Commentary Magazine


Reading Robert Lowell

I

Writing in 1944, from his perch atop the indomitable sway of the New Criticism and with a view of all its shining academic minions receding into the distance, Mr. Allen Tate, in a short prefatory note to Land of Unlikeliness, announced that “there is no other poetry today quite like this.” And he was right. Over the last two decades and a half, Robert Lowell has continued to be a poet more influential than influenced, and that by itself would be a considerable mark of his force and integrity. For the moment, it seems pretty generally agreed that he is the greatest of living American poets, although there is equally general doubt as to the nature of his achievement—its contour, if you want. Also, as a fact of nature running alongside the fuss, tremendous quantities of paper are getting filled with articles about Lowell—the present effort makes its small contribution to the pile—and, as always, the criticism is entertaining not only for what it solves but for the quaint blind alleys it finds out and disguises as Main Streets. But Lowell is himself a child of the New Criticism, having composed his earliest poems for the approval of Tate et al ., and what is now going on, the celebratory gutting of his work, shouldn’t cause him much worry. He is prepared for it, and so are the poems.

Lowell’s early work is distinguished by its straining after formal precision, which was understood to mean the same thing as compression. The result was a willful construction of ambiguities which were really more like obliquities, so that the devastation wrought by bombing turned into “thunderbolts fast as light/ Blitzed a wake of shrouds.” Here, an influence not often recognized is William Empson, in his poetry as well as criticism. Lowell speaks somewhere of having read Seven Types of Ambiguity while writing verse that became more and more difficult; and I imagine that Lowell, like Empson, gets a particular thrill in looking back on his recondite gadgets. The obsession in Land of Unlikeliness (and a bit less in Lord Weary’s Castle) is with Catholicism, or rather Puritanism in Catholic dress. When the poet addresses the Virgin Mary his mind is most likely on Original Sin, and a poem like “Children of Light,” which appears in both books, lies at the center of his religious subject: “Pilgrims unhouseled by Geneva’s night,/ You planted here the Serpent’s seeds of light . . ./And light is where the ancient blood of Cain/ Is burning, burning the unburied grain.” The verbal effects of Land of Unlikeliness are wrenching—there is so much violence, and so little feeling about what the violence means. Yet in spite of this, one discovers an original voice and a charm the like of which have not been seen before or since.

When the ruined farmer knocked
   out Abel’s brains,
Our Father laid great cities on
   his soul,
          A monolithic mole
To bury man and yet to praise
   him. Cain’s
Life-blood shall drown the serpent
           in his Hole.

Perhaps charm is the wrong word. The quotation is from a poem called “Leviathan,” which goes on with a terrible ironic blast, “Great Commonwealth, roll onward, roll/ On blood,” and establishes an early point of contact with Lowell’s distinctive malice toward the state.

R. P. Blackmur, in a rather stern review, pointed out that the secular-religious opposition in Land of Unlikeliness produced “not a tension but a gritting.” In Lord Weary’s Castle (1946) this problem has been largely solved; the religious sentiment has been given a purpose, put to satirical ends. “As a Plane Tree by the Water” and “Where the Rainbow Ends” are perfections of gritting into tension, but as the law of satire demands, the outcast contemplating a scene where “disgrace/ Elbows about our windows in this planned/ Babel of Boston” must himself look a little odd. What are you doing here, my son? For the poet who is moral before he is religious—and Lowell belongs to this group—the sense of an unwilling involvement with society, of Babylon making its final claim despite everything, never quite disappears. That is why Lowell could not be the successor of Eliot; above all else he is never, I think, pious.

The elegy for Warren Winslow, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” is the undoubted masterpiece of this period, soaring in that rare, bleak New World altitude which is completely metaphysical and completely of this earth. The somber authority of the poem does not slacken along the way, nor does it grow weaker with time. As with certain other great poems, one feels that the elegy had to be, that the poem wrote itself, so far from being the work of a perfectly separate, personal consciousness. Yet to say this may be misleading for it is, at the same time, such an overwhelmingly written poem. The narrative voice here is equal to, even as it is possessed by, the Melville on whose spirit it meditates, and the opening lines are permanently fixed in our memory. “A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket,—/ The sea was still breaking violently and night/ Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet.” Taken as a whole, Lord Weary’s Castle communicates a full and individual power, without yet coming up to (nothing could be up to) the acclaim that greeted it.

