His Own Prophet
- Collected Poems by Robert Lowell, edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter
Faber, 1186 pp, £40.00, July 2003, ISBN 0 571 16340 8
It was reading Robert Lowell that brought me to poetry at the age of 19, in 1976. I had borrowed a friend’s omnibus edition of Life Studies and For the Union Dead, and something in me said: ‘This is it!’ I don’t remember the poem I first had that response to, but most likely it was in Part IV of Life Studies, ‘Dunbarton’ or ‘For Sale’, or perhaps ‘Waking in the Blue’. Twenty-seven years later, I’m afraid I haven’t got beyond that initial feeling; I signed up to do a PhD on Lowell, which remained unwritten because there was never anything I wanted to prove about him. I didn’t have a ‘thesis’, in any sense. I still don’t. Instead, Lowell is someone I continually reread. I find his poems endlessly approachable, wonderfully communicative and perfectly inexhaustible: stately, supple, personal and resourceful. To vary what Mallarmé says about himself (Lowell quotes it in his last book, Day by Day), here was someone who had the good fortune to find a style that made writing possible. By comparison with him, other poets don’t use language, don’t write about the world.
For many years, the Collected Poems that have now finally appeared 25 years after Lowell’s death – they were like a fata morgana, sometimes practically within reach, even in the publisher’s catalogue, and then gone again in a puff of non-appearance – were an object of intense, unimaginable speculation to me. I had all the individual volumes, several times over, and there wasn’t anything not in them that I felt particularly curious about, but there was the simple juju of books. Where would it fall open? (Answer: on page 702, the poem ‘Flight to New York’, perhaps on these appropriate closing lines: ‘the shine and stiffness of a new suit, a feeling,/not wholly happy, of having been reborn.’) Where would the guillotines of the cover fall – would it truly contain everything? Would ‘everything’ even fit into one volume, in the way that ‘everything’, even ‘Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’, was once threatened with fitting into those widely disliked, Procrustean 14-liners, ‘famished’ and then ‘swallowing’, of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Lowell successively published Notebook 1967-68, Notebook of a Year and – purring in a ‘Note’, ‘I am sorry to ask anyone to buy this poem twice. I couldn’t stop writing, and have handled my published book as if it were manuscript’ – Notebook; then split the undertaking in two, History and For Lizzie and Harriet; and added one more, new book of them, The Dolphin? What would happen to the resulting endless ‘litter of variants’ – and ‘litter’, pray, in what sense?! At what point would the career – the ‘one life, one writing’ – balance? (Perhaps the most striking way of presenting this issue is to note that Life Studies is over by page 200 of this 1200-page book.) What would its impact be, now, after 25 years? Has Lowell’s ‘eclipse’ gone on long enough? How would the ‘mid-century’ look to the early century that followed?
Typically, Lowell seems to have anticipated the posthumous scene. ‘Every hypochondriac,’ he says somewhere, in one of the hundreds of aphorisms that stud and spice his poems, ‘is his own prophet.’ One of his irregular ‘sonnets’ is called ‘Reading Myself’, a strange mixture of swagger and meekness, clang and human:
Like thousands, I took just pride and more than just,
struck matches that brought my blood to a boil;
I memorised the tricks to set the river on fire –
somehow never wrote something to go back to.
Can I suppose I am finished with wax flowers
and have earned my grass on the minor
slopes of Parnassus . . .
No honeycomb is built without a bee
adding circle to circle, cell to cell,
the wax and honey of a mausoleum –
this round dome proves its maker is alive;
the corpse of the insect lives embalmed in honey,
prays that its perishable work live long
enough for the sweet-tooth bear to desecrate –
this open book . . . my open coffin.
I suppose what I was afraid of was that the sleek monumentality of such a book as a Collected Poems would somehow countermand and extinguish the scrappiness, the impurity, the profane improvisatoriness (the wax flowers, the trick with the river, the medias res of the embalmed corpse) of what seems to me Lowell’s greatest and most living work. That the fascinating equivocation between process and product, between hard and soft, would be upset. That this particular ‘open book’, so long in the making, would no longer provide the insect with any sort of bearable habitat.
