Ed Herman: Welcome to Poetry Lectures, a series of lectures by poets, scholars and educators, presented by poetryfoundation.org. In this program, Helen Vendler discusses the poet Robert Lowell. As a young poet in the 1940s, Robert Lowell was in the generation of American poets who inherited the innovations of Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, and other modernist writers. With the publication of Life Studies in 1960, Lowell changed his style dramatically, rejecting the impersonal stance of the modernists and choosing instead to write on more personal subjects. As Helen Vendler traces Lowell’s career, she describes how he created a varied and personal body of work while acknowledging the contributions of his predecessors. Vendler also reads several late poems of Robert Lowell, in which he addresses Pound, Eliot, and Robert Frost as colleagues. Helen Vendler has taught at Harvard University since 1981. She is the author of dozens of books of and articles on poetry, and is the editor of several poetry anthologies. As a critic, she’s written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books. The talk you’re about to hear is part of Poetry Off The Shelf, presented by the Art Institute of Chicago and The Poetry Foundation. The event took place at the Art Institute on October 22, 2009. Here’s Helen Vendler on Robert Lowell and the legacy of modernism.
Helen Vendler: Good evening. I’d like to thank the director of the Art Institute, Dr. James Cuno, for having invited me here again, this time to help celebrate the presence of the wonderful Renzo Piano Modernism Wing, which I had a chance to see this morning. The art housed within that wing demonstrates, as much as any other slice of modernity would do, how impossible it is to create a comprehensive definition of modernism within one art alone, even the art of painting, and how greatly the implications of the term ‘modernist’ can change with respect to different arts. In thinking about poetry, we’d be better off defining modernism not by any supposed shared characteristics, but rather as we define other historical periods, by the years through which it extended. We can see that the major poets of the first half of the 20th century in America — Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound — differ in extreme ways from each other. Theoretically in terms of their poetics, thematically in terms of their subject matter, and stylistically. There was however one thing these first generation modernists had in common: as they came of age, they were not overshadowed by a set of intimidating forbearers. The poets of the second half of the 20th century however — Robert Lowell, A. R. Ammons, John Ashbery, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Adrienne Rich, James Merrill, and others — came of age as inheritors of the famous accomplishments of the world renowned American modernist predecessors of the first half of the century. Robert Lowell, who was born in 1917 and died prematurely at the age of 60 in 1977, was one of the second generation of our modern poets, and like his contemporaries, faced the question of how to follow the conspicuously original poets of the first half of the 20th century. Not only those Americans that I already named from the great modernist generation, but also the English poet W.H. Auden who had come to live in New York during World War II, and influenced almost everybody afterwards. Some poets of the second generation registered a single strong influence from the first generation, as Elizabeth Bishop did with Marianne Moore. Others absorbed several earlier voices, as Ashbery for instance echoes Eliot, Stevens, and Auden. Tonight I want to point out in a small way some of Robert Lowell’s experiments as he composed his poetry in the face of his formidable predecessors. Lowell himself speculated five years before his own death that he and his peers might be simply second rate followers, the less distinguished successors of an illustrious generation. “I feel”, he said, writing an obituary for John Berryman, “I feel the jagged gash with which my contemporaries died. Was their success an aspect of their destruction? Were we uncomfortable epigone of Frost, Pound, Eliot, Marianne Moore, etc? This bitter possibility came to us at the moment of our arrival.” Lowell italicized the word “arrival”, by which he meant of course not birth but arrival in the world as a poet. As early as secondary school, when he was in secondary school at St Marks, he said arduously to his friend Frank Parker, “I want to write”, to which Parker said in return, “I want to paint”. It’s the best high school moment of American art. (LAUGHING). Frank Parker became the illustrator as many of you know to Lowell’s books. Lowell’s public arrival came at 29 with the publication of his second book, Lord Weary’s Castle. It was immediately and widely recognized as something powerful and new, and won the 1946 Pulitzer Prize. Lowell’s own accounts of his poetic beginnings are always ironic, and often very funny. His mother sent him off to Harvard with a warning. “She warned me off the moderns, Eliot and Tate, and as a curative, misquoted Robert Frost, thought to be understandable to everyone, even to herself, and to be healthy, wise and no nihilist to the middle class”. While at Harvard, Lowell bought venerable professorial books on metrics and rolled out as he said, and you can see the aim of his poetics from this statement, “he