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Robert Lowell: Life Studies

I

In March 1957 Robert Lowell began his fortieth year with a reading tour of the West Coast. It was a strenuous trip, with readings “at least once a day and sometimes twice” for fourteen days, and he was later to describe it as an important influence on his quest for a “new style.” The Beat poets had already trained California audiences to believe that poetry could be enjoyed by the untrained, and Lowell found himself willing to make some small compromises:

At that time, poetry reading was sublimated by the practice of Allen Ginsberg. I was still reading my old New Criticism religious, symbolic poems, many published during the war. I found—it’s no criticism—that audiences didn’t understand, and I didn’t always understand myself while reading.

Lowell began simplifying poems as he read, adding syllables, translating Latin into English: “I’d make little changes just impromptu…. I began to have a certain disrespect for the tight forms. If you could make it easier by just changing syllables, then why not?” In fact, Lowell’s respect for tight forms had been crumbling since 1953; that is to say, he knew then (and probably earlier, with the reviews of The Mills of the Kavanaughs) that whatever he wrote next, it would not be in strict meter. Indeed, he had already written several pieces that “broke meter”: his poem “Ford Madox Ford,” for instance, was first published in the spring of 1954.1

Lowell’s difficulty, however, was that rhyme and meter were for him very close to being the “natural speech” that William Carlos Williams and his followers were always calling for. The iambic pentameter was not an external, imposed literary method; after three books, it had become compulsive utterance. And it was probably harder for Lowell to discard rhymes than to invent them. Williams, he felt, was unique, but “dangerous and difficult to imitate.” His disciples were spiritless and programmatic. Although Lowell was in regular, admiring contact with the older poet at this time and had been particularly dazzled by a reading Williams had given at Wellesley in 1956 (“somehow he delivered to us what was impossible, something that was both poetry and beyond poetry”),2 he knew that the lessons he could learn from him would always be of the most general kind: loosen meter, abandon rhyme, use ordinary speech, introduce more characters, and so on. Even the very personal poems that Williams was writing in the mid-Fifties were of a radiant simplicity that Lowell could marvel at but never think to copy: “Williams enters me, but I could never enter him.”3

All the same, by 1957 Lowell had learned to mistrust both the means and the temper of his earlier work, the “used equipment,” the “inertia of our old rhetoric and habits”: for eighteen months the sober, therapeutic compromise had been to write in prose. And the compromise had been instructive. He had taken to studying prose texts in his poetry classes—“In prose you have to be interested in what is being said…it’s very exciting for me, like going fishing,” he wrote to Randall Jarrell. He had discovered a (for him) new style of formal discourse—paradoxical, ironic, whimsically oblique but capable of elegiac weight. He had learned how to give voice to a wide range of what might be called the moderate emotions: affection, regret, nostalgia, embarrassment, and so on. He had become an expert at contriving sentences that could be elevated and yet speakable, and had found a literary voice that could encompass something of his social self—that is to say, the teasing, mischievous, gently sardonic side of his own nature.

The obvious next step for Lowell was to perceive that some, if not all, of these considerable gains could be carried over into poetry, that if elements of rhyme and meter could be injected into the sane and solid corpus of his prose reminiscences, he would in effect have found a new but “safe” function for many of the “old tricks” he had been ready to abandon. The “excitement” of poetry could vitalize and be restrained by the sturdy, detailed worldliness of prose:

When I was working on Life Studies, I found I had no language or meter that would allow me to approximate what I saw or remembered. Yet in prose I had already found what I wanted, the conventional style of autobiography and reminiscence. So I wrote my autobiographical poetry in a style I thought I had discovered in Flaubert, one that used images and ironic or amusing particulars. I did all kinds of tricks with meter or the avoidance of meter. When I didn’t have to bang words into rhyme and count, I was more nakedly dependent on rhythm.4

And, of course, Lowell’s prose “studies” not only suggested a new style; they also offered an almost limitless new subject. In 1976, the year before he died, looking back over his life’s work, Lowell was to acknowledge that “the thread that strings it together is my autobiography, it is a small-scale Prelude, written in many different styles and with digressions, yet a continuing story….”5 In his first three books, autobiography had been oblique, almost clandestine; now he was free to be both distorting and direct. It seems never to have occurred to him that his personal history might not be of considerable public interest. And this, as Elizabeth Bishop pointed out to him, was his huge natural advantage:

And here I must confess (and I imagine most of your contemporaries would confess the same thing) that I am green with envy of your kind of assurance. I feel I could write in as much detail about my uncle Artie, say,—but what would be the significance? Nothing at all. He became a drunkard, fought with his wife, and spent most of his time fishing…and was ignorant as sin. It is sad; slightly more interesting than having an uncle practicing law in Schenectady maybe, but that’s about all. Whereas all you have to do is put down the names! And the fact that it seems significant, illustrative, American etc. gives you, I think, the confidence you display about tackling any idea or theme, seriously, in both writing and conversation. In some ways you are the luckiest poet I know!