In an essay published at the time, and easily the most intelligent piece ever written about Lowell, Marius Bewley wondered why “from the first the most distinguished American critics appeared to enter a conspiracy for the purpose of establishing [his] literary reputation on as sound a base in as short a time as possible,” and went on to note (what is plain to anyone with the least sensitivity to sound, though consistently ignored by critics) “a peculiar kind of ugliness that runs through much of his verse.” Examples meet one on every page, and I will be happy to give my own: “Crucifix,/ How can your whited spindling arms transfix/ Mammon’s unbridled industry, the lurch/ For forms to harness Heraclitus’ stream!”—and this from a poem that starts off very neatly, in the author’s best vein, “Ten thousand Fords are idle here in search/ Of a tradition.” The ugliness, it seems, is partly but not entirely a symptom of compression, and it has reappeared most flagrantly in Notebook .

_____________

 

The Mills of the Kavanaughs, which came (in 1951) five years after Lord Weary’s Castle, has been treated as something of an embarrassment. People want a poet to develop, and instead Lowell went on writing good poems in the same style; the verdict has a complacent sound about it, but I, for one, do not wish to dissent. “Falling Asleep Over the Aeneid” is the first true historical excursion for Lowell, and a poem amazing in concept and execution, marked for anthologies the day it was born; “The Mills of the Kavanaughs” is a narrative, makes dull reading, and is what is called a “useful failure.” Lowell does not have a gift for recording speech, and it is no accident that he should choose dramatic subjects that lend themselves to a high degree of stylization: Benito Cereno with its black-on-white, Prometheus Bound, the most abstract of Greek dramas.

_____________

 

Life Studies (1959) breaks into the light of common day, and it is by all odds a change for the good. Certainly, no other book in the last twenty years has had such a pure and profound influence on American poetry; much of the impact has by now been absorbed, but it is still directly, all too directly visible in the work of a good many female poets. In Life Studies, Lowell writes the political poem (“Inauguration Day: January 1953”) he was toying with all through Land of Unlikeliness, also the poem in which compression finally is precision. The man who wrote “In Salem seasick spindrift drifts or skips” is now beginning to come through with “‘I won’t go with you. I want to stay with Grandpa.’”

Lowell is extremely self-conscious in the use of enjambment, and in “Skunk Hour,” a beautifully simple and opaque poem, he shows himself at his most cunning.

Nautilus Island’s hermit
heiress still lives through winter
   in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the
   sea.
Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village;
she’s in her dotage.

Reading those first two lines, dropping down past the end-stop as though an elevator were starting, we feel that Ezra Pound has after all done some good in the world if he made this possible. The “loosening” process so often referred to as the chief development in Life Studies is nothing other than the discovery of natural tension. As to the “confessional style,” I think it is a red herring, even if the term has not been used pejoratively. Style of this kind cannot be packaged, or when it is (as Anne Sexton’s verse shows) it will be vitiated by sentimentality. Life Studies was Robert Lowell writing like himself, and such an example could only be encouraging: that is the meaning of its influence on other, different minds. The merits of the book—but, as Stevens says, merit in a poet is as boring as merit in a person. These poems will go on being read because they are delightful, and full of wonder and awe.

Two distinct claims are made for Lowell as a translator, and though it would be nice to have them separated out there is yet no clear way of doing this; then, too, Lowell has not done his most to clarify the matter. On the one hand, the reader of Imitations (1961) has been asked to consider it a book of original poems in English which happen to be derived from foreign sources. He is then asked to consider the possibility that the imitator, by his very informality in the treatment of sources, has more nearly than before duplicated the “spirit” of the original while eluding its sense. Baudelaire and Rilke are the poets who move Lowell to eloquence, and so it is natural to put a high value on his renditions of them. Yet whoever inclines thus to the second view must account for phrases like “playing tag in your bra” cropping up in Pasternak, along with the psychoanalyzed Homer comprehending “the mania of Achilles.” The original of this last, “the wrath of Achilles,” is familiar enough for the change to be recognized generally, and questions as to the method itself are bound to follow. The virtues of this book, like those of any other, will not disappear under attack. And even aside from the major work, the Baudelaire and so forth, Imitations has its surprising excellences such as the death-march of Annensky’s “Black Spring.”

