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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Helen Vendler has noted how mild some of these poems in "Life Studies" actually are: blue threads as thin / as pen-writing on the bedspread. But--as Lowell described his childhood, his parents, his time in prison, and his insanity--the reviewers latched on to the shocking poems exposing his family's failures and sins. "Commander Lowell," a son's blast at the weakness and ineffectuality of his naval-officer father, is a brutal poem from beginning to end, but the cruelest moment comes in the final lines, where Lowell adds to the description of his father's meaningless old age the lines: And once / nineteen, the youngest ensign in his class, / he was "the old man" of a gunboat on the Yangtze.

The volume "Imitations" followed in 1961, Lowell's eccentrically chosen but brilliantly rendered set of translations of everything from ancient Greek to modern German. And then, with 1964's "For the Union Dead," Lowell turned the confessional voice from himself to the outside world of politics and social ruin. The title poem moves from childhood memories of the "old South Boston Aquarium" to a meditation on Augustus Saint-Gaudens's bronze memorial for Robert Gould Shaw, the young white Bostonian abolitionist who was killed leading a black regiment in the Civil War: Two months after marching through Boston, / half the regiment was dead;. . . Their monument sticks like a fishbone / in the city's throat. The poem ends:

When I crouch to my television set,

the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons. . . .

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,

giant finned cars nose forward like fish;

a savage servility

slides by on grease.

The mood continued through 1967's "Near the Ocean," with its strange amalgam of politics and Lowell's attempt to explain why he no longer believed in God in the volume's most famous poem, "Waking Early Sunday Morning": Pity the planet, all joy gone / from this sweet volcanic cone. But the bouts of insanity grew more frequent, and though he was, if anything, more political in his actions--marching on the Pentagon, campaigning for Eugene McCarthy--his poetry began to seek madly in history some connection between his jumbled brain, his jumbled politics, and the jumble of the human condition.

His private life got messy again, as well. In 1970, he left his wife Elizabeth Hardwick to take up with a married Irish woman, Lady Caroline Blackwood, whom he married in 1972 after their divorces came through.

Perhaps it's not surprising that at this point his publishing also grew confusing. He'd begun to keep a poetic journal, a sort of sonnet sequence of daily events in the newspaper and his personal life. He published it in 1969, as "Notebook 1967-68," and then revised it to publish it again the next year as "Notebook," and then revised it yet one more time when he published three books in 1973: "History," which contains the political and public sonnets from "Notebook; For Lizzie and Harriet," which contains the personal poems; and "The Dolphin," which relates his abandoning of the same wife Lizzie and daughter Harriet that he celebrated in "For Lizzie and Harriet." Just to make matters worse, "The Dolphin" uses quotations from Hardwick's private letters, splashing across the literary reviews her attempts to cope with his madness and keep their marriage of twenty years together.

LOWELL PUBLISHED his "Selected Poems" in 1976 and his last collection, "Day by Day," in 1977. That fall, deciding to leave his new wife for his old, Lowell flew from London to New York and died of a heart attack in the taxi on his way into Manhattan from the airport--a sixty-year-old man, carrying the painter Lucien Freud's portrait of Caroline Blackwood back to Elizabeth Hardwick's house.

THE GENERAL READER of literature can now walk many of the poetic battlefields of the twentieth century with little more emotion than the tourist's usual wonder at how much blood was spilt to gain so little ground. Along that low wall, the Georgians made their last, doomed stand. That hilltop over there is where contemporary modernism was decided, the high mandarins easily crushing the populist, lowbrow rebellion from the likes of Vachel Lindsay, Robinson Jeffers, and Carl Sandburg. Across that nearby field the Beat berserkers once howled their way close to victory before their charge was at last turned back.

Perhaps as a result, recent school anthologies have begun to agree on something like a canon of twentieth-century American poetry. William Carlos Williams has won, and Stephen Vincent Benét has lost. Hart Crane has surprisingly faded, and Wallace Stevens has unsurprisingly shone. Delmore Schwartz has been washed under by the great wave of the world, while Sylvia Plath has made it safe to shore. Amy Lowell is out, and Robert Lowell is . . . well, what is he these days? Time will revisit some of these judgments. Time ought to revisit some of these judgments. But what will time make of Lowell?

This is a moment of decision about Lowell--not the final judgment of hundreds of years' reading, but a real moment, nonetheless, at which we must decide where he belongs in the pantheon, thanks to Frank Bidart, Lowell's longtime "amanuensis and sounding board," who has finally finished editing the "Collected Poems."

The book has its peculiarities. Bidart writes in the introduction about the importance of Lowell's first chapbook, "Land of Unlikeness," but then prints it only as an appendix. He doesn't print at all the 1970 version of "Notebook," though he insists it is an independent work, not to be conflated with the volumes Lowell mined from it in 1973. Still, with a thousand pages of poetry and a hundred and fifty pages of judicious and informative notes, Bidart's edition of Robert Lowell's "Collected Poems" is enough to be going on with.

