Obsessed with Writing

Collected Poems of Robert Lowell. Edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2003. 1181 pages. $45.

As Reviewed By: Anthony Moore


Elizabeth Bishop’s grateful publicity blurb for Life Studies (1959) vividly measures the space Robert Lowell filled at that time. “Somehow or other, by fair means or foul, and in the middle of our worst century so far, we have produced a magnificent poet.” Irvin Ehrenpreis compounded the hyperbole in 1965 when “The Age of Lowell” (the title of his widely reprinted essay surveying Lowell’s early and middle work) was adopted as a catchphrase to welcome the developments being made in American poetry in the 1960s, with Lowell leading the advance. Since intelligent and sympathetic readers gave currency to Ehrenpreis’s vague term, it suggests Lowell sensed, or constructed, correctly his own auspiciousness: he was the right man at the time, of his time, and American poetry needed him then as proof of its value and continuing power to reinvent itself. In the 1970s his admirers continued to hold him up as a national justification. The judges awarded his second Pulitzer in 1973 for The Dolphin in no doubt that “by common consent of both reader and critic, [he is] the most considerable poet since T. S. Eliot.” A few months before his death in September 1977, Boston University gave him an honorary PhD with an encomium that began, “Long called first among our poets, you continue to deserve that appellation and to survive it.”

[private]Once a literary giant, Lowell has long seemed smaller than he did over a quarter century ago when he was an influential living presence and a celebrity. But does American poetry still need him? Of course it does. Once we stop fretting over who is the most important American poet since World War II, and put aside the superlatives and the absolutes, we can see that he remains considerable. His lines weigh a lot. He reminds us, as few living writers do, of the serious rewards and challenges of poetry. He is a voice in which the country truly speaks; America, it has been said, is his work’s longest love. He evokes with unflagging invention and energy the contradictory complexity of our times. The nine hundred pages of poetry in his Collected Poems throb with imaginative resource. Open them at random and the pulse quickens. In comparison, nearly all the verse being printed today by our small presses and literary magazines seems in need of life support.

The unrhymed sonnet “For John Berryman I,” an even-handed tribute to his own and Berryman’s poetic powers, begins:

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.

Lowell worked through four printed versions of these lines. He settled on the affirmative and triumphant “we are words” in History (1973) once he’d removed the implications of only or merely words-just trivial things-in “these are words” that appeared in the three editions of Notebook (1969, 1970). For the space of a third of a line, the poet finds the assurance to lose his self in the satisfaction of words, and then swells up to the proud full-line boast “John, we used the language as if we made it.” But there is a price to pay. The words turn back to the process of writing and rewriting, for the “monster yawning” is insatiable. What the authors have not yet put into poetry is much vaster than what they have. Their language is always lagging behind the contingent, unruly experience they try to plot into orderly artful narrative. “For John Berryman. (After reading his last Dream Song)” in his last volume Day by Day (1977) again addresses his friend and rival as zealous practitioner and fellow sufferer, in a ruefully tender, witty elegy. The serio-comic free verse, in this extract from the first paragraph, also celebrates their mixed blessings: the joys of being a poet and the heavy burdens of dedication to a writing life.

I used to want to live
to avoid your elegy.
Yet really we had the same life,
the generic one
our generation offered
(Les Maudits-the compliment
each American generation
pays itself in passing):
first students, then with our own,
our galaxy of grands maîtres,
our fifties’ fellowships
to Paris, Rome and Florence,
veterans of the Cold War not the War-
all the best of life . . .

Inventive French poets and sophisticated European cultural capitals are played off against philistine American attitudes that victimize homegrown poets. Might the parentheses serve to contain the bitter resentment of these cursed poets? Or stand in for bandages on the wound of artistic neglect? Or suggest indifference as their particular American generation turns away? The two psychically connected artistic veterans may be fated to endure the worst of life, to break down or die unappreciated with ambitions frustrated. But they persist. After five more leisurely lines of reminiscence, the paragraph ends with the ringing assonance and heavy stresses of “We asked to be obsessed with writing, / and we were.” What is said in the tributes to Berryman is clearly self-regarding and the two poems give a sharp sense of Lowell’s attitude to his own practice.


