A Hammer in His Hands

Frank Kermode

  • The Letters of Robert Lowell edited by Saskia Hamilton
    Faber, 852 pp, £30.00, July 2005, ISBN 0 571 20204 7

Writing letters was not the work Robert Lowell thought himself born to do, but what with one thing and another – good friends, a lively mind, deep troubles – he wrote a great many of them, demonstrating at considerable length ‘the excitement of his intelligence and the liveliness of his prose’. These are the words of Saskia Hamilton, the poet who has undertaken the arduous and complicated task of editing this selection. She remarks in her introduction that the letters differ from the poetry in that they ‘are not reshaped, dismantled and made again in the daylight of his attention’: they ‘have the immediacy of the first rhythm and the first thought that occurred to him – the very thing he revised away in his poems’. Lowell has a claim to be the most hectically persistent and repetitive reviser in the history of anglophone poetry; and the older he got the more compulsively he revised; but his letters he neither drafted nor amended. His more formal autobiographical writings show that he took prose seriously, and for all their unpremeditated air the letters are often excellent examples of vivid informal prose. A master of language, he was, whether or not he sought to be, expert in what Dryden called ‘the other harmony’.

In addition to the routine work of editing – the labour of correction, description, identification – Hamilton inevitably had to deal with some intimate details of a famous, tormented and tormenting life. She passes on basic information about Lowell’s medical history, crowded as it is with all manner of emergencies: hospitals around the world, the quest for drugs that bring or keep you down like Thorazine, or the more effective though not infallible lithium. From her commentary a reader can get some idea of the exhausting rhythms of Lowell’s life: his depression on coming down from a manic episode, his shame at the memory of the follies committed when high, of the pain he had caused others; and he must have been aware that he would almost certainly ‘speed up’ and do it all again.

But few poets are more obstinately autobiographical than Lowell, and occasionally one feels like asking for more. There are lots of notes but they are very economical. No doubt any thought of enlarging them would have been snuffed out by the prospect of an even vaster book than the one we have, which itself contains only a fraction of the material available to the editor. Readers may find it useful to have at hand Ian Hamilton’s masterly biography, first published in 1983, if only to provide more continuity, close some of the gaps in the story. He is thorough, lucid and just (admiring and condemning), and it is a bonus that his comments on the poetry – after all, our main reason for being interested in the poet – are so acute and sensitive. Of course Saskia Hamilton must have an eye to the life rather than the work, in so far as they can, in this case, be kept apart.

She ventures to provide a pathological context for some letters by heading the appropriate note with the words ‘probably’ – or ‘possibly’ – ‘written while mildly manic’. Or the warning may be stronger: ‘acute manic episode’. The evidence for these diagnostic conjectures is mostly external, since the letters to which they apply by no means always show signs of what Lowell called ‘enthusiasm’. And occasionally these annotations are puzzling: on Palm Sunday, 10 April 1949, Lowell wrote a brief note to Elizabeth Bishop, a sympathetic message to his first wife, Jean Stafford, a weird word or two to a former lover, Gertrude Buckman, a sentence to George Santayana and two sentences to William Carlos Williams. Of these communications, those to Bishop, Buckman and Williams are certified as ‘written during an acute manic episode’, but the others are not. A few days later everything again becomes manic for a while. How likely is it that the poet was manic only part of the time on that Palm Sunday? Or that anybody could know this? Of a letter to Santayana in the spring of 1948 we are told that the first part was ‘possibly written when mildly manic’. The letter is dated ‘May 20 [–June 20?]’; the second part is headed ‘A Month Later’, with an explanation of the delay, but there is no real indication that the first part, in which Lowell talks about Robert Bridges, Trumbull Stickney, Propertius, Baudelaire, Webster, Shakespeare and a poem of his own, is even slightly crazier than the second: in fact the whole thing is, as it ought to be, a model of sober discussion, recognising the eminence of the recipient and the young man’s respect for him. In the end these annotations, which cannot avoid seeming portentous when they punctuate the flow of more trivial information, are probably of doubtful value.

In her introduction Hamilton says that Lowell’s illness took the form of ‘mixed mania’ – ‘mania and depression arise together, making a patient feel simultaneously elated and lethargic’ – and Lowell himself described his state in much the same way. Of course it is elation that is the more likely to be conveyed in letters to friends. He had a great many distinguished correspondents. The first letter in this collection, written when Lowell was 19, is to Ezra Pound. He describes himself as eccentric, subject to violent passions, keen to learn to be a poet – to ‘work under you and forge my way into reality’. Pound replied, and Lowell soon wrote again, reaffirming his intention to study with the poet, on whom depended such hope as we moderns have of rediscovering the great art of poetry. The friendship that began with these letters lasted through Pound’s postwar tribulations, and Lowell never changed his view about the old man’s greatness, though feeling free to criticise some later Cantos, and to differ on certain issues: on the Jews, of course, but also on Milton.

