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The Unfinishable Robert Lowell

James Longenbach

Collected Poems
Robert Lowell
Edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $50 (cloth)

8The Collected Poems of Robert Lowell opens a window onto the life of a great American poet. That this poet is named Frank Bidart does not distract from Lowell’s achievement; in fact, the dynamic relationship between the author and coeditor of this book helps to rescue Lowell from the story of his own life—a story we may already know too well. For if we aren’t thinking about Lowell’s marriages or his breakdowns, we’re thinking about New Criticism and confessional poetry, movements to which Lowell’s achievement is inextricably bound. Meanwhile, some of the most compulsively well-made poems of the 20th century are more often remembered than read.

Bidart came to know Lowell in 1966, when he was a graduate student at Harvard University. Lowell was an irrepressible reviser of his own poems, both before and after publication (“Sad friend, you cannot change,” was Elizabeth Bishop’s epitaph for him), and Bidart became an indispensable part of this open-ended process, serving as “both amanuensis and sounding board.” This means that Bidart quite literally participated in the act of making many of Lowell’s later poems; Lowell’s trust of this young poet is moving and disarming. It also means that Bidart spoke intimately with Lowell about the composition of many earlier poems, poems that Lowell would periodically revisit and revise. Bidart is no Boswell, eager to display his attentions to the great man, but no other editor of a major poet has ever been able to make statements like this: “I once said to Lowell that I thought the revisions that he had made in the text of Life Studies . . . were great improvements, particularly the punctuation.” It’s as if Pound, having spent three years poring over punctuation with Yeats at Stone Cottage, had the opportunity to edit the poet from whom he learned everything.

Yeats was also an irrepressible reviser of his own poems: “It is myself that I remake,” he said to readers who missed the earlier versions of poems they’d come to love. Lowell would have agreed, but what is remarkable in his case is the degree to which this act of self-making could be shared—as if the self were no essential thing but an entity produced from the social interaction afforded by language. “I had fiddled with and fiddled with the lines, trying to join the two versions,” says Bidart about one of Lowell’s greatest poems, “Waking Early Sunday Morning.” Lowell admitted that he did the same thing, ultimately failing to merge the two versions, and there is not just consolation but a kind of euphoria in what he said next: “They both exist.” To exist simultaneously as two selves, two persons, may have been Lowell’s greatest wish. He was a poet who needed more than one person in order to write a poem, a poet who (more notoriously) often incorporated another person’s language into his poems.

This makes the project of editing Lowell’s poems difficult to say the least. Bidart rightly compares his task with the complexity of editing Shakespeare, remarking that most editions of Hamlet do not advertise the fact that the play is actually a conflation of different and, at crucial points, contradictory texts. This suppression of variance may have been encouraged in the days of the New Criticism, when the notion of the pristinely finished work of art was paramount, but loosely post-structuralist notions that emphasize the open-endedness of the text have gained currency in more recent days. (Shakespeare’s editors in particular have reveled in the multiplicity of different versions; many recent editions contain two complete versions of King Lear, and one edition contains three.) What better way to liberate Lowell from the 20th century’s poetry wars than to show how all his poems, whether formal or free, personal or impersonal, open or closed, were driven by a sensibility that thrived on irresolution—a sensibility that did not discover itself but remade itself in the act of writing over time?

This is precisely what Collected Poems sets out to do. Bidart’s goal is to present Lowell’s achievement as a “maker,” a word he uses to acknowledge Lowell’s “willingness radically to rethink his work.” Multiple versions of many crucial poems are reprinted, and 150 pages of intensely detailed notes not only elucidate the poetry but suggest by their very presence that Lowell’s poetry succeeds by threatening to exceed itself, conjuring its own double, its own interlocutor. Even more generous is the decision to reprint the entirety of Lowell’s long-unavailable first book of poems, Land of Unlikeness, published in 1944 and a crucial part of any story told about American poetry after modernism. “T. S. Eliot’s recent prediction that we should soon see a return to formal and even intricate meters and stanzas was coming true, before he made it” said the New Critic Allen Tate in his introduction to the book, “in the verse of Robert Lowell.” Some but not all of the poems in Land of Unlikeness appear in drastically different versions in what many people think of as Lowell’s first publication, Lord Weary’s Castle. Both books now exist.

Still, a great deal of Lowell’s work as a maker is inevitably missing from the Collected Poems; Bidart (along with his coeditor, the poet David Gewanter) has had to make choices where Lowell remained at liberty to make none. “I watched Lowell carve History out of Notebook,” Bidart remembers, downplaying his own role in the process—in 1972 he flew to England to help complete this revision of Lowell’s blank-verse sonnets. But while Lowell hoped that both books would remain in print, only History appears in the already massive Collected Poems. Less grand, though nearly as crucial, is the decision to include only one version of “The Mills of the Kavanaughs,” the long poem standing between the New Critical Lowell of Lord Weary’s Castle and the confessional Lowell of Life Studies. This poem is nobody’s favorite (Randall Jarrell likened it to “a piece of music that consisted of nothing but climaxes”), but in the process of remaking it Lowell forged the self on which all subsequent acts of self-making would depend.

