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Fragility and Repetition: On the Poetry of Robert Lowell

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Katie Peterson


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November 01, 2017

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from American Poets
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In his time, Robert Lowell achieved unquestionable stardom. The author of twelve collections, countless translations, adaptations from Greek plays, and an original drama, he won the Pulitzer in 1947 for his second book, Lord Weary’s Castle (Harcourt, 1946), and again in 1974 for his collection The Dolphin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), one of three books he published in 1973 alone. Neither of these collections, though, brought him the fame of his fourth volume, Life Studies (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1959), which includes an exquisitely matter-of-fact prose memoir of growing up in Boston as the son of a Brahmin family in decline and a series of family portraits written in a detail-rich, sensually baroque free verse many poets have imitated but none have matched. Life Studies, with its candor and intimacy, may have invented “personal” poetry—it may also be the one collection of Lowell’s that twenty-first-century readers have heard of—but he refused to brand his patent with repetition. His subsequent books each attempt something new. The formal virtuosity paired with his social pedigree to form a legend of achievement. The poetry critic Edmund Wilson, whose own former stature as a literary journalist seems nearly unimaginable in contemporary culture, deemed Lowell one of only two poets in the twentieth century able to achieve a career “on the old nineteenth-century scale.” In 2017, forty years after his death, one fears Lowell remains known for precisely that.

I write this at a time when many individuals with many different kinds of lives aspire to be poets, and many different kinds of poetry are said to thrive in these United States. Is it too easy to say that Lowell’s star has fallen a bit? Or is it actually that the sense of achievement his work self-consciously carries with it itself carries less credibility than it used to? I arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1997 to earn a doctorate in English at Harvard, a university that claims Lowell both as undergraduate dropout and as professor. Raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, I cut my teeth on the Beat Generation and drum circles and didn’t know anyone who lived where they were “from.” In my adopted Massachusetts, Lowell’s work was everywhere—and it was a complete mystery to me. The poet Elizabeth Bishop, teaching in Seattle, writes to her close friend Lowell, “my ‘class’ is finding you very difficult & much too EASTERN!— &, save me, they won’t look up words, even the easiest, in the dictionary.” I was one of them. Though I didn’t mind looking up things in the dictionary, those definitions don’t help you see what something’s for. A Lowell poem presented a thicket of allusions: “There were no tickets for that altitude / once held by Hellas, when the Goddess stood, / prince, pope, philosopher and golden bough, / pure mind and murder at the scything prow— / Minerva, the miscarriage of the brain” (“Beyond the Alps”). I wanted to read poetry of the present and the future, not the past. If there were no tickets for that altitude, why did I have to watch him on the downslope?

Years later, far from Boston, I heard Lowell’s former student Alan Williamson read a poem with an unassuming title, “The Day.” From the last volume Lowell collected and published in his lifetime, Day by Day (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), it begins this way:

It’s amazing
the day is still here
like lightning on an open field,
terra firma and transient
swimming in variation,
fresh as when man first broke
like the crocus all over the earth.

The voice of the poem came straight from a human body, in the middle of an ordinary day. Indeed, the voice seemed to have only the existence of the day as its problem, as in that ordinary question asked between friends, or lovers, or even strangers uncomfortable with their strangeness, “How was your day?” That voice understood the randomness of fortune and the strangeness of human persistence as if it were as given as the sky. Relaxed in the midst of chaos, the voice of “The Day” knew, in equal measures, ritual and surprise. The energy of its similes had something to do with a terrified joy—the only kind I believe in without question. You don’t need to know what Modernism did to poetry to feel how the project of twenty-first-century life means following through on the great social changes of the twentieth century—you just need to check Facebook and see how many times we need to be liked to get up in the morning. In this poem, and in others in Day by Day, all of Modernism—which mourns, celebrates, and obsesses over our alienation from a collective narrative reader’s past, present, and future all once shared—became the problem of just having a day, our day, a human day, so beautifully and terrifyingly to ourselves. This Lowell defies achievement. This Lowell knows better than to think what’s lasting is any more than a dare. This Lowell understands that former ways of life cannot simply be returned to, ever. This Lowell is not in denial about a past that has passed away. The day, in this poem and in others, manifests the vulnerable predicament of what we once called the Enlightenment and what we might now identify as the beginning of getting “woke.” And now that a climate change that not everyone believes in has wrecked the seasons, the day might be all we have left together as ritual.

