In response to:
A Tragic Grandeur from the June 23, 2005 issue
To the Editors:
Jonathan Raban was a friend of Ian Hamilton. He has also just been rather complimentary to me on the pages of the Guardian. I am grateful. But I am puzzled by his assessment of Robert Lowell’s posthumous reputation [“A Tragic Grandeur,” NYR, June 23], and by his portrayal of Ian’s contribution to it.
Raban says that Lowell’s “star has waned very considerably” since his death. He offers three reasons for this: (1) It generally happens to writers after they die. (2) In Lowell’s case “poetry itself appears to have shrunk from the high ground he commandeered.” (3) Ian’s 1983 Robert Lowell: A Biography.
In an oddly lengthy critique of Robert Lowell: A Biography in what is, after all, a review of a different book, Raban claims that the biography contributed to this alleged downturn in two ways: by “damning with faint praise” most of Lowell’s poems and by misrepresenting his life as one of “madness punctuated by spells of sanity.”
On the first issue, Raban characterizes Ian’s finely balanced appraisal of “For the Union Dead” as “queasy” and quotes him out of context, i.e., a discussion of the impasse in which Lowell found himself in 1960, in a no man’s land between two “competing” types of poetry: a “raw” poetry which could be declaimed (represented by, for example, Allen Ginsberg) and the more traditional “cooked” poetry which could be studied. Where would Lowell go from here? Ian writes that Lowell
worked from January to June on a piece that is now thought of as a wholly triumphant answer to that “question mark.” “For the Union Dead” can be both studied and declaimed; it is learned…but it also has vivid and personal ingredients—in the manner of Life Studies. And without doubt it provided a life-line, or at any rate a way forward to the next phase of Lowell’s work.
Is this queasy?
It is true that Ian’s taste was more for the personal and the lyrical, but that is not to say that he did not appreciate Lowell’s “public” poems. The other public poem he deals with in detail is “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” which, when the biography was being written, was “thought of as a key ‘political poem’ of the 1960s.” The biography gives a detailed account of the context: Lowell’s public refusal of a White House invitation because of the Vietnam War, his resulting sense of being “burdened to write on the great theme, private, and almost ‘global'”—but his sense of being “miscast” in that role. A reading of the drafts the poem went through reveals the unease of the poet at this role, a resistance to “the impulse to pretend that poetry can save the world”—a preference, in effect, for the personal as the subject for poetry. But in the process of paring down and rewriting the poem, Ian says, Lowell
depersonalized it; the directly self-lacerating elements are pruned away…. In the end it could be said that Lowell aims for just that tone of millennial gravitas which in these early drafts he is “sick of stretching for.” But is this any different from saying that because of his distrust of easy rhetoric he finally—indeed triumphantly—achieves a rhetoric that we can trust; a rhetoric of painful and profound “unease”?
The passage closes with five lines of the poem, a gesture which can only be read as admiring since the poem was quoted in its entirety one page earlier.
To describe this as “damning with faint praise” is to demand from the biographer a simpleness that neither he nor Lowell, nor indeed the poems, went in for. Indeed, in his discussion of “Waking Early Sunday Morning” Ian tells us that Lowell’s
difficulty was that his image of America was not too sharply different from his image of himself. America he thought of in terms of Moby Dick: “the fanatical idealist who brings the world down in ruins through some sort of simplicity of mind.” Such a tendency, he said, was “in our character and in my own personal character.”
Is Raban suggesting that the American reader cannot warm to a poetry, a character, a book that distrusts “simplicity of mind”?
Raban’s second accusation is that Ian misrepresented Lowell’s life, depicting it as a life of “madness punctuated by spells of sanity.” Well, the book did not read as a misrepresentation to the many people who had known and loved Lowell—not least Elizabeth Hardwick—and who wrote to Ian congratulating him on a superb execution of a difficult task.
Ian had heroes whose work and talent he hugely admired. The four whom he chose as his main biographees were men whose lives were hostage to a predicament that also held some key to their genius. This is what moved him and what he was driven to explore. In Lowell’s case the problem was recurring bouts of mania. In twenty-eight years Lowell was hospitalized fourteen times. Sadly, Ian knew from personal experience with someone very close to him that at that level the illness does take the life over, in the sense that the sane periods are doubly shadowed; they are lived trying to live down—to clear the debris of the last breakdown and dreading the inevitable next one. They are also tinged with a sense of loss: “Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.” Robert Lowell: A Biography was judged, when it came out, to have captured the heart of this.
Ian was keenly aware of posterity—witness his Keepers of the Flame and the posthumous Against Oblivion. In choosing to write Lowell’s biography he was acting swiftly to ensure that the poems he so admired continued to be read. A quick googling yielded 42,200 entries for Randall Jarrell, 49,000 for John Berryman. Robert Lowell came in at 101,000, surpassed only by Elizabeth Bishop at 111,000. So I hope Raban is wrong about Lowell’s reputation being in decline. Lowell deserves to be read and studied and taken to heart. “Waking Early Sunday Morning”—now in its fortieth year—ought to be declaimed in demonstrations across America.
Ahdaf Soueif was married to Ian Hamilton from 1981 until his death in 2001.