As Reviewed By:
Collected Poems of Robert Lowell. Edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2003. 1181 pages. $45.
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground…
than a decade ago, over lunch with a mentor, I was discussing a sonnet sequence
I’d been torturing myself and my friends with for months.
After some initial obfuscation, small-talk, the crunching of potato
chips, and off-handed compliments (don’t all such meetings begin this way?),
he blurted, “Well, you aren’t exactly Robert Lowell.” The
comment bewildered me so much I didn’t even know how to feel stung.
name was part of me by then, early as it was in my poetic education, if only
because I’d been spoon-fed a diet of his poems in several workshops.
It also seemed like all my poetry teachers had run their own work up
against the grain of Lowell’s monolithic lumber most of their lives, as I
expect they all had against Auden’s and Eliot’s too.
If the “moment” of Elizabeth Bishop had dawned for my generation,
eclipsing Lowell’s prominence in the classroom and in our creative
aspirations, he was still far from forgotten.
Of course, I am referring to the Lowell of Life Studies, those
axe-hewn, tortured poetic adventures into mid-century psychodrama: “Skunk
Hour” and “Memories of West Street and Lepke” and “Man and Wife.”
Wasn’t his the bed-time story for all young poets?
There was the Pilgrim pedigree, his re-entitlement under Southern
tutelage, the early phase with its Catholic high style, the heavy buildings of
“Quaker Graveyard” and other such monuments—then the mania, the
conscientious objection, and the long-awaited breakthrough of Life
Studies, where our hero found his own timbre, banishing the New Critics and
his own unhappy family with an unforeseen, scything, intimate verse.
We must remember that Lowell was in many ways offered up to the world by Allen Tate in his introduction to Land of Unlikeness in 1944 (re-printed, wisely, by Bidart and Gewanter) as the inheritor of a poetic imperative: “T.S. Eliot’s prediction that we should soon see a return to formal and even intricate metres and stanzas was coming true, before he made it, in the verse of Robert Lowell.” Tate describes Lowell’s “intellectual” style as “compounded of brilliant puns and shifts of tone; and the willed effect is strengthened by the formal stanzas, to which the language is forced to conform.” In 1961, a few years after the publication of Life Studies, Lowell sang a very different tune, offering his own fairy tale excuse for the shift in his aesthetics, his poetic departure from Tate-Ransom, Inc. From our position now, it becomes clear that Lowell was also perpetuating, if not re-inventing, the curious notion that poets must self-destruct formally in order to rise from their own ashes on the singed wings of free verse. “Poets of my generation,” Lowell lisped,
and particularly young ones have gotten terribly proficient [at writing] a very musical, difficult poem with tremendous skill…yet the writing seems divorced from culture [and] can’t handle much experience. It’s become craft, pure craft, and there must be some breakthrough back into life.
feels Lowell being pulled here by the gravitational force of Heart’s Needle
(which he read in manuscript) and “Howl,” two “breakthroughs” that
preceded his own. And it is hard not to see Lowell’s equation for the ornery
rebuttal it was; by setting up “skill” and “craft” as somewhat
incompatible with “life” and “culture” he could noisily reject his
eroded New Critical ethic of formal purity and his equally eroded comfort with
(what here sounds like) artificiality.
this happy tale much farther is not my purpose here, especially since the
“myth of the postmodern breakthrough” has been exploded so compellingly by
James Longenbach and others. But
when Lowell’s Collected landed on my table recently and I had the
chance to devour the oeuvre in one gorgeous feast, a different Lowell
emerged—the very Lowell to whom my mentor had alluded while dismissing my
career as a sonneteer.
once described the sonnet as a “prison, unto which” he “doomed” himself,
and it struck me that Lowell volunteered for that same willed incarceration,
even during the ragged “free verse” holiday of Life Studies.
But restriction is only half the story.
As Wordsworth had also confessed, “’twas pastime to be bound / Within
the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground.”