_____________

 

The elemental and yet fine-cut presence of Benito Cereno (and in their kind the other two plays in The Old Glory, 1965) is so haunting, such a definitive triumph, that one hardly knows where to begin, although it may be allowed without question that there has never been an American drama quite like this. It is first of all a native play—as Melville’s is a native book—and therefore concerned and appalled with the problem of national destiny. The plot is absolutely spare: a Yankee sea captain comes aboard a slave ship whose master is being held captive by rebellious slaves, and a charade is played out before the captain whereby the slaves go on with business as usual, pretending to obey the master; the captain understands at last the true state of affairs and shoots the leader of the slaves. But a summary cannot help very much, for as those people know who have read or seen the play, a great deal of its power comes out of the ritual—its sense of the frozen moment. For example, the incantation of Babu, the slave leader, picking up a crown, a rattan cane, a silver ball, and then smashing the ball: “This is my crown./ This is my rod./ This is the earth./ This is the arm of the angry God.” The whole play is a white, engulfing haze clearing away to reveal blackness and a sudden act of violence.

Perkins

I see a speck on the blue sea, Sir,
our whaleboat is coming.

Delano

A speck? My eyes are speckled.
I seem to have been dreaming.
   What’s solid?
This ship is nothing, Perkins!
I dreamed someone was trying to
   kill me!

Lowell had the arrogance to make over the last line of Prometheus Bound from “you see me, how I suffer, how unjustly” to “look, you will see us suffer”; readers will decide for themselves whether the conclusion of Benito Cereno, with Captain Delano saying as he shoots, “This is your future,” may be a like overcharging for effect. Myself, I do not think it is.

_____________

 

The last two volumes, For the Union Dead (1964) and Near the Ocean (1967), contain a number of individual successes: “The Mouth of the Hudson,” “Middle Age,” “Fall 1961,” “Child’s Song,” “Alfred Corning Clark,” the poems about Edwards and Hawthorne, and above all “For the Union Dead” represent what is lasting in the earlier book. The title poem, a meditation on the Civil War, the heroic Colonel Shaw, and modern Boston, shows Lowell at the height of his powers, writing in a free verse that has never been so utterly controlled. One does not want to speak about poetry achieved at this level; it is to be read, and learned. Yet in poems like “Myopia: a Night,” “Eye and Tooth,” and (which is the best of the group) “Night Sweat,” something very odd is happening. The poet has taken the dreariness of his early Boston poems and relocated it inside himself, going after every seedy detail with a vengeance; the cancerous feeling is under supervision here, but through Near the Ocean and Notebook it grows steadily less manageable.1

There is a little too much calculation in the “walls tattooed with neon light,/ then high delirious squalor, food/ burned down with vodka . . . menstrual blood/ caking the covers, when they woke/ to the dry, childless Sunday walk” so neatly catalogued in “Near the Ocean,” to be resolved with “Monster loved for what you are,/ till time, that buries us, lay bare.” Lowell is always saying terrible things and then telling you how much he loves the monster. “Waking Early Sunday Morning” has become a famous poem already, but I must say that I am constitutionally unable to read its famous lines about the earth, “this sweet volcanic cone,” without thinking of ice cream; it is a queer effect, no doubt indicating the proximity of the hackneyed and the sublime. Yet over all, the title sequence of Near the Ocean must look impressive, and Lowell’s “Vanity of Human Wishes” is brilliant in a tone quite removed from that of the earlier version by Samuel Johnson. One regrettable feature of the book is its mannered illustrations by Sidney Nolan, whose depiction of Theodore Roethke impaled on a ship’s anchor over the caption “she made you nonexistent,/ the ocean’s anchor, our high tide,” sends a chill down my spine.

