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'In his greatest poems he brilliantly fused the most intimate details of his own life with the public turmoil of his century'
I was his fishing friend. In 1971, when Lowell was 54 and I was 28, he sent me a generous postcard after I'd talked on Radio 3 about Notebook, his epic sonnet sequence. We met for lunch at a crappy French restaurant on Old Brompton Road, near the house where he lived with Caroline Blackwood. We began with talk of poetry, then moved to fishing and the day-ticket trout streams in Kent and Hampshire where I was a frequent visitor. Four hours later we left the restaurant, having made a fishing date for the weekend.
From then until his sudden death in 1977, I was an immensely lucky recipient of Lowell's gift for friendship. I see him now, his grizzled hair, home-cut in the wild style of the later Beethoven; eyes enlarged by thick, black-framed glasses; cigarette never far from his lips; that Bostonian voice, tinged with the vowel-stretching accent of the old South. He was the most companionable man I've ever met, the most avid in his inexhaustible appetite for history, literature, politics, people, gossip, and one of the most funny. Conversation was for him a continuous experiment, in which he'd playfully draft phrases, similes and metaphors to fit the experience in hand, as if everything that happened might be a potential poem in the making. In his greatest poems, such as "Waking Early Sunday Morning", he brilliantly fused the most intimate details of his own life with the public turmoil of his century.
He was an afflicted hero. One month in every 12, he'd be cruelly humbled by a bout of mania, an event harrowing to witness as Lowell's furies took possession of him. I remember a visit to the hospital, the day after the people in white coats had come for him. Drugged, gentle, wanly smiling, Lowell introduced me to his fellow patients: "You see, I'm a freshman here." Wherever he was, whether sectioned in the madhouse, or home, sprawled on his red-velvet chaise longue, amid a blizzard of books, ash and paper, he was one of life's great learners, a modest student of the world he wrote about with such exhilarating power.
June 26, 2005
By WALTER KIRN
BY the time he died in 1977, expiring at the age of 60 in the back seat of a taxi on his way into New York City from Kennedy Airport, Robert Lowell had turned himself inside out in literature. Socially well connected and classically educated, with the bearing and voice of a disheveled senator, the highborn Bostonian wasn't well and hadn't been for years, but despite an exhausting life of marital blowups, manic-depressive breakdowns, political controversy and punishing hard work, he'd managed to invent along the way what came to be known as confessional poetry, a sort of orderly bleeding onto the page that in Lowell's case combined erudition, anguish and mundane detail for an effect of aching, lurid uplift. The poems of his later, most distinctive period, which began with the publication of ''Life Studies'' in 1959, inspired a long dominant mode whose best-known practitioners included two of his students, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Lowell's poems proved that if writing is a form of therapy, it's a uniquely unsuccessful one, at least in medical terms, and that insights into the larger human predicament don't guarantee their author a good night's sleep, a stable marriage or a dignified passing. Winning Pulitzer Prizes and the like is no balm either. Nothing (even lithium, it seemed) could halt Lowell's slide into miserable ill health and psychological chaos.
The publication of his voluminous letters might provide an occasion for voyeurs to peek behind what's traditionally called ''the mask,'' but Lowell beat them to it by unmasking himself, as well as various close family members, in the brutal disclosures of his poetry. Readers eager for tabloid details of Lowell's love affairs, financial difficulties and hospitalizations would do better to pore over his published books than to open his mail. Yes, the letters seethe with gossip and manifestations of Lowell's imbalances, but they have even more to say about the way he both bestrode and was swallowed by his times, when poets and poetry still dwelt deep within the culture's vital creative nucleus instead of prettily orbiting its edges.
The letters begin in 1936 at Harvard, an institution that Lowell was much too serious for and wanted out of soon after getting into -- the better to begin the daunting business of reinvigorating the English language and doing so all by himself, if necessary. In several precocious letters to Ezra Pound -- with whom he went on to form a lifelong friendship and to whom he remained loyal even after Pound was accused of aiding the Fascists in World War II and was locked up in a Washington asylum -- Lowell sophomorically analyzes his own mixed character, frankly states his desire to join Pound on Olympus and bluntly pleads for lessons from the master, whom he flatters in absurdly ultimate terms. ''If the 20th century is to realize a great art comparable to that of Chaucer or Shakespeare, the foundation will have to be your poems,'' Lowell writes. Then, with the brisk, colossal immodesty that may have been his Brahmin birthright (as well as a sign of manic flights to come), he proceeds to share with Pound his plans for personally ushering in this renaissance. ''I would like to bring back momentum and movement in poetry on a grand scale, to master your tremendous machinery and to carry your standard further into the century; and I think I have life enough to withstand the years of pounding and grinding before accomplishment.''
The next movement in the presumptuous undergraduate's startlingly sure and rapid progress toward the achievement of his soaring goals is less well documented in the letters, though certain persistent themes and issues emerge in the early 1940's, as does a very tight, consistent circle of favored correspondents. First among these are his parents and blood relatives, distant presences formally addressed and, one gathers, minimally loved. Lowell writes to them mostly to settle money matters, to offer gestures of polite affection and even more polite regret, and to announce (prematurely, it always turns out, because Lowell was a holy fool about his future, rarely kissing a woman without envisioning eternal matrimonial bliss and seldom feeling a glimmer of inspiration without bracing himself for a full religious conversion) various decisions that he's reached about how he will henceforth conduct his life and in the company of whom. Inevitably, a few years later, after yet another romantic split, philosophical change of heart or round of psychoanalysis, he retracts these declarations without fanfare and ends with his best wishes for everyone's health and, often, an inquiry about his trust fund.
Lowell relaxes around his adopted intellectual family, which he starts assembling as a young man and clings to until he's old. Since Lowell became old at 29 or so and was regularly giving up the ghost when most men feel they're in their prime, the major threads of the correspondence read like multigenerational sagas despite spanning only about 30 years. Take his transactions with the poet Elizabeth Bishop, whom he met in 1947 and unfailingly worshiped ever afterward, apprising her of every twist and turn in his professional and personal fortunes. Bishop, who lived with other women for most of her adulthood, was Lowell's Platonic true lady love, part mother, part sister and part muse, and he showed her every side of the vast self he displayed to others only in profile.
In a typical letter to Bishop from 1948, when Lowell was 31, he unpacks his overstuffed psyche item by item, from his feelings about a William Carlos Williams poem ('' 'Paterson' has been like water to me'') to his thoughts on the dissolution of his first marriage, to the novelist Jean Stafford (''looking back, it seems strange that we could survive it, and now the conclusion is allaying and satisfying'') to a statement of his renewed commitment to work (''sometimes nothing is so solid to me as writing -- I suppose that's what a vocation means -- at times a torment, a bad conscience, but all in all, purpose and direction''). In letters that swing incandescently back and forth between Christian theology, literary chitter-chat, romantic effusions, travel plans and world-historical musings, this note is of no particular interest except in the way that it positions Bishop as Lowell's all-purpose one-woman audience. He tried everything out on her, all of his songs and bits. He seemed to believe she was stronger than he was, the stouter soul and perhaps the better writer. Possessed of thoughts and imaginings and moods too turbulent for one flimsy human skull, he splashed and crashed against Bishop, his chosen seawall, even though she, too, had her fragile, mortal moments. ''About a month ago,'' he dished with slightly unseemly relish to Mary McCarthy, ''Elizabeth B. came over here, while I was still at Harvard, had a few vodkas, and had to be taken upstairs without clothes by Lizzie and Nicole.''
Along with Pound, his cranky artistic father, and the philosopher George Santayana, whom he treated like his priest, the poets Randall Jarrell and Allen Tate and the fiction writer Peter Taylor were Lowell's most heavily relied-upon male correspondents. Together, they formed the sort of ideal men's club that can withstand all manner of petty quarreling because its charter is so sound and its membership so exclusive. After swearing Taylor to confidentiality, Lowell lampoons Tate for swaggering through Paris ''loaded down with rosaries'' and ''letters to Catholic notables,'' and then swerves back around to characterize Tate as ''gloriously effervescent and unacademic.'' Soon afterward, he writes to Tate to praise the trim architecture of his poetry while also noting it ''slides at times into muddiness.'' Though Lowell was unflaggingly friendly in his letters, always soliciting and sharing news, scattering congratulations and invitations and offering moral support and even money when his fraternity brothers were on the skids, he didn't mince words when appraising their stories and verses. If he liked them, he could be maudlin and hyperbolic; if he didn't, he could be niggling and strict, both behind their backs and to their faces.
These letters burst forth with critical opinions as copiously, freely and impressively as heated air from the back of a jet engine. If he ever questioned whether his judgments were welcome, he doesn't show it; he seems to assume the right is his by nature and that his correspondents know this, too. To Allen Ginsberg in 1959, he offered these decidedly cloudy comments, contradicting himself by using the same adjective first in a positive way and then a negative: ''Well, I enjoy 'Kaddish' much more. It's really melodious, nostalgic, moving, liturgical. Maybe it ought to be shorter -- the manner sometimes almost writes itself -- probably there's too much Whitman. And I do find it a bit too conventional, eloquent and liturgical. Well, it's well done, felt and a good poem.''
Lowell's gift was not for clarity and efficiency. His mind was a rolling, wandering, rumbling thing, and in time its gorgeous disorder was reflected in the furious hash he made of his domestic life, particularly after marrying the writer Elizabeth Hardwick in 1949. Things start to come much faster after that -- the highs, the lows, the changes of address, the affairs, the honors, the embarrassments and, of course, the poems. Lowell goes off in the 50's like a coiled spring and his letters grow longer and more densely wrought, like the overstuffed missives of some kind of inmate who's making the most of a limited paper supply. Here's a sample from a tumultuous paragraph written to Bishop in 1957. It describes a sailing trip in Maine, and everything else in the universe as well, sucking down into the whirlpools of its syntax every object or creature that floats by.
''All the great lawns, birch and elm groves, frail expensive wharves, new Swedish racing craft at the moorings, here and there a private plane; you felt you were seeing the great Roman villas described by Horace and Juvenal. . . . We landed at Somesville, went ashore, a rather ungracious little group, I in khaki socks, pants and shirt, Betty in blue shorts and sailor blouse looking like a boy of 12, the ex-Mrs. Rexroth, figury, black sweatery, faded red haired. . . . Then foot-weary and languid, we all climbed a little hill to an old white hotel, The Somes. It wasn't for us. Elderly, wealthy, speechless lonely people sat about drinking carbonated water at candle-lit tables.''
And so it goes (and goes and goes and goes), both the letter itself and the brilliant man behind it, plunging onward through triumphs and disasters like a battle tank with a blind driver who's intent on conquering all the world's great cities, capturing all its loveliest women and planting his flag on its tallest monuments. As for energy and momentum, the Beats and hippies and experimentalists whom Lowell eventually found himself among when he publicly opposed the Vietnam War had nothing on the grand old man, even though Lowell was hobbled by a tragic sense of history that would have stopped the youngsters in their tracks.
In a letter to Partisan Review in 1966, he uncannily foresaw where his country was headed, and it wasn't a swinging Aquarian utopia. ''I have a gloomy premonition though that we will soon look back on this troubled moment as a golden time of freedom and license to act and speculate. One feels the steely sinews of the tiger, an ascetic, 'moral' and authoritarian reign of piety and iron.''
Although Lowell's part in the march on Washington in 1969 was rendered in almost mythological terms by Norman Mailer in ''The Armies of the Night,'' the poet was brief and matter-of-fact about the event in a letter to Bishop: ''Here, it's Washington March week, a fever of activity. . . . I get less leftist, if that were possible, every day, but am going to march again with Dwight [Macdonald]. It's a mammoth ball, fed and checked by hopes of danger. I trust it will be mostly tame.''
