Commentary Magazine


What Remains of Robert Lowell?

Robert Lowell, who died in 1977, was a public poet in the vein of such 19th-century precursors as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, or such 20th-century ones as Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot. All were “public” in the sense of being widely known and read, and in addressing, at least occasionally, the shared concerns of their audience. Of course, none of the 20th-century American poets was known or read by as large a percentage of the literate population as Longfellow had been, partly because, like Eliot, they felt they had to write “difficult” poems for a difficult age. Even the pastoral Frost, whose readers were more numerous than Eliot’s, felt the torments of the time, and his poems could sometimes be correspondingly oblique.

Lowell’s place is somewhere between Eliot and Frost, with regard both to the number of his readers and to the degree of his difficulty. But with regard to his public presence, he was very nearly their equal. His face was on the cover of Time, his political gestures made the front page of the New York Times, he hobnobbed with the Kennedys, was an informal adviser to Eugene McCarthy in the latter’s 1968 bid for the presidency, and was a scion of families whose presence in America long predated those Irish clans. What Lowell cared about, most Americans of his day cared about.

Lowell became a public poet with some reluctance. The great American modernists who came of age in the years before and after World War I—Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, or the slightly older Frost—took a public-be-damned view of their work. Not that they went out of their way to condemn or ridicule their countrymen, but their sole responsibility was to their art. Love, war, God, history, the human condition: their subjects were traditional enough, but they challenged themselves to address them both in an up-to-date idiom and in more or less conspicuous dialogue with a seemingly out-of-date Hebraic-Hellenic tradition.

The job was taxing, mentally and physically, and the poets who came after these high modernists—Lowell, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz—were sooner or later defeated by it. The ultra-promising Schwartz drank, flickered out, and died at fifty-three; Berryman and Jarrell despaired and died of unnatural causes (the one committing suicide at fifty-eight, the other almost certainly doing so at fifty-one); and Lowell, his personal life a minefield, went through immense mental sufferings in and out of hospitals. If he was the best of this mid-century group of American poets, it is not because he lived a little longer (sixty years all told) and wrote more poems. It is because his poems are on the whole more verbally charged and formally more all-rounded—and because, compared with those of his co-rivals, they shed more light, more often, on topics central to the experience both of his own time and, like the works of any great writer, of times other than his.

That is why readers can rejoice at the publication, this past summer, of Lowell’s Collected Poems.1 A quarter-century after his death, we finally have the poetry complete, from Land of Unlikeness, which had not been reprinted since the original 250 copies were privately published in 1944, to Day by Day and Last Poems, with a hundred more pages of uncollected poems, magazine versions, drafts in manuscript, translations of poems by the Russians Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, and so forth. In their 156 pages of notes, the editors mostly suppress the impulse to interpret and stick to identifying sources, allusions, historical or biographical circumstances, and the names of persons and places that Lowell frequently and familiarly drops.

That it has taken so long to get all the poems between two covers is a story unto itself. Considerable time, naturally, was needed for the editors to do their work, but no doubt the delay also had to do with the mind-set of university literature departments and of publishers who follow rather than lead them. After his death, Lowell got stiffed by feminists who looked askance at what he wrote about being a husband, lover, and father, and finally what he stood for as a dead white male. Nor was he, for newly tenured radicals, radical enough. Even as early as 1970, when he taught at Essex in England, he found himself out of tune with students more interested in disarranging their brain cells through drugs than in thinking through aesthetic problems, and keener on Bob Dylan or even Rod McKuen than on Shakespeare or Stevens.

Academic and publishing predilections have evolved since then, mostly in ways unfruitful. All the more reason, then, to be grateful for this opportunity to go back and appreciate Lowell’s work as a whole. After similar marble-block collections of the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and, at the more meditative end of the spectrum, James Merrill, it is about time.

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Putting together a Selected Poems shortly before he died, Lowell, alluding to William Wordsworth’s long verse-autobiography, The Prelude (1805), called his own work “a small-scale Prelude.” What he meant was that, although “written in many different styles and with digressions,” it nevertheless made up “a continuing story.” Then he asked: “A story of what?”