For several decades Lowell counted to fourteen, stretching and slackening
the sonnet form during each phase of his career.
The numerology of this hard work is immediately impressive: there are 607
fourteen-line poems in the Collected (yes, I counted, perhaps
badly—please forgive such manic math), including those fourteen liners which
are decidedly unconventional, like the famous tetrameter sonnet, “In the
Cage,” from Lord Weary’s Castle.
No poet, even Shakespeare, could produce so many sonnets without a
high percentage of bad lines and wholesale failures, which are easy enough to
find, particularly in some of the long sonnet sequences:
Home for the night on my ten years’ workbed,
state the obvious, sonnets are squat, lyric vessels that will not bear too much
narrative and will stand for even less abstraction and multi-syllabic verbiage;
they are a “moment’s monument” Dante Gabriel Rossetti reminded us, yet the
reward for such a fever against time is the potential for permanence few other
forms can muster, a fact that certainly attracted Lowell’s grander impulses.
The experience of reading all of Lowell’s sonnets in sequence is
something akin to listening to an obsessive musician riff upon the same scale
decade after decade. There is
an almost physical pleasure in the pattern and a satisfactory joy in its baroque
variations. The numbers suggest, at
the least, that this form was Lowell’s most significant venue for perfecting
the kind of orchestrated improvisation that reads elsewhere as his “free
verse” poetic signature. In fact,
the same tension that makes individual sonnets often less than satisfactory
makes re-reading them together a surprising thrill: the play of endless,
spontaneous digression, the visceral flashes of concrete miscellany, and
Lowell’s muscled demotic always cutting against the grain of the form’s
This is not to suggest that Lowell didn’t also write some of the best individual sonnets we have in modern English. It is impossible to resist looking, for example, to the beautifully awful portrait of modern love that is “To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage,” much of which was spliced from an early draft of “Man and Wife” (which itself once had the more ironic working title “Holy Matrimony”). Lowell extracts from that rather loose draft a sonnet-monologue in rhyming couplets (the saddest wedding bells ever rung?), so expertly finished it appears almost lacquered in its final form, yet disheveled and colloquial enough to suspend our disbelief, as the best of Lowell’s poems always do. Consider the terrifying efficiency with which Lowell delivers this contemporary Wife of Bath from the giddy honeymooning bliss of her opening two lines, with their evocations of a hopeful and hackneyed sensuality, to the third line’s declaration of ruin:
The hot night makes us keep our bedroom windows open.
Craft and life are hardly incompatible here: the first three breathy fragments, with that optimistic caesura, swing like battering rams against the dam that breaks open, with its heavily enjambed, unstoppable pentameter. By mid-poem, she is nearly speechless with complicated disgust: “Oh the monotonous meanness of his lust…. / It’s the injustice…he is so unjust— / whiskey-blind, swaggering home at five.” Lowell pours on the dashes and ellipses here, the essential marks of punctuation that helped him produce the moribund, stammering quality so emblematic of the poems of Life Studies. But since the form requires a conclusion, there is no more room for digression: with the very invocation of “five” her speechlessness breaks into five remaining lines of vitriol. While she exclaims, in perfect iambic, “My only thought is how to keep alive,” the poem’s final details, rendered in grotesque concreteness, make it clear that living could count among the worst of all possible outcomes:
What makes him tick? Each night now I tie
There’s a perplexing ambiguity to her actions, of course: is this masochistic enticement, desperate longing, or some kind of futile escape plan? In any case, the horrible verb “gored” stops the poem in its tracks, as does the tongue-twisting “climacteric of his want,” and the darkly cartoonish image of impotence, physical bulk, and sexual violence that ends the sonnet.