The long-awaited Collected Poems, edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter, collects much of, but not all, the poetry Lowell saw fit to print, and some poems and drafts that he did not. It is an overdue, capacious, imposing celebration of a writer who was irresistibly passionate about poetry. All but four of the individual volumes are presented chronologically and intact. Those not so treated are Land of Unlikeness (1944), his self-published first collection, provided as an appendix, and Notebook 1967-68 (1969), Notebook 1967-68, revised (1969), Notebook (1970), which are omitted, apart from one short sequence from each of the latter two in another appendix. Although the editors are otherwise admirably tender to the work, their decision to set aside the Notebooks risks a charge of insensitivity to Lowell’s creative principles. The choice is not explained by the exigencies of space, since they find room for extensive apparatus most of which might be thought expendable. Notebook, as Bidart writes, “is less ‘well-written’ perhaps-but, in its free-wheeling catch-as-catch-can improvisations, compelling in an entirely different way from History.” Quite so; the Notebooks and History are not alternatives. Lowell, as Bidart reveals, “in the end didn’t think of either book as replacing the other.” Some of us see History straining too strenuously after flashy grandeur, puffed up and laden with debt to the Pound dogma that “an epic is a poem including history.” “Attila, Hitler,” for example, desperately compels us to be interested in two barbarian mass-murderers. Its loose prose effects seem stuck onto, rather than to arise from, its weighty matter. Here is the first half.

Hitler had fingertips of apprehension,
“Who knows how long I’ll live? Let us have war.
We are the barbarians, the world is near the end.”
Attila mounted on raw meat and greens
galloped to massacre in his single fieldmouse suit,
he never left a house that wasn’t burning,
could only sleep on horseback, sinking deep
in his rural dream.

Is this a joke, or is it serious? Either way it is not even average Lowell. Happily much of History is better. Those of my stripe prefer the Notebooks for just the illusion of relaxed improvisation that Bidart characterizes so well and we regret that one was not included.

Bidart, Lowell said, knew his poems better than he did and loved them more. He was Lowell’s close collaborator through the four years (1969-1973) when in six successive books Lowell published, then revised and reprinted hundreds of sonnets, many rewritten time and again to give them an impromptu character. Alastair Fowler calls these Lowell fourteen-liners open-form epigrams. True, many are so condensed they resist any one meaning and live for their closing oxymorons (poems have been written for less worthy reasons). Nobody knows better than Bidart that parts of this astonishing output have a contested reputation. Many outsiders found little value in what they saw as ill-advised manic activity. By neglecting to find room for at least one Notebook the editors decline to give readers an extended, instructive opportunity to follow the evolution of Lowell’s thinking. He worked the sonnets over and over not as an aberration, but as a deliberate artistic choice. Revision powered his entire imaginative process and was central at all stages of composition. Even at his death, he was revising Day by Day, published only weeks before.

All poets revise-and differ from each other in the degree to which they do. There is a massive material presence of revision in Lowell’s work that becomes conspicuous in poetry he prints for the general reader. This changes his difference in degree into a difference in kind. Stanley Kunitz talks somewhere of Lowell’s nervous vivacity: he does not aspire to the condition of an absolute, static art and is forever rewriting his old poems. We get a glimpse of this from the magazine versions of a few familiar poems (such as “Beyond the Alps” and “Waking Early Sunday Morning”) in Collected Poems, when he uses printed copy as rough copy and changes it extensively. He can radically transform his intent and apply fragments and lines written on one topic to something else.

