Paris Review Interview: Robert Lowell
Modern American Poetry: Robert Lowell
Robert Lowell (March 1, 1917–September 12, 1977), born Robert Traill Spence Lowell, Jr., was an American poet whose works, confessional in nature, engaged with the questions of history and probed the dark recesses of the self. He is generally considered to be among the greatest American poets of the twentieth century.
Lowell was born into the Boston Brahmin Lowell family that included Amy Lowell and James Russell Lowell. He attended Harvard College but transferred to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, from where he graduated, to study under the great American critic, John Crowe Ransom. He was a Roman Catholic from 1940 to 1946. His Catholicism influenced his first two books, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary's Castle (1946). Because of Allied bombings of civilians, he was a conscientious objector during World War II, for which he served several months in jail (depicted in Memories of West Street and Lepke). He was married to novelist Jean Stafford (1915-1979) from 1940 to 1948. In 1949 he married the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, with whom he spent several years in Europe.
In the 1960s, he became a media personality, befriending such celebrities as Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy, Mary McCarthy, Father Berrigan and Eugene McCarthy. He was also actively protesting against the Vietnam War.
Lowell was hospitalized approximately 20 times for acute mania, underwent shock therapy, and characterized one of his manic episodes as a "magical orange grove in a nightmare." However it would be wrong to characterize Lowell as a "mad" poet, since these were generally episodes that were interruptions to his work, rather than the reasons for his work.
In 1970 he left Elizabeth Hardwick for the British author, Lady Caroline Blackwood. He spent much of his last years in England. Lowell died in 1977, suffering a heart attack in a cab in New York City, and is buried in Stark Cemetery, Dunbarton Center, New Hampshire.
His collected poems were published in 2003 and his letters in 2005, indicating a renewed interest in the poet.
Lowell reached wide acclaim for his 1946 book, Lord Weary's Castle, a reworking of his first book, Land of Unlikeness. Among the most famous poems in the volume are Mr Edwards and the Spider and The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket. Lord Weary's Castle was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1947.
The 1951 volume The Mills of the Kavanaughs was considered inferior to the earlier volume, despite such fine poems as Falling Asleep over the Aeneid and Mother Marie Therese, but Lowell's reputation was renewed with Life Studies from 1959.
His earlier poetry belonged to the formalist school of poetry, but with Life Studies, Lowell developed a style that would soon be labeled "confessional" poetry.
Life Studies includes the oft-reprinted poem "Skunk Hour," a poem that is primarily a description of a fading New England town, punctuated by two stanzas of what was, at the time, shocking personal confession, such as the declaration, "My mind's not right." Other confessional poems in the volume include Memories of West Street and Lepke and My Last Afternoon with Uncle Deveraux Winslow. It also includes the prose memoir 91 Revere Street. Life Studies is widely viewed as one of the most influential and important books of poetry in the 20th century.
Lowell followed Life Studies with a volume of loose translations of poems by, among others, Rilke and Rimbaud, Imitations, for which he received the 1962 Bollingen Poetry Translation Prize.
For the Union Dead, 1964, was also widely praised, particularly for its title poem, which invokes Allen Tate's Ode to the Confederate Dead. Following this book, however, many critics began to find Lowell's poetry collections becoming more inconsistent.
During 1967 and 1968 he experimented with a verse journal, published as Notebook, 1967-68. These poems loosely based on the sonnet were reworked into three volumes. History deals with public history from antiquity onwards, and with modern poets Lowell had known; For Lizzie and Harriet describes the breakdown of his second marriage; and The Dolphin, which won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize includes poems about his marriage to Caroline Blackwood and their life in England.
A minor controversy erupted when he incorporated private letters from his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick into For Lizzie and Harriet. He was particularly criticized by his friends, Adrienne Rich and Elizabeth Bishop, for this.
Lowell won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1947 and 1974, and the National Book Award for poetry in 1960.
For the Union Dead
Relinquunt Ommia Servare Rem Publicam.
The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.
Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the crowded, compliant fish.
My hand draws back. I often sign still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized
fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.
Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
a girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,
shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.
Two months after marching through Boston,
half of the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.
Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its Colonel is a lean
as a compass-needle.
He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.
He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die-
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.
On a thousand small town New England greens
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic
The stone statutes of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year-
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns…
Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."
The ditch is nearer.
There are no statutes for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling
over a Mosler Safe, the "Rock of Ages"
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
when I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.
is riding on his bubble,
for the blessed break.
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
The ancient owls' nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,
and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft!- a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.
Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!
(for Elizabeth Bishop)
Nautilus Island's hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son's a bishop. Her farmer is first selectman in our village;
she's in her dotage.
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria's century
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
The season's ill--
we've lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.
And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall;
his fishnet's filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler's bench and awl;
there is no money in his work,
he'd rather marry.
One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town....
My mind's not right.
A car radio bleats,
"Love, O careless Love...." I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat...
I myself am hell;
only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their solves up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes' red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.
I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air--
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.
