Tricks to Set the River On Fire: Feigned Eloquence in Lowell

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

As Reviewed By: Sunil Iyengar


When considering Lowell, it is customary to invoke his best critic, Randall Jarrell-a convention that may be forgiven, but not without qualms, since the latter poet did not survive his friend’s career, did not live to assess Near the Ocean (1967), Lowell’s 1973 trilogy of sonnet-like sequences, or Day by Day (1977). Yet there is ample evidence that Jarrell would have approved the authenticity of certain lines in the later poetry. Key phrases from Jarrell’s essays anticipate the compulsion to witness that prompted Lowell to write, “my eyes have seen what my hands did,” and

We are poor passing facts
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name

From his early writings on Lowell, it is clear that Jarrell intuited this terrible burden. “He seems to be condemned both to read history and to repeat it,” the critic says, and it took just such a master of word associations as Jarrell to pounce on Santayana’s chestnut and metabolize it to meet Lowell’s requirements-“condemned” is perfect. Elsewhere, revealing ambivalence toward “The Mills of the Kavanaghs,” Jarrell portrays Lowell’s poetics as a struggle between self-consciousness and surrender, between whim and erudition.

He is a poet of both Will and Imagination, but his Will is always seizing his Imagination by the shoulders and saying to it in a grating voice: ‘Don’t sit there fooling around; get to work!’-and his poor Imagination gets tense all over like a squirrel in a squirrel-cage…. As a poet Mr. Lowell sometimes doesn’t have enough trust in God and tries to do everything himself: he proposes and disposes -and this helps to give a certain monotony to his work.

To some degree, this battle between inspiration and industry is waged in all poets. Although Keats could write, “If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all,” few would take him seriously. Surely, we protest, Keats is speaking more of the effects of a satisfactory poem and not necessarily of its composition. Another statement from Keats supports this interpretation.

Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject. -How beautiful are the retired flowers! how they would lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, ‘admire me I am a violet! dote upon me I am a primrose!’

For poetry to be unobtrusive, however, it must lie in wait, taking its place alongside much that is presumably not poetry. In a preface to the Selected Poems of D.H. Lawrence, Kenneth Rexroth paraphrases Eliot on Pound: “The major poet, unlike the minor, is always writing about everything imaginable, and so, is in good form for the great poem when it comes.” As a price for this profusion, the reader must bear a certain amount of mediocrity. To expect an instant classic from every journal or little magazine, Rexroth reasons, “is just greediness, like children who want it to be Christmas every day.”

Rexroth’s admonition becomes helpful when we turn to that massive stocking-stuffer, Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems, which Frank Bidart and David Gewanter have taken so long in assembling that we may be excused for hailing its arrival with Christmas morning zeal. What greets us in return is the realization that Lowell could be less than memorable, even, at times, a bore. Jarrell’s phrase, quoted earlier-“a certain monotony to his work”-could apply to every title Lowell published after For the Union Dead (1964), notwithstanding occasionally fine poems. When the clutter subsides, however, when have dispensed with Lowell’s baroque gift wrap-the uniquely charged language he uses to treat topics as dissimilar as his daughter’s guinea-pig, Stalin, the 1965 march on Washington, or William Carlos Williams-then we are left to admire the poet’s untiring urge to take up a subject, no matter how small, and wrench it into art. If we readers are Christmas morning children, eager to find each poem a masterpiece, but are left disappointed, then so is Lowell.

For the boy playing with his globe and stamps,
the world is equal to his appetite-
how grand the world is in the blaze of lamps,
how petty in tomorrow’s small dry light!


That quatrain is the first stanza of Baudelaire’s “The Voyage,” as rendered by Lowell. It appears in Imitations (1961), a volume written, he tells us in a preface, “from time to time when I was unable to do anything of my own.” Lazier poets will gape at Lowell’s modesty. If the poems comprising Imitations are a stop-gap, they have nothing perfunctory in them. Imitations could have been titled Emulations, because in his treatments of Villon and Rimbaud, of Montale and Pasternak, Lowell aspires to inhabit the very sensibility of those poets, not merely their rhetorical masks.