“Beyond the Alps” is a striking instance of the hard labor he puts in to get a conception right. In this case his tenacity lasted through more than twenty years. The visible twists and turns of the poem’s creative development, and the offspring of its evolution, are complex. But the main features of the story are clear when we concentrate on fourteen lines that were first printed in Kenyon Review 15 (Summer 1953) as one of the seven formally similar, end-stopped rhyming sonnet stanzas of that magazine’s “Beyond the Alps . . .”

I thought of Ovid, for in Caesar’s eyes,
That Tomcat had the number of the Beast.
Where the young Turks are facing the red east
And the twice-stormed Crimean spit, he cries:
“Rome asked for poets. At her beck and call,
Came Lucan, Tacitus and Juvenal,
The black republicans who tore the teats
And bowels of the mother wolf to bits.
Beneath a psychopath’s divining rod,
Deserts interred the Caesar-salvaged bog.
Imperial Tiber, O my yellow dog,
Black earth by the Roman Sea, I lie
With the boy-crazy daughter of the God,
Il duce Augusto. I shall never die.”

Lowell wrote this “Beyond the Alps . . .” (three others were printed) in three different locations (Rome, Paris, Iowa) over more than two years and found that stanza especially difficult, drafting and redrafting it many times. But he was hesitant about its value. By 1957 he was circulating privately the sonnet revised as the separate “Saint Ovid” with a shorter version of “Beyond the Alps” and considering both for Life Studies. “Saint Ovid” did not make the cut when “Beyond the Alps” appeared in 1959 as the book’s opening poem, with three fourteen-line stanzas followed by a twelve-line stanza and a closing couplet. Eight revised lines from the forty-two omitted were rewritten into “For George Santayana.” Lowell left behind the seven stanza variant of “Beyond the Alps,” yet reversed his decision on the Ovid stanza when berated by a mock-heroic onslaught as Berryman thanked him for his presentation copy of Life Studies, “and, holy God, how could you cut the Ovid stanza out of the first poem???????” The 1964 preface to For the Union Dead made amends: “‘Beyond the Alps’ is the poem I published in Life Studies, but with a stanza restored at the suggestion of John Berryman,” who drew public attention two years earlier to the omission as he discussed “Skunk Hour” in New World Writing 21.

Who cares to hand grades to a writer who could first make the Ovid stanza in “Beyond the Alps” […] and then delete it? The reader may not have come on this, so I put it in evidence. [he then gives the entire 1953 stanza quoted above] Lowell once told the present writer that the stanza took him a hundred hours; it is worth every second of the time, and may be read, despite its author, for as long as things not formular are read.

The “not formular” anticipates Lowell’s subsequent revisions. His 1964 professional generosity did not overcome a desire to do more work with the material, and finally he dissented from Berryman. He reverted to the Life Studies version of “Beyond the Alps” in both Selected Poems (Collected Poems has that as its copy text). Lowell, before then, makes something new out of his Ovid lines through the reworked “Ovid and Caesar’s Daughter” in History (also in Collected Poems).

“I was a modern, and in Caesar’s eye,
a tomcat with the number of the Beast–
now buried where Turkey faces the red east,
or wherever Tomi my place of exile was.
Rome asked for art in earnest; at her call
came Lucan, Tacitus and Juvenal,
the black republicans who tore the tits
and bowels of the Mother Wolf to bits. . . .
Thieves pick gold
from the fine print and volume of the Colossus.
Because I loved and wrote too profligately,
Imperial Tiber, O my yellow Wolf,
black earth by the Black Roman Sea, I lie
libelled with the boy-crazy daughter of
Caesar Augustus who will never die.”

The poem courts disruption in pursuit of free and spontaneous diction. Expectations of a regular rhyme pattern are disabused by awkward line endings, stuttering their lack of containment in a desire to sound like conversation. The brazen vitality of the original set of lines has been beaten down to make a sort of sonnet that boasts it is not poetry-as-such. The broken off, metrically clumsy fifteenth line is conspicuously chasing loosely formal effects “not formular.” We could write this off as Lowell sacrificing his art to his revisionary nature at its meddling extreme. But when we look more intently at his preference for the slacker version we might guess why his attachment to the first conventional Ovid sonnet was cooling even in the mid 1950s. Its hectoring rhetoric and relentless drive to assert end rhymes have little purpose except to serve a textbook poem. It’s bent on overpowering and exemplifies his clamorous, hyper-literate, Euro-centric, verbally aggressive, self-enclosed first three books. As everyone knows, he came off his stilts with Life Studies and did not intend to get back on them.