It was a good question. “My journey is always stumbling on the unforeseen and even unforeseeable,” Lowell replied, which was in part true; but it was not merely a story of one thing after another. For me, three stages are discernible. There was, first of all, the Boston Puritan who became a Catholic and whose Lord Weary’s Castle won the Pulitzer Prize in 1946. Then there was the liberal romantic, whose Life Studies won the National Book Award in 1959. And last there was the egoistic but exhausted nihilist who is present in such unrhymed sonnet sequences as The Dolphin, which won the Pulitzer in 1973, and the open-form, exquisite Day by Day, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977.

The three stages were deeply personal—uniquely Lowell’s—and yet they were also representative, thanks on the one hand to the poet’s eloquence about his own condition and on the other hand to his capacity to remind us of how all lives broadly resemble one another. Remembering the opening of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, however, one must affirm that each generation is unhappy in its own way.

Lowell’s way of being unhappy was shaped by circumstances more notable than most. Through his father, a retired naval officer and ineffectual husband and businessman, he came from the Somerset Lowles who arrived in Massachusetts in 1639 and who in the 19th century produced the poet James Russell Lowell (“pedestaled for oblivion,” as his descendant said) and in the 20th the Imagist poet Amy Lowell, whose brother A. Lawrence Lowell was “president of Harvard for millennia.” On his mother’s side, Lowell was allied to the Winslows, who had been on the Mayflower (“There were a lot of people on that boat,” I once heard a Winslow say, looking around suspiciously) and made their mark as governors, Indian fighters, and merchants. Lowell’s maternal grandfather, a Winslow who had struck silver in Colorado, was the alpha male in the wider family circle.

Grandfather, mother, father, aunts, uncles et al. are portrayed in the 30-page prose interlude, “91 Revere Street,” that Lowell would include in Life Studies. It reads like such extraordinary New England autobiographies as those by the novelist Henry James, the historian Henry Adams, and the philosopher George Santayana: at once an account of an all-but-vanished plutocracy and an implicit diagnosis of the paternal absence and maternal overbearingness that contributed to whatever chemical anomalies led to Lowell’s bipolar disorder.

This malady—manic breaks leading to hospitalization, electric shock, and finally lithium dependency—afflicted him all his life. Whatever his afflictions, the fact that his forebears were famous and that the class they belonged to had set the tone for two centuries of American culture as a whole made what happened to Lowell seem reflective of what they and their class had created, and constitutive of what many of his readers could regard as their experience as well.

Boy Lowell went to the prestigious St. Mark’s school, where his sometimes boorish, bullying behavior earned him the nickname “Cal,” as in Caligula the mad Roman emperor and Caliban the “savage” in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It seemed a matter of course that he would go to Harvard, and for a year he tried it, but no one on the faculty could help him become the poet he had decided he wanted to be. Once, when Frost visited the campus, Lowell showed him an epic he had been writing on the Crusades. The older poet “merely remarked,” in the words of Lowell’s best biographer Paul Mariani, “that the poem did seem to go on a bit.”

Conciseness, in the manner of the 17th-century Metaphysical poets and of their 20th-century champion Eliot, was what Lowell learned when he left Harvard to sit at the feet of the Southern poets Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom. The latter was his mentor at Kenyon College in Ohio, where he majored in classics and graduated valedictorian in 1940. That same year he married the soon-to-be novelist Jean Stafford, the two of them decamping to Baton Rouge where she typed in the humid office of the Southern Review and he studied English literature with Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren.

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Altogether he had enjoyed a thorough New Critical, High Church education. He was taught to value a poem as a “well wrought urn,” the sound of its meter and rhyme to be understood as a vehicle for its sense, and the poet’s vocation to be founded on faith in the God Who had endowed words and things with meaning and Who redeemed the world—made it a sacred object of poetic attention—when He incarnated Himself in Jesus Christ. Lowell, who converted to Catholicism in March 1941, took this theology with the utmost seriousness, and would continue to do so even after he deconverted in the late 40’s. He wanted to be a poet like the Jesuit Gerard Manly Hopkins, and to act like Jesus.

The former was just possible. The latter was not. Unable to show forbearance and kindness in his personal relations—twice he broke Stafford’s nose, once by running their car into a wall and once by hitting her with his fist—he was nevertheless earnest enough in his faith to go to jail in wartime as a conscientious objector. He was by no means opposed to all wars, having several times, after Pearl Harbor, volunteered for service and been rejected on account of his myopia. But by 1943 he had become convinced that the Allies were waging war unjustly, both because of their demand for unconditional surrender from an Axis already on the ropes and because of their bombing campaign’s decimation of civilians. He served five months of his year-and-a-day sentence in prison (he might have gotten three years), and then finished it as a janitor at an Army cadet nurses’ dormitory. He may have been wrong in his moral calculus, but he had done his “just-war” homework and stood by his conclusions.

