Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.
New York, NY
Hardcover, 157 pages
days there is not so much said about Robert Lowell, though Burton Raffel said
much in Robert Lowell, a sometimes
harsh critique of the poet s work, beginning at the age of 18 when Lowell attended Harvard,
lasting but two years:
seems to have done very little work, to have drunk much and smoked up a lot,
and to have pursued and conquered a girl some half a dozen years older than
himself in a quarrel with his father, over this young lady, he hit and knocked
down the older man. He did not like Harvard, and Harvard did not much like
him. Robert Frost, visiting the
university, found the young man s early poetry long-winded and boring, as
indeed it was.
Lowell moved on to
imitate William Carlos Williams but it did not work. Urged by others to visit
Allen Tate in Tennessee (Tate led a group of southern writers known as the Fugitives) Lowell showed up
uninvited at Tate s home and asked if he could stay, to which Tate responded
that he d have to camp out on the lawn in a tent. Which Lowell
promptly did for the summer of 1937.
unstable, married three times, and in and out of mental institutions, what
Lowell must have inflicted on those close to him probably cannot be
measured. His unfortunate early model
was T.S. Eliot, including Eliot s theory that a poet writes from a constantly
amalgamating experience of chaos and fragments. Despite this hindrance in his poetic upbringing,
Lowell won the
Pulitzer Prize in 1947 at the young age of 30 for Lord Weary s Castle but thereafter lost his faith, his politics,
his wife, and his mind. And his poetry
drifted. Nearly a decade later, at age
39, a cousin told him he was written out and done for.
personal issues haunted Lowell,
Raffel found elements of Lord Weary s
Castle to be admirable. Image
material is now subordinated to theme; it no longer runs wild, and the poem no
longer runs to excess. Raffel also praised the extraordinary economy of these
lines, which move tautly, firmly toward an organized presentation, a controlled
presentation. He also admired the movement within the lines as more relaxed,
at times gracious, and what musicians call through composed. That is,
instead of using structural devices of a repeating nature, like the stanza, the
poet allows the structure of the poem to evolve organically, as it were, out of
the poem s own imperatives. Instead of stanzas, Lowell used what Raffel cals strophes verse
paragraphs that do not match one another in length, in structure, or in rhyme
patterns. But what Lowell continued to struggle against, and
move beyond, was the poetry of T.S. Eliot. As Raffel says:
is the farthest thing from easy to escape the towering presence of a
predecessor in any art. How many musicians did Beethoven swallow? How many
painters are struggling, still, to escape Picasso?
contends that Lowell
ultimately did move past Eliot, and that when he did so, he produced his best
work, Life Studies. But to do so,
like other confessional poets, Lowell
had to open his own veins, something unsustainable by anyone.
his later poetry, Lowell s
style relaxed yet again, adding syllables to avoid too tight a style, and
moving close to prose. I felt that the best style for poetry was none of the
many poetic styles in English, but something like the prose of Chekhov or
Flaubert. To avoid the more formal
style of the past, he capitalized the first word of a line only when it was the
first word in a sentence. He also used rime faible and slant rhyme. But where Lowell succeeded in Life Studies, Raffel found failure in his 850 free-form sonnets
which Raffel criticized as a form of distinguished poetic journalism. As Lowell himself conceded in 1968, I no
longer know the difference between prose and verse. Raffel describes such work as easy-flowing,
virtuosic poetry, which does not dig very deep. For one particular sonnet, he states:
though there are felicities, sometimes delightful felicities, scattered all
across the poem, choicely phrased lines within the reach of very few poets, we
are engaged only in a limited way. This is immensely attractive poetry; it is
distinctly successful in what it tries to do. But it does not try to do very
much . . .
are these lines which Raffel praises:
Now twelve years later, you turn your back.
Sleepless, you hold
your pillow to your
hollows like a child;
loving, rapid, merciless
breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head.
Raffel finds worthy here is the blunt power with which Lowell has dealt with this relationship. Elsewhere Raffel also finds lines which he
calls singularly sparse, without the slightest sentimentality or
exaggeration, and which paint the world with devastating abruptness. He similarly praises a line which strikes
like a cobra.
But he has little
tolerance for poems with lines which break for no apparent reason, which use
repetition merely for poetic flavor, which settle for something not much more
musical than good evocative prose.
This criticism, written in 1981, could apply equally well to much of
what passes for poetry today. As Raffel
states at one point:
what way are these lines much more than clean prose? They report; they do not
stir, they do not sing.
He levels similar criticism at the use of images:
have no focus, they are merely descriptive. And competent description is the
bare beginning of poetry, not the finished product.
The same is true of how a poem may express an idea:
linkage requires more than mere idea to justify it and, above all, to charge it
with feeling and life.
journalistic poetry of Lowell s sonnets, he
found more success in his last volume, Day
by Day, published just before his sudden death in a taxi in New York in 1977. Consider these lines from Suburban Surf:
You lie in my insomniac arms,
as if you drank sleep like coffee.
recognizes, there is a powerful sense of everything that is needful having
been said and not a syllable more.
Raffel s comments on these poems are instructive:
begun to learn, it seems to me, is that words are enough, have power to say
what they are given to say. There is no need to pile layers and then still more
layers of overwrought action and thought on top of the bare, sufficient
reality. Indeed, it is precisely that reality that truly carries the power,
both of ideas and emotions. To wrap it in abstractions and poke it with sticks
in order to make it writhe more vividly is to kill it, not quicken it.
Raffel concludes that
art is not a snapshot, something which cannot rise above the trivial. Rather,
artists may struggle a lifetime to vainly strip away the layers that interfere
between artist and that living essence, that living reality, that simple, basic
truth. What Raffel recognizes is that
did not do it often, he did it some, which many do not do at all.