Robert Lowell, New Selected Poems, ed. Katie Peterson (Faber, £14.99).
If you came to poetry in the sixties and seventies, you came to Robert Lowell. His volume, Life Studies, seemed to dominate the perspective on poetry, in the way that The Whitsun Weddings, Crow or Ariel did, in their own way. One way in which that book seemed to dominate poetry was in the sheer presence of the writer; the voice which seemed to pound out of the pages, even from the prose memoir, ‘61 Revere St’. However, as Katie Peterson asks in her introduction, ‘Is it too easy to say that Lowell’s star has fallen a bit?’ In the time since Lowell’s death aged only 60, in 1977, it is the star of Lowell’s friend, Elizabeth Bishop, which has risen inexorably, seeming almost to take Lowell’s place in the pantheon. Bishop, to whom Lowell proposed marriage, although he knew her to be lesbian, is a far quieter writer. And Bishop’s skills of exactitude and meditation, with her allegiance to that other exact, meditative writer, George Herbert, seem, somehow more attuned to contemporary needs.
As opposed to Bishop’s wincing privacy, Lowell was a public poet from the very beginning, turning his hand early to a gnarled political writing, drawing obliquely on the brahmin traditions of his birth. Lowell had dropped out of Harvard to study classics with John Crowe Ransom. Early his career, Lowell wanted to follow Ransom’s example of every word having two or three meanings depending on the word’s derivation from Latin or Greek. Such an example threw up strange narratives such as ‘Between the Porch and the Altar’, which Peterson includes in this New Selected. But the technical control he learned from Ransom and from Allen Tate allowed him to create masterpieces even from the beginning, such as the magnificent ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’, in which Lowell spins out a kind of verse Moby Dick, which meditates on the death of a cousin at sea, but also on the nature of man’s relationship to death; Lowell was a Catholic convert at the time.
In the early fifties, Lowell underwent a different kind of conversion. He got wind of what the Beats were doing with ‘public’ poetry, making it more accessible on the ear at readings; the Beats having been influenced, to some extent, by having heard Dylan Thomas touring America and enthralling audiences with his own voice. At this point, Lowell’s verse became more open, less costive. The result was the aforementioned Life Studies. The book begins with ‘Beyond the Alps’ which announced that Lowell had given up on the ultramontane grip of the Catholic church. Peterson, herself, comments that ‘even’ this poem with its allusions to Greek mythology and Catholic theology was off-putting. But, by putting himself at the centre of the poem’s text world, Lowell was moving into the ‘confessional’ mode, by which he became known. As the book advances, the confessions become rawer and the address to the reader more unsparing. The prose memoir ‘91 Revere street’ comes very early in Life Studies. And by writing up the discontent of his parent’s marriage in prose, not only was Lowell doing something almost ‘experimental’ in a volume of poetry, but he was starting a trend of memoir, which carries on till today.
Later in the book are the poems which came to make his name; his memories of his time as a conscientious objector in the second world war, but, and more importantly, his poems about his own breakdowns and mania, and exposing poems about his marriage. Peterson makes the point that, for her, Lowell is the great poet of the passage of time over a day; a great poet of the quotidian. Which is, up to a point, true. However, as Peterson acknowledges, Lowell’s days are spectacularly privileged. ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’ describes Lowell’s incarceration in New York’s West Street jail as a result of his stance in the second world war, and the various ‘characters’ he met there. But it begins, ‘Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming/ in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning.’; would that we all had ‘days’ like that! It is certainly true that Lowell was too knowing a writer not to know the effect that beginning would have on the reader. And the poems about his breakdowns are piercing and difficult even in our therapeutically oriented era.
Peterson has good selections from the wonderful volume For the Union Dead which followed Life Studies and also from the versions of the books Notebooks and History. These latter were the most controversial of Lowell’s career as, in fourteen line blank verse ‘sonnets’, he picked over his marriage to the critic and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick. These poems lost him the friendship of Adrienne Rich, and almost lost him the friendship of Elizabeth Bishop too. And, to put it bluntly, there are too many of them and even though they range from poems about the marriage to poems ‘about’ Beethoven and Coleridge, there’s too similar a dynamic in them to make them worth pouring over. Peterson does the reader a greater service here than Jonathan Raban’s selection of Lowell’s poems from 1974. Raban’s selection was the only previous selection other than Lowell’s own which dated from 1965. Raban was too slavish to the middle period Lowell; unsurprising, perhaps, since Raban’s book came out in that period. But Raban followed too easily Lowell’s tendency at that period to ‘Audenize’, i.e., wilfully rearrange his work to fit into later categories. Thus Raban printed the ‘Our Lady of Walsingham’ episode separately from its original location in the ‘Quaker Graveyard’.
And Peterson includes a very good selection from Lowell’s final, glorious Day by Day, in which Lowell’s sense of the quotidian is mixed with his premonition of his death. In this book, the poet is unsparing of himself, but there is also an edge of forgiveness about these poems which makes them more approachable, and his technical control meets a warmth and humour so the poems reach out more.
Peterson’s selection is to be warmly recommended. Whether Lowell’s star has sunk far beyond the horizon remains to be seen, but Peterson has given the reader coming to Lowell for the first time, a much needed, and comprehensive introduction to one of the defining figures of post-war poetry in English.