Lowell’s breakthrough, in my mind, was not turning inward or “confessional,” as even he sometimes formulated it. It was his ability to subdue the Miltonic grandeur and heavy instrumentation hard-wired into his DNA—the “high style” we associate with “Quaker Graveyard” —and disguise it as something ragged, low and discursive. The essence of Lowell’s style is built upon the tension between his casual, ruminative, almost impersonal tone and the bedrock of his entrancing declarations, as in “Skunk Hour”:
One dark night,
In a sonnet like “To Speak of Woe That is in Marriage,” as in so many of his sonnets, such tensions are all the more obvious, since the form funnels all discursive contingencies toward conclusion with even greater speed.
If “To Speak of Woe” demonstrates Lowell’s dramatic gifts and his ability to plumb the depths of psychic subtlety (as he would with his own psyche in so many later poems), other sonnets show that Lowell was equally comfortable exercising the form’s vatic conventions, as in the openly public bit of occasional verse that is “Inauguration Day: January 1953.” All fanfare, this tetrameter sonnet turns upon a hinge of exclamation to satirize the pomp and circumstance of Ike’s imperious ascension. Lowell’s political vision is decidedly Roman, here and elsewhere, and so it is appropriate that much of the poem’s lamentation is deflected on to an earlier warrior-king:
Cyclonic zero of the word,
Though a product of Lowell’s “tranquilized fifties,” it is striking how much braver and angry this mocking sonnet is than that bit of patriotic chauvinism, “The Gift Outright,” which Robert Frost famously grumbled for Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. The poem’s five remaining lines declare, with astonishing celerity, Lowell’s own vision of the Waste Land—one that a Cold War has left barren, frigid in its paralyzed sameness, dead at the core:
Ice, ice. Our wheels no longer move.
In some ways Lowell does pick up where Eliot left off, shoring fragments against ruins, piecing such fragments together fourteen lines at a time. But in a more important sense, Lowell’s “historical” sonnets are deeply conventional. Time is the traditional arch-rival of the sonneteer, whose rosebuds must be gathered soon, and the sonnet has always been a heavy weapon against time, a palimpsest on which longings are inscribed in stone, made monumental, since that is the only way the poet might survive.
Lowell teases this idea throughout History, often turning it on
its head, as in the title poem of the sequence, which declares “unlike
writing, life never finishes.” This
is a rather trite declaration at face value, but it is crucial to Lowell that
writing “finishes” so that one might outlive it.
The sonnet is perfect for this kind of battle, since sonnets are limited
to such a degree by their brevity that they offer the appearance of conclusion,
but never the finality of real closure. “History
has to live with what was here, / clutching and close to fumbling all we had,”
the poem begins, and the History sonnets are attempts to isolate and to
commemorate moments that might otherwise elude the poet’s grasp.
They haul him backwards away from the present and at the same time
forward into the world of the famous dead he’ll inhabit soon enough.
Lowell recognizes his own bust pedestalled among theirs already, it
seems; the remainder of the opening sonnet is all memento mori,
self-portrait, and bad omen: “the beautiful, mist-drunken hunter’s
moon ascends— / a child could give it a face: two holes, two holes, / my eyes,
my mouth, between them a skull’s no-nose…”.
There are a number of more or less “serious” poems here and there in History, like “Watchmaker God” with its straightforward, Larkinesque dismantling of belief and its withering conclusion:
Say life is the one-way trip, the one-way flight,
many of the best sonnets in History offer disarmingly intimate glances at
Lowell’s contemporaries, as in “Ezra Pound,” which displays him
“Horizontal on a deckchair in the ward / of the criminal mad….A man without
shoestrings clawing / the Social Credit broadside from your table.”
It is more than poetic celebrity that attracts readers to the brilliant
dialogue-sonnet “Robert Frost,” which recounts a devastating encounter
between the two poets. Lowell opens
this odd tribute with a benign nod to Coleridge, then summarily strips the good,
gray poet of the protective cloak of his populace: “Robert Frost at midnight,
the audience gone / to vapor, the great act laid on the shelf in mothballs.”
