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The Interpres-sive Lowell
Posted By James Rother On July 23, 2010 @ 11:30 am In Reviews | No Comments
Collected Poems of Robert Lowell. Edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2003. 1181 pages. $45.
Three years ago the Collected Poems everyone was talking about was J. D. McClatchy’s James Merrill; last year it was Czeslaw Milosz’s; and in 2003, the duple bounty of Paul Keegan‘s Ted Hughes and Frank Bidart’s and David Gewanter’s Robert Lowell is the talk of many towns. The Lowell settles a silt bed of poetic sediment that will take a good deal longer than a memorial year to sift through and assess. In addition to nearly one thousand pages of verse (including seven appendices, one of which contains the entire Land of Unlikeness, Lowell’s first book of poems, never reprinted in its original form), this griffin-like volume incorporates 150 pages of editorial notes, an index of titles, a glossary, and a detailed chronology of the poet’s life. Staring down at my copy with its obtruding folds and slips, I feel more like a dragonslayer than a reviewer. But the career of this poet was like that. Preoccupied with its own bashing and thrashing about, it managed to breathe fire at both ends.
The Lowell took its own good time in the depositing, but then the Boston poet, like his fellow chaostician, Friedrich Nietzsche, always seemed a trifle posthumous. Though he may have slipped off to Erebus nearly 30 years ago—1977, to be exact—what was felt by many to be missing in both him and his poetic output is still very much with us, if that’s not to stand a venerable cliché on its head. We continue to feel his loss, but as the obverse—in itself quite strange—of the underlife which his poetry reveals as the novitiate of a long process of self-gathering and expenditure. That is to say, we experience it like an absence slicing through us, a wind bringing further devastation to an already sandblasted wasteland. Or, to backflip the simile, like a storm illuminating blooms as nightmarishly thick as those dominating the garden of Sebastian Venable’s aunt in Tennessee Williams’s play (and film) Suddenly Last Summer. Though never quite as quotable as the verse of some other poets—even those whose work was less bitingly memorable than his—Lowell’s lines can, and often do, grab us by our ganglions and toss us mercilessly about. Not with the force of nine-inch nails driven into our self-composure (though this was certainly the preference of the early Lowell), but with an energizing crackle that finds its way to the roots of short hairs as well as long. Then, too, there’s the unmistakable sound of a Lowell poem as it strikes the innermost ear: a threshing sound that at once suggests the whooshing of looms and the throbbing of Narns (though not always in synch). And off to one side of that, cresting the undertow of ambient noise, is the inevitable sound of iron being pumped—of Wirklichkeit being Schwarzeneggered into myth.[private]
Such hyping of reality is not something that American poets have needed much coaxing to pile on to. The joy in excessive wattage, in coloring what is already toadstoolish with bluebottle rant and lavalamp-shaded hyperbole, is one of the dominant genes of modernism that has proved resistant to any number of pesticides. True, the 20th Century American night is always darkest before dawn, but the sunrise that follows is small comfort because it is utterly hapless, helpless and hopeless at countering the darkness within. As a writer, Lowell seemed to have learned without coaching what cockeyed optimists like F. Scott Fitzgerald needed a lifetime of illusion puncturing to comprehend: that the dark night of the soul, heart-stopping as it can be at three o’clock in the morning, is just as likely to cause apoplexy when descending unannounced at three in the afternoon. The torturous lucubrations dotting volumes like History (1973) do much to make this clear, though bouts of transparency yield in the earlier Lowell to glazings over that boast the limpidity of, at best, clarified butter:
I bring the child of Idumean night,
a black thing, bleeding, stumbling—its wings are plucked.
Through the window’s gold and aromatic fire,
panes frosted by night, alas, and wearisome,
the dawn throws itself upon my sacred lamp—
palms! It reveals this relic to its father;
I try to cheer it with a hostile smile
That chills our blue and sterile solitude. . . .
Here, the machinations may be Mallarmean, as its title suggests (“Mallarmé 2: Gift of a Poem”), but the obsessions are strictly Lowell’s, the loneliness of that poet’s azur notwithstanding. That child of Idumean night is everywhere in his poeticizing, parsing his alphabet of horror in symbols that dip their wick as little in the philosopher Frege’s Sinn as in its flagrant Other, Bedeutung. What drives a Lowell poem is the same engine that kicks in to shift a dream, with Harley-like vroom, into cauchemar pure and simple; and for that, both sense and meaning as conventionally construed must give way to contra naturam’s bill of particulars, as in the poem “Unwanted,” from Day by Day (1977):
Too late, all shops closed—
I alone here tonight on Anabuse,
surrounded only by iced white wine and beer,
like a sailor dying of thirst on the Atlantic—
one sip of alcohol might be death,
death for joy.
Yet in this tempting leisure,
good thoughts drive out bad;
causes for my misadventure, considered
for forty years too obvious to name,
come jumbling out
to give my simple autobiography a plot.
A common, perhaps over-charitable way of viewing Lowell has coincided with the poet’s own take on the work of his friend and one-time mentor, Allen Tate. Back in 1959, he remarked in a brief memoir, “Visiting the Tates,” that the poems of this Southern poet, “all of them, even the slightest, are terribly personal,” but that “[out] of splutter and shambling come a killing eloquence.” Like Tate, he had difficulty keeping his hands off his own finished work, seeing it always as not so much completed as in a state of corrective suspension. And, as with the author of “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” he was an endless recycler of already written and published work. Still, and rather unfortunately, the transfer of qualities between these two not wholly dissimilar poets fails to connect at both ends of the exchange. From the very onset of Lowell’s career, critics have fallen all over themselves apologizing for the various destabilizations introduced into his tenuously executed highwire act. They have ignored the not infrequent breakdowns in meaning and failures to communicate beyond the semaphores of ruin, frantically waved, which do the work of sense in more poems in volumes like Lord Weary’s Castle (1946) and The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951) than his claque care to admit. It’s not that there isn’t a fine intelligence deploying those intricate metaphysical quadrilles of his, in which antinomies and self-devouring casuistries are put through tortuously Scholastic paces. It’s just that the superintendence cuts in and out like a cell phone passing through tunnels, reducing the poet’s anxiety (expressed in all those unstated “Can you hear me now?”’s) to a child’s garden of insecurities. The almost unthinkable failure of contemporary verse anthologists to include such pieces as “After the Surprising Conversions,” “The Holy Innocents,” “Colloquy in Black Rock” and “The Death of the Sheriff” in their collections speaks volumes, and not just about the knee-jerk involuntarisms of certain “golden treasurers.”