The Collected Poems is a large and handsome production, especially where the page layout is concerned. Its pale Cambridge blue jacket is rather unexpected, and the Life Studies-era photograph of a slightly worried-looking Lowell in preppy clothes – collar and tie and sleeveless sweater – twisted half-upright in what looks like a deckchair, against a background of slumped books on shelves, sends the wrong message to, as it were, a pre-intimidated readership, but it does catch what Seamus Heaney, a friend of his last years, called ‘the fish-dart of your eyes’. What I like about the edition is presumably what more austere critics will take against: its frayed edges, its incorporation of stray materials, the personal touch on the elbow that the American poet Frank Bidart, a close friend and associate of Lowell’s, ‘both amanuensis and sounding-board’ for the many books of sonnets, has brought to it. (A no doubt garbled account once reached me of Lowell flying Bidart across the Atlantic, so that he could fix Lowell’s punctuation; Bidart himself recalls Lowell ending one such session, ‘to the amusement of whoever happened to be present: “Well, it’s been another day of humiliations.”’) Here, Bidart has contributed a short personal introduction and an afterword on ‘confessional’ poetry, neither of which would have made it under a less fretful, more ‘classic’ dispensation, which would have done without advocacy, justification, or – there are a couple of hundred pages of notes, some fascinating, but too many others (‘bête noire’, ‘Hades’, ‘Diana’) clearly pitched at the sort of American sophomores who will probably remain unaware of them – explanation. A set of seven appendices brings in the early chapbook, Land of Unlikeness, variants, extra translations and manuscript poems, and ends with Lowell’s essay ‘After Enjoying Six or Seven Essays on Me’. Ramification, proliferation, is all. This cellular layering and affixing and extending is what makes this such a ‘live’ book, justly mingling product with process. It has almost a loose-leaf feel. That’s praise.
The one editorial decision I didn’t agree with was the biggest, and, Bidart says, ‘the earliest made – to print History rather than Notebook’. Making a choice is itself invidious in what is called a Collected Poems, though in Lowell’s case probably unavoidable. Most poets hold out a card; Lowell seems to offer the whole fountaining pack. Many of his poems went through dozens, even scores, of different drafts, and it’s rarely the case that all but one of them are, so to speak, cancelled. To take just one, rather tidy example, what about the poem ‘Beyond the Alps’? There is a three-stanza version of it at the beginning of Life Studies (1959); a fourth, ‘Roman’ stanza that took Lowell ‘a hundred hours’ – though for me it spoils the ‘line’ of the poem – was reinstated at the petitioning of John Berryman in For the Union Dead (1964); a revised version of that is printed as a separate poem called ‘Ovid and Caesar’s Daughter’ in History (1973); and now Bidart and Gewanter have unearthed a seven-stanza monster that was printed in the Kenyon Review in 1953. Valéry says a poem isn’t finished but abandoned: many of Lowell’s were never even abandoned. The resulting jostle of competing versions marks him more than any other poet, even Auden. Whole books, especially the five books of sonnets, have that indeterminate, intermediate status. ‘Caligula’ in For the Union Dead is a 50-line poem, ending: ‘my namesake, and the last Caligula’ (Lowell was known to his friends as ‘Cal’). ‘Caligula 2’ in History is a 14-line redaction of that, ending ‘my namesake, not the last Caligula’ (Jonathan Raban once suggested that Lowell’s idea of ‘revision’ was to throw on more negatives). As for ‘Caligula 1’ – that’s a revision of a translation of Baudelaire’s ‘Spleen’ that first appeared in Imitations. And so on, and so on, and so on. ‘You didn’t write, you rewrote,’ is the epigraph for Bidart’s introduction. I can’t imagine the blizzard of a paper-chase required of Lowell and Bidart; it was something that as a student I wasn’t willing to contemplate. If all three versions of Notebook had been incorporated, it would have put maybe another five hundred pages on the book, and probably required a second volume; if only the last, then two hundred pages and an uncomfortable argument. And yet, to have History (from 1973) rather than Notebook (from 1970) may be editorially correct, but it is the wrong choice.
I treasure my battered copy of Notebook, with its sticker ‘5 fl. dump special’ – I bought it in Amsterdam some time in the 1980s. I should have bought half a dozen of them, shoaled like Gong albums or old soaps after Christmas in a chemist’s. Notebook brings together reading, memory and experience in a completely unpredictable way. Often described as Lowell’s response to Berryman’s Dream Songs, it’s less mannered, more tantalisingly lucid. Lowell wrote it at a great rate, four or five a day, probably simultaneously, like an action painter. Basically, it’s diaristic, but with frequent recourse to sequence (‘Summer’, ‘Long Summer’, ‘Circles’) and digression. If you are looking for a particular line or poem, it will probably take you at least fifteen minutes, by which time you will probably have forgotten what you were looking for, and why. It has neither organisation nor its pis aller, an index of first lines. It contains Lowell’s best translation (‘Volveran’, typically unacknowledged, from the 19th-century Spanish poet G.A. Bécquer), many of his best poems (‘Alba’, ‘Cattle’, ‘In the Family’, ‘New Year’s Eve 1968’, the sequences ‘Through the Night’, ‘Harvard’, ‘Sleep’, ‘Summer’) and hundreds of his best lines. And while many of these are rescued into History or For Lizzie and Harriet, I still have a liking for their original context and, in many cases, the original versions. Notebook is a wilderness of a book that seems to change from one reading to the next: things you have no recollection of having seen before suddenly spring up. Not to include Notebook gives a falsely tidy sense of Lowell’s methods.
