The lifelong extremes of Robert Lowell
In his collected works, Lowell swings from formal to raw
Robert Lowell set off the literary equivalent of an atomic bomb when he published "Life Studies" in 1959. Until that point, American poetry had been quite well-mannered. Deeply personal subjects were taboo, but Lowell, often considered the father of Confessionalism, changed all that. His poems, which were bold for that time, inspired a whole generation of poets - including Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton - to explore their anguished psyches. Even today, many poets believe "Life Studies" to be the most important volume written in the latter half of the 20th century.
Now, with the long-overdue posthumous publication of Lowell's "Collected Poems," the poet is again making news. But the man who emerges from these 1,000-plus pages is in many ways more formidable, and less openly revealing, than the Lowell of legend.
Page after page, the volume shows that Lowell, who came from a prominent New England family, swung between two poetic poles - one restrained, the other raw and sometimes cutting. The first of these, marked by formality, classic and biblical references, and tight structure, reflects his elite background, which allowed him to study at St. Mark's prep school and at Harvard University, where generations of his forebears had gone. The second reflects his rebellious tendencies, which included transferring to Kenyon College, converting to Roman Catholicism, and serving nearly a year in prison as a conscientious objector in World War II.
"Lord Weary's Castle," the 1946 collection for which he won the Pulitzer, is a prime example of Lowell's more measured, more restrained work. But even here, one sees hints of his more unruly side:
How dry time screaks in its fat axle-grease,
As spare November strikes us through the ice
And the Leviathan breaks water in the rice
Fields, at the poles, at the hot gates to Greece;
It's time: the old unmastered lion roars
And ramps like a mad dog outside the doors,...
(from "The Crucifix")
In "Life Studies," the poet's fourth book, Lowell emerges with a more natural voice, a more authentic persona. There are moments of great warmth, as in these lines about his daughter from "Home After Three Months Away":
we dress her in her sky-blue corduroy,
she changes to a boy,
and floats my shaving brush
and washcloth in the flush....
Dearest, I cannot loiter here
in lather like a polar bear.
Even here, though, in his "confessional" work, a certain degree of formality still shapes the poem. Lowell never abandons his roots; he simply learns to cover them up.
Then, in his next book, "Imitations," he backs away from the new freedom he has claimed for himself and his fellow poets. Instead of going forward with his bold new approach, he retreats to safer ground by translating poems of Pasternak, Montale, Rilke, Villon, and others. This only highlighted his classical tendencies.
Back and forth, back and forth, the swinging continues, until Lowell again seems to find some middle ground in "For the Union Dead." This book - especially in its famous title poem about a Boston monument to black Northern soldiers - demonstrates Lowell's ability to blend both personal experience and public issues in skillful, compelling ways. The language combines sharp imagery and raw eloquence:
Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.
He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.
This tendency to veer from one extreme to another reveals much about Lowell, who struggled with mental illness for most of his life. At times he could be loving, a devoted husband and father. At others, he was Cal - nicknamed after both Caliban and Caligula - who left Catholicism to divorce his first wife and then divorced his second wife after impregnating the woman who would become his third.
Lowell won his second Pulitzer for "The Dolphin," which is dedicated to Caroline Blackwell, his third wife. Some of the poems in this book, his penultimate, shocked even Lowell's closest friends, who were appalled that he had not just used some of his second wife's letters but greatly fictionalized them as well. "Art just isn't worth that much," poet Elizabeth Bishop told him.
But when Lowell is viewed from a distance, one can see what his work is worth, with its leaps and occasional missteps of logic, its genteel veneer or residue. Yet oddly enough, the father of Confessionalism never allows himself to be as unbridled as Plath or Sexton, both of whom were his students. His work, in retrospect, seems mild.
Ultimately, after all the swinging, one comes away from this hefty volume feeling that in some way she still doesn't know the real poet. That, somehow, Lowell has bequeathed to others a freedom he never claimed for himself.
• Elizabeth Lund is on the Monitor staff.