_____________

 

II

Such, then, is the poetic oeuvre of Robert Lowell, as it appeared to the critics who wrote about him in 1969-70. Thematic criticism of an author is usually more fun to read than its plodding chronological brother, but it is also rather more tendentious—especially so in the case of Lowell, whose subject matter has seemed to change along with his style. Messrs. Cooper and Fein2 are in any case agreed that they had better be plodders and right than staggeringly ingenious and wrong; or they seem to be agreed.

Mr. Cooper will not find satisfaction in a book-by-book survey—indeed, he uses the chronological method only as an excuse. He is out for bigger game. He wants to prove something about an “autobiographical myth,” and after dragging myself through his entire book, so deceptively short in pages, I still do not know what he wanted to show or what the myth is. On one level he seems to be suggesting nothing more than that Lowell has been writing about himself—his family, friends, God, conscience—all along, which is hardly a secret. Every writer does this, in one way or another. Mr. Cooper discovers that certain images are repeated in Lowell’s work, pointing out, for example, that “burning the unburied grain” which appears in “Children of Light” recurs in “The Mouth of the Hudson,” with “A Negro toasts/ wheat-seeds over the coke fumes/ of a punctured barrel.” This sounds fine, it is just what a critic is supposed to do, only it has such an air of lifting the veil! “[N]ow the Redman is black. But more than a Negro has been added to the landscape: ‘he’ [a second figure in the poem] is Lowell himself. At a reading of ‘The Mouth of the Hudson,’ on April 22, 1968, Mr. Lowell confirmed this identification. . . .”

And Mr. Cooper does imagine that he is working on another level as well. A number of times he interrupts his study to quote Lowell to the effect that “all your poems are in a sense one poem,” as though to reassure himself that this must justify whatever he happens to be doing at the moment. I don’t see the point of what Lowell is saying, by the way, although God knows it’s less important to him than it is to Mr. Cooper. My own reaction would be, yes, anything, in a sense . As to Lowell, his collected poems will hang together about as well as those of most poets; it is not an essential unity, on the order of Stevens, who wanted to call his collected poems The Whole of Harmonium . But Mr. Cooper takes heart from this remark, whatever it may mean, and quotes tirelessly from poetry readings and from a letter written him by the poet: Lowell does a lot of confirming.

Mr. Cooper deserves credit, anyhow, for having found a statement by Lowell that in effect legitimates any critical tactic, however irrelvant or atrocious. “What I didn’t intend often seems now at least as valid as what I did.” From that, too, Mr. Cooper takes heart, and his book is full of things Lowell could not in the remotest possibility have intended. Notice how the wonderfully specific atmosphere of “The Mouth of the Hudson” gets swamped in Universality:

The antithetical movement between the implicit expectations of a “bird-watcher” and the abominable Avernus this one watches, between the isolated man and his ambivalent integration into the landscape, makes a figure of all process and one that is elaborated by the details of the rest of the poem—and of the poet’s work. The pepper and salt snow in line two, for example, has not only a prosy accuracy as a description of snow in New York, but also a similarity to “The piles/of earth and lime,/ a black pile and a white pile,” that make a day-night, summer-winter, life and death, Yin and Yang iterative image. . . .

Yin and Yang? Help! The prose styles of Carl Jung and Susan Son-tag—both of whom he cites, and puts to questionable use—have not helped Mr. Cooper to write any better. When I read the first pages of his book, which traces images back from Lowell to Milton and King Lear, and are half taken up by footnotes, I feared the worst. My fear has not been disappointed; the willfully erratic mind here on display was in orbit long before it could think to glance down at its feet.

By contrast, the stolid good sense exhibited by Mr. Fein is bound to come as a relief. Where Mr. Cooper has an index complete with Arnold Toynbee and seems always on the verge of saying “the literal essence of the profound significance,” Mr. Fein’s sober references are to Thoreau and de Tocqueville, and his only fault is writing too many sentences that begin “to the extent that.” About Mr. Fein, one feels that his true element is the classroom, and other teachers in particular should find his treatment competent and suggestive.

