Katie Peterson’s Robert Lowell, Other People’s Lowell, and the Existential Addressee

by David Blair

New and Selected Poems
by Robert Lowell; edited by Katie Peterson
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $18, paperback, 272pp.

Robert Lowell is a poet who reveals our own idiosyncrasies as readers whether we read him or not. With full sympathy for not having any dominant literary culture or personalities ever again, people are crazy if they go too sour on Lowell. As Katie Peterson makes clear in her New Selected Poems, which is a beautiful and idiosyncratic edition with a superb introduction, he is a poet of immense range and subtlety, a poet whose poems are “memorable for their language, not simply the vanishing facts of story” and who “remained constitutionally immune to any stultifying permanence either of form or of spirit.” In other words, he is a model of development and change, almost in some Buddhist way, in his work. In her introduction, Peterson claims that he was not really to her taste, or at least a baffling presence, when she started studying him in graduate school as a Californian from a more rootless world of Beat poetry and drum circles, and that westerners have always found it hard to enter into Lowell’s work.

I’ve heard different versions of this over the years.

One writer told me, “When I got out of graduate school, Lowell had just died. And so many people were either for Lowell or for Bishop. I decided to ignore them both and write novels.” And that’s what he did, about one per decade, as novel writing takes time.

Some of the Lowell partisans have always been kind of hard to take for social reasons, I am guessing. Years ago, I remember being at a party with a lot of grungy kids, and then my friend Dave showed us wearing his slacks and a tucked in Polo shirt. He was drinking beer with one hand and holding his golfing gloves with the other. He was telling everybody to read Notebooks. This did not win Lowell any admirers. What can you say when somebody has grass stains on his white glove? Hand him a Becks.

Not so many years later, I was at a dinner with an anti-realist, hilarious, capricious poet who was always getting into scrapes with people, and who had strong opinions. Somehow, the poem “For the Union Dead” came up, and he put both his hands over his ears and shook his head violently “No no no no no no.” The truth is he was from a social world of writers where not even knowing Lowell had cache. He had a long no-fly list. The new twitched in some high grasses, and he was not going to be the rabbit in these particular grasses. Or perhaps one way of avoiding sounding like poets whom one finds turning up spent soil is to ignore their influences. Some people, you could never even get to read the beginning of “Waking Early Sunday Morning”:

O to break loose, like a chinook salmon jumping and falling back, nosing up to the impossible stone and bone-crushing waterfall—— raw-jawed, weak-fleshed there, stopped by ten steps of the roaring ladder, and then to clear the top of the last try, alive enough to spawn and die. Stop, back off. The salmon breaks water, and now my body wakes to feel the unpolluted joy and criminal leisure of a boy— no rainbow smashing a dry fly in the white run as free as I, here squatting like a dragon on time’s hoard before the day’s begun!

It’s a shame because Lowell at his best is a counterintuitive antidote against some self-involved mythologies.

Poems like “To Think of the Woe That Is Marriage” and “Waking in the Blue” are ones in which the speaker resists the cramped, unhappy spaces of acting nuts. The famous Lowell poems—“The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket,” “Skunk Hour,” “For the Union Dead”—are justly famous even if considered purely on the level of sound and repay reading aloud and rereading for years, but they are also poems of capacious humanity and sharp-eyed social reporting that go further towards explaining the cross-currents and tensions of our culture than most poets could ever manage. Another great thing about Lowell, though a lesser great thing, is that he writes poems that are as multi-tracked in terms of meaning as French Symbolist poems. One of my favorites in this mode is “The Old Flame” from For the Union Dead, a poem that does not make the cut in Peterson’s selection, perhaps because the marital ground is covered in other poems. In “The Old Flame,” a couple who cannot get along are representative of the entire culture in a culture full of emblems and also entirely specific as Lowell remembers conversations in the bedroom of a former Maine house surrounded by cultural bric-a-brac. The wintry ending of the poem is worth thinking about:

Poor ghost, old love, speak with your old voice of flaming insight that kept us awake all night. In one bed and apart, we heard the plow groaning up the hill—— a red light, then a blue, as it tossed off the snow to the side of the road.

These two are living the flag, old glory, an almost every-couple fueled by deliveries from the package store courtesy of a cab driver who is also the town sheriff. And what an invocation of intimacy, of her “flaming insight,” which is still also compulsive, keeping them awake, as is the word groaning. That registers irritable pain and also compassion. These two are intellectuals. Truly after Ginsberg, in so many of Lowell’s poems the ignobility and the nobility of the mind freely coexist, another marriage inside the marriage. Lowell’s tough-minded humor is pervasive, though hardly foregrounded. He has a lot to tell us about how to live in these mishaps, about the double dilemmas we feel, registering the claims of one self against the claims of another, of strengths that are at times weaknesses, loves that are also irritants, and so on. It is a perfectly multi-tracked and humane poem, equal to human complexity, which can never be resolved except in the temporary endings of poems.