For decades now, we have been conned into believing that the young, manic-depressive—and yes, Roman Catholic—Lowell is the only legitimate Lowell. All the other later and debased hypostases are but chips off the one true block, broken field parodies of the original touchdown run whose hundred-yard triumph secured a championship for the team able to count among its retired jerseys such legends of the page as the James Russell of the name and Aunt Amy. Surely it’s time we put away childish things and looked without abashment at Lowell as he is and not just as a sum of parts held in that slipknot version of esteem routinely extended to poets we heartily admire and respect but not by any stretch of the imagination—whether ours or the poet’s—remotely love. One stubbornly destructive myth about Lowell that has been out there for years is his overriding significance as a confessionalist poet—indeed, the doyen of an entire school of confessionalist poets that includes W. D. Snodgrass, John Berryman, Anne Sexton (a student of Lowell’s), and a host of others on whose fame this poet’s own celebrity, via some convoluted whorl of logic, has proved parasitical. And this when all the evidence points to a reversal of roles in his poetry—an unprecedented one, in fact—by which the poet, playing out an inordinately complex psychological drama, is cast not as supplicant but as confessor. In this oddly decentered agon, the Supplicant sins, errs, sinks piteously into a slough of despond and seeks relief from his despair. The Confessor takes note of the Supplicant’s disequilibrium but does not presume to pigeonhole or otherwise categorize his or her lapses. He listens, but does not judge, his task—better yet, his vocation—being to superintend the other’s transgressions from the forest of error to the clearing of grace. Thus, in Lowell’s perennially recyclable transformative world, a poem’s confessionalist “content”—its “dreamwork,” if you will—is assigned the role of Supplicant and its form handed over to the translative overseer of Confessor. If all this seems unduly Catholic, it is, and it isn’t—Catholic, that is. Grace encompasses more than forgiveness, redemption, salvation. It also—pardon the italics—consigns suppleness, agility, lithe spiritual deportment to the sublime limbo of artistic form. Such grace tends to abound precisely where the gnarled issues of form disspiriting content and content de-etherealizing form congregate, which is around the focal point of choosing a metric or form of prosody that will prove serviceable over long stretches of time and verse. How else explain why, in the latter stages of his career, Lowell seized upon the sonnet sequence as the form to sustain an enduring conversation between his own somewhat Yeatsian Self and Soul? True, such sequencing might, to a poet fearful about having passed his prime, have represented the most convenient marital arrangement wherein form and expediency—most notably in the “form” of emotional topicality—might cohabit more or less amicably within not just one poem but an entire run of them, a happenstance we find occurring with marked individuality—and some splendor—in the thematically elaborate sonnet cycle, History.
The most informative key (though not necessarily the best guide) to Lowell’s Collected Poems is, without a doubt, his Collected Prose (1987); and the most useful pieces in that volume are not, as some feel, the two lengthy interviews with Frederick Seidel and the man who would later become his biographer, Ian Hamilton, but the salty and at times morose memoirs commemorating the two most influential weavers of his—one hesitates to say “crazyquilt”—creative carpet: John Crowe Ransom and William Carlos Williams. It is here that we get to see the public and the private Lowell brought together not as Grant met Richmond, but in the manner of that formidable warrior sitting down with his opposite number at Appomattox, with all malice put aside and with only a little resentment for four ill-spent years to lubricate the proceedings. Inhabiting as they do a single hologram (one contracted into a double space able to contain with simultaneity and force the stylistic extremities of “Mr. Edwards and the Spider”  and “91 Revere Street” ), the public and private Lowell are in this pair of pieces (one on each poet) encouraged to come to terms, if only briefly and temporarily, with one another’s alterity and to bespeak the doubts of each other’s univocal mind calmly, and within a contrail of lost time somewhat recaptured through an access of Proustian fortuitousness. (The private agonies of the “public” Lowell were most revealingly displayed during the early years of the Vietnam war when he declined to accept President Lyndon Johnson’s invitation to the White House for a soirée honoring Americans who had distinguished themselves in the arts and was led to participate, along with such literary figures as Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer, in a four-day anti-Vietnam war demonstration in Washington, D.C., in October 1967, culminating in a much publicized attempt to “levitate” the Pentagon. Mailer’s legendarily monomaniacal guide to this event, The Armies of the Night: The Novel as History, History as A Novel , offers a not too flattering glimpse of Lowell’s hesitations and duplicities, but, given the nature of his enterprise, history may have been more novelized than objectively accounted for in this instance.)
The decantings of involuntary memory mentioned above occurred when Lowell felt called upon to write an obituary for the author of Paterson in 1962, and another one, twelve years later, for Ransom in 1974. He had already published two reviews of Williams’s work in 1947 and 1948 and one detailing his views on Ransom in that latter year. His real feelings and the judgments they would result in did not finally cohere, however, until having to deal with the fact of each’s disappearance in the flesh forced Lowell to reconsider how as men and poets they had helped shape American letters and, more importantly perhaps, what his own work had come to say about the posterity their contributions might enjoy in the ricocheting world of achievement bouncing off achievement they had all in their different ways profited from.
