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Published: Sat Jul 1 2006
Anne Neely, Summer Cycle (detail), oil on linen, photographed by Julia Featheringill
Lowell’s Curse

The Letters of Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton. 888 pgs. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005.

On June 11, 2005, The New York Times ran a correction: “A picture in Weekend yesterday with the Books of The Times review, about ‘The Letters of Robert Lowell,’ was published in error. It showed the columnist Murray Kempton, who died in 1997, not the poet.” Accidents happen, or mistakes: it wasn’t made clear how the face of the acerbic columnist was substituted for the face of the famous poet. As errors go, this one could hardly approach the Times obituary for Herman Melville, in 1891, which identified the forgotten author as “Henry Melville.” Nonetheless, it seemed starkly to register a slippage in Lowell’s reputation since his death in 1977, a change of status remarked by many reviewers, including loyal friends and defenders such as Helen Vendler and Jonathan Raban. In The New York Review of Books for June 23, 2005, Raban wrote:

Robert Lowell’s star has waned very considerably since his death in 1977, when his obituarists treated him, along with Yeats, Eliot, Auden, and Wallace Stevens, as one of the handful of unquestionably great twentieth-century poets. The publication two years ago of Frank Bidart and David Gewanter’s massive edition of the Collected Poems did much to restore his work to public and critical view, but even now Lowell’s poems are, I would guess, less widely read, taught, and anthologized than those of his two friends and contemporaries Elizabeth Bishop and John Berryman—a judgment, if that is what it is, that would have astonished serious readers of poetry between the 1950s and the 1970s.

Count me among the astonished. Except for one or two attempts to stem the tide (I remember in particular Michael Hofmann’s impassioned defense of Lowell’s late poetry in The London Review of Books), expressions of dismay have mainly been aired—at least in my reading—in the samizdat of email. Since I can’t separate my own passion for poetry from my early reading of the red-covered, revised and expanded Notebook, in the fall of 1970 when I turned sixteen—a book that meant more to me than a thousand Howls or Coney Islands of the Mind—I can’t read Lowell’s letters with the distanced and rueful weighing of reputation that seems in vogue. I still remember my own shocked sense of injustice when, in September of 1977, I arrived at Harvard to begin graduate school in comparative literature and learned, almost immediately, almost to the day, that the major reason I’d chosen Harvard, Lowell’s presence on the teaching faculty, had come to an abrupt end, in a cab in Manhattan.

Elizabeth Bishop gave a reading at Harvard, the following spring I think, dedicated to Lowell; she read a couple of his earlier poems along with her own new elegy for Lowell, “North Haven.” A year went by and Bishop was dead. A few months later, James Wright gave a reading at Harvard, dedicated to the memory of Bishop. He recited “Adam’s Curse” from memory in her honor. He also read a curse on the city of Marseilles with the refrain “You wouldn’t want to see it in the rain.” The model for the poem, Wright explained, was Coleridge’s curse on the city of Cologne, which Wright also recited from memory. And then, in March of 1980, Wright was dead as well. In those days, these successive deaths of the three contemporary poets who meant most to me seemed the playing out of some curse, as though every poet I cared about was somehow maudit. Lowell’s letters, imbued with the conviction about poetry’s ultimate importance, have brought back to me that parade of readings and deaths, as elegy turned ineluctably into elegized.

Lowell never won the Nobel Prize, but his three younger friends who did—Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney—wrote elegies after Lowell’s death. Each poet inventoried different things from Lowell’s legacy. Brodsky and Walcott noted the propinquity of the memorial service and Boston Common; both invoked the ending of “For the Union Dead,” with Brodsky, writing in English, risking overt pastiche:

Huge autoherds graze
on gray, convoluted, flat
stripes shining with grease
like an updated flag.

Walcott’s elegy, published in The Star-Apple Kingdom, likewise registers “churches, cars, sunlight,/ and the Boston Common,” while asserting the traditional survival of a poet’s work (“something that once had a fearful name/ walks from the thing that used to wear its name”).

Heaney’s intimate and intuitive “Elegy” goes deeper, with Lowell serving both as a father figure granting authority on a younger practitioner (“you found the child in me/ when you took farewells/ under the full bay tree/ by the gate in Glanmore,//opulent and restorative/ as that lingering summertime…”) and as an example—inspiring and cautionary—of the poet’s life:

The way we are living,
timorous or bold,
will have been our life.