_____________

 

III

Now Mr. Cooper’s notion about the “autobiographical myth” was obviously leading somewhere, and on reaching the end of his volume one is hardly surprised to find that “the Notebook is a totally occasional poem. But everything, [Lowell's] whole life work, rides on it.” The book appeared rather too late to get its proper share of analysis from Mr. Fein, although without a special argument to pamper he does at any rate manage to stay clear of this sort of nonsense. Mr. Cooper came armed with a Thesis (however convoluted in statement) and quite predictably the recoil deprived him of his reason.

And yet Notebook3 marks a point of departure for this poet—the declaration of a new form, therefore a new content—just as significant as the earlier shift in Life Studies; and here Mr. Cooper might have been onto something if he weren’t so hopelessly distracted hunting down Jung and turtle archetypes. The difference, of course, is that Notebook is not likely to affect the mainstream of poetry, because the style it invents is bad—really, because it is not in any accepted’ sense a style, but rather the flow of an unremittingly turbid subconscious. What Dr. Johnson observed of Gray may truly be said of Lowell in his Notebook, that “he was dull in a new way, and that made many people think him great.” The poems do not as a rule work individually, and so one is proud at having found the patience to wait for a cumulative impression. Still, being in every sense a difficult “case,” it is a book that has to be read; and from a certain point of view, regarded as a necessarily unsorted testament delivered up from purgatory, it is probably defensible.

_____________

 

It is not opening eyes to propose now, fifty years after The Waste Land, that modern poetry is highly allusive. Yet our awareness extends chiefly to that quality insofar as it has reference to literature, while modern poetry is also, and to an extraordinary degree, privately allusive. If you want to learn more about The Waste Land you can always look up The Spanish Tragedy . But the private reference is something else again: there aren’t any notes, and only the poet knows his way around the library. A contemporary poet of unquestionable talent has gone on record as favoring one of his poems over all the rest because it contained the largest number of private jokes; and the particular case must appear trivial compared with the tendency. Rare is the poet who can be as fully comprehended in the reading, without help, as in a public “reading” with its explanations and asides by the author. So, in a way, Lowell has simply drawn this tendency out to its logical end. Resorting to various coded privacies, Notebook lies partly submerged, like an iceberg, and its “unrealistic” imagery (the term belongs to Lowell) proceeds by a law of association unknown and unknowable to the reader.

Before entering on a further criticism of the book, it may be well to look at a poem that succeeds on its own. My choice would be “The March”:

Under the too white marmoreal
   Lincoln Memorial,
the too tall marmoreal Washington
        Obelisk,
gazing into the too long reflecting
         pool,
the reddish trees, the withering
   autumn sky,
the remorseless, amplified harangues
              for peace—
lovely to lock arms, to march
   absurdly locked
(unlocking to keep my wet glasses
   from slipping)
to see the cigarette match quaking
   in my fingers,
then to step off like green Union
   Army recruits
for the first Bull Run, sped by
   photographers,
the notables, the girls . . . fear,
   glory, chaos, rout . . .
our green army staggered out on
   the miles-long green fields,
met by the other army, the Martian,
   the ape, the hero,
his new-fangled rifle, his green
   new steel helmet.

After suffering under the strange antics of the other army, the poet offers his bewildered and euphoric toast to the heroes: “Health to those who held,/ health to the green steel head . . . to your kind hands/ that helped me stagger to my feet, and flee.”

What is it that makes all this so attractive? The comical details—the “match quaking in my fingers,” the wet glasses—contract the space between author and reader, creating a wonderful sense of nearness; “sped by photographers,” with its suggestion of film racing to record the event, is especially clever. Glancing off “For the Union Dead,” the echoes of the Civil War sound perfectly balanced and are available to any reader. Most of all, however, the excellence of the poem is in its persona: the poet, man of his age, ironic and committed and a bit frightened—this is recognizably the author who wrote: “These are the tranquillizd Fifties,/ and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?/ I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O. . . .” And just this kind of presence is missing in Notebook as a whole.