The Robert Lowell poems I selected for New Selected Poems, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this year, emphasize the perishability of life, its twinned quality of fragility and repetition, as framed by the structured evanescence of daily consciousness. The problem of the human person here is the difficulty and promise of having a good day. Like a good poem, a good day is harder to achieve than we realize but revelatory when it’s given. Of course, I was wrong about Lowell that first time. It turns out he’d been writing these poems all along—the first poem included in New Selected Poems is “New Year’s Day,” and the last, “Summer Tides,” takes place at the end of a day seen as a metaphor for a life. So often, in these poems, the day and the fact of its running out form all the drama the poem needs:

…The clocks
Are tolling. I am dying. The shocked stones
Are falling like a ton of bricks and bones
That snap and splinter and descend in glass
Before a priest who mumbles through his Mass
And sprinkles holy water; and the Day
Breaks with its lighting on the man of clay…

              (“Between the Porch and the Altar”)

In between the limits of day,
hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts
and slightly too little nonsensical bachelor twinkle
of the Roman Catholic attendants.

                              (“Waking in the Blue”)

I lay all day on my bed.
I chain-smoked through the night,
learning to flinch
at the flash of the matchlight.

               (“Eye and Tooth”)

Downstairs, you correct notes at the upright piano,
twice upright this midday Sunday torn from the whole
green cloth of summer…

              (“Summer”)

Bright sun of my bright day,
I thank God for being alive—
a way of writing I once thought heartless.

                              (“Logan Airport, Boston”)

My favorite Lowell poems are not flickers of consciousness, emblems of the merely spontaneous, but whole days lived through, entire days survived—they have a sense of beginning and ending, the trauma of morning and the held-out possibility of recovery. Contemporary American poets revere—and teach, far more often than Lowell—the more consciously “hip” work of his near-contemporary Frank O’Hara and the poets of the New York School, whose plentiful charms turn moments into fantasies of ongoing luminosity. Lowell, on the other hand, offers us days rather than moments, hangovers (and their flashbacks) rather than lunch hours, divorces (and their entanglements) rather than engagements, the morning after rather than the party. He offers no fantasy of a clean slate: “Death’s not an event in life, it’s not lived through” (“Plotted”). He doesn’t simply live—he lives through.

When preparing to edit New Selected Poems I began by looking at the landmark Collected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter, and Notebook 1967–68 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), a volume Lowell expanded and retitled simply Notebook (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) in 1970, and soon after transformed into the two collections History (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973) and For Lizzie and Harriet (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973). The original Notebook 1967–68 stands alone in its vivacity and initial impulse, and the two collections it becomes exist alongside rather than instead of it. Lowell’s significant reworking of the original Notebook into a revised edition and then two separate published collections should be viewed less as an editorial problem than as a significant manifestation of a lifelong practice.

Lowell “began again” many times—he accuses himself in the voice of the poet Randall Jarrell, “You didn’t write, you rewrote.” It is quite literally true. He buried his first book, Land of Unlikeness (Cummington Press, 1944), resurrecting the best poems for his second. In the index to the Collected Poems, titles reappear, telling in their simplicity, both as preoccupations and as perennial hopes for a fresh start: “Marriage,” “Hospital,” Lowell’s infamous nickname, “Caligula,” and various permutations of “Summer.”

Lowell devoted the middle of his career to the sonnet, reshaping several poems and translations in the process. The sonnet’s brevity and closure offered freedom as much as confinement—especially if, like Lowell, you could just do it again. And why not? It was as if a new poem was a new day—or was it that any new day compelled the poet to begin again? The magnificent last poems of Day by Day are not Lowell’s liberation into free verse—they’re his continuation of the sonnet by other means. They feel like stretched-out, luxurious sonnets, and their uncertain endings often come after an equally uncertain turn, the equivalent of a closing volta.