Lowell had always acted from a conviction that time was short and his obligations long, and he spent the early 1970's frantically composing and editing a series of poems whose raw material included reworked private letters from Hardwick, with whom he'd fathered a daughter, Harriet, and later abandoned to romance Lady Caroline Blackwood, a beautiful and notorious British writer with a gift for fascinating famous artists (among them the painter Lucian Freud). In letter after letter from this period, he frets over the unsolvable paradox of how to let it all hang out -- as the shaggy, Eugene McCarthy-backing, but never-altogether-hip old-stock New Englander never would have put it -- while honoring his family's right to privacy. Enmeshed in and whipped along by bouts of sickness (''these wretched little black splinters mortality hits us with,'' as he described them to John Berryman, an equally learned, assiduous practitioner of the self-destructive arts), Lowell cracks up on the page as never before, desperate to make his life and writing cohere. ''The only important thing wrong with marriage with Lizzie,'' he writes self-justifyingly to Adrienne Rich, ''was our unending nervous strife, as tho a bear had married a greyhound.''
This struggle between two incompatible beasts -- one heavy and violent, one light and elegant -- was also an internal one, it seems. As Lowell's vitality leaks away in worries over taxes, alimony, harsh reviews, the decline of civilization and all the other sore bothers and afflictions of those whose laborious search for truth and wisdom has done them not a shred of earthly good, gentle readers may want to close the volume early and say a brief prayer for this burdened, bewildered soul who fulfilled and used up his promise simultaneously, a castle built on its own burning. Near the end of it all, one gets the sense that Lowell had closed up most of his books, too. In 1974 he wrote to Bishop, in a sloppy, sad, drugged-feeling letter about their youth: ''I see us still when we first met. . . . I was brown haired and 30 I guess and I don't know what. I was largely invisible to myself, and nothing I knew how to look at. But the fact is we were swimming in our young age, with the water coming down on us, and we were gulping. I can't go on.''
In a fashion that would have made Samuel Beckett proud, Lowell never could go on -- almost from the beginning -- and yet he did. Not forever, of course, but long enough to matter.
Walter Kirn's fourth novel, ''Mission to America,'' will be published in October.
Mad, good and dangerous to know
Reviewed by Sam Leith
The Letters of Robert Lowell
‘Tomorrow morning some poet may, like Byron, wake up to find himself famous,’ wrote Randall Jarrell, ‘for having written a novel, for having killed his wife; it will not be for having written a poem.’ Jarrell’s cynicism is too slick, too rueful; but it does snag something in Robert Lowell, as it does in several of the American poets of his generation. Lowell was, at his best, a towering poet, but his public fame often rested on other things: that he was Boston posh; that he publicly thumbed his nose at the government; that he was, above all, mad.
He was all these things, and a great poet, too. It’s easy myth-making to say that Lowell’s genius and his madness went hand in hand, but it’s certainly the case that they took turns at the helm. At one point, he writes to Pound that the writer’s colony Yaddo is ‘a sort of St Elizabeth’s without bars’ (history doesn’t record whether Idaho Ez found that funny); later, Lowell reports of his own psychiatric hospital that it is ‘not unlike Yaddo without race courses, night life and literati’.
The cycles of his manic-depressive illness steal through the notes to the letters. ‘Possibly written while mildly manic,’ will preface one note. ‘Written during an acute manic episode,’ will head the batch that follows — urgent telegrams breaking appointments; staccato notes of wild enthusiasm; effusive love-letters to unannounced women. Then come the recantations, the apologies, the wretchedness of recovery. And a sense, between the lines, of the terrible, terrible hurt done.
Breakdowns? Everyone was at it. As Randall Jarrell cracked up, or John Berryman suffered an alcoholic collapse, or Theodore Roethke underwent another manic episode, the letters and the lacunae in the letters tell the story. Thus Roethke: ‘Well, it’s happened again! Same old routine: 4 or 5 city police (as the boogs say) dragging me off to the same old nut-bin.’
But it wasn’t madness that made Lowell a poet. It was the absolute, lifelong, obsessive determination with which he set about being a poet. He talks often of ‘vocation’. The first letter in this book is an earnest, arrogant pash-note to Ezra Pound, asking to be taken on as a disciple. Letter after letter that follows in Saskia Hamilton’s edition (which comes with good notes, though I’d have liked fuller, and a superbly interesting introduction) to Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich — at one time or another pretty much any of the considerable poets then writing — shows a man voraciously reading and aggressively wrestling with style and form. And, lord, did he work hard!
That determination also, manic-depression aside, seems to have constituted, or to have been the symptom of, a wider form of madness. In this riveting, voluminous, tremendously sad and angering collection of his letters, Lowell often emerges as the villain of his own story: a man who even when sane seems to have found it hard to believe that other human beings, off the page, really existed.
One of the defining characteristics of Lowell’s Life Studies poems — Allen Tate deplored it — was the exceptional cold- ness of his eye. If these letters are to be read as the document of a man, it wasn’t a stylistic tic. You can see the style of Life Studies — with its unimaginable, out-of-nowhere lines of declarative flatness — latent here in his prose well before it broke through the dense rhetoric of his early verse. He writes about his father’s death as if watching himself through the wrong end of a telescope. Reporting his mother’s death to Elizabeth Hardwick, his second wife and a woman for whom the word ‘long-suffering’ does not seem close to adequate, it is the bizarre postscript that leaps out: ‘PS: Mother’s doctor is Max Beerbohm’s.’
Among the strongest in Life Studies are the desolating, comic final lines of ‘Sailing Home from Rapallo’: ‘In the grandiloquent lettering on Mother’s coffin,/ Lowell had been misspelled LOVEL./ The corpse/ was wrapped like panettone in Italian tinfoil.’ The original is here, in the letters: ‘The casquet itself had a big brass crucifix on it, and mother’s name misspelled Charlotte Winslon.’ [She was a Winslow.]
So much here is amazing. There are glints and phrases that you can see reconfigured in the poems: ‘tired of turmoil’; ‘jolting revaluation’. During his first breakdown he writes, ‘I’m in an odd place but Arms [his alter-ego, an imaginary bear] is with me with no one to talk to.’ I hear in that, proleptically, the chill of ‘Skunk Hour’: ‘I myself am hell/ nobody’s here.’ Or, in recovery, the tense ambiguity of the end of ‘The Exile’s Return’ (‘Pleasant enough,/ Voi ch’entrate, and your life is in your hands’) is echoed in his, ‘However “the world is all before us” before us all and life and happiness.’ You see him spotting Lowelly details — a broken bust of Dante, say, at Yaddo, full of cigarette butts. And there are funny sketches of other writers — Flannery O’ Connor is introduced as ‘a former Kenyon class-mate of mine, who at the age of six was in a Pathe News Reel for having a chicken that walked backwards’ — and amusing asides. Before a trip to the USSR, he’s advised to drop his nickname: ‘PS: I’m told I mustn’t let anyone call me Cal in Russia because it means something like dogshithead.’
Lowell is effusive in his protestations of love (especially to Bishop), and fulsome in his praise, constantly telling other poets that they are the best currently writing in the language (especially Bishop), but you often sense that what is most felt in these letters is ambition. Even Harriet, the daughter on whom he dotes, appears as a sort of curious animate object — at arm’s length; someone who might say something funny for the poet in him to use.
He is passionately self-absorbed. Even his sympathy soon turns round on himself. His letter of condolence to Theodore Roethke’s widow — ‘I feel as though a great chunk of myself has dropped into the pit’ — becomes, a couple of sentences in, the occasion for an exercise in writerliness: ‘Outside, there’s a close cold Maine sky, smoke, smoke-coloured clouds, a sense of summer’s having drifted between our fingers into winter.’ Often, it’s simply comical. ‘Sorry about your kidney,’ he writes to Hardwick. ‘I live on mutually antagonistic pills. Nothing much wrong though but teeth. I feel my mouth is falling to chalk but the dentists will find only one urgent hole.’
He describes himself at one point as ‘callous’ and in a 1969 letter to Stephen Spender half-apologises for what he calls his ‘exuberant callousness’. Lowell doesn’t always seem, sincerely, to mean it as a term of deprecation, admiring elsewhere the ‘callousness and bravado’ of Pound. Cal was callous.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in the letters during the early 1970s, discussing the sonnet sequences that were to be published in The Dolphin. In these he took the confessional mode of the earlier poems further, not only describing his final absconding from his marriage to Hardwick, but quoting from her private letters to him and, where it suited his poems, altering them.
They represented the major moral crisis of his poetic career; and yet the only person for whom they don’t seem to have been a major moral crisis was the poet. He was presented with a choice between kindness to someone to whom he had done terrible harm, and his reputation as a poet, and he chose the latter unhesitatingly.
He was bloody determined not just to write, but to publish that book. He sent copies of the manuscript to Bishop and a couple of others (though not, apparently, to Hardwick). When they wrote back — Bishop most famously and most forcefully — to tell him that he simply could not publish these poems, he wriggled. He’d argue that the artistic form of his book demanded them; that writing but not publishing would be unbearable to him; and if all else failed, claimed one of his correspondents, ‘He said, “All right, I won’t print that one,” but he pretended I’d got the pagination wrong and so it was another poem.’
As an adolescent, besotted with Lowell, I remember thinking there was something heroic about the wreckage he produced in the name of art; that his greatness as a poet outweighed other moral considerations. That was a very teenage view. It was one Lowell himself never grew out of. In his letters the self-exculpation and special pleading — rhetorically effective in the poems — are naked, and he seems nothing short of monstrous. In a letter to Blair Clark, he at once presents what he has done as a consequence of his nature (i.e. something for which he can’t be held truly responsible), and asks to be pitied for the results: ‘I increasingly fear the blood I’ll have to pay for what I have done, for being me [my italics].’
It sends you back to those late poems — spoilt, self-pitying, bogus — with a jaundiced eye. ‘I have ... plotted perhaps too freely with my life,/ Not avoiding injury to others,/ Not avoiding injury to myself — / To ask compassion ...’ Quite so. What a phoney. What a dogshithead. ‘Art just isn’t worth that much,’ wrote Bishop in anguished italics. She was right.
The Letters of Robert Lowell
ed by Saskia Hamilton
852pp, Faber & Faber, £30
'All my life I've been eccentric'
Neil Powell reviews The Letters of Robert Lowell.
"What queer lives we've had even for poets!" Robert Lowell exclaimed to his equally erratic, although less talented, friend John Berryman in 1962. By then, much of Lowell's own life had become public property through the astonishing poems he had written during the previous decade and published in 1959 as Life Studies: among them, as he reported to his faithful correspondent and confidante Elizabeth Bishop, "a jail one, a three and a half page one about being five years old and seeing my Uncle Devereux for the last time before he died of Hodgkin's disease, another on my Father, one on flying to Rapallo for Mother's dying - all very personal!" No other major 20th-century poet lives through his work with quite such intimacy and intensity.
Lowell was born in 1917, into the less privileged wing of a grand family in Boston, where (according to a local saying) "The Lowells talk only to Cabots, and the Cabots talk only to God." The family already had their literary black sheep - one cousin was the modernist poet Amy Lowell, while T. S. Eliot was "Uncle Tom" - and by the time the 19-year-old Robert was writing the first letter in this collection, addressing Ezra Pound in 1936 with characteristic audacity, he knew which side he'd be on: "All my life I have been eccentric according to normal standards," he announced, before going on to grumble that at Harvard he has "yearned after iron" but "been choked with cobwebs".
Writing to his mother the following summer, he abruptly veers from prescient name-dropping ("the Tates and Ford and Ransom are in a class by themselves") to childlike supplication: "Give my love to Daddy. I would like to have my allowance sent here." Indeed, veering - between wives and lovers, sanity and madness, rage and conciliation - was to be the central disruptive feature of Lowell's life.