rolled out Spenserian stanzas”, wanting to write an epic like Fairy Queen, “on Job and Jonna”, wanting his epic to be a biblical one in imitation of Milton, “writing Spenserian stanzas on Job and Jonna surrounded by”, guess what, “recently seen Nantucket scenery”, so New England had to be there too. The epic, the biblical, the Miltonic and New England were all boiling in young Lowell at the time. Lowell continued after enumerating those things “Everything I did was grand, ungrammatical, and had a timeless hackneyed quality”. Robert Frost was at Harvard at the time, giving the Norton Lectures, and Lowell went to call on him, bringing a huge epic on the first crusade all written out in clumsy longhand on lined paper. He read a page of that and said, “You have no compression”. But Frost went on to read a poem by Collins to the young Lowell, and said “That’s not a great poem, but it has restraint”. Convinced by Frost’s rejection that his own writing was defuse and monotonous, Lowell began to look elsewhere for inspiration. The style of his early ventures, he said, was ended by reading Williams. “It was as though”, his wonderful metaphor for his own creaky epics, “It was as though some homemade ship, part Spanish Galleon, part paddle wheels, kitchen pots, and elastic bands, and worked by hands, had anchored to a filling station”. But the influence of Williams went into hiding when, after two rocky years at Harvard during which he had a severe breakdown, he transferred to Kenyon College and came under the classical influence of Allen Tate and John Crow Ransom. He graduated Summa Cum Laude in Classics, and for the rest of his life the spirit and forms of Latin literature lived on in his style as a counterbalance to modernist influences. In its solidity, Roman poetry was a reproach to modernist fragmentation, and it opposed a naked sense of life to the subtly of modernist symbolism. “Almost any really good Roman poet”, Lowell said in an interview, “is much more raw and direct than anything in English, and yet he has a block like formality. Frost too,” who Lowell admired along with Williams, “Frost too was a rebuke to the school of Eliot, inhuming firmly to traditional meters. Frost is the American formalist”, said Lowell, “our last poet who could honestly ignore the new techniques that were to shatter the crust. He understood the use of tools, often wonderful tools, that five or ten years later would be forever obsolete. Frost and his early 20th century contemporaries” said Lowell enviously, “were born into a cultural scene in which there were no celebrated masters to meet, no one to imitate”. Poetry was the great English Romantics and Victorians, and their famous official American off-shoots. But excellence had left the old poetry. 20th century American poets were forced up against the great modernists to invent their own excellence, creating those distinctive styles that we now label in various ways; post World War Two poetry, post-modernist poetry. Lowell’s own second generation of poets, he said, encountered a precisely opposite situation from what the modernists encountered as they arrived at the literary world. Modernism had shaken the world of poetry, chiefly by Eliot’s invention of an un-ignorable free verse, from “The Wasteland” through “Four Quartets”. Although Eliot had grown up in St Louis, he came from a family with the same kind of historical New England roots as the Winslows and Starks on Lowell’s mother’s side, and for that reason among others, Eliot’s defection from his New England heritage to English residence and English citizenship was resented in the United States. Frost used to joke about Eliot as the great English poet from St Louis. Lowell, who felt a New England kinship with Eliot said of Eliot’s work, “his influence is everywhere inescapable and nowhere readily usable”. He started with the air of an American dressed up as a Frenchman, preaching to the English. Eliot was unusable to Lowell, at least according to Lowell, not only because his style was inimitable, but because his poetry was the utterance of a solitary. “All the poems,” said Lowell, “have one hero, one man walking”. Greek and Latin epics held up as models to the young Lowell by Allen Tate had the psychological interests of diverse characters and narrative episodes, and Lowell wanted to write lyrics that included those ingredients. When I once asked him why he liked Hardy so much, he said, “because he writes about the real transactions between men and women”. If you take that as an example of his own desires, it wouldn’t be satisfied by the Eliot distance or the Eliot abstraction. Lowell remained, in consequence, tepid toward Steven’s abstractions, and found the method of Pound’s Cantos also unusable, because its atemporal montage of centuries, languages, countries and personages destroyed any sequential narrative and the development of any fictional characters. Although Lowell admired the work of Marianne Moore, her syllabics did not have the rhythmical drive to carry his own passionate outpouring. But rather surprisingly, when Lowell comes to write about Williams and especially about Williams’ urban epic “Paterson”, his tone becomes warmly appreciative of the way in which the poet incorporated into a single work of mixed verse and prose a city and a population that Williams new intimately and represented movingly. But within Lowell’s praise, there is a disquiet rising to the surface in a 1962 