Robert Lowell: Life and Art
Because it is the first work on Robert Lowell to appear since his death sixteen months ago, Steven Axelrod’s new book will be looked to for some first glimpse of a comprehensive view, consciously phrased in the light of the end of the poetic canon (only a few poems remain unpublished). The myth of Lowell’s life and work proposed by Axelrod—my noun is not in itself a criticism, because all accounts of a career reveal an implicit myth—does not differ very much at first from the received ideas which by now encrust the Lowell canon: after apprentice work imitative of Tate in Land of Unlikeness (1944) Lowell becomes famous with his first notable book, Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), which encompasses “three related themes…history, current events, and God.” The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951) is a mistake, Life Studies (1959) is the great watershed, Imitations (1961) is really a book of personal poems, not translations. Axelrod’s recapitulations take on a personal shape when he turns to the later books. He praises For the Union Dead (1964) while admitting its “drought”; he is uncertain about Near the Ocean (1967), especially about the title poem; and he is positively impatient with Notebook 1967-68 and its two recastings, first as Notebook (1970), then as History and For Lizzie and Harriet (1973).
For Axelrod, the quintessential Lowell is to be found in The Dolphin (1973); though he is polite to Day by Day (1977), he writes only sketchily about it. The poems receiving “major treatment” are, predictably, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” “Skunk Hour,” “For the Union Dead,” “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” and the prologue and epilogue to The Dolphin. Lowell’s religious, artistic, and political engagements are recounted in some detail; the marriages are briefly mentioned. Various influences are proposed, with the chief drama of influence lying in the opposed attractions of Tate (“European,” formalist, metrically regular and rhymed) and Williams (“American,” open, metrically free and unrhymed). The general thesis of Axelrod’s book, suggested by his subtitle, is that Lowell, after being too greatly preoccupied with art and symbols, achieved in Life Studies a “breakthrough” by writing about “direct experience and not symbols” (Lowell’s words) and that “all of Lowell’s subsequent work centered around his quest for the craft and inspiration to bring even more experience into his art, and his related quest to account for the place art makes in experience.” Axelrod concedes that “art and experience continued to retain an important thin edge of distinctness for Lowell—art was experience that had been ‘worked up,’ imagined into form,” but the tendency of this book is to blur that “thin edge,” as Axelrod passes systematically from “life” to “art,” episode by episode, through Lowell’s decades of writing.
The inconceivable gap—no “thin edge”—which separates life from even the most apparently mimetic art does not figure in this book. Since only a few people in any given century manage to make art at all, there must be—it stands to reason—something very recalcitrant in life; unwilling to be made into art, it frustrates the most intense attempts by any number of would-be artists to give it beauty, shape, and significance. To put it a different way, art does not take to “life” as a very natural subject. Almost any pre-existent convention suits art better, as Gombrich has suggested. To bring about even the slightest alteration in the conventions requires not so much the ability to reconceive life (whose stimuli, even in the most reclusive existence, are infinitely various) as the capacity to reconceive genre, prosody, or decorum.
Because Lowell’s writing requires annotation (where 91 Revere Street is, what the March on the Pentagon was, who is buried in Dunbarton) it is not therefore more centrally about “life” than any other poetry. Even autobiography is not, except to the naïve eye, more “about” life than any other genre. Its method of being about life, its tone, its conventions, differ; that is all. The most dissembling art is the art which appears to be a candid transcription of “experience.” A genuinely candid transcription from experience, as we all know from our students, is likely to emerge as bathos, inertia, formlessness.
It is true that Lowell’s early verse avoids the appearance of autobiography in favor of the symbolic, and that the verse of his twenties is inferior to the verse of his forties. But it scarcely therefore follows that it is a “wedding of art to experience” that makes the later poetry better. It is better—to speak tautologically—because it is better written. The early work contains pastiche, imitation, uncertainties of tone; the later work is sui generis, in full command of its registers, emancipated from its grands maîtres. But then, in all poets who get better as they pass thirty—and most do—the reason for the improvement is their increasing mastery of their own private language. To go behind what happens on the page to a theory of the marriage of art and life only begs the question of what is now being better done on the page.
Axelrod does not entirely ignore what happens on the page: he remarks, for instance, in connection with “For the Union Dead,” that “every image in the poem echoes against other images,” suggesting “the esemplastic power of the consciousness to connect even the most disparate-seeming of phenomena.” Axelrod adds that “Lowell’s characteristic poems have a remarkable power to evoke the historical moment in which they were conceived.” This, the most cunning fiction of art, is rightly called “remarkable,” but Axelrod’s praise of it disappoints; he quotes newspapers and magazines, concludes (what may well be so) that Lowell was echoing common terms of political protest or social apprehension, and locates the “remarkable” power of historical evocation in such practices. The Sixties produced a mass of political poetry echoing just such local terms of fear and confrontation; but there is no “remarkable” power in that ephemeral writing. The clues to Lowell’s success are not so easily unearthed.