One recurrent motif in these letters is his wish to undo what he has done the day before: a quarrel, a drunken foolishness or simply an intemperate letter. When he seems most desperate to reassure - "We are really unexpectedly happy and normal" or "We're getting on very cheerfully and sensibly" - he also seems least convincing, flailing on the edge of mania and another spell in hospital. His numerous mid-life stays in assorted mental institutions prompt letters ranging from the terrifying to the grimly comic (as well as some marvellous poems).
Yet even more striking, beyond his recklessly nomadic surface life, is the settled, domestic core of the man. His homes, from the one in "old, wildish and unmodern" Maine where he lived with his first wife, Jean Stafford, to the shaggy monster of a house in Kent he shared in the 1970s with Caroline Blackwood, are lovingly, often lengthily evoked. And the letters about his and Elizabeth Hardwick's daughter Harriet, from the moment of her birth onwards (at "five minutes old" she looks "strangely like both her parents… but also more like Dylan Thomas than, say, Audrey Hepburn"), are as self-deprecatingly affectionate as any father's could be.
Although some will view this hefty volume primarily as the narrative of a turbulent life, there are other and better reasons for reading it. Lowell made it his business to know just about everyone worth knowing in American and English poetry for over 40 years, and his accounts of personal meetings are both shrewd and funny: Ezra Pound solo is "absolutely the most simple and naive man I've ever met"; Pound and Randall Jarrell together are "two new bears - Ezrable and Randible, the ideo-types of Filth & Fabbidge… big as life and queer as hell"; Dylan Thomas is "dumpy, absurd body, hair combed by a salad spoon, brown-button Welsh eyes"; and Philip Larkin, towards the end of his life, is "six foot one, low-spoken, bald, deaf, deathbrooding, a sculptured statue of his poems".
Lowell can even make the best of a non-encounter, as when he tells Elizabeth Bishop of "a tall stoutish dark man with a briefcase" who has called without leaving his name: "I thought it was the Law. It was Allen Tate with his violin." He is an astute reader not only of his American contemporaries but of English poets such as Larkin ("such a chipper, modest and personal language") and Ted Hughes, and he gets exactly the measure of Stephen Spender: "If you are keeping up with Spender's autobiography, you will learn that you are dearer friends than you had perhaps imagined," he warns Uncle Tom Eliot: "You know he bites the boot he licks."
Moreover, his nose for the phoney is unfoolable: he loves Pound, yet finds the Cantos "the most self-indulgent long poem in English, and what wasted grace"; in San Francisco, he discovers "too many dull black magic poets"; while of Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso he gently wonders, "How can you make a go for long by reciting so-so verse to half-jeering swarms of college students?"
Best of all, perhaps, are the rueful insights into the sheer cost and effort of writing: "It's a dog's life; and none of the verses will write themselves." Or, in a letter to Robert Frost which exactly catches Lowell's characteristic mixture of wryness and elegy, where inner and outer weathers meet: "I've done a lot of bass fishing and some poems, and it's sad to see the summer sliding away."
Neil Powell's books include 'George Crabbe: An English Life' and 'A Halfway House'
'Nothing is as solid to me as
Andrew Rosenheim reviews The Letters of Robert Lowell.
Robert Lowell enjoyed a celebrity that even established poets can only dream of. He was that rare thing, an American aristocrat, a Boston-born blue-blood with ancestors he could write about without special pleading. He became a public political figure who marched on the Pentagon during the Vietnam war, arm in arm with Norman Mailer; he was also a literary socialite and friend of Jackie Onassis. In 1967 he graced the cover of Time magazine.
Since his death almost 30 years ago, the gloss of this fame has inevitably dulled, and so has interest in his work. But this is surely a temporary eclipse, since Lowell wrote some of the finest poems of the last century. This superbly edited collection of his letters shows, moreover, that running through the innumerable tumults of his personal life was a constant commitment to his work. "Nothing," he declared, "is as solid to me as writing."
The young Lowell of the correspondence is brash, callow, tremendously self-assured. He bullied his closest friends and wrote to Ezra Pound with adolescent insouciance: "Of course I don't actually know you, but I have felt increasingly enthusiastic about you for some time." Precociously aware of his vocation, Lowell was happy to leave Harvard after only one undergraduate year to study under John Crowe Ransom and other New Critical eminences such as Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks and the self-regarding Allen Tate, on whose lawn he pitched a tent and stayed, uninvited, for a summer.
Lowell's post-college years were active ones: he converted to Catholicism, married the already alcoholic writer Jean Stafford (whom he disfigured for life through reckless driving), and spent time in a federal penitentiary for conscientious objection to the Second World War. Through a mixture of talent and ambition, he seemed quite effortlessly to know everyone, as this snapshot digest suggests:
Randall Jarrell introduces him to Elizabeth Bishop. Awarded the Pulitzer prize for Lord Weary's Castle and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Meets TS Eliot… meets Theodore Roethke and JF Powers, visits Frost. Moves to Washington DC… as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Meets Pound and [William Carlos] Williams.
All this in the year he turned 30 years old.
After the war, Lowell first began to suffer from attacks of mania, which were very often acute enough to require hospitalisation, sometimes for months. The infallible indicators of their onset were the arrival on scene of a girl ("girl" is said advisedly; many of them were very young) and an unhealthy interest in Hitler. He was fortunate to find in his second wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, a companion of remarkable tolerance and comparable intellect. She and Elizabeth Bishop are the recipients of most of the letters Saskia Hamilton has selected, and recipients of the best ones, too, though across this epistolary canvas of a life streams a rich cast of characters. Mania-fuelled or not, many of the letters are extremely funny, especially when Lowell describes the pompous impaled on their own absurdities; for all his learning, he never seems in any sense contrived.
Mellowed either by mania or maturity, the adult Lowell is in his correspondence also remarkably generous, patient even with the smallest fry who, as he became more and more famous, pestered him with questions, questionnaires and pleas for help in getting published. None the less, Lowell displayed an unerring eye for talent, perceiving the excellence while still unknown of writers as diverse as Jarrell, Bishop, Berryman, Plath, the younger Larkin and the still much-underrated WD Snodgrass, understanding too how much the work of Robert Frost, then still seen as a "folksy" poet, is dark and complex. His letters are almost unbelievably rich in their depiction of a life that, although it was eased by inherited money, was spent with almost industrial rigour. The extraordinary range of his reading - Emerson, Graves, Heine and Holderlin are discussed in one letter like the staple items of a diet - was matched by a willingness to change his own writing in response. His letters to Bishop in particular explicate the seismic shift in his own work from an early formalism to the loosened metre of Life Studies, which itself spawned an entire school of "Confessional" poets.
After his now-politicised public life reached its zenith in the late 1960s, Lowell found a quieter life in England, where he was a visiting Fellow at All Souls and taught at Essex. Here, he (and arguably Hardwick) finally met his match in a new partner, Caroline Blackwood, who was not only a prose writer of talent but almost equally unstable. Their tense ménage was at first provisional, as Lowell wrote letters one day announcing his intention to marry her, the next day declaring with equal resolution his determination to stay married to Hardwick. Blackwood's unexpected pregnancy broke the logjam only temporarily and, when he died in 1977 in a New York taxi cab, Lowell was on his way back to Hardwick.
Out of this prolonged domestic spasm came The Dolphin. It was Lowell's most controversial collection, since it recounts in unsparing detail the vicissitudes of his marital breakdown with Hardwick and incorporates large chunks of her letters into its loose, unrhymed verse. Lowell excused the intrusion disingenuously, claiming he "couldn't bear to have my book (my life) wait inside me like a dead child", nicely forgetting the impact it might have on his living offspring. What Lowell claimed as the necessary selfishness of the artist seems icily cold-hearted, as unattractive as the bumptious teenager of his letters written 40 years before.
But this is not enough to override the overall impression this collection gives of an extraordinarily creative artist. The voice of Lowell's correspondence, like much of his work, is a completely Romantic one, now out of fashion. As he wrote to Elizabeth Bishop: "I've never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry." In his letters, his life and his poems, the sheer enterprise of his struggle seems heroic.
FABER £30 £27
Robert Lowell's reputation has mysteriously declined since his death in 1977. The density of his verse and its allusion, coupled with a capacity to see public and political events through the prism of his own psychology without detriment to either, has caused him to suffer at the hands of a generation that prefers its poets either purely political or plainly sentimental. A weightyCollected Poems in 2003 marked the beginning of a resurgence in interest in his work, and this excellent volume of letters continues it.
Lowell and his contemporaries - Berryman, Bishop, Plath, Schwartz - have long been marked down as "confessional" poets, a label that disintegrates upon even the slightest analysis. All poetry is performative; this book, and other volumes of letters, have the virtue of showing us that the verse we have admired is not the poet's only means of objectifying and analysing experience.
Lowell knew most, if not all, of his poetic peers, and early in life he had set about cultivating the previous generation. After showing no particular intellectual distinction in youth, he decided in his teens to become a poet and began assiduously to acquire the necessary talents and connections. When he wrote to Allen Tate asking to come and stay for the summer at Tate's house in Tennessee, Tate tried to wriggle out of it by saying that the house was so full of poets that anyone else would have to sleep on the lawn. Up pitched Lowell with his "translucent green umbrella tent" and stayed on the lawn for a month. It was this persistence, not unmixed with outright flattery, that would later win him the friendship and tutelage of Pound, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost and George Santayana.
Writing of his contemporaries, though - and usually to his contemporaries - Lowell was catty, entertaining and startlingly acute. The letters show us Randall Jarrell, with his "scrolled-up sphinx tone... emotionally immature, puritanical, monstrous, odd; but his peculiarity is part of his excellence." There is Dylan Thomas: "dumpy, absurd body, hair combed by a salad spoon, brown-button Welsh eyes always moving suspiciously or fixing on the most modest person in the room". There is Theodore Roethke: "a sort of tender hard-heartedness, too great a wish to be big, so that much of the poetry is a little dead under the ringing cadences." And then there is the gossip, clever people on clever people. Jarrell on Edith Sitwell: "a skull fattened for the slaughter". Pound on Cummings - "a razor-blade without the handle" - and Cummings on Pound: "You're humane without being human."
Many of the best letters in this book are written to Elizabeth Bishop, the only one of Lowell's contemporaries whom time has proved truly his poetic equal. Lowell cottoned on to Bishop's talent early, and she his, and watching their friendship deepen over nearly 30 years is one of the chief joys of this collection.
It was, for all its mutual kindness, a complex relationship. Lowell, who often developed by imitation of or reaction to poetry and people that he admired, found Bishop's poetry compelling and exciting because of its difference from his own: "You always make me feel that I have a rather obvious breezy, impersonal liking for the great and obvious," he writes to her, "in contrast with your adult personal feeling for the odd and genuine." Bishop, by contrast, admired and was occasionally envious of Lowell's productivity, but more than that of his sense of entitlement to a poetry that she herself had to fight for. Her comment to him in 1958, after seeing the poems that would become Life Studies, is a psychological biography in a paragraph:
"I am green with envy of your kind of assurance. I feel that I could write in as much detail about my Uncle Artie, say - but what would be the significance? Nothing at all. He became a drunkard, fought with his wife, and spent most of his time fishing - and was ignorant as sin... Whereas all you have to do is put down the names! And the fact that it seems significant, illustrative, American, etc, gives you, I think, the confidence you display about tackling any idea or theme, seriously, in both writing and conversation."
