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Lowell Versus Lowell

ISSUE:  Winter 1983

At the close of “Ulysses and Circe,” the first, longest, best poem of Robert Lowell’s final book, the forerunner of all aging middle-class heroes returns to Ithaca for the bloody housecleaning we expect of him. But precisely here, just as the poem seems ready to sink into predictability, Lowell plays an astonishing trick. As Lowell has it, Penelope’s palaceful of suitors is a means to an end: killing them off is Ulysses’s way of striking at his real prey, his own former selves whom they all too much resemble:

He looks at her,
she looks at him admiring her,
then turns to the suitors—knowing
the lying art of the divine Minerva
will not make him
invincible as he was,
her life ago, or young . . .
he circles as a shark circles
visibly behind the window—
flesh-proud, sore-eyed, scar-proud,
a vocational killer
in the machismo of senility,
foretasting the apogee of mayhem—
breaking water to destroy his wake.

Lowell chooses his words with great care in Day by Day and “wake” is especially a case in point. Turning upon himself is both Ulysses” suicide and his self-fulfillment. To destroy one kind of wake, the long sea-path which he has sacrificed his youth to trace, is to wipe out his past, his accumulate, meandering identity—himself. But to annihilate the wake of the other kind, to rise out of his oblivion and exterminate all who carouse in his memory and crowd his spirit out of his own house, is to return to life again.

This is much more than another of Lowell’s handsome puns. If there is one essential paradox at the heart of his poetic achievement, a paradox which gives both energy and essential shape, we come very close to it here.

Ulysses is of course one more surrogate for the poet. If the age and the mood of the returning hero are not clue enough, the home town of Lowell’s poem, with Long Wharf as its chief landmark, brings us back again to Lowell’s Boston; and the suggestions of marital and sexual failures, of monsters lurking in the heart, all ring familiar to Lowell’s readers. Equally familiar throughout Day by Day is the question this poem calls up again: just how Lowell manages to transform idiosyncratic personality and private experience into compelling art, a poetry which strikes deep in such a varied audience. The shelves of Lowell criticism make clear that this general mystery is both important and very hard to penetrate. Lowell, who died neither old nor long ago, is already treated in more than 15 volumes, most of which strive to escape the already-familiar generalities about his work; and so much critical energy so quickly spent suggests that there may be more at stake than our reading of one poet. Unless we can locate clear, coherent, valid principles at the center of his art, all efforts to speak of Lowell in the usual ways, all discussions of alienation, dynamic ambivalence, apostasy, Calvinism, falling empires and played-out bloodlines may evaporate in time. And we may, consequently, lose not only our sense of Lowell but of others, “confessional” and otherwise, who have worked in the modes he pioneered.

The large, lingering mystery of Lowell’s poetry can be pondered from several angles. To begin with, one sees that Lowell’s translation of life into art is commonly praised by his readers but rarely discussed in any detail; for while critics like to recount his melodramatic biography and harken back to it at tight places in reading the poems, intense personal experience is still no complete recipe for successful poetry. Other discussions of Lowell stress his Great Awakening at the hands of William Carlos Williams, whose plain language and open forms taught Lowell, by his own declaration, the chief stylistic lesson of his career. But this leads only to more mystery. If the essence of Williams’ poetry has to do with the effacement of the poet-ego and the transcendence of subject-object separations, how can Williams” poetics work for Lowell, for whom permanent barriers between self and world are an overriding theme? Equally difficult are questions about Lowell and his Puritan heritage, and about the risks of confessional utterance. We have yet to understand what precisely Puritanism has to do with shaping Lowell’s poetry: not only the ideas in the verse but the verse itself. And while anyone can list some major pitfalls of confessional poetry— arrogance, blindness to externality, childish exaggeration, antagonizing solipsism—and recognize that Lowell generally avoids these traps, we still need an explanation of what he does especially right in reconciling “confession” with the poet’s craft. Finally, having thus begun to look at the problem from various directions, can we define, at least tentatively, any of the principles which hold it together? Do all these obstacles in Lowell’s way—the ill repute of well-made poems, the paradox of playing the confessor-artist, the anxiety of the Puritan consciousness, the rebellion against and the need for both a personal and an artistic heritage—do these various challenges connect somehow, and admit of some coherent solution?