I wanted to hear Lowell’s career as a voice, to capture this sense of living in time in a human-scale, lively way. To try to do this for Robert Lowell is to wreck the monument and begin again. To read the poems, and truly hear the voice, is to discover that he’d been wrecking the monument all along. As the great poet of the human day, he understood perishability more than I’d at first given him credit for.

Lowell was the first poet to be called “confessional,” and though he didn’t like the term, it gets right the poetry’s sense of breaking through a public surface into a hoard of personal material. Disclosure, in Lowell, manifests as equal parts ritual and chaos. He remained constitutionally immune to any stultifying permanence either of form or of spirit—an immunity that emboldens his diction, both because he lived a life so close to the poems and because he heard and felt a world much larger than his one particular life. The best poems stay a little messy. The language of their day, likewise, is not simply the language of the day—Lowell had little or no truck with our contemporary penchant for the idea that the way we write must be the way we talk. The language of the day of the poem meant, for Lowell, any language that worked: any language the day required. His best poems show an untidy love for all kinds of language as they strain to find unity. In “Mermaid,” Lowell quotes Baudelaire and ventriloquizes Muhammad Ali. Poems even a reader of Lowell might not be familiar with, such as the gorgeous “Suburban Surf,” show the effortlessness that results when this unity is actually found. That famous line from “Epilogue” (“why not say what happened”) stands, in the poem, after a moment of self-doubt that’s also an adequate characterization of what the vast ranges of speech make accessible in our diverse world:

But 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.

Diverse languages, misallied, do more than reflect the confusions of our lives captured within technology—they show us how human experience, diverse and divergent, would never be the same again. Lowell’s work shows us how the information explosion of the Internet fulfills a prophecy of chaos rather than creates it.

Being willing to be uncomfortable is a power in poetry—something to be praised, something that helps us see. The misalliances Lowell heard and felt as part of being so deeply in the present tense make his poems complicated sometimes, jumpy sometimes, nervous. But those misalliances also helped him make language. In “The Day,” he coins a word to describe being in time:

when we lived momently
together forever
in love with our nature—

“The day” is where we can live “momently” together, in whatever way presents itself, and the best of Lowell’s poems place us energetically and uncomfortably there.

***

Recently, a friend suggested that American strangers ask the question “How’s your day going?” as a way of not asking the question “Where are you from?” “Where are you from” seems, on the surface, friendly enough, but its answers have always been divisive: “Are you from the same place I’m from?” “Were you born here?” Maybe it doesn’t matter where you’re from; maybe it matters more how your day’s going—that is, where you actually are. Lowell’s translation of the Brunetto Latini canto of Dante’s Inferno (1320) makes immediate the predicament of Dante’s beloved teacher, consigned to hell with other condemned scholars, who are also sodomites, guilty of lust. Latini’s real crime seems to be understanding too well the world’s rapacious appetite for judging others. Ezra Pound, Modernism’s genius advocate for vernacular speech in poetry who spent years confined to a mental institution after espousing Fascist politics during the Second World War, praised Lowell’s rendering. In a ghostly recording, an aging Pound, back in the world at last but discredited in the public eye, recites a portion of the translation in a hoarse, low whisper. In Lowell’s version, Latini speaks to Dante in a brutally accented English that feels like a critique of political speech, and those who are tricked by it, after our recent election year: “Let the pack / run loose, and sicken on the carcasses / that heap the streets, but spare the tender flower, / if one should rise above the swamp and mess.” To “update” a classic means to let it keep finding us where we are.

It remains, nevertheless, true that Lowell’s work once made the question “Where are you from” the order of the day. This question governed his early style, so laced with New England atmosphere it approaches kitsch. A detail-oriented apparent accuracy suffuses the portraits and self-portraits of Life Studies, a book full of days-in-the-life of Lowell and his family. Teeming with places, dates, and their material corollaries, things, and their more literary cousins, allusions, the poems of Life Studies also overflow with proper names (in both senses): 91 Revere Street, Beverly Farms, Boston’s “hardly passionate Marlborough Street,” L.L.Bean, Blue Hill, Rapallo, Jonathan Edwards, Murder Incorporated, and Czar Lepke:

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.”