Bishop lived in Brazil for many years, and Lowell seems to have found it easy to apostrophise her there; his letters, though compendious and keen to incorporate all the gossip, also offer judgments on his own work that he never shares with those closer to him. Writing prose, he writes, "is a hell of a job - it starts naked, ends as fake velvet." Elsewhere he complains revealingly: "How easy it is for me to lay it on, and mean it." And he describes the aftermath of his destructive manic attacks to her in careful and unassuming detail: "One is left strangely dumb, and talking about the past is like a cat's trying to explain climbing down a ladder."
If Bishop was his best friend, she was not so without reservation. Lowell, when manic, would occasionally forget, or ignore, that Bishop was a lesbian, and after one peculiar visit early in their relationship she writes to a friend: "I do want to remain friends but I think it is going to require great care and fortitude and a rhinoceros skin into the bargain."
A rhinoceros skin is what many of Lowell's friends and intimates were forced to develop, and not all of them liked it or stayed the course. A plot, of sorts, is provided for this book by the irregular rhythms of the protagonist's manic depression, and one can usually spot, with a kind of bemused horror, an attack on its way. Lowell's tendency when manic was to take a new girl and begin mulling on the possibility of marriage; he dispatched breezy letters to his friends indicating a divorce from Elizabeth Hardwick, his long-suffering wife, and began to make plans for a new existence. The relapse into normality usually left him shattered and guilty, worried that the mania was a consequence of his own immorality and not just a mental inevitability. "It's been imbecilic, inhuman, dangerous, embarrassing and hell on Elizabeth," he writes after one attack. "I feel like a son of a bitch." When later in life he was prescribed lithium, rather than Thorazine and electroshock, his anger is palpable. Twenty years' psychotherapy and analysis, he wrote, might as well have been "for a broken leg".
Seeing Lowell like this is a potent antidote to the unkindness and arrogance that many critics found in the man and his work. His decision to adapt letters from Elizabeth Hardwick after the break-up of their marriage for his book Dolphin can probably never be justified as humane, but it is at least illuminating to see the correspondence around it with Hardwick and his friends. ("I feel like a man walking on two ever more widely splitting roads at once," he writes to Hardwick, "as if I were pulled apart and thinning into mist, or rather being torn apart and still preferring that state to making a decision.")
Without the need to perform in metre, Lowell's guilts and cavils are differently explored, made more comprehensible than when expressed as adjuncts of the poetic consciousness he cultivated. "I was naked without my line-ends," he writes at one stage in a phrase that Saskia Hamilton, the editor of this volume, appropriates for her excellent introduction. That nakedness, from such a guarded poet as Lowell has often appeared to be, is appealing and enlightening.
One feels, though, that Saskia Hamilton has been somewhat ill-used by her publishers. The notes are excellent but brief: Lowell's peripatetic existence and the breadth of his reference really demand lengthy commentary, and being able to keep track of his existence outside the letters (which girl is it now? is he in the bin?) helps too. And despite its title, this is not a complete edition; for reasons of space many letters have had to be excised. If Lowell wrote a string of letters from one place, that place will only be noted at the top of the first letter to save space, which sounds like a good idea in principle, but rapidly becomes infuriating. They could have cut down a few more trees and had a definitive edition.
Ian Hamilton's biography of Lowell, still the most influential document on the poet, was published five years after Lowell's death to howls of protest from the poet's intimates. Wisely, lethally, it placed Lowell's mania at the centre of the book, treating his sane periods as blessed aberrations and his excursions into poetry as mysterious acts of alchemy. Caroline Blackwood, to whom Lowell was married when he died, complained that it "did not show why people loved [him]". Saskia Hamilton (no relation) has produced a book of letters that goes at the very least a long way to remedying that.
The pain and the
Saskia Hamilton's collection of Robert Lowell's letters restores balance to the poet's reputation, says Andrew Motion
Saturday August 13, 2005
The Letters of Robert Lowell
edited by Saskia Hamilton
852pp, Faber, £30
This Letters of Robert Lowell has rekindled an old argument. When Ian Hamilton published his Life of Lowell in 1982, five years after the poet's death, various friends and family members thought the book placed too much emphasis on Lowell's manic breakdowns and under-valued what ran straight and true in his career. Other people - including Elizabeth Hardwick and most readers who had no first-hand knowledge of Lowell - felt Hamilton had got the balance about right. He's sceptical where he needs to be, but cannily alert to the trajectory and texture of Lowell's work, as it rose from the muddle that frequently swirled through his days.
All the same, the doubters have now seized the chance to rectify what they see as old wrongs. Several British reviewers of this volume have celebrated its depiction of a steadier Lowell, and in the New York Review of Books, Jonathan Raban has speculated that one reason for the recent slump in Lowell's reputation has been that Hamilton misrepresented his life as "madness punctuated by sanity". Hamilton's widow, Ahdaf Soueif, has ticked him off in the letters column, but there's not much reason to think the controversy will end there. Which is Lowell to be, as he continues his long ride into posterity: wild man or vulnerable spirit? Raw poet or cooked? Life-messer or life-enhancer?
In her clever introduction to the Letters, Saskia Hamilton (no relation) treads carefully. "Because of the cyclical nature of Lowell's illness," she says, "people's social experience of him was not consistent. He was neither always mad nor always sane; he was also either mad or sane." The strength of this position is evident. It allows her to repudiate the over-simple idea that the manic Lowell was the "real" Lowell - a poor, forked and maskless creature. At the same time, it means she can sensibly oversee the sense in which the sane Lowell was the authentic one - and in turn encourage us to see that at least one of the creative efforts of his life was to mediate between two versions of himself. It's an idea that illuminates everything - from the characteristic electric crackle of his lines (stretching for extremes, but also for order), to the effusive compliments he showers on fellow poets (registering his own authority, but also showing genuine kindness), to the complications of his love life (reckless, but venturesome).
In the end - and this is a compendious edition, though not a complete one - it has to be said: the abundant, generous, well-judging Lowell dominates the book. True, there are terrible descents into madness, which demand a horribly high price from his friends in general and his wives in particular. The relatively rapid collapse of his first marriage is painful enough, but the hysterical surge of his affair with Giovanna Madonia in the spring of 1954 and the roller-coaster ride and eventual crash of his marriage to Hardwick are truly anguishing. So is the slew of fragmentary letters to his last wife, Caroline Blackwood, with which the book ends. But set against this, spread more generally and resounding just as loudly, is the evidence of real steadiness and truthfulness: with his lifetime friends Peter Taylor and Blair Clark, for instance, with George Santayana, and with virtually every English-language poet of note in his own generation, as well as the ones above (Pound, Frost) and below (Snodgrass, Larkin, Heaney).
For all the wealth of common human feeling on display, it's these letters to and about other poets that make the book exceptional. That, and the energy, attention, dash and intensity of the composition. From the word go, we find Lowell pitching his tent high up Parnassus, and proving his devotion. "You will probably think that I am very impudent and presumptuous," he writes to Ezra Pound, aged 19, "but I want to come to Italy and work under you and forge my way into reality." Once his career is launched, this zeal deepens as he draws round him (or at least develops contact with) the strong poets of his own age. Randall Jarrell, Alan Tate, Theodore Roethke, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, William Empson: these and others are all canvassed, counselled, and consulted. Sometimes the spirit of the exchange is comradely. Sometimes it's competitive. (Once again, the two - at least two - Lowells are wrestling for control of the steering wheel.) But where a smaller heart might have allowed the whole business to slide into mere neurosis about the pecking order, Lowell embraces the richness of his surrounding talents as a spur. Writing to a reviewer who has described "a Lowell Circle" in 1969, he says, "I don't think I ever heard the words till yesterday in your piece. A graver matter is the competition, the boxing match. Without it, I think we miss some of the pleasure of writing: part of it is rather like a tennis match. Who would play without scoring? But how can you score in poetry? In what contest that means anything can we enter our poems and books? The scales do not exist to weigh art. Yet some things are better or greater. I must call the contest emulation."
Of all Lowell's poet-correspondents, no one is more important to him than Elizabeth Bishop. His letters to her are one of the two spines to the book (the other being his letters to Hardwick). In a sense it's easy to see why: Lowell was quick to see her genius, and he simply and frankly admired her: "You have more to offer, I think, than anyone writing poems in English," he tells her in the early 1960s - and never deviates from this view. But there are other reasons for his attraction as well. Even though Bishop had her own share of partner-problems and drink-difficulties, the focus of her life and the apparently relaxed tone of her poems spoke to Lowell of something he felt was beyond him yet profoundly desirable. Something that helped him to keep track of his own ambitions as he worked clear of a comparatively clotted early style, into a cleaner yet still nervous mature manner. Something that taught him a lesson about how to use autobiography (which was always his strong suit) with proper dignity and metaphorical power. Lowell knew that he had it in himself to vulgarise the transmission of his own experience - and did vulgarise it, spectacularly, when he included some of Hardwick's letters in one of his late sequences, and gave great hurt. Bishop's decorum, her "manners", helped to make this a rare lapse.
Lowell's encouragement of Bishop is heartening, and even if his compliments to other poets can seem like a way of not thinking hard enough, or simply of keeping in their good books, it does create an overall impression of decency and kindness - and of a commitment to poetry as such. After the death of his English publisher Eliot, he said "there was no one else who could both write and tell us how to write, no one who spoke with such authority and so little played the role of a great man". He told Empson: "I have loved and reverenced you as my friend and teacher, as the most important teacher in England, the greatest Englishman." He calls Pound "a hero, full of courage, and humour and compassion". And so on. Attractive as they are, these effusions would be less compelling did Lowell not also keep up a barrage of more detailed judgments - his dislike of Hughes's Crow, for example, or his feeling that Ginsberg and his "people" were "pathetic and doomed", or that Plath "seemed rather gothic and arid" in comparison with Bishop. The point is not so much whether we happen to agree, but how it manifests Lowell's engagement.
Saskia Hamilton may not be able to restore order overnight in the unruly house of Lowell's admirers, but her edition will go a long way towards steadying the balance of his reputation. Her selection, as far as one can judge, is excellent: it certainly gives a rounded picture of a marvellously jagged mind. Her notes are shrewd and reliable, even if they are on the brief side and sometimes leave us wanting to know more about the personalities involved, as well as the bigger picture (there's always a risk of Lowell's family fixation overshadowing his achievement as a political poet). Best of all, her approach throughout is enthusiastic, as well as scholarly, and lets us see that even if Lowell wrote his letters in a way that's almost opposite to the way he wrote his poems (freely, and with hardly any revision), they nevertheless meet in a single concentration. They are, as he said of Hopkins, "thoroughly made".
Andrew Motion's The Invention of Dr Cake is published by Faber.
Lowell and Wright, two tormented but brilliant versifiers.
Reviewed by Charles Nicol
Sunday, August 21, 2005; BW12
THE LETTERS OF ROBERT LOWELL
Edited by Saskia Hamilton
Farrar Straus Giroux. 852 pp. $40
A WILD PERFECTION
The Selected Letters of James Wright
Edited by Anne Wright and Saundra Rose Maley with Jonathan Blunk
Farrar Straus Giroux. 633 pp. $40
Two major poets, two volumes of letters: Robert Lowell, certainly one of the best poets of his generation and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes; James Wright, 10 years younger with a Pulitzer of his own. Similar careers, starting with graduation with honors from Kenyon College after studying with John Crowe Ransom. But they got to Kenyon in different ways. Lowell came from one of the oldest families in Boston, an exclusive prep school and two years at Harvard. Wright came from an obscure family in a dismal town on the Ohio River and went to college on the G.I. Bill.
Both married about the time of graduation, published their first major books at age 29 and wrote spontaneous, unrevised letters, primarily to other poets, with a considerable overlap in correspondents. Both deepened their talents during the wrenching revolution in poetry in the late 1950s. Both abused alcohol. And both suffered debilitating mental illnesses.