essay. “Williams enters me, but I cannot enter him. It’s as if no poet except Williams had really seen America or heard its language. When I say that I cannot enter him, I’m almost saying that I cannot enter America”. Lowell’s realistic intelligence saw that his New England roots and upbringing and his classical education belonged to an increasingly thin sliver of the American population, and that he himself resembled Eliot more than Williams in his upbringing and reading. To give some idea of Lowell’s reaction to his predecessors as he strove to create a style of his own, I’ve given you a handout of poems from very different periods of Lowell’s writing life. He began, as he himself wrote, “as a fire breathing Catholic C.O. Conscientious Objector” in World War II. In his first and second books he made capital of his New England historical inheritance that separated him not only from others of his own generation but from most of the earlier modernists as well. Frost after all came from San Francisco. Williams was born of two foreign parents and educated in Switzerland. Pound grew up in Idaho. Moore and Stevens in Pennsylvania. And even Eliot had not grown up as Lowell had in the midst of New England. Influenced by Allen Tate's conversion to Roman Catholicism, Lowell too, after marrying his first wife Jean Stafford, underwent a temporary conversion to a heated Catholicism. Lasted three years. In the wake of Tate’s commitment to classical history and the history of the Confederacy, Lowell wrote poetry condemning his own ancestors as Indian killers. “At the Indian Killer’s Grave” is this poem about the epitaph of his ancestor Edward Winslow. Like Tate’s style in “The Ode to the Confederate Dead”, Lowell’s early style is dense, showing none of the fragmentary dispersals of Pound or Eliot. He was resisting any of that fragmentation of the “The Cantos” and of “The Wasteland”. Nor does his poetry at this stage show any of Williams’ populous ease. Lowell himself characterized his own early style as “a mechanical, gristly literative style that did not charm much”. In “Concord”, a Petrarchan sonnet from the 1946 Lord Weary’s Castle, Lowell in powerful satire mixes denigration of his revolutionary ancestors along with denigration of Emerson and his bloodless Unitarianism, with Jews at the commercial turning of New England revolutionary cites into tourist theme parks. He quotes at the end as you’ll recall the “Concord Hymn” by Emerson, “By the rude bridge that arched the flood, here once the embattled farmers stood and fire the shot heard round the world”. He’s alluding to that and he rewrites it in a very gristly way at the end of the poem. You can see that he mixes up here revolutionary cites and contemporary Boston, which was being taken over as he frequently said by Irish Catholics.
Although Eliot too had begun as a satirist, he sought and found a refuge, for good or ill, from his sophisticated wit in the charity he required as he believe by faith. Lowell never gave up his scourging satire, but he expended it in his later poems more on himself than on others. Reading such a formal sonnet as “Concord”, one can hardly believe that Lowell had already witnessed the era of Eliot and Pound. He seems untouched by their experiments in free verse and by their disarticulation of syntax and image. But as we know from Lowell’s introduction to his volume of translations called Imitations in 1960, he’d been thinking about the unsuitability of formal metrical verse, such as we saw in “Concord”, to the speech of the modern era. Although he is in principle speaking of the ineptitudes of translators, the afterward to Imitations bears upon his own dilemma of verse choice between formal and free. And this is of course not simply a debate about which verse form to use, it’s a debate over whether to be English or American. If you take Eliot and Pound as representing American modernism, and the Petrarchan sonnet to represent Europe, what will you choose? Will you, like Eliot and Pound, move to Europe, establish yourself there, perhaps even take British citizenship like other expatriate authors, like Henry James? Or will you stay in America and make something of American speech as William Carlos Williams did. As he says about translators in the afterward to Imitations, “Strict metrical translators still exist. They seem to live in a pure world, untouched by contemporary poetry. They are taxidermists, not poets, and their poems are likely to be stuffed birds. A better strategy would seem to be the now fashionable translation into free or irregular verse, yet this method commonly turns out a sprawl of language neither faithful nor distinguished, now on stills, now low, as Dryden would say”. Lowell kept a long 13-year lyric silence, after publishing Lord Weary’s Castle. That silence was broken only by an unsuccessful 1951 volume called The Mills of the Kavanaughs, which contained formally rhymed narrative lyrics that may have been influenced by Frost’s — in fact, really were influenced by Frost’s narrative poems as well as by Browning. But those poems remain arrested thematically and stylistically in Lowell’s theatrical historical manner, crying out such things as “Oh brother, a New England town is death and incest and I saw it all”. (LAUGHING) This is heavy stuff, he was still writing this sort of thing. By this time, 15 years after the publication of his first volume, every young poet in America was imitating