Lowell apprenticed himself to Williams and Ransom in different phases of what proved over time a vicious circle of remonstrances. Just about the time that, as a young and impressionable poet, he was pulled toward the “no ideas but in the facts” modality of Williams’s Paterson: Book One (a work that made the New Jersey doctor a contravening heliotrope in more than one natural child’s garden of verses), he found himself being jerked in a direction completely opposed to its tendencies. He and a handful of other gifted ephebes gravitated toward the feet of the scholar poet and critical guru who—you might want to hold your breath here–coined the term “New Criticism” and squired it as a mantra through several decades of almost mystical ascendancy, and could claim over a period of 30 years to have instructed, in addition to Lowell himself, such leading lights of the literary-industrial complex as Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Randall Jarrell, and Peter Taylor. The experiencing of Ransom was, as Lowell tells it, an epiphany not to be missed, especially as this Southern gentleman’s conversation, which he insists was as well-mannered as the poems he wrote, soared over the unmannerly solecisms of his time like an eagle above a yardful of turkeys.
. . . How few modern poems—however obscure, fierce, sonorous, pretentious, million-dollar-worded—have the distinction of good conversation. I do not mean mannered conversation, the humor the English are said to inherit or get in their schools; but a distinction that a man must have in him, for he can never fake it or buy it. Literary people as a rule have less of their own to say and consequently use words with less subtlety and precision than a Maine farmer. But this is not what is in question. To appreciate the language of Ransom’s poems, you must realize that it is the language of one of the best talkers that has ever lived in the United States. . . .
But it was to Williams that Lowell would ultimately gravitate, the Williams of the later books of his epic that could somehow never move beyond magnificent torso to fully limbed anthropos in a way that would give living credence to the identification (so important to the poem) of the life of poet with that of his lexicographic alter-ego, Paterson the city, Paterson the river and falls, and Paterson the American Adam. Paterson it was (in belated rediscovery mode) that led Lowell to such experiments as Life Studies and particularly to such experiments in poetic prose as “91 Revere Street.” (With only the slightest twist of historical irony—and addition of a sibilant—that memoir could well have been titled “91 Reverse Street.”) And Paterson it was that saved Lowell from that part of himself that would have continued to serve the muse of formalism in Ransomesque perpetuity, with all its nodes of snobbish conformity and arrogant conservatism masquerading as Euro-cultural conservatorship.
There’s nothing new in proposing that the deckchairs on the well-stuffed liner of Lowell’s career be reshuffled in such a way that, with a nod to Ecclesiastes, the last and least popular of Lowell’s poems shall, when all dust clears, be seen as first and the first last. Nor is trumpeting the desirability of such a realignment likely to keep Lowell’s following—largely untutorable, and probably standing, as I speak, staring at the “You are here” arrow on a diagram of the attractions accessible to tourists in Bidart’s and Gewanter’s (neatly manicured) sacred grove—from insisting things be kept just as they are. The famous remark by Elizabeth Bishop, the poet’s long-time friend, that it is a lot easier to succeed as an American poet with a family name like Lowell to fall back on, drives this point home most “peer-suasively.” But for those unconvinced of the insidious alchemy that mightily conjuring noms de famille can work, a brief parenthesis will no doubt prove instructive. In a tribute to T. S. Eliot published shortly after the great man’s death, Lowell recalled a conversation he’d had with him in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when Lowell was but a stripling of twenty-five. “Behind us,” he remembered, “was Harvard Memorial Hall with its wasteful, irreplaceable Victorian architecture and scrolls of Civil War dead. Before us, the rush-hour traffic.” Stuck for a subject of conversation that would bridge their difference in age, Eliot “out of a blue sky” asked: “’Don’t you loathe being compared with your relatives?’” After a significant pause, during which the younger poet “put the question to myself, groping for what I really felt, for what I should decently feel and what I should indecently feel,” Eliot piped up, “’I do’” and paused again. After a moment and “with a changed lifting voice of delight,” he declared, ”’I was reading Poe’s reviews the other day. He took up two of my family and wiped the floor with them.’” Another pause, and then: “’I was delighted.’” Now, before anyone is tempted to dissolve in admiration before Eliot’s repudiation of snobbery in all its cunning abjections, it might be wise to go back to an Eliotic crux as etched in critical marble as it is shrewd in its hypostasizing of critics’ short-sightedness. I am referring to the often cited passage from the 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in which poets who court the “personal” are roundly condemned for letting the side down. “Poetry,” Eliot harrumphs in that snooty tone generally reserved for reminding the rabble their place is with Dickens and Billy Bunter but not with him, “is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” Then—and one can imagine with what relish Eliot primed the kicker that follows—“But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want escape from these things.” Well, it’s the same with having notables and honorables as relatives. One has to have them before one can privately enjoy seeing them raked over the coals by their inferiors, at least with regard to the social register.
The sting of that Eliotic scorpion’s tail cannot have failed to register socially on Lowell, and well past his twenty-fifth year, the one designated in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” as the watershed time when a poet chooses to either become a compleat angler and fish for life or simply cuts bait and does something else for a living. The trouble is that it is mighty difficult to get a precise fix on just what it is that makes Lowell Lowell. In fact, without a reliable b.s. detector and a divining rod to show where the gushers aren’t, it’s nearly impossible. For there are gushers aplenty in Lowell country, and no mistake. His “land of unlikeness”—that topos in which even things that fail to resemble one another manifest a disturbing resemblance to themselves, and in ways not apparent to the dualistic eye bequeathed modernity by the Cogito of Descartes—is allowed to breed its own rhetoric of excess, its own recombinant DNA of de trop—as Paul Valéry might have put it, had he lived to see French Enlightenment duple consciousness reluctantly give way to the double helix. Indeed, Allen Tate’s Introduction to Lowell’s first hornbook hints at just such a proliferating sameness amid the metastases of difference in this poet’s world. “The style,” he writes, “is bold and powerful, and the symbolic language often has the effect of being willed; for it is an intellectual style 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.” Willed effects, language being forced into strongholds of accommodation with errancies of logopoeia, scintillant paranomasias and other observancies mentalized beyond their perceptual means: these, from the get-go, were Lowell’s figural stock in trade, his inventory of sight-drafts drawn on exacerbated spirituality’s accounts receivable.
