In his introduction to Something Understood—the recent volume of poems and essays honoring critic Helen VendlerStephen Burt notes how her readings of poetry lead her back to the poets themselves. In Vendler’s aesthetics of sympathy, “the effort to understand how a form works as it does, why it moves us, why a poet chose to use it, is also an effort to imagine what that poet might have been thinking and feeling.” From Vendler’s work on Wallace Stevens, Burt writes, “Not just a body of poetry but a person emerges.”

Stevens uses a remarkable “I.” (Also a remarkable ear. As the man on the dump might say, “ho-ho.”) His “I” is confident, mysterious, prophetic, singular without being personal. On the other hand, Burt writes, “When Stevens says ‘he’ or ‘one,’ he can often mean ‘I,’ and we might occasionally ask whether, when [Vendler] says ‘Stevens,’ she means ‘I.’” If she had been a poet, she has written, she would have been Stevens, and Burt’s description of her writing could as easily apply to Stevens’ poetry: “An insistence on ideas amid passions, on the arrangements and abstractions of art amid the mess and sensory detail of life, and vice versa.”

That sentence could also illuminate the work of Robert Lowell, whom Vendler will speak about tonight at the Art Institute of Chicago. Unlike Stevens, Lowell emerges naturally from his body of poetry, without a critic’s assistance. His Life Studies heralded the rise of Confessionalism, a newly (or newishly) open poetry of experience.

Yet Lowell’s “I” was as complex as Stevens’s; it could introduce and reduce the poet in a single gesture. “Home after Three Months Away” chronicles his return from McLean Hospital, where he had been recuperating from an attack of bipolar disorder. Relying on shifting rhymes and rhythms, the poem takes instability as its subject:  Lowell’s daughter “changes to a boy,” he stands “in lather like a polar bear”; tulips turn to weed. He ends with this chilling couplet, whose adjectives threaten to transform him into, of all things, food: “I keep no rank nor station. / Cured, I am frizzled, stale, and small.”

Such unguarded poetry seems both to honor and nearly destroy his “I”—to honor it by destroying it, perhaps, or vice-versa. Lowell stages the same complicated act in his later poem “Skunk Hour,” writing, in an echo of Milton, “I myself am hell, / Nobody’s here.” Lowell declares his presence (“I am”) only to assert his absence (“Nobody’s here”), and his “I” flicks on and off like a faulty lightbulb.

I look forward to hearing Vendler apply her sympathetic criticism to such a complexly personal poet.

Originally Published: October 22nd, 2009

Abigail Deutsch, the winner of Poetry magazine's 2010 Editors Prize for Reviewing, lives in New York. Her criticism appears in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Village Voice, n+1, Bookforum, and other publications.

  1. October 23, 2009
     Vivek Narayanan

    Would be great to hear this in your (already very nice) Poetry Lectures podcast series--especially if it was really good! :)

  2. October 23, 2009
     Abigail Deutsch

    Thanks for the suggestion, Vivek. To provide a podcast substitute in the form of a blog comment: Vendler tracked the arc of Lowell's style, attending to his flirtations with form and his anxieties regarding Modernism's first generation (he saw Eliot's echoes as "everywhere inescapable and nowhere usable"; he wrote, "Williams enters me, but I cannot enter him"). She offered close readings that opened up poems in unexpected ways--you can read "Father's Bedroom" with Pound's translations in mind, and its haiku-like clarity and quietude pop into relief. She also quoted snarky comments from various poets, and then giggled infectiously. Delightful all around.

  3. October 23, 2009
     Vivek Narayanan

    Lowell, long live!

  4. October 24, 2009

    Good on you, Abigail Deutsch. Thanks for the heads up. And good on Helen Vendler too.\r

    In an unpublished, certainly unpublishable, essay I made in '91 or so, I proposed a name change for what the likes of Lowell was after. Rosenthal's term of Confessional poetry was and still is a categorization made by a critic unfriendly to the objectives involved. The term I proposed, and borrowing from Hopkins, for describing said objectives was Inscape poetry. Don't you think that comes closer to what Lowell and the others looked to flesh out? Funny what an accident of lit crit can result in. Actually, the sweeter thought is that, with such a name change, poetry readers might finally have to come to terms with the instress in the poetics of a Lowell, Plath, Sexton, Berryman, or Snodgrass poem, not to mention a bunch of others of that generation.\r