Lowell’s congested and hurdling style because of course since it had won the Pulitzer Prize, that was the new fashion. Lowell could hardly begin at this point, years later, to imitate his imitators, and so he waited for over a decade. Finally in 1959, after the deaths of both of his parents, published his most original book Life Studies, which was to change the course of American verse by introducing in the title sequence the therapeutically influenced work eventually labeled ‘confessional poetry’. In the prose narrative “91 Revere Street” that opens the volume called Life Studies, Lowell satirized with ironic freedom his hapless father and his possessive mother, his elementary schooling of the usual inadequacy, and his own domineering temperament. The 15-member free verse sequence, “Life Studies” originated less from his forebears Eliot and Pound and Williams than from his contemporaries, the beats whom Lowell heard read in San Francisco, and from Elizabeth Bishop whose free moving rhymed verse in “The Armadillo” was to give Lowell his impetus for the famous poem that closes Life Studies, “Skunk Hour”. The individual poems of the Life Studies sequence embodied Lowell’s successful if temporary resolution to the struggle between 19th century formal verse and modernist free verse, and also represented his moral struggle to give a wholly new account of his family brought into being by his parents’ deaths. I should say parenthetically that neither Eliot nor Pound could be called a democratic poet. They both have a belief in aristocracy. In Pound, the aristocracy of the past and a denigration of the democratic present. But when Lowell becomes democratic, it’s not so much in revolt as he was earlier against the New England aristocracy, but rather he becomes democratic at seeing other people are simply ruined creatures like himself. Lowell is no longer the fiery prophet, breathing hell fire and damnation after the manor of Jonathan Edwards on his family’s part in founding the American empire. Now he is the reduced and humiliated sufferer, obliged to recognize in his own susceptibility to destructive madness —he was bipolar and had recurrent episodes of madness until he was stabilized on lithium in the late 60s— he was obliged to recognize in his own susceptibility to destructive madness a defective personality far worse than any exhibited by his parents. The phonetical Puritan forebears banish from the poetry, and only the parents remain in Life Studies, portrayed in desperately candid poems of human incapacity. Lowell borrow the title Life Studies from the painter’s term for sketches of the nude body done from life. If Baudelaire had written “Mon Coeur Mis à Nu”, Lowell would write “Ma Famille Mis à Nu”. Here he has learned something from “The Wasteland’s vignettes of the women in the pub and the typist and her young man carbuncular, in which Eliot renders the pitiable dissolution of human personality under the attrition of demobilized soldier husbands, dentures, abortions, sexual ignorance, malice and mechanical copulation. Lowell’s giant Oedipal imago of the powerful revolutionary ancestors dwindles in Life Studies into an Eliotic pathos of domestic existence. As he was soon to say of his ancestors, “Those before us, we have stopped watching them. They have stopped watching”. In Life Studies, all that Lowell had learned from William Carlos Williams, to catch a telling to tale, to forsake ideological pronouncements, and to consider oneself no better than others could come into play. Although Lowell had said that he could not enter Williams, in one sense Williams had surely entered him. Unlike Williams, Lowell was never interested in the man on the street; the grip of his past kept him within his familial boundaries, and he wasn’t capable of a populist generically mixed survey of the sort Williams had attempted in “Paterson”. Yet Lowell now applies the levelling scan of Williams democratic eye to his parents as well as to himself. The sun now reveals his father’s momentary happiness as a young man in the navy and his subsequent luckless failures, just as he reveals his over controlling mother’s undue attachment to her papa and her maids, and her permanent impatience with her feckless husband. While recounting his own bewilderment as a misbehaving child — he was expelled from the Boston Public Garden at the age of six. While recounting his own bewilderment as a misbehaving child, Lowell gazes at his adult self unsparingly as well. With glimpses of his own past confinements in mental hospitals, his marriage made unstable by madness, and his fear for his late born baby daughter, the poet’s newly unemphatic and ironic tone startles a reader used to Lowell’s former gristly, apocalyptic style. If Life Studies owes something to both Eliot’s depiction of reduced human lives and Williams humanitarian snapshots, it also shows the influence of Café, the quiet spoken early book that Ezra Pound arrived from Fenelosa’s translations of Chinese Poetry. The technique of understated minimalist elegance in Pound’s translation of Li Po’s “The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance”, in imitation of this understated minimalist elegance, this technique yields in Lowell’s hands the imagist rendition of “Father’s Bedroom”, which is about as far from his early verse as you can image, is certainly indebted to Pound. “Father’s Bedroom” — his father has just died as we know from the preceding poem.
