On the Poetics of Possibility in Robert Lowell

When I first got word of the publication of Robert Lowell’s collected poems, I was exuberant. I yelled, “Finally!” Having been force-fed Lowell in college, with great resistance; I confess an obsession with his work eventually developed. Alternately dismissing his work, then running towards it – my resistance dropped with Derek Walcott‘s publication of “On Robert Lowell” in What the Twilight Says. Walcott shows the vast contribution of Lowell’s later works, noting, “The Notebooks are like an index to Dante.” Since I read Walcott‘s essay I have been fixated. With the publication of Robert Lowell: Collected Poems, edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter, I thought I would get the opportunity to examine the multiple versions of Lowell‘s Notebook, along with History, For Lizzie and Harriet , The Dolphin and Day by Day. Given my initial fixation with Lowell‘s later works, I was astonished to open the book and find no complete version of any of the Notebooks. Bidart, of all people, was central to assisting Lowell in the editing the versions of Notebook. I wanted an index to “an index to Dante” in Collected Poems. I cannot say why Bidart made the editorial choice he made, but given Lowell’s constant revision of his work and the potential for redundancy between Notebook and his later works, I can understand that it was a difficult choice to put it lightly. Nor was the question of notation an easy one.

Some have said there are too many notes, I say “just right.” The notes do not assume a comprehensive liberal arts education on the part of the reader. Why should they? Critics can and have written on the problematics of Bidart‘s decisions. That some now call for a variorum of Lowell‘s works is (partial) testimony to the vast contribution of this 1,200-page volume. While Bidart’s rendering of Lowell manifests some serious editorial dilemmas and this work has touched off a firestorm of responses, what is truly valuable about his work is at risk of being occluded.

As I got over my expectations and read the volume closely cover to cover, I found that what is most interesting are the effects and potentialities of Lowell’s multiple contributions throughout the scope of his career and into the present. While I maintain Lowell’s later works (from History to Day by Day and the posthumous poems) have substantial value and more work should be done with them it is from Land of Unlikeness to Near the Ocean that I will focus my attention. Future pursuits of the “index to Dante” may start with “Rats” (History) and work downwards into the abyss. There are times to take this Conradian journey. What is splendid about Collected Poems is that this possibility presents itself to more readers.

It is ironic to suggest that Lowell’s work is underrated. After all, the western canon practically flung open its doors to Lowell’s work and for that matter, Lowell himself. Yet, the multiple contributions of Lowell’s poetry reach much further than contemporary mainstream poetry and sometimes, I believe, his canonization (and the debates around it) hide significant and relevant aspects of his work. His work is not primarily of the Public Sphere nor is it primarily “interior”. Perhaps it is “confessional” but the term hides more than it reveals. Rather, the effects of his work inhabit interstices between the public and the private. This same process is at work in the false binaries between subjectivity and objectivity. The ”for itself ”of subjective narcissism and the “in itself” of objectivism are mediated by intersubjectivities: “Where I am not,” we chime, “is where I am” (“Hospital,” The Dolphin). “It is within the “zones between” (public/private, subjective/objective) that Lowell’s creative impulse thrived and continues to thrive. What drives this impulse is not History or private histories, but rather the temporal body and its wild double, language. In Lowell’s work, the body is always already timed and timing — and his poetry functions as an interpellation between History and privacy, effacing and re-cognizing both simultaneously. This is, to me, what is most prophetic about Lowell’s poetry.

