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Life Studies by Robert Lowell revisited

By Jeffrey McDaniel

I have known for years that Life Studies is one of Robert Lowell’s most important books and a classic of confessional poetry, but I had never actually sat down and read it from cover to cover. That’s one benefit of teaching: it forces me to sit and read books closely. Life Studies is a fascinating book, for a number of reasons: 1. We see Lowell evolve into a confessional poet right before our eyes. 2. It’s amazing what a low percentage of the poems in the book really qualify as “confessional”. 3. The inexplicable presence of a 40-page memoir excerpt.

The book begins with a quartet of historical poems that (this is a big generalization) feel emblematic of the impersonal, technically-controlled style prevalent in mainstream American poetry in the 1950’s. For instance, in the persona poem “A Mad Negro Soldier Confined at Munich”, the tight form undermines the authenticity of the speaker; the cropped rhyming quatrains feel way too pruned, making the voice feel forced.

The second part of the book is 91 Revere Street , a 40-page memoir excerpt, focusing on Lowell’s childhood. It’s a challenge to read; your mind keeps asking: why, why, why, am I reading about Lowell’s tribulations in grade school. Some will be tempted to drop the book in the midst of all this prose, but what’s worthwhile is that you get a real sense of Lowell’s family dynamic: the way his mother was the force of the household, the way his father was slowly broken down by both his overpowering wife and a changing world. And this forms a useful backdrop as you get deeper into the book. Also it’s interesting how Lowell depicts himself in an unflattering light, specifically two instances of fierce cruelty enacted upon two classmates who had shown Lowell kindness, creating the impression that Lowell was the type who would lick your neck a few times before sinking his teeth in.

The third part of the book is a quartet of literary homages, (the most powerful being “To Delmore Schwatz”, which captures the excitement and passion of young poets reading everything they can get their hands on, on their verge of publishing).

Part four is where the book really comes to life–due to Lowell’s meticulous diction, explosive imagery, and unhinged music, as well as his swerve towards more personally-drenched subject matter. It isn’t until halfway through this last section though that the reader finds work that can be safely categorized as “confessional”: “Waking in the Blue”; the irregular use of end rhyme and varying line lengths work perfectly with the subject: a speaker confined in an expensive Boston mental institution. Here’s the first stanza:

The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,

rouses from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head

propped on The Meaning of Meaning.

He catwalks down our corridor.

Azure day

makes my agonized blue window bleaker.

Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.

Absence! My heart grows tense

as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.

(This is the house for the “mentally ill”.)

It’s as if Lowell’s controlled rhymes from the beginning of the book have been left out in the sun and are melting and warping before our eyes. Notice how the poem’s speaker (obviously Lowell himself) both mocks and fears the night attendant, who is an underclassmen, not at Harvard, but B.U. (Lowell and the other patients have Harvard ties), and look at what he reads: a ridiculously self-important title, The Meaning of Meaning. Wait—did I say “reads”? The attendant is using the book as a pillow, ha. Yet the attendant “catwalks”. By employing this noun as a verb, Lowell shifts its meaning, giving the attendant the feel of a predator.  We also see Lowell create psychological tension by placing feeling adjectives on inanimate nouns: “my agonized blue window”, “the petrified fairway”. And he does a nice job juxtaposing the free world outside with the unpleasant world of confinement through the contrast of colors: “azure” and “blue”.

The book ends with a bang, the poem many people know, Skunk Hour, where we see the book’s main themes coalesce, and also Lowell jump loudly and clearly out of the 1950’s American Poetry Boat (with W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, James Wright, Sylvia Plath, and others eager to follow). He swims ashore, where Ginsberg, Dylan Thomas, and Frank O’Hara are having a cook-out, hops in his Tudor Ford, and sputters up to Lover’s Lane.


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, April 30th, 2010 by Jeffrey McDaniel.