In my Father's bedroom:
blue threads as thin
as pen-writing on the bedspread,
blue dots on the curtains,
a blue kimono,
Chinese sandals with blue plush straps.
The broad-planked floor
had a sandpapered neatness.
The clear glass bed-lamp
with a white doily shade
was still raised a few
inches by resting on volume two
of Lafcadio Hearn's
Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan.
Its warped olive cover
was punished like a rhinoceros hide.
In the flyleaf:
'Robbie from Mother.'
Years later in the same hand:
'This book has had hard usage
On the Yangtze River, China.
It was left under an open
porthole in a storm.’
A bedroom emptied of its inhabitant might seem unrevealing, but the poem presses into service in its every crystalline detail to give a picture of man dominated, except for a brief happy interlude in the navy, by women; first his punitive mother, then his controlling wife. The decor of the bedroom, un-male and fashionably synchronized opens the poem; thin threads of blue on the bedspread, “blue dots on the curtains, / a blue kimono, / Chinese sandals with blue plush straps”. The only part of the bedroom not color coded by Commander Lowell’s overbearing wife is the broad planked floor, which Lowell’s father had somehow kept uncorrupted by a blue rug. (LAUGHING) It’s true. The sandpapered neatness of the floor suggests the scour clean deck of a ship, but this sole remnant of navy life is swamped in the presence not only of color coordinated feminized blueness, but also in the presence of a “clear glass bed-lamp / with a white doily shade”, so un-naval as to be preposterous in a man’s room. Commander Lowell still has at his bedside a book retained from his youth, by Lafcadio Hearn, a gift from his mother who inscribed it “Robbie from Mother”, even though he was presumably old enough to read such a book when she gave it to him, he was still Robbie, not Robert. During his naval duty in China, her son commanded a gun boat on the Yangtze River, a moment that remained a high point of his subsequent lackluster life. His mother’s response when he returned from his service in the navy was not congratulatory but corrective, as she made a second reproachful permanent inscription in the damaged book: “It was left under an open / porthole in a storm”. A commander has more to do than circulate to close portholes when he is seeing his ship through a storm. But nothing Robbie did could please his mother. Yet, the item permanently closest to his side is that book given to him by his mother, who’s influence he has never escaped. He has learned his lesson of subjection, and has let his wife, following in the role of his mother, create a demure bedroom with only one or two aspects of his past allowed to survive, and the book, made for being red, now serves closed as a lamp stand. All these images details are telling ones, but in the past, the speakers of purely imagist poems did not tend to move in space, while the speaker of “Father’s Bedroom” does, although unobtrusively. This seems to me a real deflection of imagism towards something more animated. The son who’s describing the empty room first surveys it from the doorway, his eye moving from the bedspread to curtains to the kimono and sandals laid out on the bed, enumerating items under his mother’s control. The sun then goes closer, and sees which book it is that the lamp is resting on. He notes, in a focused close up, it’s warped and punished cover, and then approaching even more closely, removes the lamp and opens the booking, reading the first and then second inscription on the flyleaf. As the poem ends, the book remains open to those inscriptions, the displaced lamp remains displaced, no closure is possible except the regression as the poet touches the book to his father’s warped and punished youth. Within the poem, the sun does not leave the room. We realize that he cannot leave because that room where his father died is one of the spaces of memory in which he must henceforth live. In his next book, For the Union Dead, Lowell did not materially change the appearance of his free verse, although the poems for the most part are far briefer than those in Life Studies. However, his style openly declared his independence of his first master Allen Tate, by superseding Tate’s Eliotic and congested ode, “To the Confederate Dead” with Lowell’s own accomplished free verse stanzaic poem, “For the Union Dead”. Yet recoiling from his own free verse, as he was to do repeatedly, Lowell consciously veered back in his next volume of lyrics, Near the Ocean, to a measure by no means modernist, reverting to the 17th century poetics admired by Allen Tate, taking as his model a freer version of Andrew Marvell’s 8-line tetrameter stanza, rhyming in couplets which you know from “The Garden”, terse, brisk form. Lowell’s three major poems in this vein with these 8-line stanzas, “Waking Early Sunday Morning”, “Fourth of July in Maine”, and “Near the Ocean” besides their debt to Marvell recall Eliot’s heady early experiments with satiric tetrameter quatrains. First, here is Lowell in the tetrameter couplets of “Waking Early Sunday Morning”.