Meanwhile, there was his vocation. Throughout the war he was writing most of the poems that would be included in Lord Weary’s Castle. The best of them are “Napoleon Crosses the Berezina” (Lowell could always address himself to grand figures and events with famous-family confidence), “1790,” “At the Indian Killer’s Grave,” “Mr. Edwards and the Spider,” and, supremely, “The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket.” This last is a composite of Hopkins’s gnarled phrasing in “The Wreck of The Deutschland,” Milton’s “Lycidas,” the first chapter of Thoreau’s Cape Cod, and Melville’s Moby-Dick:

In the great ash-pit of Jehoshaphat
The bones cry for the blood of the
      white whale,
The fat flukes arch and whack about its
       ears,
The death-lance churns into the
       sanctuary, tears
The gun-blue swingle, heaving like a
       flail,
And hacks the coiling life out: it
       works and drags
And rips the sperm-whale’s midriff into
       rags,
Gobbets of blubber spill to wind and
       weather,
Sailor, and gulls go round the stoven
       timbers
Where the morning stars sing out
       together
And thunder shakes the white surf and
       dismembers
The red flag hammered in the mast-head.
       Hide
Our steel, Jonas Messias, in Thy side.

Lowell depicts the Quaker leviathan-chasers going to work with a grisly efficiency, while the butchered white whale becomes, like Jonah in Christian typology, a figure of Jesus the messiah. In his review of the book, which made Lowell’s career, Jarrell noted this poem’s “extraordinary rhetorical machine . . . which first traps and then wrings to pieces the helpless reader—who rather enjoys it,” adding that the lines’ “detailed factuality is particularly effective because it sets off, or is set off by, the elevation and rhetorical sweep characteristic of much earlier English poetry.”

All true—though it is also true that Lord Weary’s Castle, as Jarrell put it privately in a demurring letter to Lowell, was all in all “too little interested in people” and too much interested in “the actions of you, God, the sea, and cemeteries.” But Lowell was soon enough to get people galore into his verse.

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By the 1950’s, following his divorce from Stafford and not coincidentally from the Catholic Church, and his marriage to the critic and novelist Elizabeth (“Lizzie”) Hardwick, he was moving into what I have called his liberal romantic phase. Romantic means that his primary subject was now his own ego, a sensibility sublimely (or ridiculously) coping with the world of experience, without the aid of any natural or supernatural metaphysic. The God Who (people once believed) had sponsored such a metaphysic had absconded; what was left was humanity’s ability still to conceive, if not a compelling metaphysic, then at least a plausible ethic of its own. Thus the liberal, in the 19th-century sense: Lowell wanted to liberate those who were in bondage. Translated into the politics of the 50’s, his conviction was that it was imperative to grant blacks their civil rights and to find a way to prevent nuclear war.

In Life Studies, Lowell’s sitters, as in a portrait painter’s studio, were members of his extended family (“91 Revere Street,” “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow,” “Commander Lowell,” “Terminal Days at Beverly Farms,” and so on); deceased precursors, mentors, or friends (Ford Madox Ford, Schwartz, Crane, Santayana); and, harrowingly, himself. “Beyond the Alps” is about his deconversion; “Waking in the Blue” and “Home After Three Months Away” are about his hospitalizations; “Memories of West Street and Lepke” contrasts the “tranquillized Fifties” on Marlborough Street in Boston with being jailed during the war as “a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.”; and the much-anthologized “Skunk Hour” shows the poet confessing that “My mind’s not right,” “I myself am hell,” in a culturally “ill” season in which the most vital life is a mother skunk and her “column of kittens” that have gotten into the garbage. “She jabs her wedge-head in a cup / of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail, and will not scare.”

I say the poet was “confessing” this because everyone, including Lowell, said it. Reviewing Life Studies, M.L. Rosenthal thought Lowell’s confessions too naked, a “rather shameful” spilling of confidences that “one is honor-bound not to reveal.” After all, what business was it of ours that Lowell’s father was a humiliating henpecked failure, and how could the poet “allow himself this kind of ghoulish,” parricidal revelation “without doing his own spirit incalculable damage”?