Lowell’s attempts at translation were not stale exercises in a copybook; he viewed the originals as an actor, a dramatist, might approach a script. “I’ve just been doing some Baudelaire in meter as strict as his, and have never had such a work-out,” he wrote Elizabeth Bishop. “Three poems have about killed me.” Much of Imitations an be experienced as work-outs of one sort or another: a means to gratify Lowell’s obsessive identification with literary or historical figures; or, alternatively, a dousing of the last embers of childhood nostalgia, left over from Life Studies (1959). Still other parts of Imitations, particularly his Baudelaire, prefigure the searing ennui that would surface in Lowell’s next volume, For the Union Dead-now-famous endings like “I am tired. Everyone’s tired of my turmoil,” or “Sometimes the little muddler / can’t stand itself!” (To one reader, at least, it is no coincidence that the word “mania” appears in both the first and last lines of Imitations. The volume opens with the Iliad, “Sing for me, Muse, the mania of Achilles,” and closes with a phrase from Rilke, “miraculously multiplied by its mania to return.”)

If Lowell’s forays into translation are directed by boredom of an oppressive kind, less perceptible than his mental illness, but no less acute, then rapture is found in visions of escape. The concluding line of “The Voyage”-“heaven or hell / who cares? Through the unknown, we’ll find the new“-is an apt precursor to “Waking Early Sunday Morning” from Near the Ocean, with its refrain, “anywhere, but somewhere else!” Both lines would seem to indicate that the point of traveling isn’t so much the destination as the setting out. Or, put another way, the point of a poem isn’t so much what is said as how it is expressed. Yet isn’t it extraordinary that Lowell, singular among 20th-century poets, never eludes the gravity of his role as poet-witness, never exchanges that responsibility for mere aesthetic effects? Poems such as “For the Union Dead,” “Fall 1961” and “Fourth of July in Maine” fuse formal elegance with social responsibility; in them, the public and private good attain a fragile union impossible for less erudite poets, or poets less sympathetic with their age.


As a title, Imitations is ambiguous. It implies inferiority to the originals, an odd note of deference in a work so authoritative. On the other hand, it suggests fakery, as if Lowell were shamming the intensity of others to provide the occasion for his own poems. There is a third way Imitations can be viewed, as a child’s earnest make-believe, bringing attention to a fairly neglected aspect of Lowell: the poet not as l’enfant terrible, but as the boy at the outset of Baudelaire’s “The Voyage,” a trembling naif whose appetite rivals the world in scale and size. Throughout Collected Poems, we encounter this child at every corner. Originally innocent, perpetually in decline, he is the voyeur in “Eye and Tooth”:

No ease for the boy at the keyhole,
his telescope,
when the women’s bodies white bodies flashed
in the bathroom. Young, my eyes began to fail.

In the same book, For the Union Dead, he is the Pisces fish-out-of-the-water who reminisces in the title poem about childhood trips to Boston Aquarium. (“I often sigh still / for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile.”) In “Night Sweat,” a poem Bidart deeply admires, going so far as to eschew Lowell’s preferred, revised version, the poet declares: “Always inside me is the child who died.” One way to read Collected Poems is to appreciate how in contrast to, say, John Berryman or John Crowe Ransom, Lowell seldom elegizes the dead boy, opting instead to graft the child’s Edenic awe on contemporary affairs. The conflict between that capacity for wonder and a world incapable of sustaining it qualifies Lowell for a title he once dubbed Jarrell-“the most heartbreaking poet of his generation.”

As early as “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow,” in Life Studies, Lowell correlated his own Lost Childhood with an imperative to witness. “I wasn’t a child at all,” he writes, “unseen and all-seeing, I was Agrippina / in the Golden House of Nero.” Not until a later poem, however, do we discover the extent of Lowell’s sacrifice to adulthood, and the centrality of vigilance to his art.