What comes across most fully in Lowell’s letters to poets is his generosity, his eagerness to seize on what is solid in new work and his honesty concerning what is not. Even to such intimidating correspondents as Ezra Pound, recipient of the first letter in this selection, Lowell doesn’t flinch. Reading drafts of Cantos in 1956, Lowell wrote, “You beat anyone at opening windows and letting air into your poem,” but then “I wish sometimes you had a beginning, middle and end.” Something else comes across in Lowell’s response, in September of 1975, to Heaney’s “Glanmore Sonnets,” the ten-poem sequence that immediately follows “Elegy” in Field Work:

I’ve read the sonnets a good many times. Two that I like best are “The Train” and “A Drink of Water.” In general, I like all your description. Your Nature pours out images with a full hand; the cup (to work this figure to death) is so often dry for me, a town man in the end. Sonnets seem in two ways perhaps the wrong form for your sequence. First the somewhat too full-dress, particularly the final couplet; then the whole sequence makes me think of Wordsworth, and that something that goes so well should have gone even farther. At worst, you should [be] able to mine many poems out of your many strong lines—perhaps in quatrains, or more drastic changes. I’ve been so long netted in my own unrhymed sonnets that I’m no judge.

Sonnets seem in two ways perhaps the wrong form for your sequence. Imagine getting that response from an admired elder. But Heaney must have realized that the key line in the letter was the last one quoted, about being “so long netted in my own unrhymed sonnets.” Lowell was being territorial, warning a younger poet to back off from his own crisscrossed terrain. To Lowell’s credit, the poems he liked best—sonnet IV (“I used to lie with an ear to the line”) and “A Drink of Water,” published as a stand-alone sonnet outside the Glanmore fold—were the least Lowellian. To Heaney’s credit, bold rather than timorous, he followed Lowell’s example rather than his advice, and published the sonnets despite Lowell’s grudging praise.

Some day we will be able to read Lowell’s poetry and his prose—as we read Coleridge’s—apart from his breakdowns, his medications, and his marriages. His letters, as every reviewer noted, are full of such matters, “smash and vehemence” followed by rueful acceptance. “What queer lives we’ve had even for poets!” he wrote Berryman in 1962. “There seems something generic about it, and determined beyond anything we could do. You and I have had so many of the same tumbles and leaps. We must have a green old age. We both have drunk the downward drag as deeply as is perhaps bearable.” A couple of years later, to Adrienne Rich: “As we grow older, moments of pause come, and we say, ‘This too is part of it, life is inescapably this too’; and then somehow we feel it’s all rich and merciful.”

But I think these letters will come to matter more for other reasons. Lowell, poet of nets and whalers—who once wrote of how Wordsworth’s “great clumsy structures…somehow lift the great sail and catch the wind”—was an inspired networker, weaving constellations of correspondents among his contemporaries. He was “hungry for company, hungry for fathers,” as Saskia Hamilton writes in her smart introduction. The letters to the fathers—Pound and Williams, Santayana and Eliot—are ingratiating and bracing by turns. We can follow Lowell as he tries to shore up the foundations of his own literary ancestry, shedding Amy and James Russell and Percival Lowell—a Japan hand whom Lowell, mistakenly, places in China—for Jonathan Edwards and Melville. All this is familiar enough.

Less expected, though, is Lowell’s serious engagement with American poets generally thought to be in a different tradition, especially the second strand that emerged—first at Black Mountain and then among the West Coast Beats—after Charles Olson’s “Progressive Verse” manifesto of 1950. These writers claimed some of the same ancestors—Williams and Pound, especially—though one could argue that it was a different Williams (compare Randall Jarrell’s selection for New Directions to Charles Tomlinson’s counter-selection) and a different, earlier Pound. One of the most interesting things in The Letters of Robert Lowell is Lowell’s exchange with Allen Ginsberg during the spring of 1959. We know from Lowell’s Paris Review interview how much his experience doing poetry readings in San Francisco alongside Ginsberg and Gregory Corso meant to his own new and looser style in Life Studies. This was when he was trying, as he wrote Elizabeth Bishop on March 30, “to bring together in me the Puritanical iron hand of constraint and the gushes of pure wildness.”

“Dear Allen,” he wrote on April 10, 1959, “I think letters ought to be written the way you think poetry ought to be. So let this be breezy, brief, incomplete, but spontaneous and not dishonestly holding back.” Ginsberg had been campaigning for Dahlberg, Corso, Kerouac, Burroughs, Creeley, and Levertov. Lowell—representing the Eastern Establishment in Ginsberg’s view—was surprisingly eager to read and to learn. Finding Kerouac “uninspired Joyce” and Burroughs “very real, but partially of psycho-pathic interest,” Lowell was enchanted with Dahlberg’s prose, “really original, almost Plutarchan and Montaignelike. He’s a tremendous and good writer.” Lowell added that he’d gone through Barrett’s Zen Buddhist book, “fascinating, but monkish. What wonderful quotes!”