Later he consulted other great men of an earlier generation: Ford Madox Ford, T.S. Eliot, of whom Lowell was extremely fond, Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams, much admired despite Lowell’s worries about the impossibility, for him, of Williams’s kind of free verse, and his stubborn anti-Europeanism. John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate had special claims on him. As a young man Lowell had fled Harvard to seek instruction from Ransom and Tate in Tennessee and at Kenyon College, Ohio. Tate, the stronger influence, saw himself as a sort of poetic father, assuming an authority Lowell many years later resisted. Their disagreements must have some importance in any account of Lowell’s technical development, but their friendship survived until Lowell’s death, which preceded the older poet’s by some two years.

Of at least equal importance are the poets of his own generation: Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop. There are more letters to Bishop than to anybody else. For thirty years Lowell and Bishop admired and influenced one another’s poetry and took unusual trouble over their letters. Lowell often spoke of his admiration for her as a letter writer, odd and observant, poetic but domestic, personal without intrusion. A collection of her correspondence, with the title One Art (less formal and scholarly than Saskia Hamilton’s), was published in 1994. You can see by reading it why Lowell tried so hard to please her. Here he is describing Marianne Moore – a close friend of Bishop’s – at a reading ‘before thousands’ in the Boston Public Garden:

She entered with a black coat and black jacket and a diamondy green dress. The cloak came off, then after slight hesitation the jacket, then another pause and the cloak went on again. She had her audience. Each obstruction fell into her hands: a whistle from the amplifier (‘I see I have a rival’), trucks rumbling down Boylston Street, a mute bean-shaven young man, who kept pushing her back to the speaker, an unexquisite mass of red flowers, received with a disgruntled, admiring ‘gorgeous’. Each epigram was cheered. Jack Sweeney’s Irish wife said in amazement: ‘Why this is the only real American.’

Blake said there was no competition between great poets, and the mutual admiration of Bishop and Lowell was untouched by it. But with other contemporaries – Jarrell, Berryman, Roethke, as ambitious for fame as he was – the case was different. The opinions of these friends and rivals were important to him, and so, more puzzlingly, were those of the reviewers, even when, at the peak of his fame, he could have simply ignored them. The poets strove to outdo one another in the generation of powerful language. As Lowell told Roethke in 1963, ‘there’s a strange fact about the poets of roughly our age . . . It’s this, that to write we seem to have to go at it with such single-minded intensity that we are always on the point of drowning . . . There must be a kind of glory to it all that people coming later will wonder at.’ Jarrell he admired most, welcoming his criticism; Berryman he also admired, but with a keener edge of rivalry. (Berryman’s widow, Eileen Simpson, best catches the manner of their encounters and rivalries, in her memoir, Poets in Their Youth.) Delmore Schwartz, Roethke, Jarrell and Berryman were all self-consciously poètes maudits, and they all died before Lowell. So did his pupils Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Dying at 60, Lowell, for all his self-destructive ways, was a survivor.

Speaking of life in Boston during one of his spells there, Lowell tells Bishop that ‘in some groups we’ – he and his wife – ‘seem unspeakably strange and bohemian, in others we seem very grand and social.’ He could play both these parts, a generous and courteous old-Boston host, and an antic, irresponsible drinker. In contrast to the affectionate civility of his usual style, his family letters are cold and rather mean; but then he was capable of knocking his father down to avenge an insult. He sometimes had to apologise for his violent behaviour when manic, but whereas the assault on his father seems consistent with the violence of some poems, the letters as a whole are notable for their lack of hostility, their affectionate, even loving tone.

The quarrel with his father involved a girl. One of the signs that he was ‘speeding up’ was that he would find a new girl; but far from treating this as a casual affair he would talk excitedly of divorce and marriage so that by the time it was all over everybody concerned got hurt. Of course his illness explained everything, but the survivors, conscious that one disaster would soon be followed by another, may have felt that explanations were hardly enough.

The extremity of his manic behaviour was an exaggerated expression of a violence integral to this charming man. The extraordinary roughness of such early poems as ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’ reflects a relation between violence and achievement:

Sailor, will your sword
Whistle and fall and sink into the fat? . . .
The death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears
The gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail,
And hacks the coiling life out

(A swingle is a kind of scourge or flail.) In the thousand pages of poetry that follow these lines in the Collected Poems there are comparable intensities but nothing that sounds quite like this. At the other, gentler end of the scale of violence are many exercises in what Helen Vendler calls ‘minimalist colloquiality’. Poems, unlike manic episodes, were subject to control.

Such was Lowell’s strong conviction when, as an undergraduate, he chose to study with Ransom and Tate. His unflagging concern with verse technique is evident in these letters, especially in letters to poets. But he was more willing than most poets to discuss his work with non-poets, with critics and interpreters, and we have here some letters doing that. In youth an advocate of the constraints imposed by metre and rhyme, he aspired, he claimed, to ‘solid craftsmanship’: ‘One likes to have the hammer in one’s hands.’ He worried about Williams and his free verse, though was convinced that he too could be free if he wanted to, or if the muse insisted:

To my surprise I have mostly written in very strict metre, even sonnets, not at all my intention, and a fact that I find disturbing to my theories of how poetry should be written. I have always thought one should be able to shift from free to counted verse and mix the two, but I am surprised to find myself shifted despite my desires.