Lowell’s own stammered confession to his elder, “Sometimes I’m so
happy I can’t stand myself” (in reference to his manic fits of
“enthusiasm”) is quickly outdone by Frost’s own wicked confession, “When
I am too full of joy, I think / how little good my health did anyone near me.”
Several other poems in the sequence offer us illustrations of Lowell’s
signature self-deprecation. In
“The March 1” and “The March 2,” sketches of Vietnam War protests in
Washington, Lowell depicts himself mock-heroically “Under the too white
marmoreal Lincoln Memorial, / the too tall marmoreal Washington Obelisk, /
gazing into the too long reflecting pool.”
While it may be “lovely to lock arms” in fevered solidarity with his
fellow protestors, he cannot help but reduce his own image to its absurd
physical details, “unlocking to keep my wet glasses from slipping…the
cigarette match quaking in my fingers…sped by photographers, / the notables,
the girls…fear, glory, chaos, rout….”
The illustrious personalities of the History sonnets—heroes and
heroines of past centuries—all earned their place by creating history
in the first place, but our author’s own attempts at significant action are
viewed as failures at best, movements of a “cowardly / foolhardy heart.”
spite of these occasional intrusions of Lowell’s present, most of the sonnets
of History, when taken together, compose a necropolis-zoo in which the
exotic dead are caged and pacing with only the most rudimentary signs to guide
the hapless visitor from century to century.
They achieve their effects mainly through improvisation, direct
statement, and the pleasures of tragicomic anachronism.
Lowell’s mind, chaotically erudite, whirs like a blender, churning up
time and whole tracts of intellectual property to allow chance meetings between
the dead, as in “Atilla, Hitler” or “Coleridge and Richard II,” or the
bizarre duet of Henry VIII and Mohammed.
Though they frequently melt into incoherence, they typically open with
stunning illogical solidity: “Christ’s first portrait was a donkey’s
head…” (“Words”); “The dream went like a rake of sliced bamboo”
(“Randall Jarrell”); “My goiter expert smiles like a raccoon” (“Goiter
Test, Utopia for Raccoons”); and “Smoke weakens the brilliant summer of
Versailles; / marijuana fires fume in the King’s back yard”
collisions of fact and fiction keep the sonnets from becoming too stately or
stiff, and while many comprise acts of portraiture (a preponderance of them
carry famous and infamous names as their titles), they are more like abstract
carvings than figures engraved in bronze, attempts to distill what Gertrude
Stein referred to as the “bottom nature” of her own subjects.
surprisingly, such a looseness of composition occasionally illuminates for us
the more sordid angles of Lowell’s imagination.
In “Cleopatra Topless,” for example, her highness writhes in a
strip-club and Lowell is the awkward, cock-eyed, not quite unwilling gawker,
ready with his usual declarations:
…dancing, she flickered like the family hearth.
celebrates such bizarre free-play in “For John Berryman I,” announcing, “I
feel I know what you have worked through, you / know what I have worked
through—we are words; / John, we used the language as if we made it. / Luck
threw up the coin, and the plot swallowed, / monster yawning for its mess of
potage.” But this monster is the
imagination’s angel more than its demon, since the detritus of such encounters
is rich with possibility: “The out-tide flings up wonders: rivers, linguini, /
beercans, mussels, bloodstreams; how gaily they gallop / to catch the ebb…”.
From the distance of the present, it is possible to see how much
Lowell’s sonnet sequences resemble Berryman’s “Dream Songs.”
In the “Dream Songs,” Berryman discovered a new species of poem, a
dreamer’s lyric that excused itself from Cold War logic and the rules of
waking consciousness; in a related way, Lowell used the sonnet as his own
vehicle of unhinged ventriloquism, pushing the stodgiest of poetic forms to its
most informal possibilities. Lowell’s
own remarks on Berryman’s Dream Songs, first published in The New
York Review of Books in 1964, uncannily describe his own collections of
There is little sequence, and sometimes a single section will explode
placing individual sonnets in the company of so many others, as he does in the
three volumes of 1973 (History, For Lizzie and Harriet and The
Dolphin), Lowell’s sequences afford him room for much more gleeful
untidiness (so much it is hard to think of these poems now being contained
beneath the same cover that holds a spit-polished collection like Lord
Weary’s Castle) and they work through accumulation, if they work at all,
more than through the force of individual poems.