There is no book of Lowell’s that has not been disliked by somebody. Lowell himself genially disliked some of his poems enough to rewrite them. Not all metamorphoses of language worked; none worked permanently. The moment of pride in the achieved form became the moment of desolation as the embodiment seemed, later, not only inadequate but inauthentic. Ulysses, in Day by Day, boasts that “things changed to the names he gave them.” This is the effect of the prophet or the visionary rather than of the autobiographer. The next line takes away what the preceding one gave, as it continues, “then lost their names.” The transforming power of the namer is impermanent; every few years, everything has to be named all over. The locus classicus for the renaming is the family romance; the scenario is rewritten every decade. The “blank” (to use Gombrich’s term), the structure which has to be filled up over and over, is, in Lowell, a compulsion to “block” actors in a pattern of significant choreography. The actors themselves change (Caligula here, Robert Kennedy there, Charlotte Lowell somewhere else); the blocking patterns change (with simple agons of opposites being succeeded by more complex webs of family interrelations, which in turn give way to communally reinforcing acts, themselves supplanted by a sexual pas de deux); but the compulsion to arrange the data of literature and memory in new configurations remains.
Data—not “life” but data—are essential to the Lowell poem, which is rarely consistent in texture, but is rather as heterogeneous as pudding stone, full of bits and pieces of literature, history, private experience, popular culture, visual observation, and scholarly fallout. In this respect, Lowell resembles the poet who most influenced him, Milton. And in this respect, the later verse does not differ very much from the verse of the early or middle years; it is only that the data are his daughter’s gerbils or his wife’s letters instead of Roman history or neo-Thomism. The self, in Lowell’s poetry, is defined by the data he moves among; the data are his cloak, his ambiance, he is constituted by them.
The question of the hospitality of lyric to data has been raised persistently in this century, and Axelrod mentions Paterson as a precedent for Lowell’s incorporation of private letters in the later verse. But the Cantos, or Paterson, are not lyric, and they use data in a socially self-conscious and deliberately archaeological fashion, as fragments shored against ruins. Lowell’s data are not primarily historical (though many are borrowed from classical and modern European history); they are symbolic. Cain, Nero, Caligula, Jesus, and Napoleon all serve equally as projections of Lowell himself; the data that are not immediately personally symbolic are domestic, and are of the sort one finds in a Renaissance portrait, identifying the interests and rank of the subject.
There was a degree of controversy about the recent Mary Cassatt exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the questions raised there are pertinent to Lowell’s poetry. The show juxtaposed domestic objects from Cassatt’s house with paintings in which those same objects—a tea set, a silver service—figured. The good intentions of the exhibition—to bring art closer to biography and thereby closer to the viewer—begged, once again, the central question: what had the data become in the picture? Cézanne’s bottles, cherub, and skulls stand untransfigured now in his studio, all light fled from them. Deprived of their local symbolic and compositional place in the individual poem, Lowell’s domestic and public data—his father’s water-spotted book, his mother’s Risorgimento coffin, the green-helmeted troops at the Pentagon, the Maine snowplow, the letters and conversational exchanges—would not only not be art, they would also not be “experience.” We cannot go behind the art: the illusion that we can is of course art’s most compelling hallucination.
The peculiar inertness of Axelrod’s book stems from its refusal to face up to any of these questions. Lip service is paid, but in superficial ways, to Lowell’s compositional powers. Imagery is doggedly pursued. Absurd ambiguities are “found” where none exist. The semblance of literary criticism is maintained while, to my mind, all that is essential goes unremarked. Three instances will have to suffice. “Fishnet,” in The Dolphin, begins mysteriously and beautifully,
Any clear thing that blinds us with surprise,
your wandering silences and bright trouvailles,
dolphin let loose to catch the flashing fish….
It is not that there is any one right thing to say about these lines, since every angle of vision produces a different angle of commentary. What is certain is that what Axelrod says—literal, heavy-handed, and mostly untrue—is the wrong thing to say:
The image in these initial lines is complex. Literally, dolphins do assist fishermen in catching schools of albacore that swim alongside them…. Further ambiguities proliferate in the syntax. To call attention only to the most crucial of these, does “let loose” modify “dolphin” adjectivally, so that the sentence is a verbless fragment in praise of her power? Or does “let loose” function as a verb, so that the sentence is a command to the dolphin (muse, Eros) to act? Perhaps the syntax must be read in both ways, a suggestion of the doubleness underlying the poem.