What makes judgment difficult is the fact that we have so few public poets with whom to compare Lowell. Poetry done in private, even by famous poets, is distinct from poetry done in public. Public poetry aims at different targets, it speaks to different purposes, and it is judged by different standards--primarily by the standard of responsibility, for it has a claim to speak, with the special insight of its unique gift of language, on what are or ought to be the public issues. And, more to the point, it has an audience that agrees to listen while it makes its claim.

As it happens, not all poetry on public events succeeds at being public poetry, in this sense. Though they'd settle for being the unacknowledged legislators of the world, all poets want really to be the acknowledged legislators: They want to pronounce, and they want us to listen. But, as demonstrated by the recent tempest over Mrs. Bush's attempt to invite poets to a White House tea just before the Iraq war, contemporary poetry is missing both the voice of public responsibility and the ear of the responsible public--a kind of high, morally serious agreement between poets and their readers.

WHATEVER THAT WAS exactly, Lowell had it. There's no denying that a great deal of his work draws in the reader brilliantly. The person who isn't mesmerized by "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," "Skunk Hour," and "For the Union Dead" has forgotten what poetry is. In the middle of his career, he could finish the dramatic monologue "To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage" with a woman's lament: Each night now I tie / ten dollars and his car key to my thigh. . . . / Gored by the climacteric of his want, / he stalls above me like an elephant. Later in life, he could begin "Waking Early Sunday Morning" with the lines:

O to break loose, like the chinook

salmon jumping and falling back,

nosing up to the impossible

stone and bone-crushing waterfall--

raw-jawed, weak-fleshed there, stopped by ten

steps of the roaring ladder, and then

to clear the top on the last try,

alive enough to spawn and die.

And yet, good as he was, the simple truth is that Richard Wilbur, Elizabeth Bishop, and Anthony Hecht were all better at some of the things he attempted. In retrospect, the Pulitzer committee in 1959--that annus mirabilis for the creation of "Confessional Poetry"--may have been right to have given that year's prize to W.D. Snodgrass's confessional "Heart's Needle" rather than Lowell's confessional "Life Studies." When Lowell tried craft, J.V. Cunningham proved the better craftsman. When Lowell tried learned drunkenness, John Berryman's first volume of "The Dream Songs" had already captured the field. When Lowell tried high-voltage effusions, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso made him look lethargic. Randall Jarrell was a better critic, Delmore Schwartz was a better literary operator, and Lowell's students Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were more successful at self-dramatization.

BUT ROBERT LOWELL was not just respected, or famous, or infamous, as his contemporaries aspired to be. He insisted--and succeeded in his insistence--that his work be judged by the standard of public responsibility. Of course, judged that way, Lowell was also a massive failure, as irresponsible a public poet as English literature has known since Percy Shelley.

The examples are endless. This is a man who, at nineteen, could become engaged, leave Harvard, knock his father to the ground for daring to say something less than complimentary about his fiancée, and then promptly abandon the fiancée to go study poetry with Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom. (When Tate, trying to explain that Lowell was not invited to stay for the summer, joked that the house was so full he'd have to pitch a tent on the lawn, Lowell promptly went out and bought a tent.)

This is a man who could first make failed attempts to enlist in both the Navy and the Army, and then write an open letter calling the Second World War "a betrayal of my country." This is a man who could break his wife Jean's nose twice, once in a car accident and once with his fist. And what, besides unforgivable, are we to call his capping his career as a confessional poet by publishing extracts of his ex-wife Elizabeth's letters?

And yet, through it all, he somehow kept the public's ear. He had gravitas, we all agreed, and nothing could take it away from him. His conversion from Tate and Eliot's high modernism in "Lord Weary's Castle" to the confessional poetry of "Life Studies" didn't actually make his public thoughts private; it made his private life public.

The fact that he was a Boston Lowell helped, of course. But there was more to it than the last gasp of the Back Bay social world. Lowell took himself as seriously as America took him, and through it all, he wanted poetry to matter in a way that hardly anyone these days appreciates once seemed possible; his work aimed at the sum total of creation. For that purpose, his later fascination with the self and politics was a poor substitute for his early fascination with religion, but all his fascinations sought to provide his poems with the seriousness and public standing he felt they deserved.

Did they in fact deserve it? Now that the dust has settled, we can look back and decide. Lowell was always better at suggesting that connections exist than he was at explicating those connections; he was always better at showing us a mind that believes in a conjunction than he was at convincing us the conjunction is real. But so what? Much of the poetic mind is taken on faith, an agreement we make that poets' skill at language gives them some insight worth our time to pursue. "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" ends:

You could cut the brackish winds with a knife

Here in Nantucket, and cast up the time

When the Lord God formed man from the sea's slime

And breathed into his face the breath of life,

And blue-lung'd combers lumbered to the kill.

The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.

Robert Lowell survives the rainbow of his own will--a little tattered, a little less important than we once thought him, but still alive, still the genuine thing.

J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.