The achievement of Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell was notably unlucky in Ian Hamilton’s major biography written on him in 1983. Hamilton’s biography, while impressively comprehensive, presented a damagingly wrong-headed and skewed picture of Lowell the man. The reading public on the whole has accepted Hamilton’s portrait of Lowell as authentic, as they did in the case of another damaging biography of a poet, Lawrance Thompson’s three-volume book on Robert Frost. As if by compensation, Lowell is posthumously blessed in the newCollected Poems edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter.[1] Any “collected works” is a tombstone. (And I say that as someone who likes tombstones.) At almost 1200 pages, this is a big marble slab of a book. Himself a poet of great force and originality, Frank Bidart studied with Lowell as a graduate student at Harvard in the 1960s and became a close friend, literary amanuensis, and collaborator. That he has chosen to devote so many years to this project is a tribute both to Lowell and to Bidart’s own scrupulousness, attention to detail, and love for Lowell as poet and man. Bidart has achieved cult status within the world of poetry—a world that can be seen as both elite and disregarded—as someone who has worked selflessly on his friends’ poems. The list of those whom he has helped bring poems and manuscripts to their potential would be a very distinguished list indeed. He learned this knack from Lowell, who was an indefatigable reviser of poetry—others’ as much as his own. “You didn’t write, you rewrote,” Lowell has Randall Jarrell say to him in a poem where his dead friend appears in a dream. This quality made Lowell a great teacher for those who studied with him, because he taught us, as he said about Allen Tate, that “a poem must be tinkered with and recast until one’s eyes pop out of one’s head.” Lowell in his madness would identify with others—become others in his own mind—particularly great poets from the past. There is an ancient rumor that while staying at McLean’s private mental hospital near Boston, he significantly revised the Norton Anthology of Poetry in the library there.
Because Lowell was mad, by anyone’s standards. Philip Larkin, whom he visited in Hull, is said to have described him to a friend as “barking mad.” Though it’s been familiar for years, I don’t think I had ever looked closely at the early photo Alfred Eisenstadt took of Lowell before seeing it reproduced on the jacket of the Collected Poems. While Eisenstadt captured Lowell looking almost dauntingly respectable, his hair freshly cut, his horn-rimmed glasses, necktie, and sleeveless sweater impeccable, the poet leans at an angle, his off-vertical pose paralleled by toppled books on the shelves behind him, and eyeing the camera contemplatively. I hate to invoke such a familiar old chestnut, but the photograph is a perfect illustration of Emily Dickinson’s injunction “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” That’s what Lowell did. As someone lacking a purchase on what we have agreed to call the real world, he had an outsider’s respect for fact and for the things that are recorded by our senses. The clash of the agreed-upon world and Lowell’s own subjective, highly-skewed world is one of his major preoccupations. Let’s start, almost at random, with a poem from History (1973):

La Lumière

In the blur of my glasses, you cannot fade— 
your ruffle, electricity and your sure tongue … 
richer now and much more radical. 
The sun lights your windows it will never crash, 
this blind snow, this blind light everywhere, 
the sad, metallic sunlight of New York 
throwing light on something about to die. 
This light was familiar in the older cities; 
it goes, disclosing less than leaves of artichokes— 
a light that blinded kings who fled to London, 
where Dickens might have played Napoleon’s Nephew 
cloaked in cigar smoke and the moans of girls, 
a smell of chestnuts like a humidor … 
watching exile chew his face from the mirror.
I have many doubts about the unrhymed fourteen-line poems that make up the bulk of his writing from the late sixties through 1973. The traditional sonnet derives its identity from its complex framework of rhymes, as well as its division into octave and sestet, both of which Lowell on the whole abrogated. Look again, though, at the last six lines. This poem really does have a sestet, and it suggests a radical re-definition of the traditional sonnet’s sestet. To put the matter crudely, line nine is where the poem starts to get strange. Up to this point the language is reminiscent of earlier Lowell, the Lowell of For the Union Dead (1964) specifically. And then the artichokes appear out of context, so different in tone from the high, elegiac feeling of the first eight lines. The artichokes are effective as a breach of poetic decorum, an example in miniature of the kind of shock that was a significant aspect of Lowell’s genius, part and parcel of the enormous contribution he made to the art. Whoever the “you” in the poem is—I would think of her as Lowell’s second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, almost an emblem of New York in his eyes—she is long gone from the poem by now, as the poem invokes history, with the “kings who fled to London.”
By the time he left Hardwick and New York for his third wife, Caroline Blackwood, Lowell was “king” of American poetry; London was a city both of refuge and of exile for him. At the same time he worried, rightly, that by leaving New York, in the eyes of the American literary scene he had stepped offstage. This personal dimension informs the last line: Lowell’s sense that he was disappearing, even from his own examining gaze. “La Lumière” by no means ranks among his more significant political or historical poems; still it illustrates how he uncannily, almost by instinct, brought together the personal and the political. Even the ruffle in line two has an odd little associational flicker to it, hinting at, let’s say, Queen Elizabeth I.
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