegetarian,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.

I was so out of things, I'd never heard
of the Jehovah's Witnesses.
"Are you a C.O.?" I asked a fellow jailbird.
"No," he answered, "I'm a J.W."
He taught me the "hospital tuck,"
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated's Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden to the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections. . . .

From Selected Poems by Robert Lowell, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright © 1976, 1977 by Robert Lowell. Used by permission.

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell's poetry collection Life Studies is considered by many to have changed the landscape of modern poetry.

by this poet

poem

"It is the future generation that presses into being by means of
these exuberant feelings and supersensible soap bubbles of ours."

—Schopenhauer

"The hot night makes us keep our bedroom windows open.
Our magnolia blossoms.  Life begins to happen.
My hopped up husband drops
poem
My Dolphin, you only guide me by surprise,
a captive as Racine, the man of craft,
drawn through his maze of iron composition
by the incomparable wandering voice of Phèdre.
When I was troubled in mind, you made for my body
caught in its hangman's-knot of sinking lines,
the glassy bowing and scraping of my will
poem
What was is . . . since 1930;
the boys in my old gang
are senior partners.  They start up
bald like baby birds
to embrace retirement.

At the altar of surrender,
I met you
in the hour of credulity.
How your misfortune came out clearly
to us at twenty.

At the gingerbread casino,
how innocent the nights we made