The following essay appeared in the November, 2003
issue of Ingram's Advance e-letter, as part of
National Book Award Classics, a monthly series of essays
by Neil Baldwin, highlighting past Winners of the National
National Book Award Poetry Winner, 1960
has been an avalanche of renewed critical attention
to Robert Lowell since the publication last month of
his 1,186 page Collected Poems edited by Frank
Bidart and David Gewanter (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
I agree with A.O. Scott’s apt comment in The
New York Times last June that “for more than
twenty years, Lowell seemed to be more read about than
read...all the strange, shocking, fascinating detail
in the biographies – the Brahmin childhood, the
religious crises, the imprisonment for refusing military
service in World War II, the three scorched marriages,
the breakdowns and hospitalizations – was in the
“The father of confessional poetry,” a
term he rejected, Robert Traill Spence Lowell was born
in Boston on March 1, 1917. His father, a naval officer,
was descended from a long line of New England intellectuals,
including Amy Lowell, James Russell Lowell, and A. Lawrence
Lowell. His prepossessing mother, Charlotte, was a Winslow.
Young Robert first became enamored of poetry through
the influence of his St. Mark’s prep school English
teacher, Richard Eberhart.
Robert left Harvard after two years, transferring
to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, to study the Classics
with John Crowe Ransom and fall under the austere spell
of the New Critics. There he began lifelong friendships
with poet Randall Jarrell and novelist Peter Taylor.
Lowell moved on to graduate work at Louisiana State
University, where he enjoyed the tutelage of Cleanth
Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. With his new wife, the
writer Jean Stafford, he shared a house in Monteagle,
Tennessee, with Allen Tate and his wife, the writer
Lowell converted from Puritan Congregationalism to
“a temporary obsession” with Roman Catholicism,
and became a conscientious objector during World War
II. He was imprisoned for five months as a result, during
which time he finished his first book of poems, the
“densely allusive” Land of Unlikeness.
The book was revised and republished in 1946 as Lord
Weary’s Castle, and was awarded the Pulitzer
Prize in Poetry for 1947.
ensuing years were tumultuous – a failed marriage
and then a new love, Elizabeth Hardwick; the death of
Lowell’s father; harsh criticism of his next book,
The Mills of the Kavanaughs; a series of manic
mental breakdowns and sporadic residence in Italy and
throughout Europe; followed by his mother’s death
in 1954 and the poet’s institutionalization for
dementia in McLean Hospital.
At this time Lowell began to read and review the works
of William Carlos Williams, as well some of Williams’s
literary offspring, W.D.Snodgrass and Allen Ginsberg.
Lowell was inspired by the relaxation of formal strictures
he found there, and began to come down somewhat from
the “archaic, elevated diction,” morose
gravitas and traditional formalism of earlier work.
His psychiatrists urged Lowell to write about his childhood
as a way to alleviate psychological burdens. These reminiscences
became the basis for the first memoir section as well
as many of the poems in Life Studies.
Nearly a decade in the making, this breakthrough book
– his third --won the National Book Award and
is now regarded as the pivotal point in Lowell’s
long career. In his subtle and nuanced “Introduction”
to the new Collected Poems, Frank Bidart reminds
us that Life Studies was Lowell’s “own
favorite of his books.” It certainly has become
the most admired.
I have intentionally reviewed some of the many and various
pedagogical and literary influences upon Robert Lowell
because when you open Life Studies and read
it from beginning to end, you realize his great stylistic
accomplishment – the talent to assimilate, synthesize,
and then remake the work into his own.
The first poem, "Beyond the Alps," is a
good metaphor for Lowell’s ability. It is written
in an expanded sonnet form, so the reassurance of poetic
tradition is there. However, the way in which the narrative
information comes across is securely modern. We become
aware of the train in which Lowell sits as a passenger
ascending the mountainside when he notices the stewards
walking up the aisle on tip-toe. We become seduced by
the virtuosity of the way the form is bent –torqued,
even – through the tension of Lowell’s enjambments,
also decidedly modern. We imagine that he has read Willliams’s
essay on the poem as a “machine made of words,”
and that he came to terms with organicism in poetry
as a way to convey an impression transcending literal
Reading Lowell becomes incredibly liberating once
you understand that feeling comes first. Turning to
a later poem in the volume, "Words for Hart Crane,"
you will find another fourteen-line exercise, this time
bracketed with quotation marks, to stress that the poet
is speaking to the object of his poem. Those of us familiar
with Crane’s hyperbolic rhetoric will seize the
point that the poem is an homage through imitation.
Lowell brilliantly speaks to Crane by speaking as Crane.
The layering of artifice, again, tells us we are in
the presence of a modernist master.
is another one of my favorites. It is a sustained ancestral
reminiscence, revelling in the pleasure of skipping
generations, and the delight the child takes in spending
time with his grandfather. He does not dwell upon the
sadness of the absent father. Rather, he plunges wholeheartedly
into the special time shared and the communal love they
feel for each other, all embraced in the protection
of a memory.
A long time ago, one of my teachers, the poet Robert
Creeley, either quoted to me or said, “Form is
only an extension of content.” I also remember
William Carlos Williams’ wry phrase, “When
structure fails, rhyme attempts to come to the rescue.”
I bring these aphorisms to bear upon Robert Lowell’s
poetry because within the confines of such a short piece
it is impossible to do justice to his work. Like those
sometimes-pretentious descriptions of vintage wine and
the multitude of tastes and aromas they contain, “in”
Lowell we can detect the sprung rhythms and songs of
Yeats, the dry wit and gloom of Eliot, the offhanded
classical resonances of Pound, the syncopation of Keats,
the pointillist details of Dickinson. Our detective
work is limited only by the scope of literary education.
In the end, there can be no doubt that Robert Lowell’s
poetry is infinitely satisfying -- even through the
well-established pain of hearing his “ill-spirit
sob in each blood cell.” The poems in and of themselves
– the fact that they were made despite the pain
-- bear tribute to what is most noble about the age-old
forms made new.
-- Neil Baldwin. November 2003
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Baldwin photo credit: Sandra Wavrick