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Mar. 1, 2011
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The sorrow one feels after the lossnumbness at bay. God knows
of a father, a daughter, a wife, is so
intense it takes up residence in
the soul’s house, shares its pain
with a dailiness that can seem un-
bearable as you go through the mundane
acts that keep you human,
the little rituals that keep complete
you wish you hadn’t had to
take in this unwelcome boarder,
wish you could send him away
and gain back your composure.
And then, the sorrow goes.
It’s the birthday of poet Robert Lowell, (books by this author) born in Boston (1917), who twice won the Pulitzer Prize and whose work established the Confessional style of poetry in America. Among his most famous poems: “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” “Skunk Hour,” “For the Union Dead,” “Fall 1961,” “To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage,” and “Epilogue.”
His 20s were eventful. He got angry with his father and left home in Boston, dropping out of Harvard in the process. He moved to Tennessee, pitched a tent on the lawn of poet Allen Tate, and dined every evening with Tate’s family. He converted to Catholicism, married the novelist Jean Stafford, and then renounced Catholicism. During World War II, he wrote a letter to President Roosevelt announcing that he would not be drafted. He then spent five months in federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, a jailed conscientious objector. He later summed up his youth in the poem “Memories of West Street and Lepke”:
“Ought I to regret my seedtime? / I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O., / and made my manic statement / telling off the state and president, and then / sat waiting sentence in the bull pen.”
He studied with John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College and wrote the poems that make up his first two collections. At 30, he won his first Pulitzer. That year he was appointed poet laureate of the United States. He was offered a teaching position at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. And it about this time that he was hospitalized for mental illness for the first time — in what would be the first of many, many times.
He had manic-depressive disorder, today called bipolar. He himself referred to his mania as “pathological enthusiasm.” He once described a manic episode as “a magical orange grove in a nightmare.” He was in and out of psychiatric hospitals through out his adult life, admitted on a couple dozen different occasions. He frequented McLean’s psychiatric ward in Boston, a place where two of his best poetry students, fellow future Pulitzer Prize winners Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, would also spend time.
Lowell once said that whereas depression is an illness for oneself, mania is an illness for one’s friends. Many of Lowell’s writer friends penned anecdotes about his mania. Stanley Kunitz wrote about the time he visited Lowell at McLean’s, and Lowell read him an improved version of the “Lycidas” that he’d written — firmly convinced that he, not John Milton, had written the original masterpiece as well. One friend who visited him at a London hospital told of how Lowell would entertain visitors with French liqueur he concealed in a repurposed aftershave bottle.
One of Lowell’s Harvard poetry seminar students, James Atlas, wrote: “I had never witnessed one of these breakdowns, but I had heard about them in grim detail: Lowell showing up at William Alfred’s house and declaring that he was the Virgin Mary; Lowell talking for two hours straight in class, revising a student’s poem in the style of Milton, Tennyson, or Frost; Lowell wandering around Harvard Square without a coat in the middle of January, shivering, wild-eyed, incoherent. In the seminar room on the top floor of Holyoke Center, we waited nervously — perhaps even expectantly, given the status accorded anyone who had been present at one of these celebrated episodes — for it to happen before our eyes, watching eagerly for any manic soliloquies, references to Hitler, or outbursts of unnatural gaiety. These were the signs that Lowell had ‘gone off’ and would have to be put away.”
After his episodes, when he’d regained his sanity, Lowell was inevitably embarrassed. He explained to a friend: “After the manic attack comes an incredible formless time of irresolution, forgetfulness, inertia, all the Baudelairean vices plus what be must never have known, stupidity.” He spent a lot of time apologizing to people, making amends, attempting some damage control. In the spring of 1964 — age 47 — he wrote to poet T.S. Eliot: “I want to apologize for plaguing you with so many telephone calls last November and December. When the ‘enthusiasm’ is coming on me it is accompanied by a feverish reaching to my friends. After it’s over I wince and wither.” Recovering from a different bout of mania, he wrote T.S. Eliot: “The whole business has been very bruising, and it is fierce facing the pain I have caused, and humiliating [to] think that it has all happened before and that control and self-knowledge come slowly, if it all.”
Graham Greene and many others found that Lowell’s disease was also his material. When he was working on the poems for Life Studies, Lowell said: “I found I had no language or meter that would allow me to approximate what I saw or remembered. Yet in prose I had already found what I wanted, the conventional style of autobiography and reminiscence.” So he began to blend genres, he said, and wrote his autobiographical poetry in a style he thought he got from Flaubert — one, he said, “that used images and ironic or amusing particulars.” And he quit trying to “bang words into rhyme and count,” instead doing “all kinds of tricks with meter and the avoidance of meter.”
Life Studies won the 1960 National Book Award. It was a turning point in his own work, which had been highly formal and metrical until then. And it was a turning point in American poetry. A critic wrote a review entitled “Poetry as Confession,” and described Lowell’s poems as “confessional” — a cliché now, but brand new at the time. It’s from this review of Lowell’s work that we get the name “Confessional” to describe a genre of poetry, one in which the poet draws on his or her own life events in an often unflattering way.
His life was tumultuous and he once said, “Sometimes nothing is so solid to me as writing — I suppose that’s what a vocation means — at times a torment, a bad conscience, but all in all, purpose and direction.” He was married to three writers, Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick, and then Lady Caroline Blackwood, with whom he moved to England for the last decade of his life. He was separated from his third wife, and in a taxi from JFK into New York City to visit his second ex-wife, when he had a heart attack and died, age 60.
His friend Stanley Kunitz once wrote about Lowell:
“When he slumped onto your sofa like an extended question mark, tumbler in hand, chain-smoking, dropping his ashes, spouting gossip or poetry, you knew that the moon would have to drift across the sky before he would be ready to go, leaving at least one memorial cigarette hole burnt into cushion or rug behind him. You were bleary with fatigue, but you cherished the rare electricity of his presence. And you would be desolate if he had not returned.”
In his poem “Night Sweat,” Robert Lowell wrote:
Work-table, litter, books and standing lamp,
plain things, my stalled equipment, the old broom —
but I am living in a tidied room,
for ten nights now I’ve felt the creeping damp
float over my pajamas’ wilted white …
Sweet salt embalms me and my head is wet,
everything streams and tells me this is right;
my life’s fever is soaking in night sweat —
one life, one writing!
Lowell’s Collected Poems came out in 2003, and his Collected Letters came out in 2005. He was pen pals with poet Elizabeth Bishop for 30 years, and their letters were published in 2008 in the book Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (2008).
Here’s a poem by Robert Lowell, “Epilogue”:
Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme —
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
From the archives:
It’s the birthday of the poet Robert Hass, (books by this author) born in San Francisco, California (1941). His books of poetry include Praise (1979), Human Wishes (1989), and Time and Materials (2007).
It’s the birthday of the poet Howard Nemerov, (books by this author) born in New York City (1920). He was a pilot during WWII, and then he worked as a professor at Bennington College in Vermont for most of his life. He said he liked teaching because he could do all of his explaining in class, and that allowed him to write poetry with no explanations.
It’s the birthday of the poet Richard Wilbur, (books by this author) born in New York City (1921). He served in the infantry during WWII. In his foxhole, he read Edgar Allan Poe and wrote the poems that became his first book: The Beautiful Changes (1947). Things of This World (1956) received a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®
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