The more so as History is ordered chronologically by subject, as a librarian might say. It goes from the pre-Adamic to – well – the very latest bulletins on Lowell. Its transparently skewed encyclopedic ambitions were taken so seriously by certain critics that they demanded to know: where’s China, where’s India? I like some of the personal, present-tense poems near the end of it, but the poems about ‘historical’ people and events stand up about as badly as anything in Lowell’s oeuvre, and rereading them I understood why History – never paperbacked – was not a volume I often reached down. It seems to combine the vices of poem-making with those of book-making; everything seems to go into a line, and all the lines can be fitted into poems, and then beyond that there are the retreads from earlier books (especially Imitations – and often done worse) to fill in the spaces. The tone of it reminds me of the tone of Lowell’s conversation with Ian Hamilton from 1971, mechanically clever but distant and deaf, all denatured one-liners and musing rhetorical questions. It’s not conversation but the complacent burble of a radio on a windowsill. History is about as broad as Lowell gets, a custard-pie violence (‘smack! her sword divorces his codshead from the codpiece’ from ‘Judith’) and a strangely, disarmingly boyish thrall to heroism. You get vivid but cartoonish tropes like the ambush under the bridge (‘Down there, below a bridge, his back on the arch,/Hannibal listens, thoughtful, glorying,/to the dead tramp of the advancing Roman legions’, from ‘Hannibal 1. Roman Disaster at the Trebia’) or the mortally wounded soldier – in this case, the poet’s ancestor Charles Russell Lowell – having himself tied on to his horse. Something about these often garish poems is half-grown and not quite serious. It is even possible that the best of it is an outrageous silliness, as here in ‘Attila, Hitler’: ‘Attila mounted on raw meat and greens/ galloped to massacre in his single fieldmouse suit,/he never left a house that wasn’t burning,/could only sleep on horseback.’
I don’t suppose that Bidart – who must have put in many hundreds of hours on History, and is one of its dedicatees – necessarily prefers it or admires it; his hands as editor are as tied as Charles Russell Lowell’s feet. It is not a place where one can show literary judgment. Elsewhere, when he is able to, he shows plenty of imagination and conservationist instincts. He accepts Lowell’s difficult plea for the coexistence of rival versions, and treasures the archaic beauties of drafts that might be thought of as otherwise flawed or superseded. To me, History is unsatisfactory, over-revised, even preposterous. It is Lowell’s Brasilia or his Disneyworld. I wish it might have been consigned to some glutted appendix. Curiously, without at all intending to – I think in fact it’s an effort at legitimation – Bidart makes the case against it when he turns up a 1959 letter of Lowell’s to Elizabeth Bishop: ‘In the hospital I spent a mad month or more rewriting everything in my three books’ – Lord Weary’s Castle, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, Life Studies. ‘I arranged the poems chronologically, starting in Greek and Roman times and finally rose to air and the present with Life Studies. I felt that I had hit the skies, that all cohered. It was mostly waste.’ Quite so.
It is striking that, from the start, Lowell is about rewriting. ‘The Exile’s Return’, the opening poem in Lord Weary’s Castle, and thereby the first poem printed here – unforgotten and still known by heart to some of those who read it in 1946 when it was first published – contains a piece of description borrowed from Thomas Mann’s novella ‘Tonio Kröger’. Other poems work over passages of Melville, Jonathan Edwards, Cobbett, Thiebault and others. A good many of the autobiographical poems in Life Studies are cannibalised from Lowell’s 1950s prose memoir, fragments of which survive in the Collected Prose as ‘91 Revere Street’, ‘Antebellum Boston’ and ‘Near the Unbalanced Aquarium’. Chekhov and Flaubert have been suggested as the presiding influences or guides to the volume. In his Paris Review interview with Frederick Seidel, Lowell suggests that his true competitors are the likes of Salinger and Bellow. ‘The ideal modern form,’ he even says, ‘seems to be the novel and certain short stories.’ Working from prose, and a compatibility with prose – the copious vocabulary, the full sentences, the endless array of construction, the spry, pluperfect diction, the willingness to quote or invent speech and to describe at length, the effort to set scenes and tell stories – are things that characterise Lowell pretty much throughout. The proximity to prose, and the continual revising – though the two are almost opposites; when was the last time you were offered a ‘revised and expanded’ novel? – together argue an almost avant-garde or experimental tenacity in Lowell. It’s a stranger and more distinctive project than is generally believed. This isn’t the habitual terrain of poetry.
Because of the clamorous beat and address of early Lowell in particular, this is most often lost from view. You read (in ‘As a Plane Tree by the Water’):
Darkness has called to darkness, and disgrace
Elbows about our windows in this planned
Babel of Boston where our money talks
And multiplies the darkness of a land
Of preparation where the Virgin walks
And roses spiral her enamelled face
Or fall to splinters on unwatered streets.
Our Lady of Babylon, go by, go by,
I was once the apple of your eye;
Flies, flies are on the plane tree, on the streets.