If these are indeed genuine issues in making sense of Robert Lowell, then I can hope that the balance of this essay might be useful. My purpose here is to suggest how we can begin exploring one strategy which Lowell fashioned out of his genius and his inmost self, and which provided him with a way through these personal and artistic obstacles to a new, powerful kind of verse. I hold that Lowell’s poetry depends very much on the repeated destruction of his own wake, a sequence of dramatic insurrections against and denials of his own public and artistic identity, and that this pattern reveals itself not simply in the tonal change from book to book, decade to decade, but also in the structure of individual volumes and even in the form and the language of the poems themselves. If there is indeed some overall continuity to be traced in Lowell’s canon, it must encompass the remarkable continuity of this moral and rhetorical upheaval, this drama of self-destruction and self-renewal, acted out again and again, and depending, of necessity, on Lowell’s skill in making each new and castoff identity significant to his world. This goes much further than an allegiance to Yeats’ vague pronouncement that poetry comes of a quarrel with ourselves. Of course the parade of major episodes in Lowell’s career, the repudiation of New England Calvinism in Land of Unlikeness, the overthrow of baroque formality and the decision to “walk naked” in Life Studies, the return to prophecy in For the Union Dead, the sudden, “stiff quatrains shoveled out foursquare” of Near the Ocean, the surprising lassitude of Notebook and its various re workings, and the final, open celebrations of love and hints of renewal in The Dolphin and Day by Day cause us to remember Yeats’ self-transformations in this century’s greatest poetic masquerade. But one can begin to see already Lowell’s method as his own, as a nexus of literary influence and personal urgency. If this overall design is in some ways Yeats, it is at least equally New England Puritan. If one has no taste for mapping out a descent from central doctrines of American Calvinist theology—for example, the famous admixture of certainty and self-doubt which underlies Edwards’ The Freedom of the Will or his Images and Shadows of Divine Things—one has only to recall Hawthorne’s consummate Puritan in his own consummate moment, enacting, at noon on a Boston scaffold, his agony of selfannihilation and self-fulfillment, that collision in a single heart of egotism and selflessness which Hawthorne recognized as a crucial paradox of the Calvinist mind. What we must look at here is how Lowell could impersonate a 20-thcentury Arthur Dimmesdale over and over, turning constantly against his own rhetorical yesterdays, against the Lowell of the previous book, the previous poem, even the previous line.


Perhaps this process of revision and self-revision is already, implicitly, as important to Lowell’s critics as the finished artifact of any poem or individual volume. Much of the published criticism suggests that Lowell’s reputation far outstrips regard for specific works, and about most of his books a surprising number of excuses are regularly offered— with Land of Unlikeness collecting more than its share. This first, slim collection has come to be treated as juvenilia, whose chief interest is as a foreshadowing of the more mature, revised poems of Lord Weary’s Castle. But as Lowell’s earliest attempt to establish a poetic voice, Land of Unlikeness deserves attention on its own terms. The essential design is, surprisingly, already at work here with some measure of success; for at the very start of his career Lowell manages in a short space to establish both an apostate identity and a Lowell to set himself up against—to appear at once as the last of the Puritans and the leader of their despoilers.