In its place there is offered no end of excruciating poses struck by the artist as worn-out neurotic, and the unfortunate point about this is that the poetry hardly ever rises above the squalid world-pain it sets out to relieve. With lines like

My heart bleeds for the black
    monster.
I have seen the Gorgon.
The erotic terror
of her helpless, big bosomed body
lay like slop.

(“Florence”)

and with his thunderously indelicate version of Phaedra, Lowell once earned consideration as the natural, psychoanalytic heir of Elizabethan violence. Well, but does anyone much want that? If you do not, please beware of Notebook, where the author turns out to be more than usually generous with his own peculiar make of gross sexual rhetoric—for example, on the women of George Grosz: “if one could swing the old sow by her tits:/ the receding hairline of her nettled cunt/ severed like the scalplock by the stroke of a brush.” Occasionally a good image working out of the unrealistic technique—“the broken clamshell labeled man”—will eventuate in something awful, and “the clamshell cunted in the ground of being,” though capable of paraphrase, is surely beyond redemption. Of the sub-genre known as neurotic poetry Lowell has produced one acknowledged masterpiece, “Skunk Hour”; but he has been lost in the soup ever since. Sometimes he can be very strange and beautiful, as a faithful spirit keeping pulse on the urban blues:

Nothing more established, pure
   and lonely,
than the early Sunday morning
   in New York—
the sun on high burning, and
   most cars dead.

(“Alba”)

Depressing materials went to make those lines, and yet their feeling is one of exhilaration. One would only wish for more of this—for a little more respite from sorrow, which unalloyed (and unallayed) cannot help turning tepid, so that the poetry gets contaminated by what it describes.

Much of the book does not fall under that shadow. Much of it is simply chatter, though often of a literary sort; and a certain interest attaches to the observations quoted from other poets—Ransom, Frost, Pound, Bishop, Jarrell, Eliot—and thereby passed over from chance remark into Immortal Quip. Allen Tate called Lowell’s daughter “a Southern belle”: you want to remember that. In effect, the interest taken in such poetry becomes a cover for something else, bearing on voyeurism. The poet is not altogether serious when, after twelve lines of Eliot running on about his relatives (“I’ve just found two of mine reviewed by Poe./ He wiped the floor with them . . . and I was delighted.”), he throws up his hands and says “Ah Tom, one muse, one music, had one the luck—/ lost in the dark night of the brilliant talkers,/ humor and honor from the everlasting dross!” Which is horribly predictable even while it looks tacked on. To show what can happen when the Boswellian impulse gets mixed in with more important things, let me quote a poem entitled “Munich 1938,” written after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Hitler, Mussolini, Daladier,
   Chamberlain:
that historic confrontation of the
   great—
firm on one thing, they were
   against the war;
each won there, by shoving the
   war ahead twelve months.
Is it worse to choke on the vomit
   of cowardice,
or blow the world up on a point
   of honor? . . .
John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon
   College, Gambier, Ohio,
looking at primitive African art
   on loan:
gleam-bottomed naked warriors
   of oiled brown wood,
makeshift tin straws in their
   hands for spears;
far from the bearded, armored,
   all-profile hoplites
on the Greek vase; not distant
   maybe from their gods—
John saying, “Well, they may not
   have been good neighbors,
but they never troubled the rest
   of the world.

August 22, 1968

What is Ransom doing with that African art? Why, exactly, does Prague put the author in mind of Munich? How does “Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio” shed light on the 1938 betrayal and the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia? Such are the niggling questions a reader may feel obliged to ask, while reflecting that “to choke on the vomit of cowardice” is so poor one cannot quite believe it is Robert Lowell. The three items are being held in juxtaposition, and that’s the end of it. Perhaps the hoplites and Russians are deadly with civilization, as against the defenseless Africans and Czechs. Perhaps not; and it’s no more than a finger exercise—who cares?