“Waking Early Sunday Morning” evokes the “unpolluted joy / and criminal leisure of a boy,” lines that hearken back to an unlikely source. Longfellow once wrote, “A boy’s will is the wind’s will, / And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts,” inadvertently supplying Robert Frost with the title of his first book, A Boy’s Will (1913). Recalling Jarrell’s terms in describing Lowell-a contest between the Will and Imagination-we can understand why the poet’s fantasy “O to break loose” is silenced with the sentence: “No weekends for the gods now.” Two stanzas earlier, Lowell showed why absolute “leisure,” or freedom from oversight, is impossible.

Sing softer! But what if a new
diminuendo brings no true
tenderness, only restlessness,
excess, the hunger for success,
sanity of self-deception
fixed and kicked by reckless caution,
while we listen to the bells-
anywhere, but somewhere else!

If Lowell were less volatile in reacting to his surroundings, “Waking Early” explains, there would be a danger of lapsing into “reckless caution,” an oxymoron only if we haven’t understood the poem. Here, “caution” can be construed as polite restraint; complacency; non-engagement. Too many of us are motivated only by “the hunger for success,” deluded into thinking “diminuendo” a synonym for peace. Lowell maintains, by contrast, that we must be routinely agitated, that a certain degree of madness is necessary to offset the tranquilizing “sanity of self-deception.” Even discounting Lowell’s dramatic public gestures-his CO status during World War II, his Vietnam War protests-we must readily acknowledge that throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Lowell was a smoldering, subversive presence, every bit as incendiary as Allen Ginsberg and the Beats.


My title is taken from Lowell’s fourteen-liner, “Reading Myself,” a self-elegy as poignant as any in our literature.

Like thousands, I took just pride and more than just,
Struck matches that brought my blood to a boil;
I memorized the tricks to set the river on fire-
Somehow never wrote something to go back to.

I am drawn to the image of Lowell striking match after match, “learning to flinch / at the flash of the matchlight,” as he writes in “Eye and Tooth.” The notion that a good poem can be ignited by bringing “blood to a boil” suggests that, like Homer, Lowell hails anger, outrage, as his principal muse. Yet what beguiles me most is the third line quoted-as if all that hectic heat amounted to a magician’s repertoire, not a noble necessity. Are we to understand Lowell’s agitation as a poetic strategy, a matter of craft no less than moral compulsion? It is a disturbing thought, but one must consider whether Lowell has been rousing himself to heightened speech for the sake of saying anything at all. If every occasion presents an opportunity for a poem, then we are left to doubt the poet’s selectivity-a serious charge, no less than a reproach of judgment. In reply, I would suggest that Lowell craved conflagration not for a fireworks display, but because he required constant proof that he wasn’t drowning in platitudes of thought or action. Seen in this context, Lowell’s touching plea to his daughter, “Dearest, I cannot loiter here / in lather like a polar bear,” takes on a new dimension. Lowell’s oceanic themes, similarly, can be experienced as classic wish-fulfillment, as if he required vast quantities of water to extinguish his dutiful flame (“Nothing! No oil / for the eye, nothing to pour / on those waters or flames,” he laments in “Eye and Tooth.”) To Lowell, a wet, delusional heaven is worse than hellfire. A scene that isn’t flammable is endowed with a kind of sterility.

Remember summer? Bubbles filled
the fountain, and we splashed. We drowned
in Eden, while Jehovah’s grass-green lyre
was rustling all about us in the leaves
that gurgled by us, turning upside down…
The fountain’s failing waters flash around
the garden. Nothing catches fire.


About Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar, a poet, writer and editor in Washington, D.C., is a board member of the American Poetry & Literacy Project. His essays and reviews have appeared in Verse, The American Scholar, New York Times, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle.
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