This and similar treasure hunts for the mysteries of Lowell’s creative imagination are enabled and enlivened by the robust respect for primary material in Collected Poems. Ten individual volumes appear as Lowell printed them, complete with the line drawings that he invariably commissioned as frontispieces from Frank Parker (a friend since boyhood). Three last poems follow which, had he lived on, he would have included in his next book. As well as Land of Unlikeness, the magazine versions and Notebook sequences I’ve mentioned, there are also appendices for some published variants, renditions of Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandalstam brought in from Poets on Street Corners (1968) edited by Olga Carlisle, uncollected poems and poems left in manuscript. The spaciousness and refined typography of these main sections are shining examples of how poetry should forever to be printed by obliging publishers. Jonathan D. Lippincott designed the book inside and out (although he’s only credited with the jacket) and he courteously serves our reading pleasure.

One critical commonplace claims Lowell frequently changes direction. The flow of this development (every inch of it hard won, of course) can be measured in half an hour spent with Collected Poems, dipping into a poem or two from the start of the career then moving onto the end. There is the muscle-bound torsion of Lord Weary’s Castle (1946) that won him his first Pulitzer. “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” is a powerful and impetuous poem spoiling for a fight with his country for pursuing enemies in World War II to unconditional surrender. It goes to the mat in direct reference or allusion to other literatures (the Bible, Milton, Thoreau, Melville), bursting to win with an American form of expression firmly grounded in European civilization. A multi-cultural, old-with-new world sensibility comes through in irregularly rhymed lines thick with hard consonants, wrenching run-ons, startling coinages. A striking opening passage drags up the drowned sailor clutching the dragnet.

Flashed from his matted head and marble feet,
He grappled at the net
With the coiled, hurdling muscles of his thighs:
The corpse was bloodless, a botch of reds and whites,
Its open, staring eyes
Were lustreless dead-lights
Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk
Heavy with sand.

Sound has preference over statement here in verbal pyrotechnics. The risky semantic units invite the frivolous to enter the serious as they raise, and then suspend, the possibility of double meanings (Light/ Flashed, not flash lighted; the bloodless corpse has coiled, hurdling muscles, but is not blood curdling; staring eyes were dead-lights, not headlights). Such anti-puns are not conventional humorous word play, but they do owe something to punning as, in Dr. Johnson’s phrase, they yoke by violence disparate meanings together. Is the poem too remorselessly old-fashioned for comfort today? A poet I know, whose work and critical opinions I prize, relishes it and often includes it in public readings. On the one hand, Randall Jarrell sparkles with accuracy in his waggish conclusion that the poem comes “from a man contracting every muscle, grinding his teeth together till his shut eyes ache.”

Leaf forward through the collection and thirty years’ work to Day by Day. “Our Afterlife I” is a lithe forty-four line poem, limber to the point of sounding double-jointed, with no ambition to tie the language into eccentric knots. There are no ground teeth, although the poem’s movement is tightly controlled. It saves its breath for the natural cadences of speech and concludes:

After fifty,
the clock can’t stop,
each saving breath
takes something. This is riches:
the eminence not to be envied,
the account
accumulating layer and angle,
face and profile,
50 years of snapshots,
the ladder of ripening likeness.

We are things thrown in the air
alive in flight . . .
Our rust the color of chameleon.