His first book, Land of Unlikeness (a limited edition of 250 copies) is republished in Collected Poems for the first time since its 1944 release. This and the subsequent Lord Weary’s Castle (1946) both delineate Lowell’s close relationship to Allen Tate and the Southern Agrarians – known more pejoratively as the patriarchal, white male (and I would add, racist) “Typewriter Agrarians,” to borrow from Henry Hazlitt’s phrase. Those interested in sordid details – political and personal – from Lowell’s life can turn to his biographies or recent gossip columns. His affiliation with the Southern Agrarians, the Yaddo affair (where Lowell named “communists” in the McCarthy era), not to mention the horrific way he treated many of those closest to him (especially his lovers) could earn him a trip to Hell. While he was here, it seems that’s where he was sent many times. But, the litmus test for me is not whether the poet leads an ethical life, but rather whether the work she leaves behind is liberatory or not. To be reductivist, do the texts produce oppressive or liberatory modes of thinking and writing? While “poetry is not the redemption of conduct” (Walcott), Lowell’s work unleashes the redemptive capacities of poetry.

The rigid meter and rhyme of Lowell’s first books frame windows into harrowing and luminous spaces. While I think Bidart may mistakenly overemphasize Lowell’s command of form at the expense of his other creative capacities, “Mr. Edwards and the Spider” makes the artificial seem natural. The poem, which draws on Donne’s “A Nocturnal on St. Lucy’s Day, being the Shortest Day” and Jonathan Edwards “Of Insects” speaks metaphorically to Edwards’ uncle, Josiah Hawley, who died of suicide:

          What are we in the hands of the Great God?
           It was in vain you set up thorn and briar
              In battle array against the fire
                And treason crackling in your blood;
                   For the wild thorns grow tame
                And will do nothing to oppose the flame;
              Your lacerations tell the losing game
          You play against a sickness past your cure.
          How will the hands be strong? How will the heart endure?

Here, we encounter a true living Hell – dying and knowing simultaneously. And within this, a sickness too. It would seem that we are far from redemptive discourses of possibility. To understand what it is to be “sick and full of burning,” to know a Hell of all Hells, “to die and know it” does not in itself constitute the prophetic. However, even in this “losing game” Lowell asks not whether, but following Edwards back to Ezekiel, “How will the hands be strong? How will the heart endure?” The operative word here is how. For me, it is relevant that Lowell is referencing Ezekiel 22 here, for this passage deals with “The Crimes of Jerusalem.” “And so I have made you an object of scorn to the nations and a laughingstock to every country” (Ez. 22:4). Robert B. Shaw noted recently in Poetry that “the apocalyptic fervor of some of the pieces written during World War II goes in and out of fashion, appearing strained at times of peace but suddenly more persuasive whenever the bombs start falling.” I would not call it a matter of fashion, but rather the prophetic functioning as interpellation between the private and public. The blood of war is by its nature, suicidal – as we also see in poems like “The Dead in Europe” and later more convincingly in the paced and less strident “Deutschland über Alles” ( History ).

While Lord Weary’s Castle succeeds enormously, I find the title poem from The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951) hopelessly tedious. The redundant rhyme and meter of the opening seventeen page poem comes off as forced, as in:

Deluge her playmate in Jehovah’s beard
Of waterfalls. She listens to his feared
Footsteps, no longer muffled by the green
Torrent, that serpents up and down between

Some have found the book to be “underappreciated” – perhaps so. However, with lines like these, the book itself comes off as a transitional piece best left at just that.

Life Studies (1959) stands in stark contrast, with Lowell moving away from strict meter and into a looser conversational method. The capitalizations of first lines begin to drop, putting the verse at even greater ease. The result is visceral and unforgettable. The 1953 “Beyond the Alps,” (augmented with Bidart’s inclusion of two magazine versions of this poem, plus Lowell’s revision of it in For the Union Dead ) like many poems in Life Studies , obsesses over the transformation of self-identity in time, in a train ride marking Lowell’s move from Catholicism to disillusion:

I left the City of God where it belongs.
There the skirt-mad Mussolini unfurled
the eagle of Caesar. He was one of us
only, pure prose.

The poem fuses together the fragmentation of selves and nations through art itself:

Now Paris, our black classic, breaking up
like killer kings on an Etruscan cup.