One of the best examples in that first volume so reflective of Lowellian distrust of all but the most phenomenologically disinheritable of everyday reality’s hangers-on is “Christ for Sale.” This is a poem in which statement per se is made to take a back seat to speaking in that peculiarly drawn and quartered version of “tongues” that suggests Pentecostal accountancy adrift in a maze of its own double bookkeeping:
In Greenwich Village, Christ the Drunkard brews
Gall, or spilled bone-vat, siphons his bilged blood
Into weak brain-pans and unseasons wood:
His auctioneers are four hog-fatted Jews.
In furs and bundlings of vitality,
Cur-ladies, ho, swill down the ichor in this Dye.
Drying upon the crooked nails of time,
Dirty Saint Francis, where is Jesus’ blood,
Salvation’s only Fountainhead and Flood?
These drippings of the Lamb are Heaven’s crime.
Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan, come and buy:
Gomorrah had you known the wormwood in this Dye!
Us our Savior’s mangled mouth may kiss
Although beauticians plaster us with mud:
Dog of the veins, your nose is stopped with blood;
Women are thirsty, let them lap on this:
The lunchers stop to spit into Christ’s eye.
O Lamb of God, your loitering carrion will die.
The rage engulfing this poem is that of an apostatic Sadducee with tarbucket and Pharisees to burn, but no feathers or a rail to run them out of town with, which in this case is Manhattan and environs. But rage in art is all that it can profitably rise to. The venom, almost too viscous upon the tongue to spew as needed, wastes itself on serpent-tooth generalities of mangled Christs and insufficiently pious Christers. The poet has pulled out most of righteous anger’s stops, and though there be noise enough in this poem to wake the dead, New York’s Avenue “C”—the thoroughfare “bearing Christ’s initial into the New World,” to partially quote the title of a famous poem by Galway Kinnell—is likely to see few resurrections this year of scattered bones and other such fixings of Apocalypse. Also, the organist working the keyboard in this chorale has no easy job keeping these Gadarene syllabics from their date with a cliff. He is left to metricize as well as he can a rhythm from among bellows wheezing for lack of energetic feet to drive them. Clearly (if that’s the right word), the sap of “Christ for Sale” gathers most concentratively in its last four lines, where Lowell’s raffish jeremiad spits into the eye of a Christmas cheer based on lucre and the filth it strews about like Rockefeller dimes thrown to Depressioneers lining Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. Christ’s ravaged body, the soma and ichor of humankind, is revealed as nothing but carrion the single bodily purpose of which is but to die. His sacrifice, spread so thin its rivulets of blood become indistinguishable from beauticians’ mud and cosmeticians’ nail polish, means no more to guzzlers of slop in hundreds of luncheonettes and diners than would a turkey’s to the preparing of a blue plate special.
Fortunately, despair comes equipped with deep pockets, for poems like this dig deep into them. But it’s more for the game of exhausting optimism than to try to stabilize the elevator of hope plummeting out of control. Lowell’s gift—and there’s no doubt whatever that even at his near-worst, we’re dealing with a gifted poet—was for trashing metaphysical environments, life-systems, life-worlds. He had a knack for sensing—it would be ceding too much to call it discovering—just where the tolerable left off and the intolerable began. He could grasp, as in these lines from a poem of his middle period about marriage, “Near the Ocean”—
Betrayals! Was it the first night?
They stood against a black and white
inland New England backdrop. No dogs
there, horse or hunter, only frogs
chirring from the dark trees and swamps.
Elms watching like extinguished lamps.
Knee-high hedges of black sheep
Encircling them at every step
—why a slant, bordering on a feminine rhyme had to end the above stanza, why the use of, say, deep, or steep, or leap, for instance, would have thrown the whole shebang of pre-coitum triste recollected in post-tristem tranquility over the edge. Step was as necessary a word choice as any poet short of a Baudelaire could have come up with without risking a case of the bends. Without it, encircling loses all infernal riposte and black sheep its Dantean irony, not to mention the further implication lurking in extinguished lamps of a visionary gleam reduced to the blurred mereness of mimesis en abyme. It’s no accident that “Near the Ocean” followed the glancing improvisations on set themes of Imitations (1961), in which Lowell had the opportunity to try his hand at, among other things, Baudelairean reticence in the face of that sublime tact which only malice can muster in the appropriate seasonal visitations.
His translation-cum-adaptation of “Chant d’automne” shows how well he learned that poet’s lesson of never trying to say more than the deterrences of less permit, the permutations of a poet’s life on the job otherwise making hash of the combinations thrown up by the stress and other occupational hazards of the stressful visionary with attention deficit disorder that randomize everything but the making of verse. Lowell remarks in his Introduction to Imitations that his fourteen Baudelaire poems “were begun as exercises in couplets and quatrains and to get away from the longer, less concentrated problems of translating Racine’s Phèdre.” They may have begun that way, but that is not at all where, or how, they end up. No Anglo-American poet has proved better at catching the iron wisps of Baudelairean tonality than Lowell, unless it be Roy Campbell or—this might shock some readers—Aldous Huxley, who, late in life, perhaps while scouring the tropics for Wordsworth, managed to find voyagers to Cythera able to instruct him how to summon Symbolist shades using nothing more Odyssean than the oxblood dye found in some tourist’s sandals. Translation is all about capturing the will o’ the wisp of tone, which is why, the same Introduction tells us, it was necessary in “laboring hard to get the tone” to be “reckless with literal meaning.” Campbell could get past the shock factor in Baudelaire to the circuitry deep in its innards and convey its amperage to those made eager by convention to take it for the static electricity it isn’t. Take his own version of “Song of Autumn,” for example, which employs the lacy and the gargoylesque to equal disadvantage in dispelling the influence of Poe doing an imitation of Dante:
Soon into frozen shades, like leaves, we’ll tumble.