The vatic ferocity of it all seems numbing and alien. And yet for all that, it still depends on things being seen (‘spiral’, ‘splinters’, ‘enamelled’) and understood (‘planned/ Babel’, ‘money talks’) and put into words. It is a shame to miss the compendiousness and convincingness of the picture, of the crumbling – crummy – amalgam of dark and dry, of what is there and what is lost. Other early poems show this naturalist or documentary side of Lowell much more readily. The beginning of ‘Mary Winslow’ –
Her Irish maids could never spoon out mush
Or orange-juice enough; the body cools
And smiles as a sick child
Who adds up figures, and a hush
Grips at the poised relations sipping sherry
And tracking up the carpets of her four
– is richly, and incriminatingly, detailed enough to have come out of Life Studies. ‘The Drunken Fisherman’ offers a scene that you might find in a maudit bachelor Western novel:
A calendar to tell the day;
A handkerchief to wave away
The gnats; a couch unstuffed with storm
Pouching a bottle in one arm;
A whiskey bottle full of worms;
And bedroom slacks.
Standard accounts of Robert Lowell tend to sketch a rather trite zigzag between the ‘formal’ and ‘loose’ phases of his production: using lines from Central Quoting, they move from ‘Quaker Graveyard’ to ‘Skunk Hour’ to ‘For the Union Dead’ to ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’ to the mawkish ‘Epilogue’. (What need of a 1200-page book to provide such a narrow and pre-established range of material?) Far better, it seems to me, to see identity and continuity in him, and to take a lead from one of his aptest, least diversionary musings: ‘perhaps I’ve tried to be a chameleon in vain.’ I like also something Bidart recollects in a recent interview in the Atlantic Monthly. Bidart asked Lowell something, and then straightaway regretted it, thinking he might have been a little intrusive in asking it, a little personal. The reply came from Lowell: ‘We are personal.’ The personal poet, the failed chameleon, the reviser, the marshaller of detail, the logomancer, that for me is Lowell, that’s where my own sense of him has settled after so much time. The religious poet, the formal poet, the monumental or confessional or public poet, all these for me are rather fortuitous, almost extraneous showings, that I feel little anxiety in excluding. Nor do I see him as the poet of water and the seaboard (surely Elizabeth Bishop is that much more than he is): rather he is the poet of organic life, growth and decay, and particularly of wood and lumber and mulch, of red and green and brown leaves. Of ‘a house eats up the wood that made it,’ of ‘We live, two trees,’ of ‘the leaves light up, still green, this afternoon,/and burn to frittered reds,’ of ‘the mind, which is also flesh’, of the scriptural ‘all flesh is grass, and like the flower of the grass’ and the scriptural-sounding but actually Homeric ‘like the generation of leaves, the race of man’, of ‘Through the Night’, the first section of which ends: ‘The pale green leaf clings white to the lit night/and shakes a little on its stiff, tense twig’ (where only the word ‘little’ is not a monosyllable). I find him browsing along the seam of self and world, like a painter, or like a European poet, not unlike Montale or Pasternak, the poets he most admired among his contemporaries. He was his own centre, and his life provided him with much of his material, but then I don’t see what else a poet is to do. ‘These are the tranquillised Fifties,/ and I am forty,’ as the immortal lines go in ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’. ‘Memory is genius, I suppose,’ he muttered in a magnificent aside in his last recorded reading in 1976, at the 92nd Street Y, perhaps forgetting he had already written ‘If memory is genius,’ in a poem called ‘The Fourth of July in Maine’.
There is no getting around it: Life Studies is still an absolute knockout, not least its third, prose section, ‘91 Revere Street’, which for a long time frightened me off. No question, this rich, supple, meandering, seemingly motiveless prose made the later poems possible. It is both hopelessly, baroquely excessive and nicely dry. The accretion of detail is everything; the overall design or import of the thing seems to have been left to itself. (A peculiar mixture of control and abdication that also serves to characterise the poems.) This is the discovery that seems to have led to such a uniquely trustworthy and interesting type of writing. The poems are stuffed with nouns, many of the nouns are attended by a retinue of adjectives, everything is specified to the nth degree, and yet the overall effect isn’t evasive, technical, sentimental or banal. Each image is a talisman or a totem, it has colour, spice, tendency; it illustrates relation and conflict; it is dynamic; this is not neutral or catalogue speech. The presence of so many things has been noticed. This is a poetry of cars and clothes and property and furniture and personal histories and minor and major characters. Almost uncanny to me is Randall Jarrell’s prophetic observation (made in 1947, of Lord Weary’s Castle), helpfully given in the notes: ‘The things in Mr Lowell’s poems . . . keep to an extraordinary degree their stubborn, unmoved toughness, their senseless originality and contingency: no poet is more notable for what, I have read, Duns Scotus calls haeccitas – the contrary, persisting and singular thinginess of every being in the world.’ In that book, it accounts for the worms in the whiskey bottle and the tracked carpet; in Life Studies, it gives you everything. What has been less commented on is the self-sufficiency of the words, the little scintillations and auras and frictions they so regularly provide – perhaps because there is still no accounting for such things in the way we talk about poetry.