Lowell began as a follower of the difficult and impersonal modern poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and although Eliot published "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" the year Lowell was born and Pound was older still, Lowell eventually corresponded with both. But when the Beats arrived like a fresh breeze through a broken window, Lowell became more open, simpler and more self-revealing in his great collection Life Studies . Allen Ginsberg and friends even came to visit him once; Lowell described the visit as perplexing, but readers will probably find it high comedy. Unfortunately, he almost never wrote detailed letters about his poetic processes, and the reasoning that led to his personal revolution remains obscure.
Meanwhile, Wright went through a revolution of his own, fully dramatized in his letters during the second half of 1959, which take up a fifth of this collection -- a wise decision on the part of the editors, Anne Wright, his second wife, and Saundra Rose Maley. His intense correspondence at that time with his contemporaries James Dickey, Robert Bly and Donald Hall convinced him that he should try to abandon his earlier models, the traditional metric forms of Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson. This conversion was an epic struggle: "I am trapped by the very thing -- the traditional technique -- which I labored so hard to attain." After thinking of giving up poetry altogether, he had a breakthrough: "I have a new son, and I am in touch with poetry again -- not metrical tricks, but the fire of the daemon!"
Too often the brilliance of our best authors is credited to some kind of mental problem rather than to their genius, but how should we deal with a poet who actually had a mental illness? When Wright was asked to write about his friend Anne Sexton, he replied that her suicide was "a totally meaningless pain in the ass": "The thing to concentrate on is the poetry itself." The same, of course, should apply to Lowell and Wright.
But a collection of correspondence is a form of biography. While Lowell was strikingly able to recollect his illness in the tranquility of some of his best poetry, he wrote some of these letters while in the throes of his attacks. Here the pattern of Lowell's breakdowns is clear: He would become interested in Hitler or Napoleon, begin an affair, declare to everyone that he and his current wife had agreed on an amiable divorce and finally create bizarre public scenes; then he would be hospitalized, return to normal, apologize to his wife and friends and drop the new girlfriend. It makes for harrowing reading.
Lowell's editor, Saskia Hamilton, notes that although "many people who knew him judged his manic behavior as a moral failing," his family and friends "thought that his 'real' self was the person they knew when he was well." Nevertheless, a well Lowell was still a difficult person. He kept his prep-school nickname, Cal (for Caligula), throughout his life. He was often domineering, arrogant and controversial. This collection begins with a confident 1936 letter to Pound in Italy, asking to be taken on as an apprentice and playing his trump card, a family connection from Pound's early days: "I am 19, a freshman at Harvard, and some relation, I don't know what, to Amy Lowell." In the middle of World War II, after first trying to enlist, he became a conscientious objector; the politics seem bizarre, but his letter to President Roosevelt is a masterpiece. During the Vietnam War, he privately accepted an invitation to the White House but publicly took it back in a published letter to President Johnson. He also published outrageously inaccurate translations of famous poems and didn't seem to care: "It's a mistake to invent something [in] one's translating only if faithfulness does better." Worse, after their divorce, he quoted Elizabeth Hardwick's letters in his poems although he had promised not to: "It's oddly enough a technical problem as well as a gentleman's problem," he wrote defensively to his friend Elizabeth Bishop. "How can the story be told at all without the letters."
Obviously, Lowell was no gentleman. Still, he was courteous and certainly interesting. His long series of letters to fellow poet Bishop shows him at his best, full of interest in his correspondent and in communicating his own feelings, with cheerful gossip about other poets as a happy bonus.
Touchingly, Wright wrote to his high school teachers throughout his life. Like Lowell, he corresponded with Theodore Roethke, another manic-depressive poet, who was his professor in Seattle, and with Allen Tate and John Berryman, who taught with him in Minneapolis. Wright gushes, announcing in these letters that 50 different contemporary poets are magnificent or about to become so. A letter to the president of his college sounds like sheer toadyism: "Oh, Arnold, I am deeply moved by the beauty of the plan you've asked me to help you to fulfill." After being invited to sit in on one of Lowell's seminars, Wright wrote: "Simply being invited was something that I can regard without hesitation as one of the few genuine honors I have ever been given." Together with these rather desperate attempts to flatter his correspondents, Wright often denigrates his own work ("that damn asinine book of mine") and his own person ("I am a cynic, a bad man, a hopeless, a brute"). His letters occasionally find him in the depth of an attack, "clutching about desperately for something that might keep me coherent until I can get to the doctor," or after a sleepless night "trying to summon up my forces of language and clarity so I can talk with the doctor over in Minneapolis." But otherwise we see the results of his worst days only in retrospect: "I was so god damned miserable that the only thing I could do was translate Theodor Storm from German, have a bad love affair, get sick, go to a hospital, . . . get habitually drunk, teach very well when I could bring myself to make a class, and, naturally, get fired." Suicide was often not far from his mind.
What did the two poets think of each other? Although Lowell never mentioned Wright in the letters published here, he did invite him to teach at his Harvard poetry seminar. And Wright wrote after hearing Lowell speak, "Though he is probably the world's worst public performer, he certainly is an appealing man. His poems are magnificent." ·
Charles Nicol, a reviewer for over 40 years, has just retired from Indiana State University.
August 21, 2005
Poetry: The Letters of Robert Lowell edited by Saskia Hamilton
THE LETTERS OF ROBERT LOWELL
edited by Saskia Hamilton
Faber £30 pp800
Despite the power of his poetry, Robert Lowell (1917-77) has sometimes seemed in danger of being famous as much for his personality as for his work. A leading member of a spectacularly talented yet damaged and often tormented generation of American poets that included John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop and Delmore Schwarz, Lowell, like the others, died short of old age. Manic depression dogged him; he was ambitious; he became extremely famous. Ian Hamilton’s 1982 biography, fair-minded as it sought to be, could not help suggesting that here was a sacred monster, howling in the fires of art and love, and burning those nearest to his heart, the three women who married him — all distinguished writers — Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick and Caroline Blackwood.
The Collected Poems (2003) helped redirect readers to the work. The Letters now allows Lowell to speak for himself — about poetry, teaching, love and friendship, the view from the study window and the darkening political times. On the last score, for which he took an almost Roman sense of civic responsibility, he allows himself a note of grim prophecy: “The crass commercial vulgarity of our country goes beyond belief. Sometimes I think we will all die fighting some terrible Fascist reform movement.”
This book is not the whole story, clearly, but the Lowell who emerges in this meticulously edited and hugely informative collection is, much of the time, a warmly appealing character. He is a loyal, affectionate and amusing friend, maintaining correspondence with Bishop and the novelist Peter Taylor over most of his adult life and putting up with difficult characters such as his early teacher, the poet Allen Tate. He keeps contact with Ezra Pound during Pound’s long incarceration in a psychiatric hospital, remaining friends (while making quite clear his loathing of the older poet’s anti-semitic ravings) when it might have been politic not to. He learns from the speech-driven poetry of William Carlos Williams — the stylistic opposite of Lowell’s early encrusted, formal, European poetic self — and writes admiringly: “It must be fearful to have done something with deadly originality and lucidity and beauty, and then be ignored, scolded, patronised!” He also offers diplomatic encouragement to poets seeking his help.
What would a poet want to talk about but poetry? But in Lowell’s case, delight and torment are hard to separate. He is never off duty, always wondering how to write well, how to write at all, how to abandon a manner once achieved (he did this three times at least), how to do a better job and how to live with the certainty of disappointment, given the standards he sets himself. Reflecting on the thanklessness of literary reputation, he comments to his friend, the poet Theodore Roethke: “A strange fact about poets roughly our age . . . to write we seem to have to go at it with such single-minded intensity that we are always on the point of drowning.” This is not affectation but affliction.
The personal life reads as a mixture of prized ordinariness and psychiatric catastrophe. After 20 years of marriage to Hardwick, with whom he had a daughter, Harriet, Lowell began an affair with and later married Blackwood. Lowell had already written intimately about his life in his most famous book, Life Studies, attracting the label of Confessional Poet, but in later poems concerned with the final stages of his relationship with Hardwick, he not only uses extracts from her letters but also fictionalises matters. The result was, inevitably, gravely distressing for those involved, both in itself and in the resulting press coverage.
To Bishop, Lowell writes: “My immorality, as far as intent and skill could go, is nothing in my book. No one, not even I, is perversely torn and twisted, nothing’s made worse or better than it was. My sin (mistake?) was publishing. I couldn’t bear to have my book (my life) wait inside me like a dead child.” Here we encounter an immovable problem: Lowell was a poet whose life formed much of his material. Ultimately, he could allow nothing to stand in the way of his work. The story is not unfamiliar, but the example is particularly stark. If writing is not in some sense a moral activity, then it may be meaningless, yet the means of its production may be anything but moral. Lowell struggled with this dilemma, but poetry was always going to win.
The TLS n.º 5345 September 9, 2005
From Robert Lowell to his friends, lovers, fellow poets and posterity
LETTERS OF ROBERT LOWELL
Saskia Hamilton, editor
852pp. | Faber. £30. | 0 571 20204 7
Perfection of the life
or art? In Robert Lowell’s Notebook (1970), we read in “The Literary Life, a
Scrapbook”: “Who wouldn’t rather be his indexed correspondents / than the boy
Keats spitting out blood for time to breathe?”. Three years later, in History
(1973), this has been reconsidered, revised and inverted: “Who would rather be
his indexed correspondents / than the boy Keats spitting out blood for time to
breathe?”. This is no surprise.
The revision turns on the relative weighting of literary fame and longevity. On reflection, Lowell chooses literary achievement. His highly developed sense of vocation is apparent from the early pages of these letters “The Letters of Robert Lowell”, edited by Saskia Hamilton. The first is to Ezra Pound, offering himself as disciple-pupil: “Your Cantos have re-created what I have imagined to be the blood of Homer. Again I ask you to have me [as an apprentice]”. Not long after, the emulative Lowell responds with reservations to Pound’s (understandable) reserve: “Your Cantos practically ignore hard narrative and motion”, “Can the main current of English literature float such a vast quantity of spondées and compound nouns?”. After pausing to praise the skill of Eliot’s “Ariel” poems – but deplore their depleted vitality – the tyro Lowell vauntingly concludes: “I would like to bring back momentum and movement in poetry on a grand scale, to master your tremendous machinery and to carry your standard further into the century” (my italics). If Pound experienced a frisson of obsolescence, who could blame him? As late as 1948 the thirty-two-year old Lowell is writing to George Santayana: “Chaucer and Homer are models of all that I would desire”. (Midgets need not apply.) And to Elizabeth Bishop (July 2, 1948), he admits: “sometimes nothing is so solid to me as writing – I suppose that’s what vocation means . . .” . In 1957, the forty-year-old Lowell reiterates: “I’ve never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry”.
In Lowell’s case, though, the comparison with Keats isn’t a perfect fit. The trouble is the implied unbridgeable distance between head-honcho Keats and his lowly, undistinguished correspondents, herded in the ghetto of the index. Not true of Lowell’s index. Elizabeth Bishop is a much better poet and letter writer. Philip Larkin’s letters are funnier: he inscribes Lowell’s copy of High Windows, “From a Drought to a Deluge”. Ted Hughes’s letters are more original and energetic, Pound’s quirkier. Lowell corresponds with all four, though most extensively, candidly and unguardedly with Elizabeth Bishop. Their relationship is intimate and mutually supportive – until, right at the end of his short life, suddenly Lowell’s patience is, if not exhausted, certainly chafed: “Elizabeth Bishop is about to visit here for two days”, he writes to his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick (June 8, 1976),
"an informal visit but not one to take lightly. The dog must be sent away because of her asthma but will that be enough? Half our chairs are tainted with dog hairs. Then so many things she can criticise, the disheveled garden, the carefree garden man, our care of Sheridan [Lowell’s small son]. Should he be sent away too? So many things down to my not writing meter, making errors in description. Of course no one is more wonderful, but so fussy and hazardous now. Her set subject in person and letters is scolding with affectionate fury over Frank Bidart (whom she half depends on) a safe thing though grating."