While there may be a sequence of events (in and out of Catholicism), the traces of time are anything but linear. The poem shuttles with wild ease between Augustine, Mussolini and Napoleon, Robert Penn Warren and the Pope, Mary and Minerva.

And, while one could say that the poem does deal with Lowell’s metamorphosis and with History, what I find most valuable as the case with practically every poem in Life Studies is the care and attention that Lowell gives to both, simultaneously. The “I” in Life Studies is never fixed, but always already in motion in time – and time itself changes, then moves recursively back upon itself. Lowell writes in the closing stanza of “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow”:

I cowered in terror.
I wasn’t a child at all —
unseen and all-seeing, I was Agrippina
in the Golden House of Nero….
Near me was the white measuring-door
my Grandfather had pencilled with my Uncle’s heights.
In 1911, he had stopped growing at just six feet…..
While I sat on the tiles,
and dug at the anchor on my sailor blouse,
Uncle Devereux stood behind me (emphases mine).

Why is Lowell Agrippina and what are the effects of it? The endnotes give us some insight, noting that his uncle would read him stories of Nero, who built a “death-barge” for his mother to sink in. While admittedly speculative, Agrippina also married her uncle and had by all accounts an incestuous encounter with her son Nero (Tacitus). I doubt seriously that Lowell was unaware of Agrippina’s relationship with her uncle while writing “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow.” Cal knew his Tacitus. The scene is dated 1922, he is “five and a half”: ” I wasn’t a child at all.” The poem hurls us further into the metaphor – the anchor on the sailor blouse highlights the vehicle of Agrippina further.

Bidart quotes Lowell in his afterword “On “Confessional” Poetry” that “the reader was to believe he was getting the real Robert Lowell.” Lowell also states here “I’ve invented facts.” What is central for Bidart in Life Studies is not “accuracy but the illusion of accuracy, the result of arrangement and invention.” This rhetorical strategy on Bidart’s part may inadvertently function as an inoculation against seeing his Collected Poems for what it is: “the result of arrangement and invention.” This is not a fault of the editor, but an indicator of the monumentally difficult task of editing itself. Rather than accuracy or the illusion of accuracy, what fascinates me about Lowell’s work in Life Studies are the multiple generative effects of possibility born of the dynamic relations of time and the body in Time. I am less interested here in the true Lowell (which spirals into unmitigated subjectivism) or believability of truth-claims (which stumbles on the myth of the self-possessed master, who constructs poetry as a kind of rhetorical technology). Rather, Lowell’s work serves as a living cohesion between the two in time. That intersubjective cohesion thrives in “Skunk Hour.” Rather than stopping at the self (“My mind’s not right.”), or the hell of the self, looking at itself (“nobody’s here -“), the text closes on encounter with a named, but always inscrutable other:

I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air —
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail,
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail
and will not scare.

While Bidart turns to Foucault on more than one occasion, I suggest a re-examination of Lowell in the context of Merleau-Ponty’s concepts of the chiasm and reversibility. In 1960, Merleau-Ponty writes in his working notes:

There is not the For Itself and the For the Other. They are each the other side of the other. This is why they incorporate one another….There is that line, that frontier surface at some distance before me, where occurs the veering I-Other Other-I —. The axis alone given — the end of the finger of the glove is nothingness-but a nothingness one can turn over (Chiasm-Reversibility, trans. Lingis 263).

There is a horrifics of the hell of the self in “Skunk Hour,” but it is a nothingness that the speaker turns over into the world – and conversely the world turns back to him – “and will not scare.” By installing multiple axes in time and identity, the poem produces generative possibility. The poem’s title itself refracts a wild time that can/cannot be marked. It is “for” Elizabeth Bishop but is also a part of a life study (not the For Itself or For the Other). Intersubjectivity, the flesh of the world between us, thrives in and drives Lowell’s work as a poetics of redemptive possibility. Because Lowell’s work successfully potentiates this flux or chiasm, I find no contradiction in moving between Lowell and say, the phenomenal contributions of Leslie Scalapino or Larry Eigner.

