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Robert Lowell, Collected Poems, edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter, Faber

“Politics? We live in the sunset of Capitalism. We have thundered nobly against its bad record all our years, yet we cling to its vestiges, not just out of greed and nostalgia, but for our intelligible survival. Is this what makes our art so contradictory, muddled and troubled? We are being proven in a sort of secular purgatory; there is no earthly paradise on the horizon.”

Writing the last prose statement that he would make on his own poetry, just before his death in 1977 Robert Lowell unwittingly captured some of the contradictions within his own “muddled and troubled” life as a poet. Born in 1917 to an old and fading Bostonian family whose patrician breeding unthinkingly assumed the royal “we” with a pushy and misplaced inclusiveness, Lowell lived much of his life in increasingly spectacular repudiation of it. His family’s aristocratic confidence and its puritanically propelled zeal never left him, but at key moments in his life he threw in his lot with those who protested against both the old and the new powers, detesting much of what his well-heeled forbears stood for. From his tumultuous personal history, he in turn wrought poems of a frightened and frightening national history. Lines, as these from “For the Union Dead” (1964), encapsulate with a Yeatsian flourish his disgust at the monstrous new world: “Everywhere, / giant finned cars nose forward like fish; / a savage servility / slides by on grease.”

He sometimes over-wrought his poems, too. One of the challenges that the Collected Poems presents is the occasional impenetrability of his earliest volumes, Lord Weary’s Castle (1946) and The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951), whose difficulties, read today, are equally distributed between blushing on his behalf at the grandiose and rather old fashioned diction and looking in vain for clarity obscured by their compressed and over-allusive style. This was in part due to his embracing of Catholicism, during his first marriage to the lapsed Catholic novelist Jean Stafford. The arcanae of Catholic folklore can be a little offputting to begin with, although the clearer memoirs of his family members which would characterise later books are already there, as in “Mary Winslow”. In that poem, Lowell remembers his grandmother’s servants as the stern, bossy girls many of his portraits of women have, “Her Irish maids could never spoon out mush / Or orange-juice enough”, and sees the grand matriarch, even on her deathbed, as a commanding “Cleopatra in her housewife’s dress.”

Lowell’s first great break with East Coast orthodoxy had already taken place by the time of the conversion and those early volumes. In 1937 he left Harvard only two-thirds through his degree, to continue his education at what must have appeared to Lowell’s family the terribly provincial Kenyon College, in Ohio. Here, the lure was the older poet and professor John Crowe Ransom, leading light in the Southern Agrarian movement of writers. The Southern Agrarians, rather like T. S. Eliot who admired their dissenting conservatism, emphasised the dehumanising aspects of modernism, especially associating it with industrialised and urban power centres, at the same time as they argued for new forms to fight against such alienation. This must have been grist to Lowell’s personal mill as he battled against his inheritance demons. Later protesting as a conscientious objector in the Second World War, he was jailed for six months in 1943. In the 1960s, he publically opposed America’s war in Vietnam. His highly visible actions were always heart-felt attacks on the rise of the machine and of the private corporation, but his sense of anger against new power was infused with deeper, mixed-feelings: his fondness for and resentment of the failing powers of the old Lowell family.

Ransom was also important to Lowell because the literary critic was developing a kind of secular religion of the poem, later to be called, after the title of his key work, The New Criticism. While stressing the innate characteristics by which any poem could be judged, through studying its structure and its texture, rather than through its ability to carry conventional information, Ransom would also come to assert the primacy of poetry, and art in general, over science. Although Lowell’s Catholicism did not last long, a sense of the sacred remained important, and Ransom’s theory was clearly another way in which Lowell could see his own work, in the title of one of his later books, as being History. Perhaps it also helped Lowell towards a less cluttered style, in which his poems would say enough to the reader, at least across a single volume, for the reader not to feel browbeaten and so respond to the undoubted power of the poet’s rhythms and electric images.

With Life Studies (1959), the collection he will always be remembered by, Lowell made a refreshing shift in his own poetry’s journey. It can’t really be claimed as a book that changed the poetic language of America, although it might have appeared so at the time. Over the years since its publication, the bigger picture of American poetry before Lowell has become clearer, especially an “alternative” tradition which today is more or less reconciled with the mainstream. The speaking clarities of William Carlos Williams and of the Objectivist group of poets, decades before Life Studies, makes any claim for the breakthrough in immediacy in Lowell’s voice difficult to sustain, even if Lowell’s intense interiority is so different from the ostensibly more outward looking texts of his predecessors.

Lowell’s texts from this period on are generally classed as within the “Confessional School”, a term that is perhaps most famously applied to Sylvia Plath’s poems, in which intimate details and accusations regarding her father and her husband are exquisitely rendered. The term sounds gushy, religiose, and self-indulgent and at its worst – which is to say, in neither Plath’s nor Lowell’s best poems – confessional poetry certainly is. Lowell had the manic-depression to match his manic-depressive texts – over the years, he was hospitalised many times for what is now called bi-polar disorder – but Life Studies has a surprisingly gentle, compassionate tone to its poems. His quiet father is memorialised with keen observations of his slightly effete bedroom, where there’s a “blue kimono, / and Chinese sandals with blue plush straps” and a “clear glass bed-lamp / with a white doily shade”, while his mother, for once looking frail, is seen as “afraid / of living all alone till eighty/ Mother mooned in a window, / as if she had stayed on a train / one stop past her destination.” It has the sad sense of humour which his previous books perhaps lacked, coming to terms with his parents and their parents in reminiscences which have the reality of actually taking you back into Lowell’s childhood.

Perhaps that maturing generosity towards his own kind explains his bemusement at the new wave in poetry of his contemporaries. When sharing a platform at a reading with the camp, cheeky New Yorker Frank O’Hara, Lowell is said to have behaved very stand-offishly. In return, O’Hara easily outflanked him with a gallery-playing poem he had made up on the journey to the venue. This was something Lowell, at the time, would not have allowed himself to do – his output then was actually very low, working on poems again and again, painfully trying to work them into works of high art. O’Hara adeptly punished Lowell for such ambitions, but one of Lowell’s legacies is in the importance he paid to the bardic: to aspire to be a Milton, a Whitman, an Eliot, or at least to treat the poem as a near-sacred public work is a legacy writers such as Seamus Heaney have inherited. Later, in the last volumes of Lowell’s life, there was more of a leaning towards the daily, so that in Notebook 1967-68 (re-used and re-shaped for History, so controversially not included in this edition), there are records of his anti-war marches. The influence in these books is perhaps the late, casual Eugenio Montale and his friend John Berryman’s nightmare diary Dreamsongs.

This volume is beautifully produced, with the clarifying notes Lowell’s poetry requires, especially in the early days, and with extra poems and prose pieces that illuminate and surprise. Originating from the America publisher, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, in look, editorial helpfulness, and in poetic stature, it is very much a companion work to Montale’s Collected Poems, issued a few years ago. Lowell had freely translated Montale in Imitations, rightly included here, and would no doubt have enjoyed the similar lavish publishing treatment. As with Montale, all through his poems are Lowell’s twists and turns in his relationships with women, with his bold, imprious mother, with the three women who would become his wives, and with his daughter Harriet, the subject of some of his tenderest poems. He regarded his poems about women as his most important, but perhaps it is only when his painful relationships were refracted – as with the unsettling end of “Skunk Hour”, when a mother skunk nosing in the bins “will not scare” – that his poetry has most power. In 1977 died in a taxi on his way back to his second and long-enduring wife Elizabeth Hardwick, intending reconciliation.

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