What does it mean? I’m not entirely sure. I accept it as a charming tribute to the uncertainty, mobility and mutability in two temperaments, and the flux of contrasting and irreconcilable states in their creative natures. The poem, like “The Quaker Graveyard,” absorbs a treasury of the old world’s literature but, unlike the earlier text, takes its high culture quietly. It is there only if we want to find it. I’d hesitate to say that Lowell intends me to hear flyte in flight, but it helps that I do. Flyting is an obsolete term for the battle of verbal skills between two wrangling contestants. The chameleon, formerly supposed to live on air, has long been a pet symbol of imaginative writers and their restless creative spirit. The comparison is used by Hamlet for himself, Pope for a compliment to Swift, the English Romantics for the highly responsive, impressionable, volatile nature and unpredictable changes of mood that they welcomed as healthy signs of genius. Keats asserts “What shocks the virtuous philosop[h]er, delights the chameleon Poet” and Shelley makes a similar remark with more emphasis “Poets, the best of them, are a very chameleonic race.”

“The Quaker Graveyard” and “Our Afterlife I” illustrate the two bookends of Lowell’s stylistic development. The differences are clear enough, but both are true to his resourceful creativity as he restlessly explores the strenuous and the quietly subtle limits of versification and metered language-at no time did he commit completely to free verse or abandon rhyme. Of greater interest are the persistent patterns, the significant unity of the central concerns that remain undisturbed by each new turn. The Collected‘s sequential run of the original volumes helps sharpen the focus on what has always been the case: deep continuities in subject matter and poetic manner are the rule not the exception in his career.


There comes a point in praising when enthusiasm can overcook and become indigestible. I shall draw to my close with the one serious reservation I have about Collected Poems. The book refuses to leave us alone to fumble through the thrills and discoveries of our own readings. No limits appear to have been set on the nature and size of the elaborate editorial apparatus. There are two hundred densely packed pages of it and most is bent on interposing between the poetry and its readers. The decision to provide 150 pages of small-print notes is distinctly odd; it raises difficult matters of editorial principle that are neither clarified nor justified. All we’re given is the styptic, “From the beginning [Helen] Vendler insisted that this edition must have notes.” Hang on a second. Insisted? Must? Why? When readers have survived for fifty years without notes in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens? As they have managed without notes in the collections of almost any twentieth-century poet you care to name? Interpretation is the job of critics, not editors.

I don’t want to belittle the prodigious effort that went into compiling the notes, which, I suspect, took up several years. But not only am I puzzled by why they’re needed at all, I’m also unclear about the readers the editors had in mind for them. Who will spend $45 on the book and not know how to use the general dictionaries and encyclopedias the notes raid so freely for verbatim entries? William Empson cautioned against sniffy objections like mine: “It does not require much fortitude to endure seeing what you already know in a note.” But isn’t the case altered decisively when editors favor so much arbitrary annotation after deciding that they cannot make room for poetry their author wanted to keep in print?

Bidart and Gewanter have said, “the Notes do not offer interpretation of the poems,” but some of the briefest and all of the longest are not primarily there to supply information. The notes are awash with interpretation and comment from many critical studies, two full-length critical biographies, Bidart and other Lowell friends and collaborators. I object to any editors who annotate so intrusively and aggressively that they try to take charge of my reading and thereby force on me the author that they have created while I’m trying to find him for myself.

Lowell often took the opportunity to revise a book when moving from hard to paper covers. If the editors could bring themselves to loosen their proprietary control over how the poems are read they might follow his example with a paperback that gives us the poetry, the whole poetry and nothing but the poetry.[/private]

About Anthony Moore

Anthony Moore is the author of critical essays published by Routledge, Journal of Modern Literature, The Boston Sunday Globe, and English. He teaches twentieth-century and contemporary literature, especially poetry and drama, at Boston University’s Metropolitan College. His graduate degrees were earned in literary modernism (Master’s, University of London) and nineteenth- and twentieth-century American Literature (PhD, Boston University). In 2000 he was a Mellon Fellow at the Ransom Center. Before concentrating on literature, he spent thirty-five years in commerce and was Chairman and CEO of international food companies based in Britain.
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