Lowell was less impressed with Creeley and Levertov, “careful, disciplined poets,” though even here he seems to be looking for strengths rather than reasons for dismissal:

If I were writing [to] them, I could truthfully say a good deal for their sensitive care. But in the rough and tumble of what is alive today? Creeley is [the] tamest imitation of Williams’ tricks, tone, mannerisms, rhythms. I guess poetry as a technique means much less to me than to you. I can hear Creeley’s polite, dim halting voice behind the barrage of Williams—I can just hear it, and not to much purpose, while Williams’ manner drones at me in Creeley. Levertov with more observation and less skill also seems to come from Williams. Also I find everywhere a bit intangibly the humor and quirks of Pound—the hardest of masters, if you yourself are a quiet little person and so unlike him.

Then Lowell, perhaps fearing that he has gone too far, praises Kaddish: “It’s really melodious, nostalgic, moving, liturgical. Maybe it ought to be shorter. . . .”

These judgments, generous and harsh by turns, don’t seem to me territorial at all. They seem more in line with Pound’s conviction that the important thing was that great poetry got written and not who wrote it. Lowell is perfectly willing to admit Dahlberg and Ginsberg to the “rough and tumble of what is alive today.” Was he deaf to aspects of Creeley and Levertov? Probably. But he also rightly recognized a certain timidity and dependence in their temperaments. As he said of many of the writers championed by Ginsberg: “There’s so much that is timid, conservative, intolerant of other kinds of writing.” Timidity was the thing he himself had tried to banish from his life and work, as he left the comforts and confines of Harvard after a year, later left Boston (“all dandification and jelly”) for New York, all the while looking to Ginsberg and Elizabeth Bishop and anyone else to break away from old styles and old modes. The way we are living, timorous or bold, will have been our lives.

There is a telling occasion, a foretaste of our own depressing culture wars, when Kenneth Rexroth (as juror) and Lowell participated in the 1970 National Book Awards. “I like to make a cut of boldness occasionally,” Lowell recounted to Bishop on March 11. Rexroth had tried to cut Pound from the list of poets under consideration. In accepting the award for Bishop’s Complete Poems, Lowell followed his praise of Bishop’s work with some remarks about Pound, the uninvited guest:

Then I said I was going to say something perhaps ungracious, but that I cared not, because I would [have] considered myself dishonored if I didn’t say it. . . Ezra Pound who had published a little book in June, one of his good books and quite possibly his last, had been mentioned by no one. (Just before me a long communication from the author of the prize-winning Huey Long biography had been read—not a word of criticism, it was like Humphrey speaking of Johnson five years ago—And before that Lillian Hellman had made a “courageous” attack on Agnew.) I said you’ve just heard about two great statesmen; Pound was a very small statesman and a very great poet.

Lowell read Bishop’s “Visits to St. Elizabeths” and returned to his seat on stage amid “decent applause.”

Then it was Rexroth’s turn, as Lowell heard a voice behind him saying, “I announce that I sever myself from this anti-Semitic fascist performance.” Lowell met Erik Erikson on the way out. “Why did the guy do that to you?” Erikson asked. Lowell: “He’s one of the poetry judges. . .the Bastard.” Erikson “looked at me in red-faced amazement then repeated, ‘The Bastard.’” One can have qualms about Pound and still feel that Lowell, on this occasion, was on the side of the angels while Rexroth (“in sideburns”), whose own poetic practice owed so much to Pound’s Asian excavations, was out of bounds.

I have read and reread Lowell’s letters with greedy admiration, and look forward to a promised edition of the Lowell-Bishop correspondence. At the risk of seeming a bastard myself, I want to close with one criticism. The editing and selection of The Letters of Robert Lowell seem admirable, difficult tasks unobtrusively performed. Saskia Hamilton’s notes are excellent and comprehensive. I wish, however, that she herself had prepared the index, which is a mess. It preserves Lowell’s errors: “Eric” Erikson; Endecott and the Red Cross rather than “Endicott”; Molière’s Les Précieuses for Les Précieuses ridicules. Northrop Frye is renamed “Northrup” and Arthur Gold “Arthyr.” Two significant mentions of Jonathan Edwards, on 519 and 531, are missing from the index. There is one entry for Patriotic Gore and another, different entry for Edmund Wilson’s “civil war book.” I haven’t scrutinized the index carefully, but these slips alone give one pause. Still, they are a small blemish on a literary treasure.


Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke and author of Degas in New Orleans and The Great Wave. (9/2006)

Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke and author of numerous books of literary history, including A Summer of Hummingbirds (Penguin Press, 2008) and Degas in New Orleans (University of California Press, 1999). His latest book is a family memoir called Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay. (updated 4/2012)

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