O Bible chopped and crucified
in hymns we hear but do not read,
none of the milder subtleties
of grace or art will sweeten these
stiff quatrains shoveled out four-square –
they sing of peace, and preach despair;
yet they gave darkness some control,
and left a loophole for the soul.
And here’s Eliot in his own tetrameter quatrains of “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service”.
A painter of the Umbrian school
Designed upon a gesso ground
The nimbus of the Baptized God.
The wilderness is cracked and browned
But through the water pale and thin
Still shine the unoffending feet
And there above the painter set
The Father and the Paraclete.
To my ear at least, the two formally rhymed tetrameter extracts feel like siblings, Lowell’s and Eliot’s that is, in the impetus of their mutual rhythmic pulse. Although unlike Tate, the mature Lowell never echoes Eliot directly, it nonetheless seems to me that Lowell’s Marvell came with a tinge of Eliot, just as some of the moments of Lowell’s free verse would not have been possible without Eliot having invented a viable form of free verse, an un-ignorable form of free verse as Lowell said, for modern English. Again and again, Lowell expressed a wish to broaden the reach of the lyric, to re-insert within it the men and the women within it that were the property of the epic, and which the lyric of personal expression had subordinated and even dismissed. He began his effort of social breadth by keeping a journal of blank verse sonnets indebted to Miltonic rather than Shakespearean forms, publishing the journal as Notebook 67/68, a diary of that crucial year in sonnets. Listing in an afterward the events that figure directly or obliquely in the book, and bracketing them fore and aft with the Vietnam war, Lowell named among others the Arab-Israeli Six Day War, the Pentagon March, the campaign by Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy for the Democratic nomination, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Columbia Student demonstrations and the demonstrations at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Men and women appeared with a vengeance in Notebook 67/68. Reminding himself of Pound’s description of an epic as a poem containing history, Lowell turned away from his own lineage, from New England that is, to a wider social scene. During 1967/68, Lowell himself protested the Vietnam war, lived in New York during the student occupation of Columbia, joined the anti-war march on Washington, immortalized in Normal Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, was part of Eugene McCarthy’s entourage and attended the Democratic Convention. It was the only time since his act as a Conscientious Objector that he participated actively in politics. In a short prose afterthought to Notebook 67/68, Lowell said “The poems in this book are written as one poem, jagged in pattern, but not a sequence of related material. This is not my diary. Accident threw up subjects, and the plot swallowed him, famished for human chances. My meter is fairly strict at first and elsewhere, but often corrupts in single lines to the freedom of prose. Even with this license, I feel I have failed to avoid the themes and gigantism of the sonnet”. So that he is already afraid of the looming European influence of the themes and gigantism of the sonnet over his own contemporary work. Frost also wrote notable sonnets, they too tried to avoid the themes and gigantism of the European sonnet. Lowell rearranged and rewrote and added to these poems of 67/68, finally assembling the total with the exception of those about his second wife and daughter into a gigantic book of unrhymed sonnets called History, with begins with Genesis and continues through historical eras down to the late 60s. It was an epic with a vengeance and it has Job and Jonna, and Nantucket scenery and everything else. With this assemblage he wrote what he must have thought of as this epic, competing with Pound’s “Cantos” in its cultural breadth, didactic intent, and tireless evocation. But it bore no trace of Pound’s manner or of his interests, economic etc., and with it we leave behind the Lowell who wrote as conscious heir to the styles of the modernists of the first half of the 20th century, and arrive at his personal independence of style, generating his treatment of the modernist masters after their poetic influence on him had waned. I should say, the Italian Renaissance is in History, but it doesn’t feature in it to the extent that it does in Pound. In his 1960 volume, For the Union Dead, Lowell had written poems about particular past writers. These were entitled “Hawthorne”, a very beautiful poem about Hawthorne, and “Johnathan Edwards in Western Massachusetts”. That was still during his attachment to New England history. But in Notebook 67/68, under the generic heading “Writers”, we find not Hawthorne or John Edwards. We find sonnet portraits of five poets of the modernist generation preceding Lowell’s own; portraits of Allen Tate, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos William and Robert Frost. Lowell’s sketches of those poets, who’s force had so intimidated him at his first arrival, are at first sight very strange since they concern primarily neither the poet’s famous work nor their public role as famous men. These portraits would later find their final place in the volume called History, where Lowell’s final aim is to reveal the personages of history, even the most exalted, as ordinary men and women; exasperated, saintly, bored, ambitious, loyal, upright or violent as the case may be. So, with these 20th century modernists, Lowell narrates in these notebook sonnets his private moments with these poets, who are as ordinary and distressed in their daily life as anyone else. The solitary writer within, as Lowell well knew, can never be known except on page in the poem. The man in personal life cannot be the same person as the poet in the act