Passing Facts: Reviewing Lowell’s Reviewers

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

As Reviewed By: Aaron Baker

“The Return of Robert Lowell,” James Fenton titled his recent essay in The New York Review of Books, which invites the question-but where ever did Lowell go? Or, more problematically, where was he to begin with? And why is it that the release of Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems should now be greeted by a great many readers-especially those who happen to be younger poets-the same as if it were the Collected Poems of James Russell Lowell? There was never a shortage, during Lowell’s lifetime or since, of scholarly and journalistic commentary about either his poems or the most intimate details of his life. No one of his generation occupied, and for so long, such a central place in the literary limelight, and the details of Lowell’s marriages and madness are still talked about in some faculty lounges with the same tabloid-eagerness as the latest events in the story-book saga of J. Lo and Ben. One can hardly open an anthology of twentieth century American poetry without encountering “Mr. Edwards and the Spider” and “Skunk Hour.” So where did Lowell go (if you noticed he was missing)?

[private]As Fenton admits in his review, which consists largely of taking Frank Bidart’s endnotes to task for a variety of arcane reasons which only the most fiendishly obsessed would notice in the first place (a failure to see the forest-or the forest fire-for the trees) the problem was never really the absence of a properly edited collection. Lowell is, has been, and will remain right there for anybody who wants him. That fewer want him now may be a result of the cyclical nature of the stock-market of literary valuation, in which case we could yet witness, in some form, the hoped-for Lowell revival; it may also be that for a variety of reasons having to do with contemporary predilections and prejudices, the critical apparatus which once sustained Lowell will not be able to check his drift into the margins.

If this seems unjust, which I think it at least partially is, it may be because the terms governing Lowell’s posthumous standing so strongly resemble those which prevailed during his lifetime. His standing was always, as he brilliantly arranged, a kind of literary football, a way for opposing camps to keep score in whatever game was currently being played. At the outset of Lowell’s career, the Agrarians Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom delighted in co-opting and shaping this scion of Yankee aristocracy; today, with the cultural wreckage from that particular battleground pretty much relegated to the museums, conflicts surrounding Lowell take place on different and more diffuse fronts. For many, it’s a matter of chafing under the conditions Lowell helped to create, the way in which his highly public conversion from “formalism” or “traditionalism” to looser measures and autobiography became not only the trajectory of a single poet’s development but a model of Literary History itself (as if change of this nature necessarily equals progress); and indeed, the “confessionalist” mode of bare autobiographical reportage has been the essential mold which the bulk of American poetry has settled into for at least two generations. Ancillary to this objection is the way in which Lowell’s work, despite his later style, stakes its claim of importance-even the importance of the personal-on a once but no longer credited common literary heritage. Lowell therefore has the ability to irritate just about everybody, traditionalists and anti-traditionalists alike.

Today the subject of Cal (“Caligula”) Lowell, the last figure to occupy the Throne of Poetry towards which all eyes were turned, is more than a little divorced from the achievement, line by line, poem by poem, of that poet from Boston, Robert Lowell. There are those who want and need to rally around the emperor’s empty throne, or the idea of it; there are also those who most urgently must not (and still others who go around saying “Robert who?”). At any rate, that Lowell was able for a time to create and nurture an environment wherein he was able to set the critical terms on which his work would be received (as Eliot did in the generation before him) is a testament to the power of his personality, even as it was manifested in his poetry.

There are apparently many who really do consider the issuance of the Collected the major event suggested (or willed into existence) by the flood of reviews and personal reminiscences in literary journals, newspapers, and more prominent mainstream venues like The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, but there is also an unmistakable feeling afoot that we have reached, and very long ago, a state of critical exhaustion on all matters related to Lowell’s life and work. If one applies Harold Bloom’s principle that a poet’s survival depends on his work being absorbed and transmitted by later generations of poets to the question of where Robert Lowell has gone (which I’m inclined to do here, at least provisionally), we’ll have to evaluate not only the latest critical curtain-calls of aficionados like Fenton, Bidart himself, and Helen Vendler (in The New Republic), but the far trickier issue of Lowell’s influence on contemporary poets and the types of poets likely to follow them. And that, for a variety of reasons, is very difficult to do. Both, I believe, because Lowell’s influence is unmistakably and irrefutably there, but to borrow from Marjorie Perloff, there is also perhaps too little ‘there’ there, or perhaps too much-something that has gotten too much attention at the expense of facets of the poetry which might be more interesting. And also because it would be nice for us to resist, for a change, the temptation to conjure future generations of poetry readers as witnesses on behalf of our personal views on the topic (as Randall Jarrell first and most auspiciously declined to do, writing that many of the poems by his college roommate would be read “as long as men remember English.”) Future generations-and I’m not really going out on a limb-might end up telling all of us to go to hell.