Adieu, short summer’s blaze, that shone to mock.
I hear already the funereal rumble
Of logs, as on the paving-stones they shock.
Winter will enter in my soul to dwell—
Rage, hate, fear, horror, labor forced and dire!
My heart will seem, to sun that polar hell,
A dim, red frozen block, devoid of fire.
Shuddering I hear the heavy thud of fuel.
The building of a gallows sounds so good!
My spirit, like a tower, reels to the cruel
Battering-ram in every crash of wood.
The ceaseless echoes rock me and appal.
They’re nailing up the coffin, I’ll be bound,
For whom?—Last night was Summer. Here’s the Fall.
There booms a farewell volley in the sound.
The “tone” Lowell always claimed to be listening for when translating other poets’ exacerbations (for it was these he was primarily drawn to) clings most stubbornly to lines like “The building of a gallows sounds so good!” (“L’échafaud qu’on bâtit n’a pas d’écho plus sourd”) and “The ceaseless echoes rock me and appal” (“Il me semble, bercé par ce choc monotone”). Perhaps Campbell goes out too far on a limb with the first of these lines which is almost bound to bring bounding to the contemporary reader’s mind Robert Duvall’s Parthian shot from his helicopter in the movie Apocalypse Now: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” But how else render in English, a language which, unlike French, is more susceptible to the “ho” factor than the “hum” and inclines its writers to over-insure themselves against understatement in things like apostrophes and exclamations? The French see their Enlightenment as having been more literary than scientific, while the English have tended since Roger Bacon’s time—and if not quite that far back, then certainly since that of his descendant, Sir Francis—have kept theirs pretty much restricted to the laboratory. This has led French poets to underwrite, not overwrite promptings sent them by their Muse. Thus, Racine—Lowell’s model of leonine grace energized by, as he puts it, “the glory of its hard, electric rage”—could harness a relatively miniscule vocabulary to a life-world of concepts that makes such Shakespearean incandescences as “the multitudinous seas incarnadine” seem less a Roman candle than an over-ambitious sparkler. Racine could not be reckless in his pursuit of iron necessities, but he could pit the headlong improprieties of his heroes and heroines against the tungsten decorums appertaining to every abstract noun filling out that diction of his. Similarly, Baudelaire, though tied down by self-imposed proscriptions like Gulliver at the mercy of the Lilliputians, was able to contain within spaces bounded by rhymes a world in which anything went because the psychic hotel that was his private hell allowed for checking in, but not for checking out. Yet, for all the sexual maladroitness blown up into, among other things, occult aggrandisements of prowess and juicily racist stereotypes (giant negresses presiding over bondage fantasies, etc.), the ceremonies that Baudelaire made himself master of seem grotesquely public for a poet who, despite a taste for les plaisirs du boulevardier, preferred for the most part to eat in. Translative geniuses like Campbell and Lowell show us where the true Baudelairean recklessness—that without which art falls back to paint-by-number avant gardism—resides, and it isn’t in the metrics, where the floral arranger of evil blooms is about as radical as Hugo or Lamartine.
Lowell found such recklessness no less obligatory when writing his own verse. In his poetic universe, literal meaning, the photographic measure of a poem’s reality, itself measurable in pixels, declines in importance as the field of vision expands to meet the shutter speed of tone moving in perpendicular or inverse relation to it. Strict form can prevent the two axes of realization from butting heads, but only if the requisite “technique, luck and rightness of hand” guide the enterprise. This supports the notion already suggested by some critics that because Lowell drew no effective distinctions between his translations and his original verse, we shouldn’t either; that in fact we could glean as much of Lowell’s poetic method from an adaptation like “Autumn” as from anything in volumes like Life Studies and The Dolphin (1973). How, for instance, distentions of personality can be folded into the concavities liverish distemper would ordinarily cede to melodramatic foie gras:
Now colder shadows . . . Who’ll turn back the clock?
Goodbye bright summer’s brief too lively sport!
The squirrel drops its acorn with a shock,
cord-wood reverberates in my cobbled court.
Winter has entered in my citadel:
hate, anger, fear, forced work like splitting rock,
and like the sun borne to its northern hell,
my heart’s no more than a red, frozen block.
Shaking, I listen for the wood to fall;
building a scaffold makes no deafer sound.
Each heart-beat knocks my body to the ground,
like a slow battering ram crumbling a wall.
I think this is the season’s funeral,
some one is nailing a coffin hurriedly.
For whom? Yesterday summer, today fall—
The steady progress sounds like a goodbye.
In a successful translation, Lowell’s view suggests, the resemblance horizon between the poem rendered into the poet’s own language and a typically fine poem of his or her own should be virtually seamless, and when highly successful, entirely seemless as well. This is not to say that two notably distinct and individual poets are made by an act of transliterative homogenization to fade into one, but rather that the virtues—and yes, even the faults—of the original meld into a single stylistic potential of which the translator poet is the principal manipulator, if not designer. The chief difference between “Autumn” and “Chant d’automne” is that, beyond mere accidents of language and ethos, there is neither a chief difference nor a need to establish one. In which defining particulars could, for example, Lowell’s own “Snake,” from the twelve-sonnet sequence “New York” that is part of For Lizzie and Harriet (1973), be said to differ from the Baudelairean sixteener cited above? Certainly not in its habiliments of psychic ravage and religious hyperventilation:
One of God’s creatures, just as much as you,
or God; what other bends its back in crooks
and curves so gracefully, to yield a point;
brews a more scalding venom from cold blood;
or flings a spine-string noosed about their throats:
hysterical bird, wild pig, or screaming rabbit?