In an early version of the poem’s fourth stanza, published in the Kenyon Review, Anne Kavanaugh thinks of her dead husband, who once attempted to strangle her: “She dreams he is Saint Patrick come to squire / Her home from school.” In the version of the stanza published in “The Mills of the Kavanaughs” and reprinted in the Collected Poems, she turns not to Catholicism but to pagan mythology:

She thinks of Daphne—Daphne could outrun
The birds, and saw her swiftness tire the sun,
And yet, perhaps, saw nothing to admire
Beneath Apollo, when his crackling fire
Stood rooted, half unwilling to undo
Her laurel branches dropping from the blue.

The swerve from Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, to Daphne, patron saint of metamorphosis, speaks of Lowell’s own desire to change: as he wrote and rewrote the poem Lowell was in the process of rejecting his adopted Catholicism, an act that would subsequently become associated with his rejection of meter and rhyme in the poems of Life Studies. Lowell did not alter the form of “The Mills of the Kavanaughs” (both versions are written in rhymed sixteen-line stanzas), but he drastically reduced the entire poem’s investment in Catholicism, embracing a worldview in which change is the ultimate value. The revision consequently allows us to see that there is no natural relationship between the form and the ideology of the poem: a strict organicism (traditional thinking in traditional forms, free thinking in free forms) is in no way inevitable.

The most interesting poets of the 20th century, Lowell among them, wrote poems in which it is impossible to find consistently predictable associations between formal procedures and ideological underpinnings. That Lowell’s poems have sometimes appeared to reinforce those associations is a testament to the ways in which his power as a maker of taste has occluded his power as a maker of poems. For without a strong sense of Lowell’s struggle to remake himself in the years leading up to Life Studies, early readers were at liberty to perceive this book as a strategic rejection of the traditional values of T. S. Eliot and Allen Tate. As a result, the sound of Life Studies quickly became the sound of authenticity in American poetry—a poetry that seems to eschew high artifice, opening itself to speech, skirting the edge of prose. For the innumerable poets influenced by Lowell such a poetry did indeed represent a rejection of artifice; this is why flagrantly rhetorical poets as unique as Charles Bernstein and Richard Howard can seem to have more in common with each other than with the vast middle ground of American poetry. But the Lowell of Life Studies was nothing but a maker—a poet who forged the apparently natural idiom on which other poets were to depend.

Listen to the final lines of “Terminal Days at Beverly Farms,” a poem about the death of Lowell’s father:

Each morning at eight-thirty,
inattentive and beaming,
loaded with his “calc” and “trig” books,
his clipper ship statistics,
and his ivory slide rule,
father stole off with the Chevie
to loaf in the Maritime Museum at Salem.
He called the curator
“the commander of the Swiss Navy.”

Father’s death was abrupt and unprotesting.
His vision was still twenty-twenty.
After a morning of anxious, repetitive smiling,
his last words to Mother were:
“I feel awful.”

Throughout these lines, the names of things (slide rule, Chevie, Maritime Museum) feel unalterable, and things themselves accumulate with little reason. Even if Lowell’s father wishes for a world of imaginative possibility, his substitution of the words “commander of the Swiss Navy” for curator seems poignantly ineffectual. He feels merely “awful” because the language of his world will not allow him to change anything. This is the poet’s greatest nightmare: Lowell’s father is doomed to be no one other than himself.

Listen in contrast to Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Bight,” which ends with the words “awful but cheerful”:

There is a fence of chicken wire along the dock
Where, glinting like little plowshares,
The blue-gray shark tails are hung up to dry
For the Chinese-restaurant trade.
Some of the little white boats are still piled up
against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,
and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,
like torn-open, unanswered letters.
The bight is littered with old correspondences.
Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.

Bishop surveys the water at low tide. It is sheer, but reveals nothing of interest; the dredge goes click, click. Yet the feeling evoked by this scene is not merely awful because the poem’s language is forever slipping into new connotations. Shark tails glint like plowshares, the little white boats are piled up like unanswered letters, and the bight is littered with old “correspondences”: figuratively in the sense that only boats, not letters or plowshares, are present; literally in the sense that, as Baudelaire put it in “Correspondences,” our world is made up of nothing but figures—“forests of symbols” in which any given word brings to mind another word. The language of “The Bight” not only renders a vivid scene but encourages us to imagine the scene as different from itself. In contrast, Lowell’s poem employs strategically flat diction in order to suppress the connotations on which a sense of imaginative possibility depends.