Many reviewers, including Vendler, have tended to dwell on Lowell’s importance as a public poet, on the way his poems exist in the interstices of the “private” with the “public,” as though Lowell were an American Auden or Yeats. While this notion undeniably formed part of Lowell’s appeal during his lifetime, and may in retrospect be of a certain sociological and documentary interest, it is now an implausible and extra-textual argument for the poetry’s “importance” (as an issue separate from whether or not it’s good writing). Elizabeth Bishop famously admitted envying Lowell for the automatic authority his work assumed from his being a member of a blueblood Massachusetts family-an authority of increasingly dubious currency for contemporary readers, but one during Lowell’s lifetime that lent him an aristocratic grandeur, which when he wasn’t exploiting, he undermined to lend many of his poems rather self-conscious rhetorical deflations (as in almost any poem from the fourth section of Life Studies). The catharsis felt by many critics at reading in “Grandparents” how the young Lowell doodled a handlebar mustache on the picture of the last czar ought to seem by now deeply anachronistic (though I can’t see why it wasn’t to begin with-an American poet making fun of a czar?). Raising such objections is not to partake of the impulse to tear down a poet on the basis of supposed privileges of class, race or gender. If anything, it’s born of a contradictory impulse-to read a poet without regard to any such factors, and without paying excessive mind, if possible, to the embalmed weight-literally and figuratively-of the copious volumes of criticism, the myriad awards, the painted wax figure in the Museum of Literature.

When after writing The Mills of the Kavanaughs and being excoriated by Randall Jarrell, his then most influential advisor on matters poetic, for producing work of a somewhat too onerous will, Lowell was exposed to the Beats at a San Francisco reading and had his famous Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment in which he decided to abandon his earlier style in favor of looser meters and personal revelation. A great deal of poetry in this vein, of varying quality, was already being written, by the New York School Poets, the Beats themselves (and some of Lowell’s own students, noticeably W.D. Snodgrass in Heart’s Needle) but it was the novelty of it being done by Lowell-New England patriarch, Pulitzer-prize winner and already established darling of the New Critical establishment now naughtily disobeying its most fundamental tenet of the separation of poetry and autobiography-that whipped up so much excitement in reviews and the academy. “He broke an incredibly powerful taboo by writing about painful events in his own life,” recalls Bidart in a recent interview in the Miami Herald. But how incredible the power of this taboo actually was, and for whom, is a question that deserves closer scrutiny-especially when you consider that Ginsberg’s Howl was published five years before Life Studies. It had been eleven years since Roethke’s wildly eccentric and transgressive poems about his childhood in The Lost Son. Future readers may take some convincing that Lowell’s candid snapshots of Boston’s ancien regime, lines typical of Life Studies like:

I smile at Stanley
now sunk in his sixties
once a Harvard all-American fullback,
(if such were possible),
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties

are either taboo or painful in comparison to Ginsberg’s “ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the animal soup of time,” or Roethke’s “Scurry of warm over small plants. / Ordnung! ordnung! / Papa is coming!” What’s entirely more likely is that the sort of cocktail party where Lowell’s confessions would shock will be seen-if it isn’t already-as a sociological artifact of a world well-lost.

I for one, despite the evidence of the previous paragraphs, love Lowell’s work (and was among the first in line to buy his Collected). Lowell was extraordinarily good at so many things-often even his tamest observations seem to coil with barely contained violence, and the way he used poetic form to channel, contain, and release these violent energies is always worthy of study. Whatever extraneous factors may have influenced his reception, and go on influencing it, none of them caused him to write poems as good as “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.” For that poem alone (and other readers will have other favorites), Lowell deserves to be remembered. Few contemporaries of Lowell’s or poets today match his range of subjects, even when they exceed him in intensity and imagination.

