Portraits by Lowell

Robert Lowell: Collected Prose

edited and introduced by Robert Giroux
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 377 pp., $25.00

T.S. Eliot, in conversation with C.S. Lewis, maintained that poets themselves were the best critics of poetry, whereas Lewis opposed this view, declaring that one did not have to be a trained chef to be a discriminating gourmet. Robert Lowell’s prose is criticism of a very high and very special kind, being often akin to portraiture, and self-portraiture, as well as memoir and dazzlingly brilliant meditation. This book will enchant everyone who cares for Lowell’s poetry, as well as anyone interested in American letters, if those two categories are in any way distinct. We are greatly indebted to Robert Giroux for assembling the book, and putting it together was no easy task, as the brief introduction makes clear. Whatever else it is, it is a volume of energetic prose and piercing insight, so lively and persuasive that even when one finds oneself, as I occasionally have, in disagreement, one’s respect for the writer is in no way diminished.

Among other things, absolute consistency is not to be asked for or expected, the book being composed of “occasional pieces” written to celebrate the birthdays of friends, to salute the appearance of their books, or in memorial tribute at their deaths. Some are simply the casual notations formulated in interviews. The earliest was written by a schoolboy of eighteen, others not long before Lowell’s death, and he never took occasion to make them harmonize with one another. The astonishing fact is that the book, despite its heterogeneous character and the long span over which the individual pieces developed, has a remarkably coherent view of its many topics and, more often than is common in the way of ordinary criticism, or even the best of it, says what it says in a way that is electric and memorable.

The first of the book’s three parts is devoted to appreciations of most of Lowell’s best contemporaries, though the list, which follows, is obviously partial and selective: Ford Madox Ford, Frost, Stevens, Ransom, W.C. Williams, Eliot, Richards, Tate, Winters, Penn Warren, Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Kunitz, Jarrell, Dylan Thomas, Berryman, Voznesensky, and Sylvia Plath. It is irrelevant to ask why Pound or Marianne Moore or Roethke or any number of others is not here; these were the pieces asked for, volunteered for specific celebrations or funeral tribute, and every one of them is at once critically deft and endearingly personal. Lowell tended to be personal about all poets, as a former student of his at Harvard, Judith Baumel, observed in the Harvard Advocate shortly after his death.

“He was,” she wrote,

a gossipy reader and teacher of poetry. In his nineteenth-century class we read Wordsworth’s “Anecdote For Fathers” and he joked about what a tyrannical father Wordsworth was. He told stories as if they were the latest news. He enjoyed bringing the lives of poets to bear on their work. Lowell could sum up an entire poetic career with an epigrammatic sentence: “Tennyson is an intense, moody, clumsy young man with enormous metrical skill.…

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