Often I see it sunning on bright, brisk days,
when the heat has ebbed from its beloved rocks;
it is seamless, scaled down to its integrity,
coiled for indiscriminate malevolence.
Lately, its valor pushed it past men’s patience;
stoned, raw-fleshed, it finds its hold—sentenced
to hibernate fifty years. . . . It will thaw, then kill—
my little whip of wisdom, lamb in wolf-skin.
Both are—to whatever muzzy (and fuzzy) extent the formula is accepted as currency— “Lowell poems,” our inability to hone that distinction any finer being less the fault of our critical faculties than of the distance such distinctions will travel on a chit of frequent flier miles depreciated by our having shuttled thoughtlessly and for too long between both Aristotelian and postmodern hubs. Without wasting too much time separating the nominalist goo of one from the anti-realist gloop of the other, let’s just say that the Aristotelian mindset grounds the formula’s proprietary fungibility in moribund properties of style, while the postmodern reëstablishes the authority of the formula by not so subtly opting for the absence-is-really-presence dodge beloved of neo-Sartrean anexistentialists like Jacques Derrida and the late Paul de Man. In any case, neither version of the formula can really provide a satisfactory account of why, despite an obvious lack of rhyme and stanzaic development, “Autumn” and “Snake” share a familial resemblance that exceeds mere propinquities of style and renders “Baudelairean” less an art-historical fact than a modality infinitely adaptable to recombinant poetic occasions well beyond those determined by “influence” or Bloomian “strong poet” assimilations.
The conveying of another poet’s essence through the appropriation of his or her tone so that in the process of translation the various peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of the subject are overwritten by the style of the poet rendering them—and all this with inappreciable damage to that essence being apparent—is something of a Lowell invention. English-speaking poets from Dryden to Pound have made brave forays into the hinterlands of “imitation” and have exhibited interesting if not always useful specimens from their exploratory travels. Fabular creatures along the lines of Pope’s Homer or Johnson’s Londonizing of Juvenal in late Augustan satires such as “The Vanity of Human Wishes” are triumphs of misunderstanding tout court, but we are still lucky to have them, just as we are to have Pound’s renderings of Li Po, Propertius, Arnaut Daniel, Guido Cavalcanti and in prose, Enrico Pea.
Yet, we know, too, the cost of tampering with literalness, whatever the collateral benefits of doing so might be. The loss of Vermeerian verisimilitude, with its cathedral tune of art in excelsis assuming mortal heft from the loftiness of its own organicism, is always in its way a kind of tragedy possessing a unique pathos and fibrillation of hubris. Though in a translation like Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” we can glory in the freshness of a foreign ethos splendidly recaptured, the coup of double bookkeeping by which all such restorative feats are brought off is not to be dismissed lightly. Modernist dogma has trained us to scoff at the naturalism of a Li Po laughably denatured by a Witter Bynner or an Arthur Waley. It has been drummed into us that Pound, via the transparencies of Ernest Fenollosa’s scholarly reconstructions from the Japanese, got Li Po right. This, if we apply the Tetragrammaton sacred to the New Critics, signifies that Pound not only righted the drunken boat of yet another forsaken classic, but he managed to reground an ancient Chinese lyric in a world congruent with its own, while making it wholly accessible to any sophisticated twentieth-century Westerner. It’s odd that Pound should have been so contemptuous of the operatic composer Puccini—referring to him more than once as Spuccini—since so many of the author of Mauberley’s homages to long dead poets took the form of arias accompanied by their own strange verbal music. With his superb renderings of the Confucian canon and traditional anthology of Chinese poetry, he did much to counter the distortions, then everywhere rampant, of generic Chinoiserie-on-the-hoof, much as the Italian composer of Madama Butterfly raised the tone of Japonnaiserie inundating Europe and America at the end of the nineteenth century.
In short, Lowell did more to render the distinction between an “original” piece of verse and a translation moot than virtually any other English-speaking poet since Ezra Pound. And that without his having produced a large corpus of “non-adaptive” translations, of which his Phèdre probably remains the most notable in conventional terms. Drawing the relational string between Lowell and Pound (two poets with very different careers but whose lives, rendered bipolar by insanity crossgrained with religious and political radicalism, coincided in odd ways) into a more restrictive loop: the singular incursion of Lowell into the Racinian world of tragedy occupies a place in his canon which is roughly comparable to that of the Sophoclean dustoffs, Elektra (1950) and Women of Trachis (1956), in the poetic output of Pound. What propelled him from poetic project to poetic project was often less a desire to hone or acquire a new technical skill than a need to take a busman’s holiday, prosodically speaking, and to move on to a form of composition that involved a poetic challenge very different from what he was used to. Lowell’s sense of originality was not one restricted by any Romantic notion of seerdom or of visionary afflatus assignable to some special status conferred upon “the Poet.” Being a poet (with a small “p”) put him in touch, as he admitted in an interview with Frederick Seidel (appearing, as mentioned earlier, in the Collected Prose volume), with “a kind of wildness and power that appeals to me.” But it is a wildness and power that emanate from within rather than from without; from the reservoirs of anguish and joy that build up over time as a consequence of the poet’s own thrashings about in life, not from any unique dispensation tapped into as though it were an artesian well.