A curiosity of Lowell’s enduring reputation is that there are still those (notably Robert Hass) who, while admiring facets of Lowell’s later work, prefer the violence and verbal extravagance of his earlier poems. This is a response wildly out of touch with the general establishment view that Lowell “overcame” the theatrical excesses of his early work and “broke through” to a more vital and living style. According to Hass, preferring the later style for supposedly greater intimacy and directness requires one to maintain that lines from “The Quaker Graveyard” like “The death lance churns into the sanctuary, tears the gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail, and hacks the coiling life out,” are somehow less intimate and direct than “My mind’s not right.” Which is, as Hass says, to get it exactly wrong.

It’s likely that behind such an opinion (and Hass is a fair bellwether for at least one brand of contemporary taste) is the idea that, for good or ill, Lowell’s body of work builds almost exclusively on an Anglo-American tradition, which unlike a substantial portion of the poems written in America today (or even by some of Lowell’s predecessors like Pound, Eliot and Stevens), bears little resemblance to the imaginatively-charged, logically and spiritually dislocated tradition of Latin American, French Surrealist or (more recently) Eastern European poetry. Indeed, many of Lowell’s most influential admirers today are English and Irish (or English-educated, like Walcott), for whom poetry, and by extension poetry criticism, is more likely focused around a commonly held or assumed cultural and literary heritage. (That Lowell, who tried to be influenced-to make of himself a conduit for his forebears-was so free of the influence of America’s most essential poets, Dickinson and Whitman, is a glaring oddity likely the result of those poets’ neglect by the academy during the fifties). With the exception of the early work’s quirky and splendidly histrionic renderings of American history and his rather dull plunderings of world history in History, Lowell’s oeuvre sticks mostly to literal transcriptions of the events of his life and to readily observable cultural data. Lowell’s agon, especially in the later work, is less with imagination and language, and the way language is conditioned by the imagination, than with the “poor passing facts” of existence.

The single most celebrated passage in all of Lowell’s work, the concluding lines of “The Quaker Graveyard,” provides an illustration of the sort of bold imagining abandoned in the later style’s tilt towards reportage:

You could cut the brackish winds with a knife
Here in Nantucket, and cast up the time
When the Lord God formed man from the sea’s slime
And breathed into his face the breath of life,
And blue-lung’d combers lumbered to the kill.
The Lord survives the rainbow of his will.

Without adding to the voluminous interpretation of those lines, I’d like to just notice that they lend themselves to voluminous interpretation. The poem’s closely described setting, its palpable images of literal and figurative violence, are permitted to culminate suddenly in an instant of extreme mystery: The Lord survives the rainbow of his will. Try to paraphrase it, to parse its meanings, and you will be greeted only by its grandeur: The Lord survives the rainbow of his will. What it means, poor mortal, is that the Lord survives the rainbow of his will. Contrast this with a celebrated ending from a later poem, that of “For the Union Dead”: “The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,/ giant finned cars nose forward like fish;/ a savage servility/ slides by on grease.” Like the conclusion of “The Quaker Graveyard,” this is metaphorically dense, but it evokes little mystery. The cars, the people inside them, and the whole civilization of which are a part have been singled out for disgust, and the poem’s figurations fall neatly in line. Earlier in the poem, Lowell also disapproves of an advertisement for a safe that features a mushroom cloud. The writing here also shares something of the imaginative and verbal violence of Lowell’s earlier work, but imagination and language are by now firmly shackled to the poet’s already decided upon conclusions. That the poem’s observations are trite-Lowell dislikes mushroom clouds, supposedly unlike his fellow human beings, those benighted souls driving around in their big cars without pausing to contemplate the statue of Colonel Shaw-doesn’t seem to occur to the poem’s anthologists.