   (“Memories of West Street and Lepke”)

But here, facts are married to confusion—a Jehovah’s Witness starts as an unrecognizable J.W. and ends as a “jailbird.” Writes Lowell in Notebook, “dates fade faster than we do.” By the way, a C.O. is a conscientious objector, and Lowell’s conversion to Catholicism made him one in the Second World War, for more than a few days in his life, for a year—but for the purpose of his art, only for a poem or two. Whoever Robert Lowell really was, his poems remember how many times he changed who he was.

In Lowell’s poetry, no two days are alike—time moves on. We don’t always remember the fact, but we are nearly always seared by the way a fact feels. Randall Jarrell said that Elizabeth Bishop’s work was marked by the conviction “I have seen it”; Lowell’s radiates with the vaguer credibility “I have felt it,” emotional and somatic. Felt in the body, one’s understood context becomes unstable: “I keep no rank nor station. / Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small” (“Home After Three Months Away”). Lowell could find real knowledge only in the earthly, the biographical. In poetry, now, we take this for granted—how many volumes are prized for their “personal story,” individually held but collectively validated, structured not simply by suffering but by some assumed faith in the reader’s response to it? But Lowell took a different view of the relationship between personal experience and knowledge. Just because the facts of the life provided the only basis for what could be known in poetry didn’t mean you could know very much.

I meant to write about our last walk.
We had nothing to do but gaze—
seven years, now nothing but a
diverting smile, dalliance by a river, a
speeding swan…
the misleading promise
to last with joy as long as our bodies,
nostalgia pulverized by thought,
nomadic as yesterday’s whirling snow,
all whiteness splotched.

                              (“Last Walk?”)

In this sense, Lowell is still ahead of his time, or at least outside it. To assert both that personal experience was the only way you could know anything and that you couldn’t really know very much that way is to see the “freedom” of contemporary experience as both vibrantly lived and meaningfully limited. Such a perspective leaves one very much stranded in the present, by which I mean, facing reality.

***

in a certain political neighborhood of our contemporary world, we like to use the word “privilege” to describe people such as Lowell—white, male, funded, educated, carriers of social position and family name (two of his cousins were notable American poets, and his mother descended from a Constitution signer). Lately, in American poetry, we like not liking people like that, and we distrust privilege as we would a mask. But on the human level, birth is an accident:

In the grandiloquent lettering on Mother’s coffin,
Lowell had been misspelled LOVEL.
The corpse
was wrapped like panettone in Italian tinfoil.

(“Sailing Home from Rapallo”)

Death fades family names and disintegrates the hallmarks of prestige, and privilege can’t help you see. Lowell’s best work knows this. The poetic tradition has its own relationship with privilege: the history of poetry, crudely seen for years, was the history of those with the power and leisure to write it, white men. Lowell easily found his place in this history of poetry while he was alive. Maybe it’s time to let his work teach us about the history of the person instead. Lowell’s sonnet about Robert Frost from History has something to do with both—the poem crosses a moment of poetic inheritance with personal feeling. Lowell’s trying to find words for the actual mania he suffered, and it throws the expected patriarchal bonding with Frost a bit off-kilter:

Robert Frost at midnight, the audience gone
to vapor, the great act laid on the shelf in mothballs,
his voice is musical and raw—he writes in the flyleaf:
For Robert from Robert, his friend in the art.
“Sometimes I feel too full of myself,” I say.
And he, misunderstanding, “When I am low, I stray away…”

The poem ends with Lowell still trying to be
     understood—

And I, “Sometimes I’m so happy I can’t stand myself.”
And he, “When I am too full of joy, I think
how little good my health did anyone near me.”

