From the Archive: Robert Lowell
the hours will hardly pardon you their loss,
those brilliant hours that wear away the days,
those days that eat away eternity."—From "Spanish Sonnets," October-November 1963
As it turns out, one of the bastions of twentieth-century American verse didn't have all that much to do with another: Robert Lowell published sparsely in Poetry, sprinkling eight poems in the magazine over almost twenty years. This seems an especially surprising total when considering Lowell's prodigious output (fifteen of his books were reviewed in Poetry) and the role of "public poet" he achieved later in life. March 1, 2007 marks Robert Lowell's ninetieth birthday. The occasion affords an opportunity to reflect on Lowell's history with Poetry, one that hints at the larger, more complex saga of his poetic and personal life.
Lowell's upbringing in the classics and his New Formalist attentions reveal themselves in his first Poetry publication, a series of metrically demanding stanzas written in homage to Sextus Propertius, in 1946. A year later, fresh off the Pulitzer Prize for Lord Weary's Castle, Lowell published "The Fat Man in the Mirror," which foreshadows the interiority of his later work: "But this flabby terror.../Nurse, it is a person! It is nerves." The rest of the poems Lowell printed in Poetry sketch out this famous transition from the strict forms and rhetorical bombast of his early career to a looser, more personal style exemplified by Life Studies in 1959. But the fascination with Lowell's poetic "conversion," like the fascination with his wavering mental health, obscures a complete consideration of his oeuvre. Forty years after the poet's death, the brash young formalist and the inventive elder statesman remain in constant conflict, as evidenced by these minor masterpieces first published by Poetry.