Keats, by general consent, is the great poetic letter writer. This is Eliot in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: “The Letters are certainly the most notable and the most important ever written by any English poet . . . . There is hardly one statement of Keats about poetry, which, when considered carefully and with due allowance for the difficulties of communication, will not be found to be true; and what is more, true for greater and more mature poetry than anything that Keats ever wrote”. And this is Lowell self-deprecatingly writing to Elizabeth Bishop (April 7, 1959): “Keats – I read the letters fall a year ago [sic]. Better than anything except Laforgue’s. I think his bold opinions on his friends impressed me more than anything. I wouldn’t be that mature, if I lived to ninety, and memorised Montaigne and had hallucinations that I was Santayana”. After reading the 852 pages of The Letters of Robert Lowell, you have to agree. Even though 852 pages is only a sliver. For example, there are only eighteen letters here for 1963. The average chosen for 1936–1977 is seventeen a year. Even on this selective basis, Lowell isn’t a great letter writer and these letters are only mildly absorbing. It is possible, though, to make a selection of the selection that is entertaining but a subtle misrepresentation of the duller truth.
There are marvellous phrases, of course: African masks are “all grass and grimace”. Lowell is always good with his daughter Harriet. At her birth, he writes: “Five minutes old, little H looked strangely like both her parents and like you [Harriet Winslow, Lowell’s cousin] but also more like Dylan Thomas than say, Audrey Hepburn. Staring with glossy, bulging little eyes, she is withering with contempt some importunate bystander trying to make conversation by asking her if she accepts the universe”. This is the daughter of intellectuals, a prodigy, whose first words Lowell imagines will be “Partisan Review”.
Famous for taking himself seriously – the man who, according to John Berryman, was not amused by Randall Jarrell’s improvised parodies of his poetic effects – Lowell emerges here as a winning self-ironist. When his play The Old Glory is performed, it takes three and a half hours, “plus a stupefying hour and a quarter dinner break”, after which “the chief actor looked out into the audience with his captain’s telescope and saw five people snoring. I had to squirm and shift horrifyingly like an arterial-sclerotic to stay awake”. He repeats this charming, self-deprecatory riff in another letter. His musical knowledge comes in for a certain amount of ribbing too: “I have been listening furiously to music from Gesualdo to Webern and have even, like Bouvard and Pécuchet, absorbed terminology. I drive Elizabeth almost livid and speechless now by suddenly saying, ‘isn’t that an augmented canon in cancrizans reversed?’”. This to Natasha Spender in 1956, a comic routine elaborated from a letter of April 24, 1952, to Elizabeth Bishop: “I know all about the sonata form (a misnomer according to Tovey) canons, and modulations, but have difficulty distinguishing them when heard, and have so far failed to convince the cynical and skeptical Eliz. H. Lowell that I am not tone-deaf”.
The main charm of the letters is hinted at in Lowell’s admiration for Keats’s “bold opinions on his friends”. Gossip, anecdote and affectionately malicious epitome intermittently animate the correspondence. In a letter to Peter Taylor (April 3, 1948), reporting a visit to Ezra Pound in St Elizabeth’s, Lowell touches on this propensity: “Pound: ‘I must give a vignette. Lowell likes anecdotes some of the time.’ Randall: ‘What do you mean some of the time?’”. When he’s reading Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, he tells Santayana (March 10, 1952) it is pleasingly anecdotal: “It’s delightful just as a series of opinions, character sketches etc . . . ”. Writing to Blair Clark (March 21, 1954), Lowell capitalizes on this preference: “I have found a line of talking in anecdotes that both my Cincinnati audience and I can follow”. Sometimes we are treated to a tiny flash of unexpected exuberance: when T. S. Eliot dances with his new bride, “they danced so dashingly at the Charles River boatclub brawl that he was called ‘Elbows Eliot’”. Or another flash of Terpsichorean eccentricity: “An evening with Dwight Macdonald during which he was more than usual genial – we’d said goodbye to Macdonald and separated about ten feet when Randall began doing gigantic ballet leaps in the air and giggling”. Though Lowell doesn’t say so, we can assume drink plays its part in Jarrell’s jumps. After all, Lowell can imagine no one telling off either the severe Jarrell or the equally severe Mary McCarthy – as he confesses to Elizabeth Bishop (April 24, 1952).
A good deal of alcohol is consumed in the course of these letters. This is Dylan Thomas drinking (March 30, 1950): “Somehow he was kept on beer most of the time, but he’d begin at 7 in the morning and end at 12 – no meals except breakfast. About the best and dirtiest stories I’ve ever heard – dumpy, absurd body, hair combed by a salad spoon, brown-button Welsh eyes always moving suspiciously or fixing on the most modest person in the room . . . a great explosion of life, and hell to handle”. Allen Tate is often intoxicated: “Incredible dinner at the Eberharts with the Tates, Madame Perkins, K. A. Porter, Auden, Ted Spencer’s sister and Betty Eberhart’s German cousin. Allen very tight gave two identical very formal toasts to the memory of Ted Spencer, and Auden helpfully took out all our plates, still unfinished, to the pantry, and Katherine Anne announced she was seventy”.
Age brings out the best in Lowell. This to Elizabeth Bishop (April 3, 1964): "The old get older, I’ve seen Marianne Moore a couple of times, once introducing Auden very wittily calling him a “fantast who was also a sage”, and ending with a humorous quote from Auden that all ills of the body were ills of the soul, and “I give you Mr Auden”. Then later at a small poets party for Vernon Watkins, where for all her fragility she stayed with us 7 hours talking. Her baseball is way over my head. So is John Ransome’s aesthetics and philosophy. He came here for the National Book Award with his post box key instead of his suitcase key, no money except his ticket, and hardly knew his hotel, yet talked with fascinating merry complexity on Kant, Valéry and Stevens. Eliot too is apparently very weak and old and fearful to be far from his wife, yet sang me a humorous song called Mr Caruso on the phone."
He notices what people are wearing, too: “Marianne Moore was sprawled like some Boucher goddess in a print dress and black cartwheel hat on the huge marble disc of the huge marble bannister”. Tate’s deliberate wardrobe is invoked with inflections of satire: “Allen Tate, who arrived at our house for the occasion [an e. e. cummings reading] dressed in a very pale, very delicately made khaki coat, a khaki hat with a plaid hat-band, loafers that shone like armour in a Rembrandt painting”. Nonentities are vividly boring: “[“Piggy” Warburg’s] voice was terrible in the little space and made one feel as though it were an airplane descending forever from a great altitude”. In 1948, Lowell takes a Mrs Longworth to see Pound at St Elizabeth’s: “she chattered for half an hour about everything under the sun ending with a synopsis of two 1880 novels she’d read as a girl. Pound (restless, silent, but not motionless misery) ‘You like reading more than I do’”.
Pound is a recurrent focus. One particularly revealing letter (February 10, 1973) is a shorthand report of Lowell’s meeting , after Pound’s death, with his daughter, Mary de Rachelwiltz. She reports her transition from disciple to daughter and the steady eclipse of awe: “Until six years ago I never questioned one of his thoughts . . . . Of course I wasn’t prepared to be impressed by T. S. Eliot . . . . When he came back [to Italy after his release from St Elizabeth’s], we didn’t know that even he couldn’t do anything . . . . two years of sitting hardly raising an arm and thinking all his contemporaries’ careers had gone better than his . . . . stopped me from translating the Cantos, saying they were no good. Do people in such a state really feel the terrible things they say? . . . at first it was Cantos at every meal” (Lowell’s ellipses). Six statements that take us to the heart of Pound’s depression and his final silence – which has less to do with remorse for his anti-Semitism and more to do with regret for his blighted career; coming last to Eliot and Joyce, as he saw it, rather than culpability and penance.
Lowell understood the element of competition in the arts and referred to it openly. On July 10, 1963, he writes to Theodore Roethke: “I remember Edwin Muir arguing with me that there is no rivalry in poetry. Well, there is”. Writing to Jerome Mazzaro (May 26, 1969), he sounds like Hemingway getting on the gloves to spar with Shakespeare: “A graver matter is the competition, the boxing match. Without it, I think we miss some of the pleasure of writing: part of it is rather like a tennis match. Who would play without scoring?”. Elizabeth Bishop would be my answer. Art is the spur, art for the art’s sake, not fame. But perhaps not for Lowell, or, finally, poignantly, for Pound – Pound the great enabler, selfless midwife not only to The Waste Land, but “Whispers of Immortality” and of Ulysses, suddenly succumbing to self-doubt and the poison of the marketplace.
For such an openly emulous writer, however, Lowell was a notably generous mentor, assiduously pushing his friends, fuelled by genuine admiration. He recommends Elizabeth Bishop and Randall Jarrell to the anthologist Louis Untermeyer. To F. S. Flint in 1948, he advises that “E. Bishop is genuine . . . a touch-stone, except for Jarrell, her contemporaries seem pretentious, faked, empty etc. Randall has a better mind than I have . . .”. This dual recommendation is repeated to Santayana, as “the best new poets in my judgment”. And again to Eliot, January 18, 1949: “Wish Eliot the Poet and Eliot the Editor would take a look at Jarrell and Bishop (Elizabeth)”. It may be more significant, oddly enough, that he tells Bishop (December 8, 1947) that Jarrell “has written a wonderful poem on the death of a colored child”. He recommends Berryman to Paul Engle at Iowa for a post he himself cannot take up: “He is a wonderful person, a good poet and probably fifty times as good a teacher as I would have been”. All the same, we can see Lowell succumb to a calculus of competition when Berryman gets going on the Dream Songs and becomes a serious rival. Notebook is an act of supplanting and rivalry. Lowell wants to engross the quotidian, to soar from the minuscule to the majestic in the manner of Berryman. (And in the manner of Philip Larkin, another poet for whom Lowell has nothing but praise – an admiration unreciprocated by Larkin, who takes a swipe at Lord Weary’s Castle in a letter to Robert Conquest: “old R. L. who’s never looked like being a single iota of good in all his born days. Lord Hairy’s Arsehole. Gibber gibber”.) For most of the time, Berryman wasn’t a threat. There is a quietly terrible letter to Elizabeth Bishop (April 14, 1962) that seems complacent and culpably unaware of the contrast between Berryman’s straitened circumstances and his own good fortune, mingling with Mrs Mellon, Jackie Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Robert McNamara et al. First there is Berryman: "utterly spooky, teaching brilliant classes, spending week-ends in the sanitarium. Drinking, seedy, a little bald, often drunk, married to a girl of twenty-one from a Catholic parochial college, white, innocent beyond belief, just pregnant. They live in two rooms – in one Kate is asleep, getting through the first child pains, in the other, a thousand books, and John going into the 7th year on a long poem that fills a suitcase and is all spoken by John, first son (seven) from his second marriage. The poem is spooky, a maddening work of genius, or half genius, in John’s later obscure, tortured, wandering style, full of parentheses, slang no one ever spoke, jagged haunting lyrical moments etc. "
The mistake here about the narration / narrator is like the mistake (later corrected) about Mr Bones in Lowell’s New York Review of Books essay on the Dream Songs. Lowell unaccountably thought Mr Bones was another character addressing the “hero” Henry, whereas Mr Bones is Henry, the name being a memento mori (a phrase consistently misspelled throughout these letters as “momento mori”, even though Lowell was a Latinist). Lowell also manages to call Henry Harry in one of these letters (September 19, 1959) – an index of indifference, not just carelessness.
