The Magazine

The Last Public Poet

From the August 4 / August 11, 2003 issue: Rereading Robert Lowell.

Aug 4, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 45 • By J. BOTTUM
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Collected Poems

by Robert Lowell

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1,200 pp., $45

ROBERT LOWELL began his poetic career by espousing religion--with all the marital fidelity of a gigolo on the make. A convert at age twenty-four, he quickly lifted from his Catholic moment a complex metaphysics, a large system of artistic imagery, and a Pulitzer Prize for his first full collection of poems, "Lord Weary's Castle," in 1946.

What he couldn't seem to get from Catholicism, however, was enough of what he went looking there to find: content, mostly--something to write about that seemed worthy of the astonishing power his poetic voice had from the very beginning of his career. Sanity, too, wasn't waiting patiently for him in the pews. And so, in the early 1950s, he abandoned the Church to chivvy, over the next twenty-five years, both his poetry and his mental health through a long series of alternatives--the diseased memories of his childhood, the corpus of world poetry, the rage of 1960s politics, the sum total of human history, and finally even his ex-wife's letters--all in the attempt to find a topic sufficient to match the ability he had to express it.

Nothing except the recreation of the world itself--nothing except being God, in fact--could have satisfied the cosmic ambitions of his poetry, and it's tempting to say that he was never really serious about any of the subjects he took up in his writing. But even to begin thinking this way is to sound ridiculous, for Robert Lowell was perhaps the most serious poet America has ever known--our last poet of high seriousness, as it happens, and also our last public poet.

There's much to dislike about the man. To read Ian Hamilton's 1982 biography "Robert Lowell," or Paul Mariani's 1994 "Lost Puritan, "is to see that Lowell's family life was a godforsaken mess (even discounting the large portions that can be blamed on his frequent bouts of madness). To read his exchanges with Diana Trilling about the 1968 student riots at Columbia--or the brouhaha surrounding his withdrawal from Lyndon Johnson's 1965 "White House Festival of the Arts"--is to see that his politics were routinely silly (again, leaving aside the merely crazy parts). And to read even such fond portraits as Eileen Simpson's delightful 1982 memoir "Poets in Their Youth" is to see that his interventions in the literary world--over Ezra Pound's 1949 Bollingen prize, for instance, or the management of the Yaddo writers' retreat--were invariably peculiar and occasionally vicious (ignoring, one last time, the insane bits).

But to read the thousand pages of his "Collected Poems"--finally published this summer, a quarter century after Lowell's death in 1977 at the age of sixty--is also to see how little his failings matter to his poetry. Right or wrong, he had the voice of public authority, and he did his work in the public eye. Time magazine put Lowell on its cover in 1967, anointing him America's national poet. The newspaper gossip columns noted his marriages and divorces. He won book awards as though they were discount coupons: the National Book Award for 1959's "Life Studies," a second Pulitzer for 1973's "The Dolphin," and nearly every other literary prize imaginable (except the Nobel, for which he probably died too soon; curious to think that if Lowell had lived, he would be only eighty-five today).

From the first poems he published, he seemed to belong to the great tradition of poetry; whether great or not himself, he appeared the very incarnation of literature at the time. "The age burns in me," he wrote, and he was right. A new poem from Lowell was an event, something to be talked about, in a way that we haven't seen since. No general reader under age forty knows what it means to have a public poet in America, and hardly any general reader over forty has followed a poet since. Poetry remains popular these days, in its fashion. But poems no longer seem things of public importance. Something went out of poetry when Robert Lowell died.

Something went out of America, as well.

IN "THE ARMIES OF THE NIGHT"--an account of the 1967 anti-Vietnam march on the Pentagon that contains an astonishing amount of Lowell worship--Norman Mailer described the poet as having "the unwilling haunted saintliness of a man who was repaying the moral debts of ten generations of ancestors." The poet Elizabeth Bishop once jokingly complained that Lowell had a certain authority just because he was a Lowell and not, say, her Uncle Artie: Simply to recite the names in his family, from James Russell Lowell to Amy Lowell, was to talk about America itself. Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV was born in 1917 in Boston--where the Lowells talk to the Cabots, and the Cabots talk only to God--the child of three hundred years of Mayflower ancestors. Every other president in the history of Harvard was a relative. Boston society consisted entirely of his cousins.