This is the sort of question later readers would pose concerning Lowell’s poems about his wives and children, For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin, which violated the privacies of individuals yet living, quoting their letters without permission and generally displaying hampers-full of dirty linen. That is a problem I will return to. For the moment, I think one has to grant what Rosenthal finally granted: while the Lowells and their New England were not America per se, the “psychological breakdown” of Robert Lowell and the disintegration of his family’s power were as emblematic of what might diffusely be amiss in the West as were the rough patches in the careers of his “sitters” Ford, Santayana, Schwartz, or Crane. Our culture was the sum of such “life studies.”

Moreover, Lowell’s exploitation of his own experience, mining the lives of relatives, lovers, friends, did not measurably exceed that of D. H. Lawrence in Sons and Lovers or Women in Love, or of Virginia Woolf in Jacob’s Room or To the Lighthouse. What an artist “confesses” cannot help involving, however indirectly, his near and dear. Our job is to understand (a) what he or his subjects have done and (b) what he or his subjects have suffered—and to understand as well that insofar as (a) has been sinful, the blame lies in part with (b).

There, however, is the rub. Lowell famously cried “Pity the monsters!,” even enormous ones like Caligula (“Tell me what I saw / to make me like you when we met at school?” he asked, with that nicely ambiguous “like”) or, to the point of trivialization, Stalin (“What raised him / was an unusual lust to break the icon, / joke cruelly, seriously, and be himself”). If this was liberalism, it was liberalism gone gamy: tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.

But liberalism had its combative tradition, too, and in For the Union Dead, the 1964 volume that followed Life Studies, the mood was often recriminatory, the Calvinist in “Cal” not too faint to damn. Here, for instance, is a passage from “The Mouth of the Hudson”:

Chemical air
sweeps in from New Jersey,
and smells of coffee.

Across the river,
ledges of suburban factories tan
in the sulphur-yellow sun
of the unforgivable landscape.

And this is from “Fall 1961”:

All autumn, the chafe and jar
of nuclear war;
we have talked our extinction to death.
[. . .]

A father’s no shield
for his child.
We are like a lot of wild
spiders crying together,
but without tears.

That last sentence being a quotation from his daughter Harriet, who in it seems old before her time.

The Lowell of these passages can sound merely growly and self-pitying. But he was still enough of a liberal romantic to stay mindful of his ideals. “For the Union Dead,” his greatest public-statement poem, is not without its sour swipes at the bombing of Hiroshima or other abuses of technology (“giant finned cars nos[ing] forward like fish,” etc.). Mainly, however, the poem challenges an America faced with civil-rights protests in the South (“When I crouch to my television set, / the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons”) to emulate the heroic example of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the black troops, officered by whites, who fell in the unsuccessful attack on Fort Wagner in July 1863 and who are memorialized “on Saint-Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief” in Boston:

at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the
    bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

One pauses here to note the absence of initial capitals and the rhymeless, irregular lines in the poems I have been quoting from Life Studies and For the Union Dead. This is the free verse that Lowell’s generation associated with William Carlos Williams, notably in Paterson (1946-58), a five-part work devoted to the New Jersey community that Williams served as a physician and knew inside-out. Lowell recognized it was hopeless to imitate Williams’s spare diction and chopped lines—those who had tried sounded bare and looked legless—but he could approach him indirectly by way of the conversational style of another poet, Elizabeth Bishop, whom he began to follow in the 50’s.

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The results were not consistently happy: Shaw and his regiment are not the only casualties in For the Union Dead. Lowell must have understood that, musically, the Williams-Bishop free-verse mode was minimalist at best. Hence, in Near the Ocean (1967), he brought back meter and rhyme, with especially spectacular success in the opening five-poem sequence beginning with “Waking Early Sunday Morning.” Here he employs an eight-line, octosyllabic stanza modeled on the 17th-century example of Andrew Marvell, whose “Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland” is perhaps the greatest political poem in the language. In Lowell’s hands, the form was adapted to a liberal social commentary that sometimes veered into the sentimentally panicked:

No weekends for the gods now. Wars
flicker, earth licks its open sores,
fresh breakage, fresh promotions,
     chance
assassinations, no advance.
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 . . .

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 later recalled that adhering to the stanza form was “a Godsent task that held me almost breathing couplets all one summer and deep into the next autumn. Shine compensated for the overcompression.”