My Dolphin, you only guide me by surprise,
a captive as Racine, the man of craft,
drawn through his maze of iron composition
by the incomparable wandering voice of Phèdre.
When I was troubled in mind, you made for my body
caught in its hangman's-knot of sinking lines,
the glassy bowing and scraping of my will. . . .
I have sat and listened to too many
words of the collaborating muse,
and plotted perhaps too freely with my life,
not avoiding injury to others,
not avoiding injury to myself--
to ask compassion . . . this book, half fiction,
an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting
my eyes have seen what my hand did.
History has to live with what was here,
clutching and close to fumbling all we had--
it is so dull and gruesome how we die,
unlike writing, life never finishes.
Abel was finished; death is not remote,
a flash-in-the-pan electrifies the skeptic,
his cows crowding like skulls against high-voltage wire,
his baby crying all night like a new machine.
As in our Bibles, white-faced, predatory,
the beautiful, mist-drunken hunter's moon ascends--
a child could give it a face: two holes, two holes,
my eyes, my mouth, between them a skull's no-nose--
O there's a terrifying innocence in my face
drenched with the silver salvage of the mornfrost.
What was is ... since 1930;
the boys in my old gang
are senior partners. They start up
bald like baby birds
to embrace retirement.
At the altar of surrender,
I met you
in the hour of credulity.
How your misfortune came out clearly
to us at twenty.
At the gingerbread casino,
how innocent the nights we made it
on our Vesuvio martinis
with no vermouth but vodka
to sweeten the dry gin--
the lash across my face
that night we adored . . .
soon every night and all,
when your sweet, amorous
Memories of West Street and Lepke
Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston's
"hardly passionate Marlborough Street,"
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is "a young Republican."
I have a nine months' daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants' wear.
These are the tranquilized Fifties,
and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.
Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow ("it's really tan")
and fly-weight pacifist,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.
I was so out of things, I'd never heard
of the Jehovah's Witnesses.
"Are you a C.O.?" I asked a fellow jailbird.
"No," he answered, "I'm a J.W."
He taught me the "hospital tuck,"
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated's Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden to the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections....
The Drunken Fishermen
Wallowing in this bloody sty,
I cast for fish that pleased my eye
(Truly Jehovah's bow suspends
No pots of gold to weight its ends);
Only the blood-mouthed rainbow trout
Rose to my bait. They flopped about
My canvas creel until the moth
Corrupted its unstable cloth.
A calendar to tell the day;
A handkerchief to wave away
The gnats; a couch unstuffed with storm
Pouching a bottle in one arm;
A whiskey bottle full of worms;
And bedroom slacks: are these fit terms
To mete the worm whose molten rage
Boils in the belly of old age?
Once fishing was a rabbit's foot--
O wind blow cold, O wind blow hot,
Let suns stay in or suns step out:
Life danced a jig on the sperm-whale's spout--
The fisher's fluent and obscene
Catches kept his conscience clean.
Children, the raging memory drools
Over the glory of past pools.
Now the hot river, ebbing, hauls
Its bloody waters into holes;
A grain of sand inside my shoe
Mimics the moon that might undo
Man and Creation too; remorse,
Stinking, has puddled up its source;
Here tantrums thrash to a whale's rage.
This is the pot-hole of old age.
Is there no way to cast my hook
Out of this dynamited brook?
The Fisher's sons must cast about
When shallow waters peter out.
I will catch Christ with a greased worm,
And when the Prince of Darkness stalks
My bloodstream to its Stygian term . . .
On water the Man-Fisher walks.
To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage
"It is the future generation that presses into being by means of
these exuberant feelings and supersensible soap bubbles of ours."
"The hot night makes us keep our bedroom windows open.
Our magnolia blossoms. Life begins to happen.
My hopped up husband drops his home disputes,
and hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes,
free-lancing out along the razor's edge.
This screwball might kill his wife, then take the pledge.
Oh the monotonous meanness of his lust. . .
It's the injustice . . . he is so unjust--
whiskey-blind, swaggering home at five.
My only thought is how to keep alive.
What makes him tick? 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."
The Old Flame
My old flame, my wife!
Remember our lists of birds?
One morning last summer, I drove
by our house in Maine. It was still
on top of its hill -
Now a red ear of Indian maize
was splashed on the door.
Old Glory with thirteen stripes
hung on a pole. The clapboard
was old-red schoolhouse red.
Inside, a new landlord,
a new wife, a new broom!
Atlantic seaboard antique shop
pewter and plunder
shone in each room.
A new frontier!
No running next door
now to phone the sheriff
for his taxi to Bath
and the State Liquor Store!
No one saw your ghostly
stare through the window
the scarf at his throat.
Health to the new people,
health to their flag, to their old
restored house on the hill!
Everything had been swept bare,
furnished, garnished and aired.
Everything's changed for the best -
how quivering and fierce we were,
there snowbound together,
simmering like wasps
in our tent of books!
Poor ghost, old love, speak
with your old voice
of flaming insight
that kept us awake all night.
In one bed and apart,
we heard the plow
groaning up hill -
a red light, then a blue,
as it tossed off the snow
to the side of the road.