Where Lowell’s consuming passion for translation came from is even now anything but clear since the poets who most influenced him and to whom he was closest did not share the same interest in burrowing into the language worlds of foreign writers from the inside out. His professional soul-mate Randall Jarrell dabbled in translation, but in a distracted way rather than a devoted one, such labors undertaken largely, it now appears in retrospect, to keep him from dwelling on the awful reviews his verse was getting in most of the ranking poetry journals. His mostly lamentable mockup of Faust, Part One has more flying around in it responsible for Eckermann-like chirps than for any eagle cries we might be tempted to attribute to Goethe. Nor is there much to point to amid all the wan formulaics and reduction of echt Deutsch abstractions à la Herder and von Holmboldt to “Berlitz-krieg” German that would identify the empathetic lover of language who wrote the magnificent essays that make up Poetry and the Age (1953). Though Lowell’s translative eye roved farther and with more wanderlust than most of his contemporaries (even his rival in the recasting of Phèdre, Richard Wilbur, did not attempt to crack the nuts of anything like the number of styles essayed by the author of Imitations), it was always with the intent of learning some metrical trick or sleight-of-tongue that would push his own stylistic envelope into the realm of the untried. However, a complaint frequently voiced about envelopes being pushed in this way was that the territory thrust into smacked more of the unkempt than of the unknown.
The best of Lowell’s efforts at aligning French, German, Italian and Russian systoles with non-fibrillating English diastoles are probably to be found in his renderings of Boris Pasternak, the much controverted Soviet writer whose novel (with poetic addendum), Doctor Zhivago (1957), earned him a Nobel Prize for Literature which East-West politics of the early ‘60s prevented him from accepting in Stockholm. His adaptations of “September,” “For Anna Akhmatova,” “Mephistopheles,” “The Seasons,” “Sparrow Hills,” “Wild Vines,” the somewhat Frostian “In the Woods,” “The Landlord” and, perhaps most famously, “Hamlet in Russia, A Soliloquy,” bespeak a freedom and a consideration for the protocols of not just alterity but radical foreignness—Lowell admitted to knowing not a single word of Russian—which make them unique specimens of their kind. They are truly remarkable instances of two singular sensibilities having intuitively interpenetrated one another without benefit of any personal contact whatever. Who, without prior knowledge of the circumstances, would have dared to suggest that the following eight lines are, effectively speaking, the translation of a translation?
The clapping stops. I walk into the lights
as Hamlet, lounge like a student against the door frame,
and try to catch the far-off dissonance of life—
all that has happened, and must!
From the dark the audience leans its one hammering brow against me—
ten-thousand opera glasses, each set on the tripod!
Abba, Father, all things are possible with thee—
take away this cup! . . .
Pasternak’s gift was to kick against the pricks without the pricks cottoning to what was going on. It worked for a while and then the inevitable happened: the pricks caught up with what had been kicking against them and substantially raised the ante of retribution. The composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the eventually exiled poet Joseph Brodsky experienced the same reversal of fortune when their attitudinal melodies could no longer sustain the kind of anonymity the Soviet authorities demanded mask an artistic indifference to politics that was real, inclusive and maximally sustainable. Lowell could translate him along with Villon, Baudelaire, Leopardi, Rilke, Montale, and others like them because he felt kinship with poets for whom coercive constraints imposed from without matched those exerted from within. Each and every poet he “imitated” was not only forced to endure a version of Kafkan internal exile within the body of a Landsmann for whom only two alternatives were possible: mindless good standing or Room 101 in Orwell’s 1984. But he also had to cope with unusually severe psychological pressures stemming from an inability to conform to even the least complicated exigencies of life. Lowell’s model of the poet was that of the creative misfit to airy thinness beat by relational angst compounded with his own uniquely secreted sickness unto death. He remained fascinated by the translational process in the same way a Reichian patient cannot stop thinking about his or her analysis. It comes poetically to stand for all the minutiae of everyday metamorphosis whereby the quotidian, benignly diffuse in itself, becomes transmuted into character armor the rigidity of which makes the further diffusion of benignity impossible. When, as in the case of Pasternak’s “Wild Vines,” one translates from another’s berth in the harbor of wish fulfillment—
Beneath a willow entwined with ivy,
we look for shelter from the bad weather;
one raincoat covers both our shoulders—
my fingers rustle like the wild vines around your breasts.
I am wrong. The rain’s stopped.
Not ivy but the hair of Dionysus
hangs from these willows. What am I to do?
Throw the raincoat under us!
—it effectively sets in motion a rebirthing process able to transform a purgatorial slum into a vicarious paradise. By contrast, how limp and unalive is the translation (titled “Hopbines”) by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, appended to the English edition of Doctor Zhivago (1958), done by Max Hayward and Manya Harari:
We seek shelter from inclement weather
Under a willow entwined with ivy.
A raincape is thrown over our shoulders.
My arms are tightly encircled about you.
Sorry—I erred. The shrubs in these thickets
Are not ivy-grown but covered with hopbines.
Well, we’ll do better if we take this raincape
And spread it out wide for a rug beneath us.
Comparing the two versions yields a paucity of samenesses testifying to Lowell’s greater freedom born of enticement by and rapture over the original. There’s nothing in the Pasternak about the rain stopping; that’s Lowell’s invention, just as his discovery of “the hair of Dionysus” squares a rhetorical circle drawn by the insistent substitution of fingers rustling “like the wild vines around your breasts” for arms that do much less explicit sexual work in Guerney’s traversal.