For years Lowell’s achievement overshadowed Bishop’s, partly because the style Lowell forged in Life Studies became so extremely influential. Extravagant rhetorical gestures came to seem (as Adrienne Rich put it) like “asbestos gloves,” tools a poet would ultimately discard in order to handle truly awful experience directly. But throughout Life Studies Lowell’s style is always in the service of sensibility: the diction of “Terminal Days” is almost comically precise in order to render a mind that fears imaginative possibility. Subsequent poets unhinged the style—the flattened rhythms, the avoidance of egregiously figurative language—from its rendering of sensibility, transforming the style into an all-purpose way of denoting experience. What was artifice to Lowell, one way of making one particular kind of self, became a way of inhabiting the language of American poetry at large.

By the time this happened, Lowell had remade himself again: in the magazine version of “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” he turned to rhymed tetrameter couplets, emphasizing the necessity of remaking a poetic idiom rather than relying on the ready-made:

Time to grub up and junk the year’s
output, a dead wood of dry verse:
dim confession, coy revelation,
liftings, listless self-imitation,
whole days when I could hardly speak,
came pluming home unshaven, weak
and willing to read anyone
things done before and better done.

This sounds like Lowell, but it does not sound exactly like the Lowell of Life Studies or the Lowell of Land of Unlikeness, the book in which Lowell’s earlier embrace of meter and rhyme seemed to represent a momentous turning point in literary history even as it happened. But like Yeats, whose stylistic shifts have also accrued allegorical weight, Lowell was remaking himself, not literary history. This brilliant stanza, which both describes and embodies Lowell’s need to change, was not included in the final version of “Waking Early Sunday Morning.”

“Dim confession, coy revelation,” said Lowell not of his imitators but of his imitations of himself. These were not words to which Lowell was often attracted, whatever their currency. “Because Robert Lowell is widely, perhaps indelibly associated with the term ‘confessional,’” says Bidart in an afterword to the edition, “it seems appropriate and even necessary to discuss how ‘confessional’ poetry is not confession.” This certainly needs to be said, but there is an odd sense in which the need makes Lowell feel like the victim of his own unwieldy power. Fully explicated, the aura of excess becomes the cushion of familiarity; moribund associations are paradoxically reinforced by being explained away. Like only a handful of other poets (Eliot most vividly), Lowell had the great misfortune of having created the taste by which he was judged—first with approbation and later, since the taste was strong enough to generate its opposite, with reproach.

But the history of poetry and the history of taste are not the same thing. Simply by laying out this complex body of work, displaying the intensity of its equivocations, Collected Poems liberates the poetry from the poet we think we know. It allows us to see Lowell as more than one person at the same time. As a result Lowell emerges as a poet who loves language in the way that a painter loves the feeling of paint. A poet whose associations with Catholicism, New Criticism, or the Democratic Party, however fascinating, seem incidental to his lifelong devotion to a medium that always threatens to undo associations, blur connections, render the most hard-won knowledge blissfully irrelevant.

What’s more, this Collected Poems is no tombstone. For all its weight the book feels unfinished—unfinishable—and consequently makes Lowell’s poetry feel like a part of the ongoing work of American poetry. “Teach me,” says Bidart in a recent poem of his own, “masters who by making were / remade, your art.” Lowell stands most prominently in Bidart’s pantheon of makers. And no one but Bidart could have made this edition, for no one was so peculiarly intimate with the making of these poems. But Lowell remains a more audacious, more unpresentable maker than even the most sympathetic acolyte can allow. However open Lowell remained to the ongoing process of rewriting his poems, Bidart is generally convinced that the final versions are best; but on a handful of occasions, he is convinced that Lowell nodded. He finds the final version of “Night Sweat” (in which Lowell approved a printer’s accidental elision of a stanza break) “physically painful” to read. Reversing Lowell’s final decision, Bidart prints the penultimate version of “Night Sweat” in the Collected Poems.

This is riveting drama. Bidart’s visceral relationship to language violates the decorum of textual editing so passionately that the work of editing Lowell’s poems feels like a continuation of the process by which the poems were made, a dialogue between two people that by its nature cannot end conclusively. “You can’t derange, or re-arrange, / your poems again,” wrote Bishop in her elegy for Lowell. Bidart has given Lowell life after death—not simply by continuing to bicker with him over stanza breaks but by arranging a poetry that exists to be rearranged. The discussion of the art of Robert Lowell may now begin. <

James Longenbach is Joseph Henry Gilmore Professor of English at the University of Rochester. His most recent books are Modern Poetry after Modernism and Fleet River, a book of poems.

Originally published in the Summer 2003 issue of Boston Review

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