Frank Bidart’s “Introduction,” with its title “You didn’t
write, you rewrote,” reminds us how odd it was to watch Lowell’s
sonnets proliferate in the latter half of his career, and Bidart also points out
that “rethinking work, reimagining it, rewriting it was fundamental to
[Lowell] from the very beginning, and pervasive until the end.”
Though I must put too many crucial differences aside in order to make
this comparison, I’d add that the process by which Lowell produced these
sonnets is formally Byronic. Ottava
rima is beautifully suited to Byron’s particular irony and narrative genius.
And the plot of Don Juan is ultimately subservient to the endless
generation of individual stanzas, each of which is formally self-contained and
kaleidoscopic, but never decisive, leaving something still to be said,
compelling our poet and our hero forever onward, forever unfinished, no
destination in sight. This
same compulsion fuels all three volumes of Lowell’s sonnets and his obsessive
attachment to the form bespeaks something necessary to him on the physical level
of composition. Though Lowell chose
his own creature mascots—his mermaids and dolphins—like Byron, Lowell is a
shark, since in these sonnet sequences it is evident the poet would
suffocate in the life-giving medium of language if he stopped writing for too
long. So sonnets breed more
sonnets, form leading on to form, and it becomes clear that Lowell found in
those fourteen lines a kind of generative device for making poems in spite of,
and out of, his desperations.
The downside to this method of composition, of course, will be our
frequent bemusement and dissatisfaction with so much repetition and so much of
the quotidian trash of autobiography. This
is a problem Lowell himself saw at the end of his career, recorded in his famous
“Epilogue,” where he confesses “…sometimes everything I write / with the
threadbare art of my eye / seems a snapshot, / lurid, rapid, garish, grouped, /
heightened from life, / yet paralyzed by fact.” He pronounces similar sentiments in the prose of
“After Enjoying Six or Seven Essays on Me,” remarking that in his late
“unrhymed blank verse sonnets…. Obscurity and confusion came when I tried to
cram too much in the short space.”
His persistence with the form, Lowell decided, resulted in the accidental
discoveries he made when craft merged unpredictably with life: “I had a chance
such as I had never had before, or probably will again, to snatch up and verse
the marvelous varieties of the moment. I
think perfection (I mean outward coherence not inspiration) was never so
difficult.” He had to
re-liberate himself, he claimed, from “the sonnet’s cramping and military
beat,” in order to complete his final volume, Day by Day.
This is slightly disingenuous, or willfully misleading, since his sonnets
were hardly military and rarely cramped at all, but perhaps he needed to believe
once again in a formal reawakening. In
fact, at least to some degree, in his sonnets Lowell succeeded in answering his
early complaint against a poetry of “pure craft” by producing sonnets more
organically suited to his distinctive, chatty intelligence and his “life.”
What we find in these three books is a byproduct of that output, which
means as many as half of the sonnets printed there read like exercises in
pursuit of this ideal. They are notebooks indeed: at times pedantic, at
others hermetic, too often cruel and self-serving (even if their operative mode
is to be read as self-effacing). There
are so many successes too, the profits of his messy persistence, profits of the
accidents of process, poems that strike us as Robert Lowell’s, as permanent.
The sequence “New York,” one of Lowell’s strongest, builds each
sonnet upon the hard rock of direct statement, rendering them as bright as
snapshots in the Lowell family album. They
are multi-vocal, juggling quotation and questions constantly, but they do not
hide behind the camouflage of bitter rhetoric.