Frank O’ Hara once complained of this nasty undercurrent of Lowell’s moralizing in regards to “Skunk Hour,” wherein Lowell compares lovers parked in a lover’s lane to skunks nosing around in the trash. That Lowell is a moral poet, however, is not something to be disregarded even if the public importance of his morality is cast into doubt. On the whole, Lowell’s political views, like Robinson Jeffers’, Ezra Pound’s or Amira Baraka’s, offer fewer meaningful insights into the politics of the day than into the poet’s personal idiosyncrasies. I for one find it more fascinating than uplifting that Lowell attempted to enlist in both the Army and the Navy (and follow, in a ripe Freudian twist, in the footsteps of his hapless father), before going on to become, from the mental ward, a staunch opponent of American involvement in World War II (even writing a letter to Roosevelt in which he loftily invoked the civil responsibility of America’s First Families).

Like virtually every other prominent poet then alive, with the exception of James Dickey, Lowell was also an outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam, but where are his important anti-Vietnam war poems? When readers of the future seek out the poetry which came out of the Vietnam War, I wonder how many will want Lowell’s work on the subject to share a stage with that of the veterans (like Bruce Weigl or Yusef Komunyakaa) or of Vietnamese poets, (like the Vietnamese-American poet Mộng-Lan) who write of the lingering traumas of that war. There is more of interest to be learned about Lowell’s statesmanship in his profile in Time Magazine or in Norman Mailer’s worshipful description of Lowell at an anti-war rally in Armies of the Night than there is in his poetry. Lowell’s political poems exist more in the intersections of history with a private mania, a self already severely destabilized, than they ever meaningfully raise the personal into a public light (as do the poems of Derek Walcott or Seamus Heaney, who both cite Lowell as a major influence). That mania yielded strong poems for Lowell is a testament to his power (and to the power of his mania), but a thin argument for Lowell as “a public poet.” That some want to raise him up as such is symptomatic once again of Lowell being treated as an authoritative historical figure in his own right rather than merely a good poet. This projection of stature onto Lowell for hidden or not-so-hidden purposes is why Tom Paulin, for instance, calls both Lowell and his review in The Guardian “The Voice of America” and uses the publication of the Collected as an occasion to espouse his views on the war in Iraq.

Denuded of the shock value of his “candor” and his significance as a public poet, what remains of Lowell? What he did have, and what the Collected affords us a chance to survey in its totality, is a constant sense of history as an arbiter of achievement. Part of the reason Lowell’s work has become a diminished thing is that history itself, as an authoritative and normative record and force, has been diminished with the ascendancy of an institutionalized post-modernism-not only in the arts but in the popular consciousness. If we were to play Lowell’s favorite game (shall we?), the ranking of poets, I think he should be placed somewhat lower than Bishop and Roethke, and possibly Berryman and Plath, for an ability to generate energetic followings among either readers (those coming of age now at any rate) or our stronger young poets. Throughout the beginning, middle and end of his career, Lowell’s achievement lies in providing us with a record of how the world seemed to one man-a particularly interesting one-throughout the middle of the twentieth century. This is no slight achievement, and it’s good for all of us-I’d like to think Lowell included-to have him among us now on a more human scale. If it seems doubtful that the Robert Lowell who has gone away is ever coming back, we can nonetheless honor the great entrepreneurial effort of his work and see Lowell for what he was-a tortured and gifted soul who brought all of his psychic and intellectual energy to bear on the creating of poems.

In Vendler’s blurb on the Collected, she writes, “The subjects of these poems will eventually become extinct, like all other natural species devoured by time, but the indelible mark of their impression on a single sensibility will remain, in Lowell’s votive sculpture, bronzed to imperishability.” Although I’d call it a mistake to assume that all subjects are mere ephemera, Vendler’s point about the perishability of Lowell’s subjects remains. What Lowell missed, what increasingly makes him appear an extraordinarily fine period writer, was the constant application of a force of linguistic imagination that might have elevated his subjects above the transient circumstances of his life and times. Lowell seems to have suspected this himself, and in “Epilogue,” from Day by Day, the final book published in his lifetime, Lowell anticipates and answers this very criticism. In typical fashion, he begins by turning a critical eye on himself and then makes as strong a case for his craft as we will see-stronger than could ever be made in a review. Because Lowell will not, finally, be given the last word, I give it to him here:

Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme-
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.

But 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.
All’s misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.


About Aaron Baker

Aaron Baker is a poet whose work has appeared in numerous journals, including Poetry, New England Review, and Post Road. He has recently been a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University and a Henry Hoyns Fellow at the University of Virginia. He currently teaches at Baruch College in New York.
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