Colm Tóibín, 7 May 2020
When Robert Lowell wasn’t writing sonnets, he was revising them, moving lines from one to another, giving them new titles, putting them in a new order. He turned old poems into sonnets, in the process ruining some of them, such as ‘Water’, first published in For the Union Dead in 1964. He used bits of his mother’s diary in a sonnet called ‘Clytemnestra 1’. Anyone’s words could be appropriated. A sonnet sequence dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop includes very personal lines in a letter from her (‘That’s what I feel I’m waiting for now:/a faintest glimmer I am going to get out/somehow alive from this’); a sequence called ‘To Allen Tate’ quotes from a letter by Tate; ‘Publication Day’ is a letter from Marcia Nardi rewritten as a sonnet. Elizabeth Hardwick felt a certain schadenfreude that the poems were, in her opinion, so bad. ‘It seemed so sad that the work was, certainly in that part that relies upon me and Harriet, so inane, empty, unnecessary,’ she wrote to Bishop.