Axelrod’s consistent failure to catch Lowell’s tone appears characteristically in his comment on the mother skunk and her column of kittens at the end of “Skunk Hour.” Lowell himself said of the skunks, “The skunks are both quixotic and barbarously absurd, hence the tone of amusement and defiance.” Axelrod, missing the poet’s amusement at the quasi-military order of the marching baby skunks, says, “Lowell’s skunks are domineering and ‘moonstruck,’ a bestial, morally repugnant occupation army…. They are the militant, brutish new order, commanding the ruins of the former civilization.” The most grotesque of Axelrod’s interpretations comes in his discussion of the “burnt and decaying substances” which in his view pervade “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow”: “The clothing store,” Axelrod announces with connoisseurship, “in a fine combination of surface and symbol, is called ‘Rogers Peet‘s.’ ” Axelrod treats all of Lowell with the same evenhanded solemnity, and misses, over and over, whatever is characteristic of some new phase, thereby falsifying the mercurial shape of Lowell’s career.
Lowell had little real humor to speak of (as he admitted in his elegy on Berryman) but he was, as he got older, often amused, ironic, and self-mocking in his verse. The aggressively serious young man who wrote Land of Unlikeness could not encompass baby skunks and sour cream. This is not necessarily a flaw; naturally prophetic or religious poets do not, by and large, include self-mockery in their poetic range. It is not that Lowell put more “life” into his later verse, but that he put a different sort of art in it—an art which left room for ruefulness, malice, slang, clumsiness, comedy, and irregularity. When he looked back to the fledgling author of that fiery and denunciatory book of 1944, he saw no religious prophet, but a homeless boy of twenty-five or thirty, caught in an over-prolonged adolescence:
too shopworn for less, too impres- sionable for more—
in a washed blue workshirt and coalblack trousers,
moving from house to house.
It is no wonder that the names that that growing boy gave things no longer sufficed the again man. Unlike Yeats, Lowell had no “half-read wisdom of demonic images” to satisfy age as they had satisfied youth.
The lack of demonic images—or celestial ones—in Lowell is the stumbling block for those who want their poets religious, and consider the question for the sublime a necessary and constitutive condition for the creation of lyric. Axelrod uncritically uses the word “religious” of Lowell. There is a book to be written on Lowell and religion, but he is in no sense a religious poet as the phrase is commonly used; those who dislike him find, above all in the later verse, a relentless trivializing of life, as they see it, which seems to rob existence of ardor, transcendence, and devotion. The literary equivalent of sublimity of feeling is momentum, yearning, journey, climax, epiphany, vision. Lowell refuses them all. If the quest—even the failed quest—is one’s model of meaning, then Lowell is incoherent. If verse-momentum—the Shelleyan drive—is one’s model of yearning, then Lowell is fatigued. If prophetic energy of diction is one’s model of poetic speech, then Lowell is prosaic. If “beginning, middle, and end” is one’s model of aesthetic order, then Lowell is self-indulgent. If vision—even balked vision—is the end of art, then Lowell is inconsequential.
The odd and touching truth about Lowell is that he began his career with all those assumptions—that art sought a religious vision, that the artist should be a questing pilgrim, that his voice should be resonant with Hebraic denunciations, that enjambment would prove his yearning and momentum, that a poem should be a well-made object. “The Quaker Graveyard”—which so included all the expectable conventions that, like “Sunday Morning,” it struck everyone as a true poem—secreted itself around Lowell’s acceptance of this prescription for the utterance of anything which wanted to call itself poetic. The verse after 1967 is the secretion of a lurkingly opposite sense of poetry. Though it has something in common with Williams’s day-by-day poetry written on prescription blanks, or with Frank O’Hara’s poetry of “I do this, I do that,” it does not share Williams’s sanguine or despairing climaxes, or O’Hara’s cheerfully extemporaneous tone. Whatever the speed of composition of Lowell’s sonnets, they do not sound like casual utterances; they are dense and close-written.
And when Lowell turns, in Day by Day, to a poetry seemingly mused rather than written, it is ruminative, not spontaneous. Poetry, as it is implied in Lowell’s late practice, is profoundly irreligious, reality-bound, ordered not by any structural teleology but by a confidence in free association, addressed not homiletically to an audience, but painfully to the self, private rather than public, closer to the epistolary than to the oratorical, as various as conversation in its tonal liberty, free to seem desultory and uncomposed, and, above all, exempt from the tyranny of the well-made. It is in this sense Chekhovian. In fact, reading the complete Lowell is rather like seeing Dostoevsky grow up to be Chekhov.
