Robert Lowell 101
If Robert Lowell’s great subject was history, his work made him a part of it. Few had such a significant impact on 20th-century poetics. Lowell, who was born into an affluent New England family, initially went to Harvard and then transferred to Kenyon College, where he graduated as valedictorian. He soon found success as a poet: at the age of 30, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his second book and became US poet laureate. But, beginning with his landmark book Life Studies (1959), Lowell departed from the academic style that had brought him acclaim, trading its constrained impersonality for something more direct and intimate. His willingness to break both formal and thematic taboos earned him rebukes from more conservative writers, such as Allen Tate, Lowell’s mentor, and sometimes wreaked havoc in the lives of those around him. But his shift also significantly expanded the scope of American verse. His so-called “confessional” turn set the stage for feminist poets, such as his students Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and more generally reimagined the lyric as a space for reckoning with private struggles. His poems fit the specifics of an individual life and mind to a range of formal frames, and this brief, chronological selection unpacks some of his choices, connecting his work to contexts he helped redefine.
“The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”
Published in 1946, this poem from Lord Weary’s Castle exemplifies the extravagance of Lowell’s early work. This elegy for Lowell’s sailor cousin features not only rich imagery and an elaborate rhyme scheme but is also packed with allusions to biblical tales, Greek myths, English poetry, and New England lore. Key among these reference points is Melville’s Moby-Dick, from which Lowell borrows characters, an outlook, even its inflamed, encyclopedic sensibility. The sea isn’t just the sea: it’s a place “where the heel-headed dogfish barks its nose / On Ahab’s void and forehead.” Lowell would later declaim his dense iambs as “ponderous armor,” but his more direct later work retains the grand ambition on display here.
“Sailing Home from Rapallo”
Like many in Life Studies, this poem from its final section focuses on difficult personal material—in this case, the complexity of the grief Lowell feels when his mother passes away. We see hints of the class resentments and marital troubles that marked his adolescent home life. But a big part of the poem’s power comes from Lowell’s turn toward a rawer prosody. His meter here is freer and his line more varied, and rigid schema are discarded in favor of a more flexible music. Compare the open emotionality, for instance, of the direct rhyme in the opening lines (week/cheeks) to the brute irony of the slant one in the closing lines (LOVEL/tinfoil). These subtler effects help bring readers into the poet’s state of mind rather than merely underscore his virtuosity.
“Memories of West Street and Lepke”
During World War II, Lowell was imprisoned for a year for refusing to serve in the armed services. In this lyric, the poet looks back on that decision with skepticism. “Ought I to regret my seedtime?” Lowell asks, labeling his pacifism a “manic statement.” He means this literally: Lowell was bipolar and suffered from manic episodes throughout his adult life. These episodes often left him regretful and embarrassed, but the poem offers few alternatives to such “agonizing reappraisal.” His present (where he is “book-worming / in pajamas”) may seem stable, even cozy, but there are suggestions that the domesticity of Eisenhower-era America is repressive, “tranquilized.” Even grimmer is Lowell’s muse here, the figure we end on: "Czar Lepke,” the Jewish mob boss who was jailed in a nearby cell. Lepke may possess the certainty and “calm” Lowell longs for but is also “lobotomized” and headed for execution.
For a landmark of confessional poetry, the last poem in Life Studies is surprisingly circumspect. Aside from the voyeurism and self-flagellation at its center, the poem focuses outward. As in the work of Elizabeth Bishop—Lowell’s friend and the poem’s dedicatee—much of the thinking here unfolds in images of setting. The last—of a “mother skunk” with “her wedge-head in a cup / of sour cream”—is not only one of the poem’s most mysterious but also its most important. For Lowell, the skunk is a figure of both ugliness and fearlessness. Like the autobiographical poet, she relies on the “sour” and uncouth but is unashamed of doing so and “will not scare” from her scavenging. This openness stands in sharp contrast to the “hierarchic privacy” of the “hermit / heiress,” the other mother-figure who begins the poem and speaks to Lowell’s Brahmin heritage.
“For the Union Dead”
Even though he embraced the possibilities of free verse, Lowell never completely left behind his formalist training. Consider, for example, this poem from his 1964 book by the same name, his much-anticipated follow-up to Life Studies. Though its lines are unrhymed, varied in length, and only loosely metered, they’re still organized into closed quatrains. The tension between this traditional container and its more modern contents mirrors the poem’s subject: the collision of old Boston and a new post-war America. In an era of atomic anxiety and civil upheaval, Lowell laments the “sparse, sincere rebellion” of abolitionist New England, and the consistent stanza here serves as a formal analogue of that idealized past, a “compass” that guides us through the poem’s disorienting, dream-like present.
For a period beginning in the late 1960s, Lowell wrote exclusively in blank verse sonnets, relying on the form to give looser, more impressionistic work a metrical and argumentative backbone. Many of these poems are portraits of historical figures or “old friends.” This 1969 elegy focuses on someone who was both: the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, whom Lowell had known since college. Jarrell had died a few years prior in a likely suicide, but he appears in a vision after this sonnet’s volta, cradling his “gnawed wrist” like his beloved Persian “Kitten.” The questions he asks Lowell echo those in Jarrell’s poem “The Happy Cat,” a resemblance that underscores just how directly Lowell’s work drew on his personal and poetic relationships.
This final poem, from Lowell’s final book, is a fitting memorial for the poet, who died of a heart attack in the back of a New York taxi in 1977. In its preference for “something imagined,” it can be read as a consideration of confessionalism’s “lurid” legacy, a wincing recognition that his “threadbare art” of autobiography often led to “misalliance” in his life. He comes close to admitting here that, as Elizabeth Bishop once told him, “art’s just not worth that much.” But the poem is also a “yearning” ars poetica, an explanation for what Lowell hoped to do in his work, even when he lacked “the grace of accuracy,” or tact. He recognized that we also were “poor passing facts” and saw, through his poems, a way to locate the personal in the historical: “to give / each figure in the photograph / his living name.”
Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.