Land of Unlikeness begins with incantations. Lowell’s training in classical poetry and his reading of Yeats had taught him the virtues of calling up spirits at moments when the past must be assembled and the present defined; and in the first two poems, “Park Street Cemetery” and “In Memory of Arthur Winslow,” we have reverberations of Yeats” “All Souls Night,” in a parade of ghosts presented both as foils to the poet and shapers of his destiny. But illustrious ghosts are more readily the domain of old, wise poets with established voice and authority. The challenge Lowell faces here is to speak to and about the American past without seeming hopelessly presumptuous, a small, half-formed, transitory voice muttering among the enduring monuments. In his first outing, Lowell requires more than his pedigree to set him both among and against the national heritage. How he manages can be seen in the second poem, “In Memory of Arthur Winslow,” in which, having catalogued the family graves of Dunbarton as a match for the public shrines of Park Street, Lowell addresses his dead grandfather directly—and moves, on the first of many such occasions, out to the edge of a rhetorical and moral precipice:

You must have hankered for our family’s craft:
The blockhouse Edward made, the Governor,
At Marshfield, and the slight coin-silver spoons
Some Winslow hammered thinner than Revere,
And General Stark’s coarse bas-relief of bronze
Set on your granite shaft
In rough Dunbarton; for what else could bring
You, Arthur, to the veined and alien West,
But devil’s notions that your gold, at least,
Would give back life to men who whipped the British  King?

At those crucial moments when Lowell turns suddenly upon himself, he commonly does so after venturing out onto such a brink as this. The address to grandfather has degenerated into family-boasting; more important, weighing these dead men so summarily, Lowell seems dangerously pompous—dangerously close, in fact, to those self-righteous “Puritan Dracos” which the preceding poem lambasted. Here then is Lowell at one of his perilous limits, the edge of intolerable intolerance, offhandedly deciding what is pious and what satanic, telling us rather than convincing us that the whole life of his relative has come to nothing. The title of the poem’s closing section, to cap all, bodes total disaster: any “Prayer for My Grandfather” at this point threatens only to reinforce the antagonizing smugness, like the benediction of some witch-hanging ancestor. The ironic, ingenious reversal of the closing section is that it turns out to be not a prayer for the grandfather at all:

Mother, for these three hundred years or more
Neither our clippers nor our slavers reached
The haven of your peace in this Bay State:
Neither my father nor his father. Beached
On these dry flats of fishy real estate,
O Mother, I implore
Your scorched, blue thunderbreasts of love to pour
Buckets of blessings on my burning head
Until I rise like Lazarus from the dead:
Lavabis nos et super nivem dealbabor.

At a suddenly quiet moment amid all this twisted, lurid diction, Lowell has reintroduced himself into both his family and his family’s responsibilities, accepting title to the clippers and the slavers alike. This is not street-corner expiation, for the central, grotesque metaphor of the stanza, which struggles to blend the mercy of the Virgin, the lost breast of the mother, and the closing thunderstorm of The Waste Land, draws attention away from the personal breast-beating, mutes it, makes it ring true. Further, this chimerical metaphor, by its very strangeness, distinguishes Lowell from both the cant of the Puritan and the dogma of the Catholic convert. Not only does the language go to extremes to show passionate intensity, it also provides mystery here to overbalance the dangerous sureness rising in the poems, the inference that Robert Lowell, alone of all the Winslows, Starks, and Lowells in all the New England banks, brokerages, naval yards, and graveyards, has seen the light and escaped to tell about it. Certainty, the classic nemesis of the Puritan mind would be the undoing of this poem, were the final movement into mystery not here, and convincingly, at the last. The drama of “Arthur Winslow,” like that of so many poems to come, turns out to be as much the approach to a soul-threatening, poem-threatening edge, and the last-minute salvation of the poem from that extreme, as it is any crisis the poet has witnessed. The judgmental Puritan is suddenly transfigured into the genuine penitent; the change of one living man is the real subject and the real informing principle of this ode to the dead.