Once we get past the historical impulses in Notebooks and some of his other sixties poems and some dull stuff after “The Quaker Graveyard,” Lowell is one of the most relational poets in the language, and even his historical and political pieces are animated by a sense of the primacy of personal intimacy, as when Lowell with comedy and anguish, reaches out to the figures on the television at the end of “For the Union Dead” with no illusion that they reach out to him. Then come the sonnets, where a lot of people stop. There are so many of those sonnets, I don’t think many people should read all of them, and certainly not all at once, but they are great to dip into to find amazing poems like his sonnet about Harpo Marx and the range of poems about other poets, especially the old ones. A lot could be said about Lowell as a prose stylist who brings the expressiveness of nineteenth century prose into mid-century verse in his sonnets, but this style can grow adjective heavy with a moribund flavor of decay in a sequence like “Long Summer.” Reading the sonnets, with their personal poems, historical poems, poems of moral combat with illness, and political poems, I feel that Lowell covers this ground more dynamically in Life Studies and For the Union Dead, books that stand up to decades of re-reading as few books of American poetry ever have. Nevertheless, with their strong sense of occasion and range, the sonnets are another resource. Major Jackson builds on them in Holding Company. David Wojahn’s memorable Mystery Train is practically a pastiche of the more public-spirited of them. Other people are more complex and more completely alive to him than are in the work of very few other poets in Lowell, and this is particularly true in the sonnets as well.

A lot of people have noticed (Ian Hamilton, for instance) that Lowell embraces free verse after coming into contact with Ginsberg’s first book, but Lowell’s explicit embrace of even embarrassing parts of his personal life as a source in Life Studies and in all of his subsequent work is directly related to Ginsberg’s great early books. I can think of only two poets with naked Lyndon Johnson poems. The other is Dylan. But I think that the thing about Lowell being personal is that he writes to people recognizing their complexity, and he never creates the impression that he just writes about them without calling into question his own detachment. Lowell is a poet of generosity and love. My favorite anecdote about Lowell is that around the time he was working on various books of sonnets, he ran into a recent college graduate, aspiring writer and Marine Corps enlistee from Providence by chance at a brunch. Lowell told him he should not go, and on Okinawa, the Marine became a conscientious objector. Between Lowell and reading Saul Bellow’s Herzog from a camp library, the enlistee may not have had a choice. That young guy became the poet Fred Marchant. Thank God, and thank Lowell, and thank Bellow.

The way Marchant remembers the incident in his essay “Table and Doorway” suggests that the form of direct address and engagement that Lowell practices in his poetry was what he strove for in his life.

“And what about the Green Berets throwing the Viet Cong out of helicopters?” . . . .I was a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, an infantry officer on his way to the northernmost units in what was then South Vietnam. . . Bloody Marys were going round . . . . My first response was to say I didn’t know anything about those so-called “airborne interrogations.” . . . . Lowell was having none of it. I remember even less of what he said in the moments that followed, but have an unequivocal sense of the angry, suspicious, and accusatory tone with which he said it. The tone said to me and everyone around us that I was no different from the ones who had tossed those guys to their deaths. . . . The table of about a dozen folks fell totally silent as he practically and loudly demanded that I explain what was going on with this kind of behavior, and I imagine myself blushing, stumbling around for a word or two, but in the end saying nothing.

And then there is something amazingly touching, eloquent, personal, and mysterious, even apologetic for the distances of his public consciousness:

Edwin [the host of the brunch] walked me to the front door. I could see behind Edwin as he hugged me goodbye, that Lowell was racing to the door to catch up with us. He took my hand and looked me as directly in the eye as anyone ever has in my life and gave me the rhyming order to “Come back, young man, come back intact.”

I feel that individually focused side of Lowell animates his poetry more than something abstractly idealistic.

In his Personism manifesto, O’Hara says that we should write poems to real people, not to other poems, and that leads to poems like “Personal Poem” and “Joe’s Jacket,” a poem of a relationship cooling off so embracing of nuance in its telling, it raises similar questions as the poems in Dolphin and the beautiful “Summer” sequence to Lizzie and Harriet: How are you really here? The great force of how reality is summoned, if not solved, by relationships and their conflicts and confluences, reconcilable or not, was in the existential water that people were drinking at the time, Buber, Sartre, Baldwin, and Camus all dealing with loneliness, engagement, relationship. After World War Two, traditional apostrophe becomes something else, something more than gestural. I think you can say that it becomes double portraiture and acknowledgment. The person-to-person turn comes out in poetry first, and then it changes popular culture through music. What this is founded on is still a good idea if we can find a language for it. In “Skunk Hour,” the song on the radio “love, oh careless love” is an old blues.

DAVID BLAIR is the author of three books of poetry, Ascension Days, Friends with Dogs, and Arsonville. He is also the author of Walk Around: Essays on Poetry and Place and a forthcoming poetry collection, Barbarian Seasons, both from MadHat Press.