Ezra Pound’s idea of logopoiea – ‘doing things with words’ – had, I think, little to refer to at the time it was coined. I never quite ‘saw’ or believed his instances, in Propertius or Corbière, though I never doubted the principle. It, too, to me, was prophetic – and a more generalised and magnificent prophecy than Jarrell’s. It is a little strange to think of the early Lowell as subtle – it’s all smash and gravity – but there was in him this strange sleight, right from the start, though it’s so far down in the drum-heavy iambic mix you often don’t hear it. There is a sort of doubling: the more the words work at their mimetic tasks, the more they show themselves as words. It’s not abstract – abstraction in language is all too easy to do, and rarely interesting to read – but perhaps it’s like Cézanne insisting on showing you paint, where you expect fruit or trees: ‘Belle, the cat that used to rat/About my father’s books’; ‘Wallowing in this bloody sty,/I cast for fish that pleased my eye’; ‘where the heel-headed dogfish barks its nose’; ‘Walden’s fished-out perch’. There is something quasi-autonomous about this peculiar function; it can only be done in words, but words handled – or purposely mishandled (Chrisopher Ricks calls them ‘anti-puns’) – in such a way that they feel physically solid, as they cannon into each other. The words are endowed with maximal weight. There is nothing secondary about them. The dogfish, the perch, Belle, the sty, have a compensatory shimmer of instability. It’s a contrived blunder, and it turns reading into something more precarious and physical than it usually is. And the poet who arranges these collisions is less their ringmaster than their victim.
In Life Studies, when Lowell relaxes his metre, he becomes explicitly a poet of diction, and of logopoiea. The words fit together, and make pictures and stories, and you can follow them, but there is always so much left over. He exercises freedom, almost to the point of adventitiousness. ‘Meaning,’ Lowell says in his essay ‘On “Skunk Hour”’, ‘is only a strand in the brute flow of composition.’ There are little bumps of excess, like swollen jigsaw pieces that sit over their spaces, rather than fit into them. It is still print, but it is halfway to braille, and you become host, as you read, to foolish alphabetical thoughts and noticings. There is too much sound, too much colour, too much vividness: ‘In the mornings I cuddled like a paramour/in my Grandfather’s bed,/ while he scouted about the chattering greenwood stove’ (‘Dunbarton’). It is as though heat had been applied to the language (calefaction?), and made – in Mark Rudman’s phrase – ‘fused images’. Lines from Lowell’s Leopardi suggest themselves by way of confirmation: ‘I could forget/the fascinating studies in my bolted room,/where my life was burning out,/and the heat/of my writings made the letters wriggle and melt/ under drops of sweat.’ Words never before seen together are paired and make the more-than-sense of poetry. Almost the norm in this language is the addled saw, the souped-up cliché, the unstable compound, the mixed metaphor. Content is complicatedly and painstakingly rebalanced and recalibrated: ‘poor sheepdog in wolf’s clothing!’; ‘his opinions were almost morbidly hesitant’ (the ‘almost’ betraying the fact that this hesitancy is in fact a family trait); ‘an enthusiastic Mont Blanc chirp’; ‘lethal ferns’; ‘with the energy of youth she demanded the homage due to age’; ‘our real blue-ribbon-winning bête noire’ (these examples all from the prose, from ‘91 Revere Street’). The most active and representative part of speech in this writing is the adjective (in Lord Weary’s Castle it was the aggravated verb), which generally gets a bad press. Lowell goes all out for the adjective, and it’s hard to think of a writer with such provocative and interesting adjectives, or one who finds such depth in what is thought of as a shallow and inessential vocable. Epithets – particularly animals and colours – come not singly, but severally, an ark or a rainbow at once:
I borrowed Grandfather’s cane
carved with the names and altitudes
of Norwegian mountains he had scaled –
more a weapon than a crutch.
I lanced it in the fauve ooze for newts.
In a tobacco tin after capture, the umber
yellow mature newts
lost their leopard spots,
lay grounded as numb
as scrolls of candied grapefruit peel.
I saw myself as a young newt,
and wild in the wild coffee-coloured water.
This curves – scrolls – with animation. It easily – almost naturally – encompasses the contradictory pairings of ‘umber yellow’ and ‘scarlet’, ‘newt’ and ‘leopard’, ‘numb’ and ‘wild’; ‘weapon’ and ‘carved’ generate ‘lanced’; ‘scaled’, ‘newts’; ‘grapefruit’ – helped by ‘peel’ – enjoys a double life as ‘grape’. Sometimes Lowell seems to be writing some wild interstitial English entirely his own, as with the formidably off-sounding ‘I lanced it in the fauve ooze for newts.’ At the same time, the writing never loses its inherent plausibility; it never looks like Roget, never proliferates into verbiage, never makes mere mud.