After an interval of this and that, Lowell’s letter forgets Berryman’s two rooms: “Where am I? . . . Oh the White House – we are going there to dinner sometime next month to meet Malraux; Edmund \[Wilson\] and Allen \[Tate\] are going and I suppose legions of others. Only black tie, not white”. One doesn’t want to be stonily censorious. Who, after all, wouldn’t be pleased with themselves at such an invitation? And Lowell is doing his best to play it down – cast of thousands, only black tie . . . . Nevertheless, one is gratified by Lowell’s perturbation some six years later (September 22, 1968) when he is compelled to a little poetic accountancy by Berryman’s unaccountable if brief success. The measuring tape is out: "I’m dumbfounded at how many of the same things we have: rough iambic lines, often pentameter (for me mostly), short sections that are not stanzas; wife, wives, child, old flames, new ones, sex, love, loves, portraits of writers (I have Frost, Jarrell and Williams too), landscape (I have more of this), portraits of the dead, full middle age, humor, death etc. Well, you have a hundred things I don’t: rhymes, Henry, more jokes, Delmore [Delmore Schwartz; a want soon to be remedied], Ireland; and you must be the best Irish poet since Yeats [a joke Lowell was to recycle seriously for Seamus Heaney in 1974]. What I like is your ease in getting out everything – I mean everything in your experience, learning, thought, personality etc. mills thru the poetry."
Notebook and its subtle, allowable larceny – or attempted annexation – follows from this, as much as from the prior impulse behind Life Studies, of which Lowell said (March 13, 1960): “they are meant to give a sort of notebook effect, an impression of truth and fragmentary naturalness”. As does the fatally diluted verbal texture of The Dolphin, where the music of what happens has some of the thin, unformed, aleatoric quality of Luciano Berio’s “quotations” from unmusical reality. The quoted letters of Lizzie Hardwick, a moral cause célèbre at the time, now read as artless, flaccid happenstance rather than poetry. They are letters, not literature. That is the crucial, fatal difference. The morality of quoting private material, doctored or semi-verbatim, now seems beside the point. Of course, Lowell had the example of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson. In fact, there is a letter here attempting to mollify Marcia Nadi, whose letters were used by Williams without her permission. More, Lowell encouraged Lizzie Hardwick (January 30, 1965) to “write anything you want. I want to see out of curiosity, but won’t censor”. Years before, however, in 1944, he asked Richard Eberhart not to publish his play The Crystal Sepulcher, in which Lowell featured, unflatteringly, and only lightly disguised: “it is personal with a vengeance, in about a thousand details. It will be recognized by everyone and, of course, I am not crazy about that kind of free advertising . . . . So far as I’m concerned don’t print it”. Twenty-nine years later, in 1973, he felt differently. In the interval, he had written Life Studies and braved the disapproval of those disturbed and discomfited by the nakedness alluded to in the volume’s title.
Saskia Hamilton’s introduction to the letters attempts to conflate poetry and the letter, to collapse the two categories. There is a single sentence she analyses cleverly, subtly, nimbly, as if it were poetry: “Still one has to grunt and sweat a bit to get the talk going”. The stillness at the sentence’s beginning is contrasted with the motion at the sentence’s end. The under-echo of Hamlet – “To grunt and sweat under a weary life” – is noted. One is momentarily impressed. Thereafter, though, the letters resist this fancification and falsification. There is one moment when Lowell notices that his paragraph begins and ends with the same word – “anyway”. Otherwise, all is spontaneity and artlessness, the words Lowell chooses to characterize the letter, in a letter (April 10, 1959) to Allen Ginsberg: “I think letters ought to be written the way you think poetry ought to be. So let this be breezy, brief, incomplete, but spontaneous and not dishonestly holding back”. Manifestly, Lowell doesn’t think much of Beat poetry – “They are phony in [a] way because they have made a lot of publicity out of very little talent”; “reciting so-so verse”; “they are fairly easy to listen to”. It follows logically, therefore, that Lowell doesn’t think much of this method of writing poetry – where it is “incomplete, but spontaneous”.
Except, of course, that in The Dolphin, letters are incorporated wholesale – with fatal consequences for the poetry, I would argue. But the whole volume is underpowered, largely because Lowell feels the intrinsic force of his subject as irrefutable – a man in love with two women. Its autobiographical importance is so clear to him that he feels no need to write it. A poem like “Volverán” in Notebook, on the other hand, based on the Spanish original of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, is rapt in the toils of its passionate repetition. It risks writing:
Dark swallows will doubtless come back
the injudicious nightflies with a clack of
but these that stopped full flight to see your
and my good fortune . . . as if they knew
our names –
they’ll not come back. The thick lemony
climbing from the earthroot to your window,
will open more beautiful blossoms to the
but these . . . like dewdrops, trembling,
the tears of the day – they’ll not come
back . . .
Some other love will sound his fireword
and wake your heart, perhaps, from its cool
but silent, absorbed, and on his knees,
as men adore God at the altar, as I love you –
don’t blind yourself, you’ll not be loved
(I quote the revise, “Will Not Come Back”, from History, because it is clearer.) The hyperbole, the passion coexist with the unsentimental possibility (denied) of replacement, of subsequent love. But the passion is there in the insistent repetition – and the single, carefully chosen, counter-intuitive, unexpected, un-clichéd, quietly brilliant word, “absorbed”. Nothing in The Dolphin approaches this conviction.
Can the two categories be legitimately collapsed into each other? Before The Dolphin, in Notebook, we have a measure to judge between prose and poetic versions, because several of the poems about writers there reproduce material in these letters and in prose essays. What is the difference? Where, if anywhere, is the poetic art? What distinguishes the poems from their prose counterparts? In some cases, it is the sense of closure. This is from the end of Lowell’s prose reminiscence of Eliot:
When I was about twenty-five, I met him for the second time. Behind us, Harvard’s Memorial Hall with its wasteful, irreplaceable Victorian architecture and scrolls of the Civil War dead. Before us, the rush-hour traffic. As we got stuck on the sidewalk, looking for an opening, Eliot out of a blue sky said, “Don’t you loathe being compared with your relatives?” Pause, as I put the question to myself, groping for what I really felt, for what I should decently feel and what I should indecently feel. Eliot: “I do.” Pause again, then the changed lifting voice of delight. “I was reading Poe’s reviews the other day. He took up two of my family and wiped the floor with them.” Pause, ‘I was delighted.”
This is well told. Five years later, however, the poem “T. S. Eliot” is swifter, less stagily directed, more economical and comes with two eloquently paradoxical final lines:
Caught between two streams of traffic, in
of Memorial Hall and Harvard’s
“Don’t you loathe to be compared to your
I do. I’ ve just found two of mine reviewed
He wiped the floor with ....... and I
Then on with warden’ s pace across the Yard,
talking of Pound, “It’s balls to say he only
pretends to be like Ezra. ... He’s better
though. This year
he no longer wants to rebuild the Temple
Yes, he’s better. ‘You speak,’ he said, when
he had talked two hours.
By then I had absolutely nothing to say.”
Ah Tom, one muse, one music, had one
the luck —lost in the dark night of the brilliant talkers,
humor and honor from the everlasting dross!
The companion poet. about Ezra Pound has its genesis in a letter to James Laughlin (August 31, 1966):
The visit to Ezra was awesome and rather shattering, like meeting Oedipus — he said, “I began with a swelled head and am ending with swelled feet”. And many other things, then long stretches of silence. He is very worried that he is using up Olga’s money. He has a nobility I’ve never seen before, the nobility of someone, not a sinner, but who has gone far astray and learned at last too much. I told him he was one of the few men alive who had the courage to go through Purgatory. He answered, “Didn’t Frost say you’d say anything once?” I felt I was talking cant, when I tried to cheer him. No self-pity, but more knowledge. of his fate than any man should have.
In an earlier letter (May 6, I966) to Olga Rudge, the Purgatory trope is finessed: “the only man alive who had lived through Purgatory, and come through white with a kind of honesty and humility”. It cut no ice with Olga Rudge. Stephen Spender: “Olga Rudge was there and I told her the news of Robert’s death. ‘The best thing that could have happened to him’, she said, ‘after what he wrote about Ezra”’. Saskia Hamilton’s notes cite unpublished papers and Lowell’s Paris Review interview. But Olga Rudge would not have had access to the former and the interview merely says that the Pisan C’antos is “a very mixed book”. Lowell argues, too, that Pound’s mad, odd beliefs “were a tremendous gain to him; he’d be a very Parnassan (sic) poet without them”. Maybe Olga Rudge’s quarrel was really with her rival Dorothy Pound the mistress’s loyalty competing with the wife’s less absolute fidelity. Writing to J. F. Powers (December 1, 1947), Lowell reported, “Mrs P took me to dinner and confessed that Ezra’s economics bore her to death, but she has faith”. Even Pound’ s intimates, then, could waver. My guess is that Lowell’s offence wasn’t his mild scepticism about the Poundian agenda, but his Notebook poem “Ezra Pound”, which ends with the swelled feet mot and uses the Purgatory idea. It begins unfortunately: “Horizontal in a deckchair on the bleak ward, / some feeble-minded felon in pajamas, clawing / a Social Credit broadside from your table..
Olga Rudge probably thought that Lowell intended Pound in the description “some feeble-minded felon in pajamas”. In the revise for History, Lowell is at pains to effect a separation: “Horizontal on a deckchair in the ward / of the criminal mad….. A man without shoe-strings clawing / the Social Credit broadside from your table, you saying .....“. Too late to erase the perceived insult.
The original version is neat but essentially an act of reparation: in it, Pound is made to be generous to Eliot and repentant about the Jews. As a poem, it is interesting, anecdotal, but a mite doctored and sanitized — with a punchline rather than a final one. Lowell’s comment on Life Studies applies here: “a poem could stop, when its lifeline ended and didn’t have lo break its back to be a poem”. If, then, letters and poetry are here collapsed into each other, it isn’t because the letter is literature, but because the poem is less than a poem, deliberately.
“To Allen Tate II” condenses material from a letter lo Peter Taylor (January 13, 1962). In the letter, Tate is “fixed and transfixed by Bourbon”, a phrase superior to anything in the poem — but unusable in public. The private prose material describing the encounter between Tate and Lowell’s daughter Harriet is clearer and nastier. In the poem, the drinking is airbrushed away. The innuendo about Tate’ s philandering has also been edited out in the poem: Tate says that Harriet “will be dear to me when you are older”, and Lowell adds in brackets, “One had a feeling that she would be much more dear to him then”. The conclusion is not therefore that letters and poems are equally literature, but that the cosmetic poem isn’t much good.
There are several excellent notes in the Letters — for example, a good note on Lincoln Steffens, and a definitive note on a 300-page play by an Englishman at the Harvard Summer School symposium on drama. Overall, however, this edition is seriously underannotated. On the one hand, typos are noted. On the other hand, Aline Berlin, the wife of Isaiah Berlin, isn’t identified in a letter lo Elizabeth Hardwick (May 31, 1970). Enid Starkie is identified as an “Irish literary scholar” rather than as Professor of French. Alger Hiss is mentioned twice, identified nowhere and excluded from the index, along with many other things. Vice President Spiro Agnew isn’t thought worthy of a note. When, at the height of his infatuation with Giovanna Madonna Erba, Lowell writes, “O my Giovana, my Giovana! I cannot live without thee!”, Hamilton notes the misspelled name but not the allusion lo Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. When Lowell writes to Elizabeth Bishop (April 10, 1948), “There are no bears, or cats or dogs among the roses at Mrs Dawson’s, only a negress named Florence”, we need to know that this is an allusion to “The Virgin Carrying a Lantern” by Wallace Stevens: “There are no bears among the roses, / Only a negress who supposes . We also need lo know that Hardwick’s piece to the New York Review of Books on Mary McCarthy’s novel, The Group, was a parody, not a review. The review was by Norman Mailer. At present, the note doesn’t distinguish, but merely records Hardwick’s pseudonym, Xavier Prynne, without explanation. For the letter on p275, there are no notes, the letter includes this: “William James once gave his classes this example of understatement: ‘Marlboro Street is hardly a passionate street”’. Which should be cross-referenced lo p521, where Lowell writes: “The man who said ‘hardly passionate’ about Marlboro St. was either Henry or William James, but I don’t know the source”. The reference to William James on p275 isn’t in the index.
