Poet Robert Lowell's perceptive prose. Essays show writer's power of phrase, range of thought

Collected Prose, by Robert Lowell. Edited and with an introduction by Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 377 pp. $25. Ten years after his death, Robert Lowell has become what he wanted to be - important and beloved. Having confronted all the particulars of his complex and tragic life in Ian Hamilton's biography (1982), we welcome the chance to think about Lowell not as a man but as a writer. The appearance of his ``Collected Prose'' allows us to do this.

Had Lowell not been a fine poet, and had not Norman Mailer drawn an unforgettable portrait of him in ``Armies of the Night,'' few would have cared that he went to jail rather than serve in America's armed forces (his letter to President Roosevelt is included here). Nor would his opposition to the Vietnam war have been so effective (there's a letter here to President Johnson turning down an invitation to read at the White House Festival of the Arts in 1965). When he read ``Waking Early Sunday Morning'' to an audience of antiwar demonstrators in Washington on the eve of the Pentagon march in October 1967, Lowell must have known that his audience would not necessarily catch his fusion of Horace, Marvell, and his own horrified vision of perpetual war and of the earth as ``a ghost/ orbiting forever lost/ in our monotonous sublime.''

This ``conscience of his generation'' did many unconscionable things: He once spearheaded what could only be called a witch hunt to purge the Yaddo writers' colony of Communists. The misery Lowell caused his three wives, friends, and himself can be explained in part by his tendency toward ``pathological enthusiasm.'' In ``Near the Unbalanced Aquarium,'' where this phrase appears, he weaves memories of the deaths of his parents (``When Mother died,'' the poet writes, ``I began to feel tireless, madly sanguine, menaced, and menacing'') and of his career as a psychiatric patient at the Payne-Whitney Clinic.

Only by great discipline, stamina, and will could Lowell have made anything of such a life. As it was, he made memorable poetry. True, some of his ``confessional'' poetry was embarrassingly sloppy as well as simply embarrassing. True, Lowell influenced many young poets - with few of his gifts and none of his discipline - to simply spill their feelings on the page.

At Boston University, Lowell had some superior students. His review of the last book of his most famous student, Sylvia Plath, is as finely, densely phrased as his best poems.

The earliest pieces included here remind us that Lowell knew enough to attach himself to good teachers. In 1937 he knew enough - he was 20 - to make the pilgrimage to Clarksville, Tenn., to see Allen Tate. ``All the English classics, and some of the Greeks and Latins, were at Tate's elbow,'' he says in ``Visiting the Tates,'' written more than 20 years later. Tate taught him to entertain an enduring attitude toward poetry: Think of each poem as your last, and treat it not as romantic art but as craft, like a cabinet. Lowell's later verses tend to look extremely self-indulgent. Sometimes, though, the hard finish of his craftsmanship shines through.

Reading the first part of this book, which includes critical pieces on Lowell's contemporaries, one is struck by two things: Lowell's power of phrase, and his ability to appreciate a wide range of poets. He saw clearly the strengths and weaknesses of Yvor Winters, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and many others. In the unfinished essay called ``New England and Further,'' written over a 10-year period and published here for the first time, he wrote appreciations of Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Henry James, Emily Dickinson, and so on: In nearly every case, we get distilled wisdom, unflinching judgment, and ``reckless urbanity'' (said of Henry James).

Much has been made of Lowell's change of poetic method from strict forms and meters to looser ones - indeed, he himself made much of it. In the '60s, William Carlos Williams had a profound impact on Lowell. His example helped Lowell when he began to feel his writing had lost its immediacy. In the third of three pieces on Williams included here, we learn that five years before his appearance at the Vietnam demonstration in Washington, D.C., Lowell felt cut off from America. ``It's as if no poet except Williams had really seen America or heard its language.''

Considering his ``hereditary disadvantages'' (coming from the family of James Russell Lowell and Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard), and viewing the shambles he had made of his life, Lowell embraced Williams as a ``liberator'' who would help him face ``the dirt and power of industrial society.'' And he mentions hearing the aged Williams read at Wellesley College. ``The poet appeared, one whole side partly paralyzed, his voice just audible, and here and there a word misread. No one stirred. In the silence he read his great poem `Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,' a triumph of simple confession - somehow he delivered to us what was impossible, something that was both poetry and beyond poetry.''

``A triumph of simple confession'': In that packed phrase, Lowell sums up his own standard of poetic sincerity. Triumphant because simple and true, and because simple and true, beyond the triumph of art. In reading Lowell's prose, autobiographical and critical, we become aware that the isolated triumphs of his poetry were indeed those of the man.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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