If one major aspect of Life Studies is this gargantuan appetite for differentiated and subtilised reality – prose again, one might think – it is checked by plot, by theme, by rhythm and, eerily, almost subliminally, by verbal repetitions. For all their – almost – excess of expression, the lines are cadenced and paid out in a sort of listening rhythm, a very personal, measured gather and tumble of polysyllables, after the unhearing jack-hammer blast of the early poems. A tiredness or regret – anticipating the tone in For the Union Dead and after – begins to make itself heard. The articulacy of the poems never exceeds their bemusement, whether it’s the murderer Czar Lepke’s (‘flabby, bald, lobotomised,/he drifted in a sheepish calm’), or something still more like Lowell’s own: ‘your old-fashioned tirade –/loving, rapid, merciless –/breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head.’ Bemusement, uncertainty, insecurity, affliction are all tokens of an unremitting struggle; however stylish, the words are always about something, they are never in vacuo or for display. Life Studies relates the deaths of both Lowell’s parents, time spent in various institutions (school, prison, hospital, university), and his own manhood and (again, somewhat bemused) fatherhood: ‘I have a nine months’ daughter,/young enough to be my granddaughter.’ ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’ and numerous other family ascriptions ring on practically every page through the book; ‘man’ likewise, in ‘common man’, ‘selectman’, ‘Mr Newell, a submerged young man’, ‘the man scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans’, ‘“the old man” of a gunboat on the Yangtze’, ‘Sandman’ and ‘kind man’, down to such things as ‘bristling and manic’, ‘Miss Manice’ (who taught at the girls’ school where Lowell was a boy) and the ‘Menninger’ read by his frustrated mother. Other words, less weighted and strategic, call and echo through the collection: ‘yellow’, ‘mustard’, ‘azure’, ‘golf’, ‘anchor’, ‘magnolia’, ‘old-fashioned’, ‘ostrich’, ‘elephant’, ‘hierarchic’ and ‘hierarchical’, ‘chicken-hearted’ and ‘chicken-coloured’, ‘crimson’ and ‘scarlet’, ‘gingersnap’ and ‘ginger beer’, ‘diamond-pointed’ and ‘diamond edge’, ‘Priscilla’ and ‘sarsaparilla’, ‘kiting’ and ‘mooning’ as verbs, ‘toads’ and ‘“Hop-toad, hop-toad, hop-toad!”’ Four poems have ‘cup’ or ‘egg’ in their first or last lines. All this restricts, combs, teases the wild profusion of words. Singularity, order and repetition are instituted to check accumulation and sprawl. There is a sense in Life Studies of limit as well as plenitude. Repetitions give the book something crystalline and symmetrical. It is something made, not random, illimitable scoop. (Twenty years later, Paul Muldoon will take this principle into a teasing panoptical artifice in Why Brownlee Left, Quoof and subsequent books.)
There is nothing like Life Studies, and it is, therefore (poetry being poetry, and, Brodsky says, abhorring repetition), infinitely to Lowell’s credit that he never tried to copy it. While For the Union Dead (from 1964) contains half a dozen or so of my favourite Lowell poems, and I read For Lizzie and Harriet and Notebook more than any of the other books, with my rational hat on, I would have to say Life Studies is the best book. Obviously. The pivotal book, however, and the one without which Lowell could never have found his late manner (though that wouldn’t bother a lot of people), and which would have left him an altogether smaller poet, is the peculiar, hubristic, sometimes frankly disastrous book of adaptations and translations from European poetry called Imitations. In it, Lowell steps straight into the perennial themes of classical and modern poetry, desire, loss, mortality, eheu fugaces, war. He is Achilles’ blood-lust, Sappho’s pining, the tributes of Mallarmé to Gautier, and Pasternak to Akhmatova. At the same time, poetry becomes something looser and more habitual to him. Together, these two qualities will seed the character of the subsequent Notebook sonnets, where a poem will begin with a line from Mandelstam or a passage from Hölderlin, and still have the character of a jotted improvisation. Where previously he had recycled prose and recycled reality, Imitations marks the entry into his work of what one might term ‘international style’, something coolly open to not-quite-English, and the further pleasures of ventriloquism. Lowell begins to show something of the venturesomeness of Brecht, fearlessly mixing literary ready-mades, fakery and a platform manner, in his own, fortuitously arrived at version of ‘epic’. That, at least, is my understanding of Lowell’s profession of a literary creed he calls ‘unrealism’ in Notebook, and illustrates, rather inconclusively, with such phrases as ‘the man entered the police whistle’ or ‘seasick with marital unhappiness’.