The final step in Lowell’s evolution, and one that Axelrod misrepresents, was the abandon, as a metaphor for his poetry, of portrait-painting in favor of impromptu photography. Axelrod repeatedly describes the governing aesthetic in Life Studies as a photographic one:
In “91 Revere Street,” Lowell ironically surveys the wreckage of a self, family, and civilization (a wreckage he will photograph close up in the “Life Studies” sequence)…. The “I” remains relatively neutral and transparent, a camera eye…. Life Studies gives us a world of characters in full view, with the consciousness of the poet reduced to the thickness of a camera lens.
But the title of Life Studies (“from the life or living model,” a sense “relating to Art,” as the OED puts it) places Lowell’s intent (as I thought everyone knew) firmly in the area of family portraiture. There is nothing random about the composition of these studies; while they assume a naturalness (and even a nakedness) that we expect in works done in the “life class,” they are subject to the modification of the painter’s compositional manipulation. The respectability of the notion of “the sister arts,” and the old axiom “Ut pictura poesis” here conflict with Lowell’s suggestion of the impropriety associated with painting from the undraped model. Just as every new convention insists on its superior truthfulness by comparison with the convention it displaces, so Lowell declares that his family, in his portraits, will be naked, not swathed in decorous garments.
Lowell’s intermediate convention, visible in Notebook, was that of the sonnet-diary, presumably more “naked,” less “composed,” than the usual sonnet-sequence. But his final aesthetic, to which he gave deliberate emphasis by embodying it in his formal envoi, “Epilogue,” threatened a last nakedness of convention, the album of snapshots, “lurid, rapid, garish, grouped.” His art, Lowell declares, is “threadbare,” its plush worn off, its warp and woof revealed for all to see. In “Epilogue,” Lowell recited beforehand all the criticisms which could be, and have been, voiced of his later work. He appears, under the pressure of self-criticism, to draw back from the full implications of amateurishness in the aesthetic of snapshots, and, in a volte-face to the most sophisticated of painters, he couples himself with Vermeer, whose “grace of accuracy” he prays to have. Vermeer’s girl is not transcendent; she yearns, but is “solid with yearning.” And the sun’s illumination in the painting is not referred to heaven, but to earth and representation, as it is seen “stealing like the tide across a map.”
This backward glance to the power of the painter’s vision, as it “trembles to caress the light,” is paired with a backward glance to “those blessed structures, plot and rhyme,” the compositional resources comparable, in the poet’s art, to balance of masses and hues in the art of the painter. The “uncomposed” aesthetic of the “snapshot” recurs, but that unkind name is replaced by the more dignified “photograph”—a Vermeer-like “writing with light.” The stern admonition Lowell now obeys is that which warns him “to give / each figure in the photograph / his living name.”
This adjuration, with its echoes of “the living God,” carries a nearly religious imperative. There is no longer time for named things to “change their name” and be renamed. The picture cannot be retaken; “the line must terminate.” In the obligation to “say what happened,” the aesthetic of the photograph—the eye as lens, not as caressing brush—takes precedence, in an ascetic vow, over the more premeditated arrangements of portraiture. It is only another convention; but it contradicts, as Axelrod fails to see, the convention of Life Studies.
No doubt Lowell, if he proves durable as a poet, will create the taste by which he is to be admired. He lived long enough to see his reputation fluctuate, and to contemplate, with considerable irony, the several books written about him (of which Hugh Staples’s remains the only distinguished one). It is too much to hope that any poet of Lowell’s inventiveness should find many critics with an ear even approximating his own in fineness, but surely the editors at the Princeton University Press should have corrected Axelrod’s more jarring sentences:
A cry for help is as hopeful as this sequence gets.
“The Quaker Graveyard” on its face remains a brutal clash of opposites.
Day by Day is a postultimate work.
[Lowell’s South American poems] could scarcely have been what the CIA had in mind when it picked up his tab.
[“The Quaker Graveyard”] is the longest and in my view most completely artful poem in the volume.
Part six of the poem presents the only existent alternative to human chaos.
Lowell rebels even against reverence, should it smack of smugness.
Instances could be multiplied indefinitely. The alternate form of diction that pervades the book could be called that of “English-class sentimentality.” A representative passage, on The Dolphin, goes as follows:
On this level The Dolphin is about human freedom and growth. And it is supremely a poem about love, love that makes freedom meaningful, love that allows for human growth…. In the largest sense Caroline as dolphin stands for Lowell’s loving relationship to the universe. His opening himself to her represents his opening to the world outside himself…. In The Dolphin Lowell marries a real woman named Caroline, and he also marries his life to his art. Founded on mutuality, the poem concerns events in his life and the way they become his art, and it also concerns art itself and the way art gives meaning (even existence) to his life.
Any poet—but more especially Lowell, with his hairsbreadth sense of words—deserves better from his commentators.
Lowell Criticism March 22, 1979