Lowell’s decision, after Lord Weary’s Castle, to abandon language like this brought about the single most astonishing transformation of his career; but the turn away from this heightened, cluttered diction caused him only to intensify the use of this counterpointal arrangement, to rely on this kind of anagnoris as a climaxing, validating moment. In fact, after Lord Weary’s Castle, it goes further, runs much deeper than that. We begin to find the pattern in the poems and playing in both drama and structure an absolutely crucial role. When the arrangement reveals itself in “Skunk Hour,” for example, the effect it has is enormous, partly because in that single poem so much is at stake. For Life Studies, as a collection of poems, is until the very last in a condition of civil war, Lowell the prophet against Lowell the self-conscious, self-doubting “Mayflower Screwball.” It falls to “Skunk Hour” both to embrace that larger conflict and to afford some kind of resolution.

Life Studies is divided into four sections, Parts One and Three being the domain of the public-prophetic voice, Parts Two and Four the realm of the confessor, with Part Two, the prose memoir “91 Revere Street,” producing the biggest shock and drawing the most mixed reactions from Lowell’s audience. This meandering, nervous, embarrassing sketch of growing up in an exhausted aristocratic family, a recollection that starts and ends in midair, has often been rejected as formless, or merely called “extraordinary” by those who sail around it in pursuit of the poems. But “91 Revere Street” is remarkable not for what it does but for what it undoes: how thoroughly it devastates the impression of Lowell with which we emerge from Part One, and for that matter from all his previous work. Overthrown, apparently, is the Lowell of dramatic monologues, of measured, selfless judgments delivered as from the steps of the temple, the Lowell who, in Part One, seems preoccupied with matters of historical and international consequence, with popes, presidents, church, and political dogmas. Before now, we have heard a Lowell who seems so far from self-involvement to say nothing of selfpity) that he can speak convincingly as a deposed queen or a mad Negro soldier. The sketch of the family strikes like a sudden chill, with its brutal, apparently pointless portrayal of Lowell’s mother and father, its incidental name-dropping, its closing attribution of pathos to his own case, and of impotence, exile, and fatal stupidity to nearly everyone else he mentions. All of this can be (and has been) justified as an act of liberation, a public mercy killing of a degenerate past that the poet might live. But as the piece concludes, there is no way of telling whether this has been a true act of purgation or only one more indication of Lowell family degeneracy. To put it another way, “91 Revere Street” creates suspense in Life Studies about Lowell himself, a suspense which the memoir itself does nothing to resolve. Nor do any of the rhetorical addresses of Part Three. To open these wounds is to run a risk—and not simply because Lowell’s audience may have no taste for them. As we have seen, a major dramatic component of Lowell’s poetry is the struggle among his various voices; and to publish something apparently so near to formless, artless self-indulgence, solipsism, and pointless abuse might well ruin that structure, spoiling any imaginable attempt to move in other directions. By the time we get to “Skunk Hour,” the major question is whether, after not only “91 Revere Street” but the heartless portraiture of “Commander Lowell,” “Terminal Days at Beverley Farms,” and the suspiciously cruel self-portraiture of “Waking in the Blue” and “Home After Three Months Away,” Lowell can achieve any rhetorical transcendence, any escape from the “frizzled, stale, and small” likeness that he has now made of his heritage, his surroundings, himself.


On one level, “Skunk Hour” is the drama of a sensibility finding itself nearly overwhelmed by a nameless, virtually inexplicable despair and coming to terms with it only at what seems the last possible moment. Lowell is again playing the Last Puritan, Goodman Brown this time, approaching perilous depths of gloom and world-rejection, but unlike Brown returning more or less to the world of his peers—thanks somehow to a midnight parade of skunks. The poem’s mood steals up on the speaker himself, who begins it all with a quiet meditation on his neighborhood, and who lapses into despondency on what should seem doubtful, inadequate cues:

The season’s ill—
We’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

From this we move on to a lament for the taste of one local shopkeeper—another disaster of very minor consequence. One may, of course, take the orange cork, the slow sales, and the marriage-yearnings of a “fairy decorator” as suggestions of some cosmic dislocation, signs that the times are all out of color. But to do so is to blur the special sense of this poem for the sake of cataloguing it with more standard complaints. “Skunk Hour” may be about the modern condition, but more specifically it is about poetry in the modern condition. The theme that builds within these petty incongruities is not simply that life itself has entered an off-season, but that beyond all its other affronts to the spirit, life fails to supply even proper motive for a decently alienated stance. What emerges is the evident lack here, as in the life remembered “91 Revere Street,” of sufficient motive and cue for passion, and the poet we encounter is seeking not what to make of a diminished thing but escape from his own entrapment in a trivial, diminished exile. Even the island’s graveyard, whose surrogate on Nantucket provided Lowell so apt a cause for intense melancholy, fails him now. One cannot play Hamlet, or Milton’s Satan, or even a younger Robert Lowell when the locals in the background insist on making the place a lover’s lane—but one can be something like Goodman Brown, an unreliable, dreaming wanderer who infers too much from too little:

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.

By the time Lowell declares, with a mindless popular lovesong as his program music, that “I myself am hell; / nobody’s here—” he has brought the whole volume to its crisis. The lines may ring true as an expression of some contemporary tragic atmosphere, but strong within them is the possibility that this graveyard meditator has considered too deeply, carried his response to a gray but seemingly innocuous world too far—into madness, empty bitterness, megalomania. How can he now make any real sense, be seen by any of us, his daylight neighbors, as anything but Lowell the Mayflower Screwball, driven pathetically but meaninglessly over his edge by orange cork, old women, AM radio, and memories of the way his father carved the Sunday roast? Everything hangs in the balance at this moment in the poem: the poem itself, the whole volume, Lowell’s entire poetic achievement to date, and perhaps even confessional poetry as a viable form. This is why we must look closely at the genius of what Lowell does now:

nobody’s here—

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles by Main Street:
white stripes, moonstuck eye’s red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.

I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—

There are some critics who insist on finding these skunks sinister; others, coming closer to the mark, have described them as some form of comic relief. But the air around these skunks is more truly “rich” than either reading would have it. This grand entrance, ceremonial and mock-ceremonial at once, both caps the poem’s previous mood and utterly overthrows it at the same instant. If the pain of this world lies in its loneliness and disorder, then the thought of Main Street abandoned to these single-minded marchers and trash-pail swillers surely embodies that pain; but just as surely one can not play either Brown or Satan or Hamlet to an assembly of skunks looking for a “bite to eat.” Single-minded and fiery-eyed they may be, but these skunks are quite as festive as they are sinister. After all the literal darkness of the two preceding stanzas, these white stripes, ostrich tails, and heads wedged in sour cream cups suggest the clown, not the monster; and the lightening effect they have on Lowell’s dangerous mood is strongly implied by the turn of the final stanza away from dark thought, and back toward sheer sensuous experience, mere perception:

I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the
 garbage pail.

She jabs her wedge head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.

Sour cream—a spoiled sweetness, but something still, genuinely rich, still worth a midnight rummage through the garbage dump of life. And like the sour cream, these skunks are made to affect us in two opposite ways at once, precisely because the theme of the poem is likewise double-edged. Like the skunks, the idea that the world’s emptiness makes tragedy impossible both scares the poet and heartens him, induces self-pity and terror, and at the same time makes them preposterous to sustain. It is these last two stanzas, finally, that confer a real tragic resonance not only upon this poem, but upon Life Studies as a whole: in the same gesture they both suggest the essence of the tragedy and, by giving it limits, make it true. “Skunk Hour” turns out to be a time of art as much as it is a time of night. By suddenly recognizing the world not merely as tragedy but as artistic paradox, the poem subsumes all that has gone before into a dilemma of the poet, not simply of a tormented man; and in providing a means by which the poet may move beyond the absolute despair of the man, the poem succeeds at an almost impossible game, the translation of personal suffering into major art.