While there are clearly many roads between, there are two ways a band can cover a song: either aiming to reproduce the “original” version or through imitation, producing an altogether new song. I tend to favor the latter approach in music and in poetry. If you want the “original” or even a more “accurate” translation, the world is full of both. Lowell’s often maligned Imitations (1961) reveals splendid poems based loosely on the original works.Lowell is not channeling Rilke, Villon, Rimbaud, Baudelaire (among others), but riffing on them – and the results are hit and miss. I won’t remark on the craftsmanship of the poems, but do note that the seeming improvisational nature of the poems are like Coltrane with firm knowledge and grounding in rudiment and scale working through “My Favorite Things.”   In “The Cadet Picture of My Father” (“Rilke”), there is a tactile immediacy to the poem: “There’s absence in the eyes. The brow’s in touch/with something far.” Here, as in much of History, there is an inhabitation, a shifting of personae between the “real” and the interior that is amplified further by a wild doubling of the “who” behind the poems. Lowell writes in “Pigeons” (Rilke), dedicated by Lowell to Hannah Arendt:

Over non-existence arches the all-being-
thence the ball thrown almost out of bounds
stings the hand with the momentum of its drop-
body and gravity,
miraculously multiplied by its mania to return.

The arc of Imitations and his later work is not towards the real Robert Lowell anymore than it is towards Rilke or Napoleon. Non-existence is a “nothingness one can turn over” – here all-being functions as incorporation, the axis between non-existence, body, and gravity. It is this site where all is “miraculously multiplied by its mania to return.”  

But, within this mania, however generative, is also a grim history. Lowell inserts a stanza on Leonidas at Thermopylae (later published as “Epigram” in For the Union Dead and revised as “The Spartan Dead at Thermopylae” in History ) in “Pigeons.” Tragic and seemingly inexorable, the fall of Leonidas is also a site of remembrance. For Lowell, as for Arendt in this respect, historical remembering is imperative.

While Lowell was no more a public poet than he was a poet of pure interiority, it is in For the Union Dead and Near the Ocean that Lowell’s work reaches yet another register.   Now the reach into the present public sphere is directed, solid, focused – as in   “For the Union Dead.” The ditch that Colonel Shaw’s black infantry fell into draws not further away from our view in a march of liberal progress, but nearer – “the ditch is nearer.” The only remembrance for World War II is a commercial for “a Mosler Safe.”

The child’s hope that Lowell pins metaphorically on the Boston Aquarium is altogether gone:

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

What hope is left? In Near the Ocean we are well within “The Ruins of Time.” Lowell notes on his translations in this volume that the theme that connects them is Rome. But the theme that connects the poems throughout the book is the hubris of American imperialism and our eventual fate is direct:

Do Rome and Carthage know what we deny?
Death only throws fixed dice, and yet we raise
the ante, and stake our lives on every toss. (“The Ruins of Time”)

In Near the Ocean , the verse is longer, open, and extended. It is as if through form, the act of writing itself might serve to highlight the will to “break loose,” but that will is “nosing up to the impossible” (“Waking Early Sunday Morning”). Here, there is as Marianne Moore said a “struggling to be/ free and unable to be,/in its surrendering/ finds its continuing” (“The Fish”). The closing stanza of “Waking Early Sunday Morning” (which Bidart writes on eloquently in his introduction — and thoughtfully includes both versions of the poem here) is as good as any Lowell wrote:

Pity the planet, all joy gone
from this sweet volcanic cone;
peace to our children when they fall
on small war on the heels of small
war – until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.

If there is a nothingness to turn over into possibility, it would seem that it is forever lost and what is left is pure poetry, nothing short of sublime. However, there is another opening — the public task of articulating the horrors of imperial overreach, an articulation that would seem particularly relevant in the seemingly intractable War on “Terror”.

Philip Jenks (© 2006)