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Robert Lowell’s ‘Sexual Romanticism’

By Harriet Staff


The New Republic’s Michelle Dean writes about Robert Lowell’s relationship with his wife, novelist Elizabeth Hardwick, in “Love, Actually.” Quite a header.

Though they were married for 23 years, their union was worn down by Lowell’s nearly annual hospitalizations for manic depression, his endless philandering, and his alcoholism. At the end of it, almost on a whim, he left her for the writer and “muse”—always a loaded term, that—Lady Caroline Blackwood. Then he took Hardwick’s alternately furious and anguished letters to him and folded them, without her consent, into a full-length book of poetry, The Dolphin. This artifact of her humiliation won a Pulitzer. Yet Hardwick still continued to try to get him back, right up to the day of his death.

Dean is looking at Jeffrey Meyers’s new book, Robert Lowell in Love (University of Massachusetts Press), “a detailed accounting of the women Lowell pursued and lived and conversed with.” Later: Lowell’s friend Adrienne Rich complained that “his decisions to leave Hardwick were based in ‘sexual romanticism.'”

Then when The Dolphin came out, she wrote searingly of it in the American Poetry Review:

What does one say about a poet who, having left his wife and daughter for another marriage, then titles a book with their names, and goes on to appropriate his ex-wife’s letters written under the stress and pain of desertion, into a book of poems nominally addressed to the new wife? … I think this bullshit eloquence a poor excuse for a cruel and shallow book.

Meyers characterizes this moment as the break between Lowell and Rich; in fact, their friendship had been dissolving for some time at that point. In 1973, when The Dolphin appeared, Rich had long been blooming into the radical feminist politics that would dominate the second half of her career; Lowell, like most of her friends, disliked the turn in her writing.

Read it all here. Or even better, read Elizabeth Hardwick’s work!

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, February 5th, 2016 by Harriet Staff.