On political subjects Lowell does not always seem thus unaccountably baffled, and I rather like the poem about Stalin, which concludes:

Stalin? What shot him clawing up
   the tree of power—
millions plowed under like the
   crops they grew,
his intimates dying like the
   spider-bridegroom?
The large stomach could only
   chew success. What raised him
was the usual lust to break the
   icon,
joke cruelly, seriously, and be
   himself.

A good illustration, by the way, of Mr. Fein’s note about the deliberate staging of confrontations with historical characters. With Colonel Shaw, Napoleon, Stalin, this is always in some degree a process of assimilation, and a part of Lowell himself shows up in the lines quoted above. The sequence of poems called “The Powerful” has to be rated the most ambitious effort in the book; and if not entirely successful, it does anyhow want dipping into more than once, as raw matter issuing from the conscience of a bitterly moral historian.

Altogether, I am of two minds about Lowell’s Notebook . For one thing, there is so much of it—so much good, bad, or just “typical.” No one but Robert Lowell would have the temerity to write “Faust’s soul-sale,” and that, it may be said, is typical. So is “the mammoth mammaries of Aphrodite,” or (describing the speaker at a left-wing demonstration) “the audience understood;/ anticipating the sentence, they too stood/ for the predestined poignance of his murder,/ his Machiavellian Utopia of pure nerve.” The only name for this is rhetoric, a personal cadence and diction by now (I should say) easily parodied. The quality of the poetry depends—this is obvious—on where the rhetoric is heading. Taking a step downward, it may become rather stupid (“The Republic! But it never was,/ except in the sky-ether of Plato’s thought,/ steam from the ordure of his city state.”) or grow astonishingly crude, as when it surveys the corpse of F. O. Matthiessen, “frozen meat.” Yet in writing of the death of Randall Jarrell—another suicide, another friend gone by—Lowell suddenly finds the elevation and the evenness of tone which elsewhere in the book he so painfully lacks, and in that single moment he is magnificent:

                  you plod out stubbornly,
as if asleep, Child Randall, as if
   in chainstep,
meeting the cars, and approving;
   a harsh luminosity,
as you clasp the blank coin at
   the foot of the tunnel.

An English critic, confronted with Notebook and apparently having trouble with it, decided there must be a trick to reading this sort of work. It is much easier if you close your eyes halfway, get settled in a dreamy stupor, and then wait for the meanings to rise up to the surface. I have to admit the novelty of his solution, and having tried it for myself I know that it delivers the goods. But when I ask if this is the way good poetry can be read, the answer must be no. Notebook is a special case, perhaps the only one of its kind, lying somewhere between entries in a personal diary and notes toward the making of a real, fully orchestrated series of poems. And it is not hard to tell when an individual poem lies more squarely in the first category or the second; “The Powerful” is plainly nearer the second.

_____________

 

No one is going to read the new Lowell with delight, and those who make it their one poetry book of the year (surely Lowell has more readers of this kind than any other poet alive) are going to see even less of the iceberg than they should, unless they are well acquainted with the author’s friends, influences, and past work. At all events, there ought to be no two ways about the “crowning achievement” business. It is not that. Fairness will prevail if the book is viewed rather as a transitional step, the worth of which must be determined entirely by future productions. There is certainly no reason to lose heart, since Lowell remains a writer in full possession of an imposing wit, and all his wits.

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 For all that I know, this may be what Robert Bly had in mind when, in the course of a nutty attack on Lowell as a New York intellectual, he seemed to get one shot on target: “He is pretending to have poetic excitement when all he has to offer is nervous excitement.” Robert Lowell: A Portrait of the Artist in His Time, edited by Michael London and Robert Boyers; David Lewis, 1970 (340 pp., $15.00) reprints the Bly article, along with those of Blackmur and, in part, Bewley. Other points of interest in this very expensive book will be found in the essays by John Bayley, Louis Simpson, Geoffrey Hartman, Randall Jarrell, and John Wain.

2 The Autobiographical Myth of Robert Lowell, by Philip Cooper, University of North Carolina Press, 170 pp., $7.50; Robert Lowell, by Richard J. Fein, Twayne, 173 pp., $4.50.

3 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 265 pp., $7.50.

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.