of solitary imagination. Lowell’s History the book, in addition to being a debunking or demystifying vehicle, is a vehicle for self-chastisement, as it brings the young Lowell’s heroic version of historical figures still present in the Colonel Shaw of For the Union Dead, as it brings the young Lowell’s heroic version of historical figures down to the usual human record of frailty, cruelty and indifference tempered with occasional appearances of virtue. You have before you Lowell’s sonnet vignettes of Frost, Eliot and Pound. They match in many ways the pen portraits of the poets that Lowell drew in his autobiographical prose. I’m quoting from the prose piece about Frost. Passing the house where Frost lived with in Cambridge, Lowell recalled after Frost’s death a useful conversation he had with the poet while he was at Harvard. This is the quotation: “Here one night he (Frost) was talking about the suicide of a young friend, and said that sometimes when he was excited and full of himself, he came back by thinking how little good his health could do for those that were close to him”. Lowell keeps himself out of that prose sentence, but in the sonnet, since lyrics must be about their author as well as about their topic, he turns the anecdote around. I’ll summarize the lyric just so you know what is in it. The young Lowell who has already experienced violent mood swings makes two attempts to confide in the old poet, first comes in line 5, the second in line 12. In the first attempt, Lowell who has already experienced his first break down says about mania, “Sometimes I feel too full of myself”, but it’s misunderstood by Frost, who thinks Lowell is talking about depression. In his second attempt at explaining himself, Lowell, trying to make himself clearer, makes his manic mood explicit “Sometimes I’m so happy I can’t stand myself”. Once again, Frost misunderstands him and thinks Lowell is talking about joy and good health. It’s very touching, the young poet attempting to talk candidly to the older poet, the older poet not catching on because the young poet is not candid enough.
[TEXT OF ROBERT FROST]
The conversation has been across purposes, but each has at least said something intimate, with the contact ratified as Frost signs a volume of his poetry, for Robert from Robert, his friend in the art. While the young Lowell’s remarks are vague and misunderstood, Frosts are explicit and concern his children. In the prose recollection, written as an obituary, Lowell veiled the fact that Frost had been talking about his son’s suicide, saying that the conversation had been about the suicide of a young friend. But Lowell’s sonnet reveals the truth. Merrill Moore, who also treated the young Lowell, was a psychiatrist and poet, famous for having written a thousand sonnets in a book called M. He was the friend and perhaps lover of Lowell’s mother, but he also attempted to treat Carol Frost without being admitted. When we ask how Lowell reduces Frost to ordinariness in this sonnet, we see that he begins with Frost’s fame which fades to vapor and closes with an inscription in the book of poems. His singing robes all gone, Frost’s nakedness is revealed, first in the mixture of anger and coarseness in his descriptions of his two troubled adult children, then in the sudden reversal in the old poet’s admission that even in moments of joy he reflects on his inability to project his own physical robustness onto the life of his family. Neither his joy nor his health could be passed on to his embittered wife, his two children that died as babies, his two insane children, and his one sane child who died in childbirth, with only one child surviving: Leslie. If we reflect back at the way this sonnet is structured; four lines of fame followed by ten lines of conversation, we see Lowell insisting that the truer portrait of Frost appears in his disturbing words. We have seen celebrity and its human obverse, as Frost’s anger shades down into grim regret. Lowell who was 43 years younger than Frost at the time takes in the older man’s revelations without comment, merely repeating his own remark in clearer form. But the old man is still thinking about his own life, not that of his admirer. The sonnet portrait depicts Frost as a man disappointed in his children and in his own life as in the moment of suffering, the great act is laid aside. How does Lowell do in this series of sketches? How does he sketch the most celebrated of the American modernists, T.S. Eliot? His 1965 obituary essay on T.S. Eliot begins, I wept when T.S. Eliot died, and pays respect to “The Wasteland”. “With all his shortcomings,” says Lowell, “Eliot in this pome has stabbed very deeply and cruelly. This wound, along with many other, is now part of our history. In America, almost all our gods coarsen into giants or shrivel into hollow men. Eliot did neither. His fierceness was restrained. His stillness was never more than the possum’s famed death”. Yet at the end of this literary estimate, obituary estimate, Lowell wants to bring Eliot into view as an ordinary person, making common cause with a younger fellow poet with a family history rather like his own. This is the prose version: “When I was about 25 I met Eliot for the second time. Behind us, Harvard’s Memorial Hall with its wasteful, irreplaceable Victorian architecture, and scrolls of the Civil War dead. Before us, the rush hour traffic. As we got stuck on the sidewalk looking for an opening, Eliot out of a blue sky said, ‘Don’t you loathe being compared with your relatives?’. Pause. As I put the question to myself, groping for what I really felt, what I should decently feel, and what I should indecently feel. Eliot: ‘I do’. Pause again, then the changed lifting voice of delight: ‘I was reading Poe’s reviews the other day. He took up two of my family and wiped the floor with them’. Pause. ‘I was delighted’.” The memorial sonnet begins with the same material, recast into rhythmic lines.
