Diann Blakely's Reviews > Collected Poems

Collected Poems by Robert Lowell
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Mar 11, 2012

Read in January, 2007

From the fall of Rome to that of the World Trade Center, a cloying, mindless and absurdist sincerity characterizes most political poetry, which often reads like paid-for newspaper memorials to lost loved ones. No one would have known better than Robert Lowell, whose long-awaited, monumental volume of collected verse appeared in June of this year, that politics suffers from the dangerous and inevitable curse of abstraction—simplistic “us vs. them” theories are perennial favorites—unless its practitioners leave behind the pleasures of bombast and partisan rivalries for the exponentially more difficult knowledge of history’s unending bloodshed.

This knowledge was both Lowell’s birthright, as a member of a Boston Brahmin family (though from the less distinguished branch, as he delighted in pointing out), and something he learned from his chief mentors, the Fugitive/ Agrarian writers John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren, whose commitment to traditional aesthetics eventually morphed into a controversial economic and political movement. Lowell dropped out of Harvard and planned to attend Vanderbilt, which pleased none of the Lowells of any branch; instead he landed at Kenyon College when Ransom left Vanderbilt. At Kenyon, where Lowell followed Ransom’s advice to major in classics, he roomed with Randall Jarrell, another Nashvillian, and Peter Taylor, with whom he remained lifelong friends. Lowell addressed several poems to Jarrell and Taylor, as well as to Ransom, Tate and Warren. His years with these men, as well as his marriage to Kentuckian Elizabeth Hardwick, account for his odd Southern drawl, if not entirely for his deadly accurate understanding of questions of historical, literal and emotional hierarchies, which for Lowell were all encompassed and superseded by poetry itself.

Lowell’s most enduring subject might well be termed power: how it passes from one generation to the next; how it operates in both the public and private spheres, which collide more often than we tend to notice; how it waxes and wanes and even— terrifyingly—disappears at times; and how we use it to hurt and humiliate. Part of Lowell’s genius is to recognize himself in both the scepter-wielding emperor and his cowering, often doomed subject. For example, writing of Florence, the city which he called “patroness / of the lovely tyrannicides,” the poet’s gaze traverses the Piazza della Signoria and its statues of Perseus, David and Judith: “Pity the monsters! / Pity the monsters!” he proclaims. Why? “I have seen the Gorgon,” he continues; “The erotic terror / of her helpless, big-bosomed body / lay like slop. / Wall-eyed, staring the despot to stone, / her severed head swung / like a lantern in the victor’s hand.” The timeliness of poems like “Florence,” “The Exile’s Return,” “The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket,” “For the Union Dead” (a reply to Tate’s famous “Ode to the Confederate Dead”), “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” and entire books, like HISTORY, scarcely needs pointing out in this age of paranoiac patriotism.

For the lover of Lowell, the COLLECTED POEMS is cause for celebration and grumbling. Some of Lowell’s volumes have become difficult to find even through online bookstores specializing in out-of-print material, a problem that the appearance of COLLECTED POEMS largely erases. But editors Frank Bidart and David Gewanter’s decision to delete Notebook has its detractors. This collection, which Lowell continuously revised and expanded, became so thick with 14-line, unrhymed “sonnets” that he eventually divided the single volume into three: HISTORY, which contains the least personal poems; FOR LIZZIE AND HARRIET, which centers on his relationship with Hardwick and their child; and THE DOLPHIN, which focuses on Lowell’s decision to leave his family for the Anglo-Irish beauty Caroline Blackwood. While the poet didn’t think of NOTEBOOK as being replaced by HISTORY or
its two corollary volumes, when he assembled his SELECTED POEMS the year before his death, he chose to include HISTORY, not a mixture of its predecessors. If a similar choice had to be made for a one-volume collection, as Bidart and Gewanter assert, this one seems logical, If regrettable in other ways. Lowell's great theme was power, whether domestic or played out through centuries, and the counterpointing in NOTEBOOK (the second edition) argues for its emaining in print.

Longtime Lowell readers will support or argue with the editors’ decisions according to their own convictions. For those to whom Lowell remains a stranger, one hopes the release of COLLECTED POEMS attracts scores of new readers. The editorial notes help flesh out obscure places, names and allusions; they also give us biographical materials necessary to reading Lowell’s work in the often highly personal context it demands. Bidart and Gewanter pay just homage to Ian Hamilton’s and Paul Mariani’s biographies, which deepen that context and also chronicle the poet’s lifelong struggle with manic-depression, though the latter derives so much from Hamilton that questions of plagiarism arise.

Now, during our country’s latest resurgence of bloody, self-righteous imperialism, the COLLECTED POEMS not only represents the much larger chronicle of Lowell’s singular, genius-haunted life and work but also offers an indispensable perspective on the story of America since the 1940s. To protest the massive civilian bombing of cities like Dresden at the end of World War I, Lowell refused to serve and was sentenced to a year and a day in a New England state prison. What he called “the tranquilized Fifties” was a time—creepily like our own—when “giant finned cars nose[d] forward” like predatory fish, and “a savage servility [slid] by on grease.” In the ’60s, Lowell participated in the march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War, served as advisor, to Bobby Kennedy, and, after Kennedy’s assassination, campaigned across the country for Eugene McCarthy.

Finally, Lowell lived through the fallout of the ’60s, particularly regarding the family life that had been one of his best subjects since the hallmark volume LIFE STUDIES. At the same time, he wrote elegies for nearly every one of his many friends and students who died—in the cases of Jarrell, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, by suicide—during his own last years. When we read a line like “[H]istory has to live with what was here,” we’re in the presence of a heavily felt responsibility, an imperative not merely to exist but to live in the history of our own time—even if, like Lowell, we’re constantly “clutching and close to fumbling all we had.”

(originally published in the NASHVILLE SCENE)
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message 1: by Muhammed (new)

Muhammed fattah Dear, I am looking for your opinion on how Lowell's representation of space was in his poetry. What spaces are there: confinement, natural, gothic, domestic, and individual ones. Please, I need your help and any other readers on Lowell in particular

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