The chronology tells us that Lowell had affairs with Gertrude Buckman and Carley Dawson, but the notes to the text are almost coy: Lowell writes lo Carley Dawson, “well, we shall hear Rubenstein” and the notes tell us, “Lowell soon started to attend concerts with her”. The letters themselves are more informative. In my son’s school copy of T. S. Eliot’s Selected Poems, against the line ‘To Carthage then I came” a scholiast had written, “reference lo Carthage”. Many of these notes are like that. They refer but they do not illuminate. For example, Lowell mentions (January , 5, 1949) Stendhal’s “four kinds” of love. Hamilton’s note refers us “Stendhal, De L’Amour (1822)”. This is like the note lo Letter 268 lo William Carlos Williams: “Journey to Love: Williams, Journey to Love (1955)”.
Why do we read poets’ letters? Primarily for the light they throw on the poetry, you might have thought. It is odd, therefore, that Saskia Hamilton should specifically exclude this kind of annotation. “From the first letter, Lowell’s correspondence is saturated with events, images, and phrases that occur in his poetry; to mark each instance would require an extra volume of notes. I have therefore identified only direct references lo Lowell’ s poems and prose”. This seems misguided. So, when Lowell says of Pound (letter lo Laughlin, November 20, 1963) “I’ve just read the Pisan Cantos again, and feel that no poetry since Thomas Hardy so moves the heart”, might not a cross-reference to Ian Hamilton’s interview in Collected Prose be appropriate? “With Pound —I think of the Pisan Cantos — a hard, angular, in some ways shrill and artificial man by courage let the heart break through the iron rib . . . more heart than any poet since Hardy”. Remember that reference to late’ s loafers, shining “like armour in a Rembrandt painting”? Not unlike the loafers of “William Carlos Williams”: “and loafers polished like the rosewood on yachts”. Twice in the correspondence, Lowell shrugs at the futility, the impossibility, of recreating the gestalt of his madness: “talking about the past is like a cat’s trying lo explain climbing down a ladder” (March 15. 1958). In Notebook’s “Eight Months Later”, the last one is “Who will live this year back, cat on the ladder?”, which was surely worth a mention in the notes.
Finally, a less docile editor might have scrutinized Lowell’s response (September 20, 1973) to an Agenda questionnaire to which he idiosyncratically conflates free verse and syllabics: “no one wrote better free verse than Marianne Moore’s measured, unscannable nun-on syllabic stanza”. He defines free verse as “unscanned” and says It “seems as free as prose” — which is contrary lo Eliot’s dictum that no vers is truly libre “to the man who wants to do a good job”, and that free verse always exists in relationship to a fixed metre, coinciding and diverging. Certainly good free verse will have a rhythmic pulse. Most people defining syllabics would say, like Roy Fuller, that syllabics, not free verse, is the occasion for avoiding all scansion— actually quite a testing requirement for poetry in English. Perhaps this is also the occasion to point out that Robert Lowell’s “unrhymed blank verse sonnets” are only intermittently in blank verse. For example, Notebook’s “The River God” begins with a pentameter — “the Aztecs gave the human sacrifice” — but the rest of the sonnet is more irregular than regular: “the river god caught them in his arms when they drowned” has twelve unpatterned syllables.
The TLS n.º 5346, September 16, 2005
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
The Hidden King’
Raine’s lengthy review of The Letters of Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia
Hamilton (September 9), states that the book contains several excellent notes,
including “a definitive note on a 300-page play by an Englishman at the Harvard
Summer School symposium on drama. Overall, however, this edition is seriously
under-annotated”. The entire so-called definitive note reads: “an Englishman:
Jonathan Griffin, The Hidden King (1955)”. It does cross my mind that Raine is
either indulging in the English vice of irony or inflicting Oxonian wit on us –
but for what purpose, since he must have known that the irony or wit would be
lost on those readers of the TLS, doubtless the vast majority, unable to consult
No, the inescapable inference from his use of the word “definitive” is that he despises the play and/or the author. And yet the relevant Lowell letter to Elizabeth Bishop contains a friendly account of Griffin’s visit to Harvard, and of the symposium, whose distinguished members – including Lowell himself, Richard Wilbur and Lillian Hellman – were gathered to discuss Griffin’s remarkable play, which was part of the final flowering of post-war English poetic drama along with the plays of Eliot and Fry. The theatre work of these three poets would not survive the Royal Court revolution.
Given the odd circumstances of the summer school and the play’s production as described by Lowell, we cannot know what the symposium members thought of the play, but Lowell tells Bishop that he is shortly expecting the English poet/playwright for a day’s visit. On the personal level all was well between the two men, and they remained friends afterwards. As the literary executor and publisher of several books by the sorely neglected Griffin – whose declared admirers included Ted Hughes, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi and Jeff Nuttall – I ask myself if Craig Raine has read or even set eyes on the old Secker and Warburg edition of The Hidden King.
8 The Oaks, Woodside Avenue, London N12.
The Washington Post
WITH ROBERT LOWELL AND HIS CIRCLE Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz, and Others By Kathleen Spivack Northeastern Univ. 239 pp.
Well, there are poetry-writing classes, and then there’s the 1959 poetry-writing class taught by Robert Lowell at Boston University, with Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton among the students. Kathleen Spivack was there, too, and she re-creates those heady days in her memoir, “With Robert Lowell and His Circle.” She also recalls her subsequent encounters with Elizabeth Bishop (with whom she regularly played ping-pong) and Adrienne Rich; the mentorship of Stanley Kunitz and John Malcolm Brinnin (author of the classic “Dylan Thomas in America”); her friendship with Lowell’s wives, the writers Elizabeth Hardwick and Caroline Blackwood; and the early brilliance of the critic Helen Vendler. There are, as well, strobe-light glimpses of several contemporary poets in their youth, including Robert Pinsky and Frank Bidart.
It’s quite an array of talent, and Spivack, grateful to count most of these peoples as friends, writes about them with an almost girlish enthusiasm. I haven’t seen quite so many exclamation points in one book in a long time. Spivack, moreover, can be winningly guileless: “I had come to study with Lowell, but I did not understand a word of his early work, Lord Weary’s Castle.” More problematic, however, is her memoir’s tiresome repetitiveness. This results, I suspect, because the chapters originally appeared as separate articles and were never refitted into a single, smooth narrative. Closer editing would have made this enjoyable but ramshackle book into a much better one.
Spivack was born into a cultivated family that fled Nazi Europe in the 1930s. In America, after considerable early effort, her father, Peter Drucker, eventually made himself into the now almost legendary guru of modern management. Being a wise parent, he naturally sent his oldest daughter to Oberlin College, where she won a fellowship for her senior year. Spivack decided to use the money to study with a major poet.
She was first drawn to Allen Ginsberg, but the beatnik author of “Howl” was totally unacceptable to Oberlin’s English department. Then she wrote to that scion of Boston brahmins, Robert Lowell, who agreed to mentor her. Nonetheless, when she knocked on his office door at BU in the early fall of 1959, the poet was utterly nonplussed:
“ ‘Who are you?’ he queried mildly. He was eating his lunch, and looking abstracted. I had arrived in a rainstorm, in blue jeans and boots. ‘I never take anyone under thirty,’ he countered coldly. He didn’t remember getting my letter, or the arrangement with Oberlin. I was stunned. As I stood in the crowded office, wet and depressed, not knowing quite how to handle his amnesia, Lowell took pity on me. ‘Would you like part of this sandwich?’ he offered.”
As Spivack came to learn, Lowell often chose his female students by their looks and, from the photographic evidence, Spivack was a darkly attractive young woman. In any case, the poet relented and invited her to sit in with his class and even to come by for private tutorials at his home. Despite some flirtation on both sides, the two apparently managed to stay just friends, master and disciple, until Lowell’s death at 60 in 1977.
Lowell began that fall’s class by asking the students to name their favorite poet. Spivack answered Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Lowell cleared his throat, there was a long and awkward silence, and without comment the class proceeded as if nothing had been said.” The woman sitting next to her, Spivack recalls, “was ‘astonishing in her stillness,’ as she was to write later. Sylvia Plath appeared perfectly composed, quiet, fixed in her concentration. She was softly pretty, her camel’s hair coat slung over the back of her chair, and a pile of books in front of her.” To Spivack, she “presented herself rather like what I imagined an English boarding school ‘Head Girl’ to be.”
Lowell’s teaching was eccentric and largely “rhetorical, as if the class were a frame for the expansion of his own opinions.” He would repeatedly ask, “What does this poem really mean?” There would follow “long, agonized silences, while the class held its collective breath and hoped to come up with adequate answers.” Again and again, Lowell would bring up living poets and then quiz: “Major or minor?” Even his close friend Elizabeth Bishop was sadly declared “minor,” but “almost major.” Sometimes, when on the verge of one of his periodic breakdowns, Lowell could turn incredibly mean: “Don’t ever write again,” he told one young woman, after “decimating” her poem. She burst into tears and ran from the classroom.
During the course, and over the years following, Spivack grew especially close to Anne Sexton: “She was most often supportive. ‘I love this, I love this!’ she would exclaim over a line. Then the dreaded ‘Kathy, may I steal it?’ This was, she felt, her ultimate compliment. ‘Nooo!!!!’ I countered. What a horrible request! She had her own images to harvest, was the best image-maker there was.”
Spivack writes feelingly about the plight of the female poet in those days. When the distinguished Muriel Rukeyser gave a reading at Harvard, not a single member of the almost entirely male English department bothered to attend. As to why there had been so few major women poets, Spivack wryly explains that “few women poets have had wives.” Sexton’s home represented a kind of oasis, a feminine retreat:
“I remember swimming nude in the pool, looking at trees, and drinking Anne’s newest drink discovery, Champale, giggling over vague poetic jokes. Or drying off, sitting in the sun, reading each other’s poems. Maxine Kumin and her children would arrive. Maxine dove into the pool, cool, competent, and graceful. Anne, on Thorazine, would move a bit into the shade. The phone rang and was dragged outside. Anne’s children came home from school. The Dalmatian dragged its puppies outside. Figures were commented on: hips and waists. I had a baby. Lois [Ames] got her divorce. Maxine’s daughter entered Radcliffe. Anne’s children grew up. Poems were shared and magazines passed around. We wrote and wrote and read and revised and wrote. We read aloud to each other. Steam rose from the pool; the light grew thin; the leaves fell. And we swam until late October . . .”
When Sexton and Bishop wanted to meet, it was Spivack who arranged a lunch. “ ‘Tell me, Anne,’ Elizabeth leaned over. ‘How much money do you get for a reading nowadays?’ ” The two famous poets proceeded to talk about “contracts and money and publishers who had or hadn’t done them wrong.” Along with such “Po-Biz,” Spivack touches on the bad love affairs, depression and drink that led many of her literary generation to suicide or early graves.
Every poet longs, above all, to write in his or her own individual voice. Robert Lowell’s great contribution to his students, concludes Spivack, was nothing less than “to foster the discovery of voice in those with whom he worked.” That’s a lot harder than it sounds.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.