[First lines of T.S. Eliot Sonnet — line breaks = guesses]
Caught between two streams of traffic in the gloom
of Memorial Hall and Harvard’s War dead, and he,
“Don’t you loathe to be compared to your relatives?
I do. I just found two of mine reviewed by Poe.
He wiped the floor with him, and I was delighted.”
Lowell’s walk with Eliot then resumes, and as the sonnet progresses, Eliot recounts his visit to Pound, confined in Washington St Elizabeth Hospital, let off from a charge of treason on the grounds of sanity. Although some argue that Pound was sane, Eliot recognized the degree to which his old friend was mentally disturbed. Then on the two, Eliot and the young Lowell,
[More from T.S. Eliot Sonnet — line breaks = guesses]
“Then on the with wardens’ pace across the yard
talking of Pound. “It’s balls to say he isn’t the way
he is. He’s better though. This year he no longer wants
to rebuild the temple of Jerusalem.” “Yes, he’s better”.
“You speak” he said, when he talked to us.
By then I had absolutely nothing to say.
If the sonnet had ended there, it would have resembled the Frost sonnet, in bringing the great writer down to a mundane level. But with Eliot, Lowell cannot resist the verbal equivalent of tears — “When Eliot died I wept” — and he brings Eliot back up to his fame with a nostalgic and heart-filled direct address by his familiar name Tom, sending him into the night with other brilliant writers who make humor out of and tolerate the boredom of our common life.
Our Tom, one muse, one music had won your luck.
Lost in the dark night of the brilliant talkers,
humor and boredom from the everlasting draws”.
By 1968 in short, Lowell could see the great modernist poets as he had come to see himself. They were, off the page, men who met with disasters in family life, or who saw their best friends go mad, or who, in the case of Williams Carlos Williams, dragged a stroke paralyzed leg, or who in the case of Pound, a once handsome man, contemplated in old age the thick blue veins standing out on his blotched, bent hands, and said, with characteristic metaphorical lucidity, “worms”. You can see that in the Pound sonnet.
[Ezra Pound Sonnet]
In another sonnet, “Our Dead Poets”, Lowell faces the slide from fame of almost all poets who were celebrated in their day.
[Our Dead Poets]
Helen Vendler: Only men can write poems, only men can claim human rights, Nature is indifferent; she’s as interested in a protozoa as she is in a poet, and finally they all fade out into the darkness even if they had top billing. Lowell knows that even the luminaries of the earlier 20th century, Frost, Eliot, Pound Williams, may be eclipsed, but before they go he has wanted to include them in his late poetry of unmasked human existence, reversing his boyish view of them as giants encapsulated in iron clad literary armor. The modernists poets had followed, as Lowell grew older, the trajectory of all father figures, becoming like his own father; simply participants in the human comedy and tragedy. There is a certain stoicism of self and other in the ageing Lowell’s snapshots of these old men; Frost laying his public act aside and greeting his heir, Robert greeting Robert, Eliot sympathizing with Pound’s descent into madness, Pound contemplating his future with the worms as he grimly renames his aged veins. At last, Lowell could picture the common humanity rather than merely the intimidating force of his great poetic predecessors. Thank you.
Ed Herman: That was Helen Vendler, speaking at the Art Institute of Chicago on October 22nd, 2009, as part of Poetry Off The Shelf. The program was cosponsored by The Art Institute and The Poetry Foundation. You can read more about Robert Lowell and some of his poetry at poetryfoundation.org. You’ll also find articles about poetry, an online archive of about 8,000 poems, and other audio programs to download. I’m Ed Herman, thanks for listening to Poetry Lectures from poetryfoundation.org.