The pressure of events, however, proved too strong for this degree of shine and, to some extent, for Lowell’s own political equilibrium. By the late 60’s he was writing the unrhymed sonnets that make up nearly a fourth of the complete poems: first under the title Notebook and ultimately organized under three titles, History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin. Between 1968 and 1973 he was often writing four sonnets a week, cutting his lines off at nine syllables, ten, eleven, or twelve. If the traditional fourteen lines were not enough for a subject, he would carry the discussion on into the next fourteen, or (rarely) the next after that.

He wanted to avoid the continuities of narrative, to create still lifes rather than a movie, and his subjects were the total of everything: his old-breaking and new-breaking marriages; his daughter Harriet and son Sheridan (a hell-on-wheels in his nonage); historical figures seen through the prism, and often given the speech, of the 20th century; his own moods, high and low; and, most interestingly and maddeningly, the political events of the day: Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam, Gene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Nixon, the lives and deaths of poets and novelists.

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Here, from History, is the first of his two sonnets about the antiwar March on the Pentagon in October 1967:

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.

Besides putting his poem in dialogue with a poem by Melville about the first Bull Run roughly a century earlier, and thereby casting the Pentagon protesters as inexperienced good guys like Lincoln’s Union troops, Lowell expertly registers the contraries of the moment—the monuments to America’s statesmen reminding us of the reasons we have gone justly to war in the past but now seeming as triumphalist as the antiwar speeches seem simplistically pacifistic, mere “harangues”; the locking of arms with Norman Mailer, Dwight Macdonald, and Dr. Spock feeling both “lovely” and “absurd”; Lowell himself quaking, his colleagues moved as much by publicity and sex as by moral principle, and the National Guard soldiers appearing at once high-tech Martian with their gas-masks, stupidly apish, and heroic.

Speaking of heroic, here, again from History, are lines from the decidedly mock-heroic “The Restoration,” about the return of President Grayson Kirk of Columbia University to his office after students had occupied it during the April 1968 campus uprising:

The old king enters his study with the
    police;
it’s much like mine left in my hands a
    month:
unopened letters, the thousand dead
    cigarettes,
open books, yogurt cups in the unmade
    bed—
the old king enters his study with the
    police,
but all in all his study is much worse
    than mine;
an edge of malice shows the thumb of
    man:
frames smashed, their honorary honours
    lost,
all his unopened letters have been
    answered.
He halts at woman-things that can’t be
    his,
and says, “To think that human beings
    did this!”

At the time, Diana Trilling thought Lowell too soft on the student radicals—there was a running debate between him and her in the pages of COMMENTARY from the fall of 1968 through the following spring—but one can see already Lowell’s ambivalence about the methods of protesters whose aim (getting America out of Vietnam) he shared. From the late 30’s on, his anti-Communist credentials had been unimpeachable, and when he saw a newspaper “photograph of students marching through Rome with banners showing a young Clark-Gable-style Stalin and a very fat old Mao,” he knew that “the violence that has betrayed [his own generation’s] desires will also betray theirs if they trust to it”—as many of the students disastrously did.

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The political disasters of the era were compounded for Lowell by personal ones—manic episodes leading to McLean’s (the tony psychiatric hospital outside Boston), the triumph of hope over experience as he left Hardwick for Caroline Blackwood, and affairs with star-coupling students semester after semester. When, following For Lizzie and Harriet, The Dolphin appeared, Adrienne Rich wrote a friendship-destroying review:

There’s a kind of aggrandized and merciless masculinity at work in these books. . . . [What can] one say about a poet who, having left his wife and daughter for another marriage, then titles a book with their names, and goes on to appropriate his ex-wife’s letters written under the stress and pain of desertion, into a book of poems nominally addressed to the new wife? . . . I have to say that I think this is bullshit eloquence, a poor excuse for a cruel and shallow book, that it is presumptuous to balance injury done to others with injury done to myself.

For Anthony Lane, reviewing this new collection in the New Yorker, the bullshit has been washed away by time, leaving the eloquence pure. Not for me. The indelicacy Rich complains of might be excused if the aesthetic upshot were sufficiently brilliant, as in Lawrence and Woolf’s cases, but that does not happen in the poems about Lowell’s immediate, telescoped families. The phrasing of the appropriated letters, especially Blackwood’s, is often bathetic, and Lowell’s self-analysis frequently devolves into scab-picking. It is not his masculinism that spoils these poems. It is their own unendurable tedium and solipsism.