(“Robert Frost”)

Frost does, in a sense, understand Lowell at the end. Though the sonnet is a moving testimony about the stigma of speaking about mental illness, it’s also something else—a displaced self-portrait in dialogue, a reckoning with how poetic privilege, prestige, renown, and the rest don’t translate into the kind of capital that builds life. Even “health,” the one privilege Lowell lacked (bipolar, he was hospitalized many times for mania and once for depression), doesn’t add up to the kind of knowledge you can use that other people can necessarily share. He writes later toward his family, essentially rephrasing these lines of Frost’s: “When most happiest / how do I know I can keep any of us alive?” (“Wildrose” from “Another Summer”).

Nothing of “privilege” can mask Lowell’s authentic sense of his own limitations in his best poems. He relies not on “privilege” but on awareness to steady him through changes. He experiences knowledge, like the passage of time, as something withstood rather than possessed. Lowell’s signature sonic move was to turn the line in skilled but sudden enjambment, a break in the middle of a sense-unit. A reader hears it everywhere: “the audience gone / to vapor.” Such discord refuses the feeling of certainty in any poem; it can even approach one of the signature emotions of our times, fear. The family portraits of Life Studies come to a close with an eerie nocturne from blue-blooded Castine, Maine, “Skunk Hour,” dedicated to a friend, not a relative—Bishop. If you knew Lowell before picking up New Selected Poems, you probably knew him from these lines:

I myself am hell;
nobody’s here—

But you can see him better in the ones that follow:
only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.

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.

You can see him better as he sees himself—as a skunk. What he can’t see—the skunk’s head covered in whiteness—is what he is. It’s easy enough to read the skunk symbolically and credit Lowell with a poetic understanding of the foul way privilege can mask an understanding of the world in which white has masked black faces and bodies in destructive ways. To me, this is child’s play compared with how Lowell gets us to a possible place for self-recognition. He’s staring at an ordinary pest in his garbage, at the end of the day, in the midst of habit. The end of the poem corrects an ordinary narcissism—he thought he was the only one there, and discovers he’s not. He remembers the skunk as a “somebody”; the animal world marks his return to the ethical. He’s not just trying to see what he can’t see but admitting that he can’t see, after an entire poem about looking at a familiar view from an owned vantage point. At the end of the day, what is he doing on top of his back steps, if not “checking his privilege,” or at least imagining what it might look like if he could? The poet Christina Davis has pointed out to me that “Skunk Hour,” the title of the poem, is easily reversed to “our skunk,” a poetic form of ownership that actually makes possible a kind of “owning up.”

The events of Lowell’s actual biography made him give up a sense that his life would be either healthy or straightforward. His imagination enabled him to create work that still matters to us, none of whose lives seem, at this point, to be easily recognizable as either. His poems about mental illness anticipate a twenty-first-century culture in which having a diagnosis has become as overstated and necessary as having a college degree. In the best of these, illness refuses to pigeonhole itself as a disability or dramatize itself as a privilege of the artist. “Notice,” from Day by Day, passes into the twenty-first century familiar to anyone who’s ever mistaken a medical professional for someone who can tell you the meaning of life:

The resident doctor said,
“We are not deep in ideas, imagination or enthusiasm—
how can we help you?”
I asked,
“These days of only poems and depression—
what can I do with them?
Will they help me to notice
what I cannot bear to look at?”

A poem like this doesn’t only anticipate a world in which no “normal” exists, either in psychological condition or in life plan: it imagines a world in which the idea of “the normal” has been almost forgotten. Nowhere is this understanding more moving than in Lowell’s treatment of his complicated family life, in Notebook, For Lizzie and Harriet, and especially The Dolphin, with his last two marriages braided together in time with children and stepchildren and across an ocean. Don’t we all wish we—or someone—could have planned our lives better? Lowell admits that feeling and lets it go. He stands vividly in the midst of experience, when all we’d thought we’d known demands to be known again. The final lines of “Notice” remind us how bravely Lowell stood in his own discomfort: “Then home—I can walk it blindfold. / But we must notice— / we are designed for the moment.”


This essay originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2017 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2017 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poetsbecome a member online.