In fact, the best sequences from For Lizzie and Harriet and The
Dolphin rarely employ the techniques that once made these books
“controversial”: Lowell’s tendency to hijack private correspondence and to
blare sordid details (things objected to by Elizabeth Bishop).
This is not to say they are not anguished.
In his recollection of “New Year’s Eve,” for example, he blurts:
By miracle, I left the party half
“Dear Sorrow 3” opens by quoting the daughter, Harriet, “We never see
him now, except at dinner,/ then you quarrel, and he goes upstairs...,”
but turns quickly back upon Lowell himself, who muses first upon the figure of
an old playground with “two broken swings,” emblem of a “half century”
that, like them, “fought to stay in place,” and then turns overtly
philosophical: “Time that mends an object lets men go, / No doctor does the
work of the carpenter.” Characteristically,
any such blowsy generalization is dismantled with blunt restatement:
Each day I cherish a juster perspective,
The bestial is a recurrent motif throughout the “marital” sequences. This is manifested in the predatory psychology of our poet, which we see evidence of here, and more broadly as Lowell’s boiling down of a species of human nature he understands best through the lens of his weird zoology. So Harriet is “The hurt mother” who “sleeps awake like a cat till daybreak/ stretched on the mat by the bed of our breathy child….” And in section two of “Circles”, Lowell takes a playful stab at distilling Das Ewig Weibilche (Goethe’s “eternal feminine”) as it is found in all the earth’s domestic beasts, his own unduly tortured human wife included. “Birds have a finer body and tinier brain— / who asks the swallows to do drudgery, / clean, cook, pick up a peck of dust per diem?” the poem opens, teasing a rhetorical question he might be asking of himself. The examination of backyard critters that follows reveals more about the Lowell home, we quickly realize, than the poet’s layman naturalism:
If we knock on their homes, they wince uptight with fear,
is not the impulse toward playful or cruel caricature that makes these poems so
attractive and odd, just as they are not merely compelling as fodder for lonely
biographers who wish to seek out the stench of something rotten in the
Lowell-Hardwick house. This sonnet
intoxicates me with its strange hypothetical urge to bring the wild inside, to
find totems, some company in the domestic prison of home, where all is
correspondingly “fuming,” “boiling,” and “nerve-wrung.”
In a poem from the same sequence, “Our Twentieth Wedding Anniversary
2,” Lizzie is again the creature best equipped to flit within the orbit of
Lowell’s inconstant enthusiasm: “You dive me, / graceful, higher,
quicker…unsteady swallow / who will uproot the truth that cannot change.”
“Fishnet” and “Dolphin” the opening and closing sonnets that bookend The Dolphin (and the best twenty-eight lines to be found there) together compose this sonneteer’s ars poetica. The opening lines of both evoke what Dickinson before him called “The Truth’s superb surprise,” a force that “blinds us” with its clarity in “Fishnet,” and is the tutelary mode of inspiration in “Dolphin,” which begins: “Dolphin, you only guide me by surprise….” Both sonnets also confess the drawbacks of such haphazard swimming, since “surprise” for Lowell often translates to moments of raw self-exposure. He accuses himself of “saying too little, then too much” in the first poem, and reveals in the last:
I have sat and listened to too many
The net, Lowell’s figure for the sonnet, is apt; what its fourteen lines snag and spill to gasp surprised upon the bow should probably be forgotten, but it is to be looked at quickly and clearly anyway. This writer’s fate was to persist in letting out that line as far as it can go, employing until the last those tools at his disposal. Simultaneously repellent and enticing, Lowell’s sonnets comprise something essential to his oeuvre because in their spotty successes and frequent failures, in their labor to grasp at something oceanic and fatal, they underlay all he made, if not overtly legible, not invisible at least. He ends “Fishnet” with the calm resignation of one whose tasks are rudimentary, flawed, but since the out-tide may “fling up wonders,” as he put it in the earlier Berryman sonnet, they are necessary:
Poets die adolescents, their beat embalms them,