He tries himself out, a little haltingly, as Villon as an old woman: ‘Where’s my large Norman brow,/arched lashes, yellow hair,/ the wide-eyed looks I used/to trap the cleverest men?/Where is my clear, soft skin,/ neither too brown or fair,/my pointed ears, my bruised/red lips?’ (‘The Old Lady’s Lament for Her Youth’). He speaks the exuberant and strangely wooden children’s chorus of the Middle German poet Der Wilde Alexander: ‘Here we ran swilling strawberries/from oak to pine,/through hedges, through turnstiles –/so long as day was burning down’ (‘Children’). He gruffs out a rather Bukowskian Rimbaud: ‘But it was terrific when the house-girl/with her earth-mother tits and come-on eyes –/no Snow Queen having cat-fits at a kiss –/brought me tarts and ham on a coloured plate’ (‘At the Green Cabaret’). The book is a green cabaret! Sometimes it is unforgivably coarse: in what it does to Rilke (‘The dark was heavier than Caesar’s foot’), to the Matratzengruft, the mattress-grave of the dying Heine (‘my dear German public is goosestepping home, yawning’), to a nandrolone Baudelaire, unaccountably admired by Eliot: ‘Among the vermin, jackals, panthers, lice,/gorillas and tarantulas that suck/and snatch and scratch and defecate and fuck/in the disorderly circus of our vice,/there’s one more ugly and abortive birth’ (‘To the Reader’). The chilly, slicing control of Baudelaire, and his dix-neuvième preoccupations with sin and boredom, simply aren’t in Lowell; and even if one thinks they might once have been, they still wouldn’t have come without a touch of hysteria. It is the more volatile, almost gushing poets that come off best in Imitations: Rimbaud, Pasternak, Montale. This last, with what you might call a poetry of tilted statement, is especially congenial to Lowell, who produces memorably sensuous tangles of tarnished, acrid and unstable imagery (‘News from Mount Amiata’):
the ugly weather’s fire-cracker simmer
will deepen to the gruff buzz of beehives.
Termites tunnel the public room’s rafters to ;sawdust,
an odour of bruised melons oozes from the floor.
A sick smoke lifts from the elf-huts and
funghi of the valley –
like an eagle it climbs our mountain’s bald cone,
and soils the windows.
A plangently beautiful, one-off version of Annensky called ‘Black Spring’ merits quoting in full, but I will give just five lines of it:
Now the dumb, black springtime
must look into the chilly eye . . . from under the mould
on the roof-shingles, the liquid oatmeal
of the roads, the green stubble of life
on our faces!
‘Imperfection,’ Lowell will say later, in one of his aesthetic credos, in the sonnet ‘Last Things, Black Pines at 4 a.m.’, ‘is the language of art.’ I think it is Imitations – failed experiment though it is in so many other ways – that taught him that.
The ‘speaking’ scene of ‘Black Spring’ or ‘News from Mount Amiata’ returns in For the Union Dead in the poem ‘Mouth of the Hudson’, a lost leader for me, sketchy, elliptical, somehow stricken:
A single man stands like a bird-watcher,
and scuffles the pepper and salt snow
from a discarded, grey
Westinghouse Electric cable drum.
He cannot discover America by counting
the chains of condemned freight-trains
from thirty states. They jolt and jar
and junk in the siding below him.
He has trouble with his balance.
His eyes drop,
and he drifts with the wild ice
ticking seaward down the Hudson,
like the blank sides of a jigsaw puzzle.
The ice ticks seaward like a clock.
A Negro toasts
wheat-seeds over the coke-fumes
of a punctured barrel.
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.
This landscape is the view, twenty years after the event, from the roof of the West Street jail in Manhattan, where Lowell served the beginning of his sentence for conscientious objection in 1943, over the West River (as James Schuyler thought it should be called) to New Jersey (and the Maxwell House factory): ‘Chemical air/sweeps in from New Jersey,/and smells of coffee.’ One would almost not know of its provenance or personal significance, the evidence is pushed back onto two or three words, ‘the chains of condemned freight-trains’, ‘the unforgivable landscape’, while ‘yellow’ and ‘tan’ both echo Lowell’s prison poem in Life Studies, ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’. An unexplained intensity kept lifting the poem for me out of its rather implausible and inconsequential third-person narrative, suggested that something more must be at stake. It moves from the yearning of the ‘bird-watcher’ – what does he think he’s doing there? – to the horrible non-nature of the ‘ledges’ of the ‘suburban factories’. Someone dissolves, and at the same time, the poem composes itself. The word ‘landscape’ can’t ever have been used so unsettlingly and inapplicably.
Something similarly inscrutable happens with ‘July in Washington’, a little later in For the Union Dead:
The stiff spokes of this wheel
touch the sore spots of the earth.
On the Potomac, swan-white
power launches keep breasting the sulphurous wave.
Otters slide and dive and slick back their hair,
raccoons clean their meat in the creek.
On the circles, green statues ride like South American
liberators above the breeding vegetation –
prongs and spearheads of some equatorial
backland that will inherit the globe.
The elect, the elected . . . they come here bright as dimes,
and die dishevelled and soft.
We cannot name their names, or number their dates –
circle on circle, like rings on a tree –
but we wish the river had another shore,
some further range of delectable mountains,
distant hills powdered blue as a girl’s eyelid.
It seems the least little shove would land us
that only the slightest repugnance of our bodies
we no longer control could drag us back.