Much space has been devoted in this review to Lowell as translator because I believe that is how he most wished to be perceived. In an equivalent sense, all his original poems may be viewed as “translations” and all his translations as “originals”; the scare quotes assign whatever differences there are between these categories to the circular file, where they likely belong. If it seems outlandish and even a violation of reputation to view poems like “After the Surprising Conversions” as a “translation,” then perhaps some of the controversy can be drained from such an assignation if a distinction is drawn between the conventional (read: Browningesque) “dramatic monologue” and how Lowell went about transforming a missive composed by the 18th Century American divine, Jonathan Edwards, into a circular letter proposing a pyramid scheme involving the sophistic circuitries of faith. Lowell, it could be said, treats the Edwards letter as though it were the record of worker bees attending the Queen of the religious sciences, reaping theological hope as She sows existential doubt. The translation is in the paraphrasing of mere historical Edwards into the argot of unannealed Reality—
September twenty-second, Sir, the bough
Cracks with the unpicked apples, and at dawn
The small-mouthed bass breaks water, gorged with spawn.
Lowell wrote as though he were simultaneously inscribing an Ur-text along with the “original” poem meant to pass as its translation. That is possibly why so many of the early poems seem knotty with a pregnancy upon which they are powerless to deliver more than broken water and a simulacrum of labor pains. To compose both the Ur-text and its transliteration at once is to tempt more than just the fates of decomposition. It is to deliver oneself up to their Narn-like spinsterhoods-in-despair over flaws in Moira’s weave thrown out of court by Ananke, to which even the gods are subject.
It was probably best that Lowell died when he did, missing the second great postmodern heave, for he was a maximalist in an age of rank minimalisms. That’s right: minimalisms—plural; there were in fact many of them, different more in degree than kind, and all more or less indebted to and clones of Warholian arrogance and anaestheticism. The modernists—all but a few recidivists like Ezra Pound—might have declared a version of war on Beauty, but postmodernism arrayed itself against all the traditional rationales of art: vigor, metamorphosis, grandeur of purpose, if not of effect. Art is Giotto and El Greco, it’s Spenser and Watteau and Mozart. It’s also T. S. Eliot and Marcel Proust and Andrew Wyeth. “Art” is Laurence Sterne (yes, I’m with Dr. Johnson on Tristram Shandy), much of the “classic” Picasso, John Cage, Morton Feldman, David Hockney, and John Barth. The vast preponderance of so-called “postmodernism”—all its exponents and apologists to the contrary notwithstanding—is but lower-case hell projected in two dimensions on a scrim hung between scare quotes. Do we really need to add that Robert Lowell would have none of this? Very early on, Lowell, along with that neurotic band of autoecious angels with whom he danced that dance out of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal—John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, and others similarly taxed by the bottle and its imps—simply fell out of step with an America baited with idealism but hooked quite helplessly on loneliness and self-abuse. Where they were truly out in left field was in their unshakeable awareness that, in the wake of the Depression and a war that had cleansed the world of fascism, something out there was not right, and it made a whole lot of things in here not right, either. Some door of perception, they felt, tempted the visionary out of hiding when open a crack, but proved mortally wounding, or even fatal, when fully ajar. By the mid-‘60s, Lowell and his contemporaries were feeling old, marginalized, and out of step even with being out of step. The young, in defiance of Lowell’s generation’s experience with recreational drugs and sex were busily concocting their own much more ill-mannered and shabbily dressed train wreck. The in here was no longer “in here,” it was out there. Lionel Trilling, staring out his Columbia University office window at students rioting in Upper Manhattan was heard to comment that modernism was now in the streets. Rimbaud had found new barricades upon which to commune unintelligibly with dérèglement; his own youthful countrymen and women would have their own brief moment in the sun in May 1968. Lowell might have sympathized with their dynamism and hysterical élan, but he must have found himself wondering how Bergson’s vital had wandered so sheep-like into such deep doo-doo.
Bidart’s and Gewanter’s edition of the Collected Poems fails to justify the long wait to have this poet whole and unselected, but they’re surely to be commended for their patience, if not for ours. The book has heft, it has weight and it has substance. What it doesn’t have—though it toggles celebrity appeal as a hot item should, from the coy portrait of the poet on the dust jacket to the sometimes odd spacing of poems on the page—is greatness. Lowell was dealt a hand that from several points of view was, despite his many gifts, not a first-rate one. What he made of that hand, against long odds, rewrote Hamlet’s assessment of the genius-to-madness continuum in runes etched with manic depression and personal horror. Mercifully, the poems for the most part skirt the hems of that elaborately unraveling fabric and take up the burden of a quite different mortality, though one not a whit less truthful or exacerbated than the one passed over. Though considered by many a confessional poet, Lowell wrote through his agonies, not about them. He had in abundance what Keats called “negative capability”; he could substitute frame state for frame state, leaving himself and his experience not so much out of the equation as the determiner of its exponency. Hence, “Square in Black,” from Day by Day (1977), is about a photograph taken of Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad in 1861, but it is also a rumination, with black borders, of his own redoubled descent into the father-son maelstrom—first as the son of his own father, and much later, as the father of Robert Sheridan Lowell, born in 1971. “Fortunately,” he muses in the last stanza, “I only dream inconsequence.” The difference between talented poets and ourselves is that they dream inconsequence because they are every day realizing Dasein, whereas we dream Dasein because every day inconsequence realizes us.
The much touted apparatus of the edition suggests a poet much longer dead than Lowell, and in more ways than one. A different drummer may be heard marching in these thousand-plus pages of poetry. His uniquely American tune will haunt us as long as poetry is tolerated beyond the hootenanny of Volkischkeit and Creative Writing conferences. I can imagine Lowell, if he were alive now, holding this monumental door-stop in his hands and wondering where he’d best begin trying to translate the best, somehow unrealized poems out of wrenchable Yankee into echt American.
Ever the sublime imperfectionist, he’d probably start with all those anthology pieces that have made him such a legend of incoherence in our own time. And like Pasternak’s Zhivago, be Hamlet all over again.[/private]
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