As the ultimate turning point in the volume which most markedly transformed Lowell’s work, “Skunk Hour” is the most complex and important instance of dramatic self-discovery and self-transformation to be found in his poetry. There are similar examples in later works. In “For the Union Dead,” one finds again Lowell playing the social critic, but describing himself all the while in strange, revealing terms. His nose crawls like a snail on the aquarium’s glass; his face presses against barbed and galvanized fences, he stares in windows at commercial photographs, he crouches in front of his television set, semi-abject before the latest news. The famous last lines of this poem, “A savage servility/slides by on grease,” make the objective clear. Lowell the angry prophet must face Lowell as yet another of these servile savages; and we accept this Thersites-like vehemence precisely because Lowell, like Shakespeare’s Thersites, can see himself among the very slaves and fools he reviles. This is a clever arrangement, even a powerful one; but compared to “Skunk Hour” it does seem contrived, and hints that among Lowell’s strategic motives here is a wish to cover himself. Later still, in Near the Ocean, the many revised and republished poems of Notebook, and even at times in The Dolphin, this structure of reversed and anthetical identities becomes still more common, more self-evident, less potent. Among the Notebook poems especially, we have a wide choice of short pieces ending in a self-attack or self-deflation, at times as an almost mechanical arrangement, a counterweight to faultfinding vignettes of an external world. At the end of “Mexico VIII,” for example, a telltale ellipsis—they luxuriate in Notebook—followed by the self-castigation one has learned to expect:

Two immovable nuns, out of habit, too fat to leave
the dormitory, have lived ten days on tea,
bouillon cubes and cookies brought from Boston.
You curl in your metal bunk bed like my child,
I sprawl on an elbow troubled by the floor—
nuns packing, nuns ringing the circular iron stair,
nuns in pajamas scalloped through their wrappers,
nuns boiling bouillon, tea or cookies, nuns
brewing and blanketing reproval . . .
the soul groans and laughs at its lack of stature.

The pattern repeats itself time after time without surprise—which may in itself account for the flatness, the exhaustion which a number of critics have found in this phase of Lowell’s work. As I suggested before, the whole body of work found in Notebook and its various reeditings might be more sensibly regarded as one single gesture, an outpouring of emptiness and fatigue from what had heretofore been one of the most dynamic, compelling voices of this century. Still, to give Lowell the benefit of the doubt is not to see the way out of the rhetorical corner into which he seems to have forced himself. When the once-young, once-angry new poet has replaced that identity, in poem after poem, with that of the played-out, dreamless old man, the vitalizing tension in the poetry, thus drained away, must have something to replace it. But what rhetorical possibilities lie beyond the voice of age and exhaustion? Miraculous rejuvenation, of course, is one way out—and to some extent a return of love and at least some vigor does sustain the love poetry of The Dolphin and Day by Day. But finally it was not in Lowell’s nature to play, after this slow third movement, the foolish passionate old man Yeats finally played, or to chase after Strauss operations, either real or artistic, to help him feign a renewed youth which, in the failing health of his last years, Lowell never in fact experienced. The solution he did find to his last predicament, his final theatrical turn upon himself and his art, is both more honest and more ingenious. The subject of the last volume becomes, more forthrightly than ever before, poetry—Lowell’s life in poetry. His ultimate self-transformation was of the poet into his own critic, observing and commenting on his own life of transformations, and the logical but brilliant end to this vital principle in his verse is a poetry about the principle itself. This is what we get in Day by Day, which is in many ways the most artistically self-conscious book in Lowell’s canon. Of course there are poems here, some very dark ones, about age, loss, pain, death; but the central, contrasting theme in many others, the theme which makes the lamentation meaningful and tolerable, is the final coming of multiplicity into unity, of a layered, diverse career into a coherent achievement, unified by its very changefulness. And the ultimate destruction of Lowell’s own wake—of his passing, as foreshadowed in the opening return of Ulysses, lies in the final recognition and acceptance of the self as a succession of contradictory identities. The mood is not celebration by any means, but it is certainly not despair. In “Our Afterlife,” a kind of elegy for himself, Lowell can look coldly, even truculently, at the “erotic daydream/ of art nouveau for our funeral,” in part because, in the preceeding poem, he has made some measure of peace with change, and in words echoing Prospero, has bid farewell to the art of transformation. We must remember the many poetic voices and faces of Lowell to understand fully what he is talking about here, in “Afterlife I”:

   This is riches:
the eminence not to be envied,
the account
accumulating layer and angle,
face and profile,
50 years of snapshots,
the ladder of ripening likeness.