If here he failed to make his own domestic unhappiness reflective of other people’s and so to achieve the kind of representativeness that Life Studies just managed to possess, he did succeed, in Day by Day‘s poems about the deterioration of old age, in connecting with an audience once more. Though we all grow old and fall apart, and though anyone can scribble about it, what Lowell offered was descriptive specificity (which hardly ever failed him), startlingly apt metaphor, and heartbreaking understatement—the last-named quality being exactly what the on-and-on sonnets lacked. My own favorites from this 1977 volume include “The Withdrawal,” about the selling of Blackwood’s big house in England (she was heiress to the Guinness fortune), “Marriage,” “To Frank Parker,” “Seventh Year,” “Home,” “Shifting Colors,” “Unwanted,” “The Downlook,” and the oft-lauded “Epilogue.”

“Epilogue” in particular offers a key to Lowell’s strengths and weaknesses in the final decade of his career. This was when, his liberalism failing and his romantic egoism narrowing to narcissism, he entered his nihilistic phase. Here is the poem in full:

Those blessèd structures, plot and
    rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light
.
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.
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.

For him, then, there would be no more theological, historical, political, or even moral assertion, the sort of statement that plot and rhyme facilitate. Such statements come from painters, who must imagine the ways in which their brush translates what they see “out there” into what we will see on the canvas. A master like Vermeer had “to caress the light” in order to give us the sensation of “the sun’s illumination/stealing like the tide across a map/to his girl solid with yearning.” Lowell certainly wants his “say what happened” poems to have Vermeer’s “grace of accuracy,” or at least wants his snapshots to attain the art of the photograph, with the camera’s lens sufficiently well-focused and the angle carefully-enough chosen “to give/each figure . . . /his living name.” But he seems to know that painting is a more demanding art than photography, and the pleasures it gives correspondingly richer. That is why the summit of his own career, after all, was the painterly-titled, painterly-executed Life Studies.

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Lowell’s stepping back from the philosophical, political, and even narrative goals of his own early verse signaled both his loss of religious faith and his loss of the secular idealism that had underpinned the middle-period volumes. By the early 1970’s he felt too depleted to pose any longer as a public spokesman for liberal causes, which in any case had petered out into the unedifying spectacles of anti-Americanism and the emergence of identity politics in place of the civil-rights movement embodied by Martin Luther King, Jr. (see “Two Walls”). The frank nihilism of Lowell’s posture in the 70’s is there in the mind freely associating, the ego alone giving a semblance of coherence to the jumble of “misalliance.” Mostly, he proceeded to do what conscientious nihilists do: he observed, took notes, described what he saw, and—waiting for the end—sometimes, as in “The Nihilist as Hero,” indulged himself in consolatory false theatrics:

Life by definition breeds on change,
each season we scrap new cars and wars
     and women.
But sometimes when I am ill or
     delicate,
the pinched flame of my match turns
     unchanging green,
a cornstalk in green tails and seeded
     tassel. . . .
A nihilist wants to live in the world
     as is,
and yet gaze the everlasting hills to
     rubble.

Not wishing he were dead, but also not wishing that he were going to live long enough to land in a nursing home, he continued drinking and smoking his four packs of cigarettes a day, which amounted to a slow version of Berryman’s leap from a bridge over the Mississippi. He died of heart failure in the back of a New York taxi on September 12, 1977. After an Episcopalian funeral service—that is how Lowells do it, he had said, appealing to “poetic” custom—he was buried in the Winslow family plot at Dunbarton, New Hampshire.

Thanks to this elephantine Collected Poems, his verse remains remain, a very large portion of them giving the aesthetic, if not always substantive, satisfactions one associates with greatness. His reputation herewith deserves to become secure as the premier poet of his generation and perhaps the last acknowledged public poet that America, now thoroughly prose-invested, will ever produce. Of his contemporaries, Jarrell was, at the end of the day, a droning poet if a most luminous critic; Berryman a plangent rhetorician but unable to control the manic comedy of his “dream songs”; and Schwartz, frankly, a postwar version of Thomas Chatterton, the 18th-century proto-romantic martyr, dying young because too good for a bad world. Not that Lowell’s elevation is by default; it is by merit, as anyone who cares to read can now abundantly confirm.

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Footnotes

1 Edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1,186 pp., $45.00.

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About the Author

Thomas L. Jeffers is the editor of The Norman Podhoretz Reader, to be published by the Free Press this month.




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