For the longest time, this 20-line poem struck me as a two-line mantra dragging after it an indeterminate, rather undistinguished tail. On the one hand, I could think of nothing more sinisterly fine about American foreign policy of the 1960s and after than The stiff spokes of this wheel touch the sore spots of the earth. The stiff spokes of this wheel touch the sore spots of the earth. The way that ‘stiff’ fitted into ‘sore’ and ‘spokes’ into ‘spots’; the projection of ‘wheel’ onto ‘earth’; the callously numb, generic, euphemistic-seeming ‘touch’, so remote from any humanity, any healing, any possibility of being touched back. On the other hand, the seeming randomness of the thing, the separateness of the sentences, the difficulty of making any sort of coherent picture, the bizarrely, corruptly Southern landscape, the sense of the poem being received in some mysterious ungainsayable dictation, all make a strongly foreign – alienated – impression. The radial wheel – oddly evocative of the Indian flag – must be the Congress building; the ‘circles’ later on are further out in the concentrically arranged city. The whole poem plays the radius against the circumference, purposive, thrusting verbs and nouns and prepositions (‘breasting’, ‘dive’, ‘ride’, ‘above’, ‘prongs and spearheads’, ‘shove’, ‘drag’, ‘back’) against words and phrases expressive of stiflement and confinement; the difficulty or unlikeliness, in other words, of change: ‘the sulphurous wave’, ‘the breeding vegetation’, ‘another shore’, ‘some further range’. ‘The elect, the elected’ is taunted, later on (in a near-Mandelstamian way; it’s in the same couplet form as the famous ‘Stalin Epigram’), by the ‘delectable mountains’, which the notes tell me is from Dante – as the circles are. The wheel is futility, it seems, as much as torture and automatism: a marriage of Ixion and Sisyphus. What one might term ‘political’ words are sprinkled, teasingly, almost haphazardly, over the poem: ‘power launches’, ‘slick’, ‘liberators’ (South American, alas), ‘the elect’, ‘bodies/we no longer control’. ‘We were kind of religious, we thought in images,’ one of the sonnets drily ends. Here, too, reform is given a faintly salvationist cast, in the bitter ‘the elect, the elected’, in the celestial ‘blue’ of – not ‘remembered’ but more like promised – hills. The poem is not far short of a discreet call to the barricades.
It’s taken me till now to read it, and ‘Mouth of the Hudson’; others I’m still working on. Lowell’s writing; Bidart’s editing; my reading – in each case, the thick end of thirty years. What are my ‘provisional conclusions’ (in Montale’s phrase)? That he exemplarily converted life into literature. That the range of his effects – from the most oblique, almost hermetic feint to the plain statement of fact, to the tenderly, brassily magniloquent (‘Pity the planet, all joy gone/from this sweet volcanic cone’) – is unequalled. That in his refusal as a poet to be cowed or deflected or marginalised, he, though no sort of hero, was heroic. That he is unspeakably missed by his literature and his country, and that in his absence, literary and civic life have both deteriorated. It’s not that he could have done anything to prevent it, but it remains strangely haunting to read him on ‘Doubt, the first American virtue’, or, in an astonishing, Ciceronian letter addressed to the New York Review of Books, in the wake of the sentencing of Lieutenant Calley, the man responsible for the My Lai massacre:
A principle may kill more than an incident. I am sick with fresh impressions. Has no one the compassion to pass judgment on William Calley? His atrocity is cleared by the President, public, polls, rank and file of the right and left. He looks almost alive; like an old song, he stirs us with the gruff poignance of the professional young soldier. He too fought under television for our place in the sun. Why should the bait be eaten when the sharks swim free? I sense a coldness under the hysteria. Our nation looks up to heaven, and puts her armies above the law. No stumbling on the downward plunge from Hiroshima. Retribution is somewhere else and we are young.
Poetry has lost so much ground in the years since Lowell started out in it, it’s easy to feel a somewhat preposterous sympathy for him. There is nothing at the end of the rainbow. In Lowell’s ‘mid-century’, poetry still belonged in every well-stocked library and mind. There’s little reason to read it any more – though apparently the Queen manages a book a year. Poetry in America has declined to a civil war, a banal derby between two awful teams, and in Britain to a variety show (a royal variety show). The last apotheosised poets are the generation of the 1910s and 1920s, Eliot and Frost and Stevens and Pound and Yeats and Bunting. They have had no successors, or the succession has not been allowed. Bishop or Lowell or Ashbery or O’Hara or Murray seem more like much-loved or eccentric or somewhat controversial deceased or elderly relatives than great poets-in-waiting. Ted Hughes already feels like a rumour. It’s as though the human reef of literature was not considering any more applications, or the escalator had ground to a halt. To say that anyone who cares about poetry should read Lowell is not enough. (Can it be that they didn’t know that, or haven’t yet? Well, yes.) Anyone who cares about writing, or about art, or about life, should read Lowell. ‘Things changed to the names he gave them,’ he wrote, ‘then lost their names.’