We are things thrown in the air
alive in flight . . .
our rust the color of the chameleon.

The masquerader, the wanderer among many selves is now, for the first time in his verse, sufficiently composed to offer advice to his own son, as Lowell does in “For Sheridan.” To live is to recognize that the transition from one self to the next is the very heart of living and of any art that ever-transforming self can make of that existence. The contorted, half-formed syntax of the poem’s first sentence drives home the central theme of Day by Day, the theme that balances and validates the otherwise pointless miseries of the dying, complaining man. Becoming is the essence of being: “We only live between/ before we are and what we were.” The balance of the poem comprehends all previous identities as “lost negatives” in both senses of the phrase. Life, and poetry with it, is a cycle of turning away, turning against, turning back again:

In the lost negative
you exist,
a smile, a cypher,
an old fashioned face
in an old-fashioned hat.

Three changes in a flash:
the same child in the same picture,
he, I, you
chockablock, one stamp
like mother’s wedding silver—

To see one’s own life of transformations is to reach a frightening, consoling, paradoxical conclusion:

Past fifty, we learn with surprise and a sense
of suicidal absolution
that what we intended and failed
could never have happened—
and must be done better.

We may all be only “poor passing facts,” as Lowell declares (again echoing Prospero) in his “Epilogue”; but there is no question that Lowell found, at the close of his career just as he did at its height, a way to give his passing, changing existence a shape, a cadence, and an enduring life. Lowell, as Ulysses, has come home at last in Day by Day, and the finest poems of his last volume seem to echo in the silence which follows the closing verses of The Odyssey. In a sense, these poems are fragments of the Homeric work which Homer never wrote, the coda in which the man of many paths and selves meditates on what he has been and what he has met—and finds in the very change and disorder of his life the essence of its form.

Some of the implications of what Lowell did with himself, as an organizing force in his poetry, will support generations of argument. Perhaps his experiment shows, for instance, that the case for dismissing the poet from the reading and evaluation of his work, for separating “author” from “text” may not be either as sensible or as possible as some post-structuralists and ideological critics would have us believe. Perhaps it shall turn out instead that the very core of the best confessional poetry—or whatever we shall eventually come to call it—is inseparable from the art of creating a resonant public identity, and that the aesthetic response now taking shape will recognize (or should, anyway) that public self-dramatization is one of the essential challenges of the form. And if the structure of Lowell’s poetry does depend on an enacted conflict with himself, should one then conclude that the public identity of any strong, passionate poet will inevitably—and rightly—affect the poetry itself at its most fundamental levels, transform it, bring it through strange metaphysical barriers? There is plenty to argue about. But regardless of how these questions and answers take shape, one can be certain of at least this much: that Lowell’s own work, throughout his career, set before itself an intricate, urgent formal challenge, and that Lowell’s triumph as an artist must be valued not merely for its sincerity, intensity, and theme, but also for the subtle order which he imposed upon each, and which in turn made each possible as poetry. Poetry in Lowell’s hands was, from the start, more than a private process of self-discovery. He made it a process of real consequence to a larger world, a struggle which, through its ingenious and sustained design, will continue to move readers after the shapeless—and therefore senseless—personal utterances of others have played out their fashion. Lowell was the poet who in recent times gave the most eloquent form to the most dubious kind of battle. His was the truly deliberate voice and therefore the truly daring one which we are just now learning to hear.


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