He felt that under these voluntary or involuntary metrical variations there must persist a style, a self, that does not change. And although for many years he wrote a great many unrhymed sonnets and little else, he really did not change radically.

The critical moment in the history of his technique was probably the publication of Life Studies in 1959. This volume opened with a poem about Ford Madox Ford in something like free verse that nevertheless has strong iambic reminiscences and also some rhymes. Lowell seems to have thought it important, perhaps as a manifesto for freedom of choice and movement. But the famous sequence of autobiographical sketches with the subtitle ‘Life Studies’ is metrically far more relaxed. Tate, who had been the most powerful influence on his earlier work, deplored what he saw as the laxity of this new technique. He felt strongly about what he regarded as a wanton defection, the abandonment of the prosodic rigour he had tried to teach Lowell. At that time I happened to be in touch with Tate, and I have to say I agreed with him, and said so in a review.

Life Studies was published first in England, by Faber, and their edition omits the long prose childhood narrative called ‘91 Revere Street’. When the second Faber edition appeared it included that 15,000-word item. Partly because this addition made a difference to the whole book, and partly because in the meantime I had been persuaded that I’d been wrong, I wrote a short notice of the second edition and said I’d been wrong about the first.

Lowell wrote thanking me for my change of mind. It still seems extraordinary that he should have remembered both reviews and cared about them enough to be glad of my recantation, but this vigilance is consistent with his fear of reviewers. In The Dolphin he speaks of ‘the reviewer sent by God to humble me’. Others who could humiliate one were the people who awarded prizes. But there was no longer much likelihood of disappointment there, and Life Studies won the National Book Award. Lowell refused to quarrel with Tate, by now a fading influence; Tate did admire, could hardly not have admired, ‘For the Union Dead’, which, Lowell told him, took a whole winter of work and was ‘the most composed poem’ he’d ever written, ‘a sort of combination of Life Studies and the more metrical style of my earlier stuff’. He had asserted his right to do as he wished, to make his own technical decisions. The last poem in ‘Life Studies’ is the wholly original ‘Skunk Hour’, recognised as a great poem, even by me, though in 1959 I didn’t even know what a ‘Tudor Ford’ was.

Lowell achieved some eminence as a public figure. In a mildly manic youthful episode he wrote to President Roosevelt politely rejecting his invitation to join the army, and much later he published his letter to Lyndon Johnson, explaining why he wouldn’t be turning up for some cultural occasion at the White House. He also played his part, recorded for admiring posterity by Norman Mailer, in the March on Washington, and was active in other anti-war demonstrations. He exerted himself for Eugene McCarthy in his presidential campaign, and enjoyed it without expecting to have much effect on the result. His poems are strongly affected by contemporary history as well as by a sense that his inheritance was a privileged view of the lost and lamented past.

It’s hardly necessary to say that Lowell was a man of great intelligence, some vanity, and a good deal of stubborn courage. He went to prison for his views, but a greater ordeal was recovery from his manic episodes, the crazy behaviour and dangerous delusions. On the whole his autobiographical writing did not increase the troubles of his family and friends, at least until the publication of The Dolphin in 1973. He was by this time married to Caroline Blackwood and living in England. The task of sorting out a large number of poems into appropriate volumes had been undertaken with the help of Frank Bidart, and those that went into The Dolphin were personal, including not only references to Elizabeth Hardwick, but embarrassing quotations from her letters and phone calls. Lowell made no attempt to get her permission to use this material – it would surely have been refused – and he was fully aware that publication would hurt her: indeed, she had unambiguously let him know that it would, but he remained persuaded that the book must be published.

Among those who begged him not to do it was Elizabeth Bishop: ‘Aren’t you violating a trust? . . . But art just isn’t worth that much.’ Much fiercer was the response of his old friend Adrienne Rich, which he dismissed as a feminist outburst. Another old friend, Stanley Kunitz, though admiring the poetry, called it ‘intimately cruel’. Lowell told Kunitz that his valued friend Peter Taylor ‘couldn’t imagine any moral objection to Dolphin. Not that the poem, alas, from its donnée, can fail to wound’ (this letter is not included in the book under review). The poet Anthony Hecht, in a Library of Congress Lecture in 1983, commented: ‘Lowell appears wonderfully unaware that a poem that cannot fail to wound must have at least some moral objection to it.’ Others made an aesthetic defence against the humane objections of Bishop and Kunitz. The argument is probably barren, though Bishop’s words seem to have special authority. It does seem that Lowell was virtually a detached personality, responsible for the deeds of a poet of the same name. The last poem in The Dolphin sums it up:

I have sat and listened to too many
words of the collaborating muse,
and plotted perhaps too freely with my life,
not avoiding injury to others,
not avoiding injury to myself –
to ask compassion . . . this book, half fiction,
an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting –

my eyes have seen what my hand did.