From mid-August through October 1957 Lowell completed eleven poems in free verse—many of them turned into free verse from a first draft in couplets. He wrote to William Carlos Williams:

I’ve been writing poems like a house on fire, i.e. for me that means five in six weeks, fifty versions of each. I’ve been experimenting with mixing loose and free meters with strict in order to get one accuracy, naturelness [sic], and multiplicity of the prose, yet, I also want the state and surge of the old verse, the carpentry of definite meter that tells me when to stop rambling. There’s no ideal form that does for any two of us, I think. P.S. I see I forgot to say that I feel more and more technically indebted to you, growing young in my forties!

These poems included final versions of “Beyond the Alps,” “Words for Hart Crane,” “Inauguration Day: January 1953” and “To Delmore Schwartz” (this last a poem he’d begun in 1946). The new poems were “Skunk Hour,” “Man and Wife” (though, interestingly, the superbly metrical first lines of this had been written three months earlier), “Memories of West Street and Lepke,” “To Speak of the Woe That Is in Marriage” (originally part of “Man and Wife”), “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow,” “Commander Lowell,” and “Terminal Days at Beverly Farms.” In October he wrote—rather nervously—to Randall Jarrell:

I’ve been writing poems lately again, my first in a good four years. And I want to try them out on you! Do you feel in the mood? I’ll send one [“Skunk Hour”], and then if I get a peep out of you, will follow it with four or five more. I’ve been loosening up the meter, as you’ll see and horsing out all the old theology and symbolism and verbal violence.

Two weeks later he heard that Jarrell did like “Skunk Hour,” and he wrote again:

I’ve been working like a skunk, doggedly and happily since mid-August and have seven or eight poems finished (?) some quite long and all very direct and personal. They are mostly written in a sort of free verse that takes off from the irregularities of my Ford poem. I’ll get them typed up for you next week and mail them off. I’ll be very sad if you don’t like them.

In the first of these letters to Jarrell (October 11), Lowell remarks, “There’s a new English poet called Larkin that I like better than anyone since [Dylan] Thomas. I’ve been reading him since the Spring and really like him better than Thomas.” In his second letter (October 24) he recommends that Jarrell read the poems by W.D. Snodgrass which have appeared in an anthology called The New Poets of England and America: “I’m sure you remember him with his silly name and his Mahler songs. I had him off and on in classes at Iowa for years and thought that he had done one or two of the best poems that my students had written there.”6

In the case of the two younger poets, Lowell’s interest was not to do with matters of technique: Larkin used conventional forms, Snodgrass an intricate system of syllabics. It was more that, “unlike our smooth young poets,” each of them “says something.” Lowell spoke later, in an interview, of Snodgrass’s “pathos and fragility…fragility along the edges and a main artery of power going through the center,” and he admired the way in which Snodgrass’s sequence “Heart’s Needle” managed to treat with a kind of wry nobility a subject that in other hands might not have avoided sweetness and self-pity: the separation, by divorce, of the poet from his baby daughter. In Larkin he found irony, self-deprecation, a mockingly repressed unease, a willingness to speak directly out of intimate, if mediocre, states of feeling. With both poets the reader is more eavesdropper than audience; in both there is an antibardic element, an insistence on the poet as an ordinary man, with ordinary problems.

During 1957, Lowell had also been reading (and seeing) much of Elizabeth Bishop. He had often enough expressed his admiration of her “humorous commanding genius for picking up the unnoticed,” and he had warmly reviewed her first book, North and South, in 1947; ten years later, poems like “Florida” and “At the Fishhouses” would have come back to him with an exemplary new vividness. In 1947 he had written indulgently of her “bare objective language” and merely noted that “most of her meters are accentual-syllabic.” In 1957, though, he saw her as “a sort of bridge between Tate’s formalism and Williams’s informal art.” Again it was a combination of high, unfettered artfulness and “thinking-aloud” emotional directness that appealed to him. Bishop—with her intently charted shorelines, her humanly caught but still nonhuman creatures of the deep, her almost devout regard for humble details—offered a thoroughly “sound” model for a poet looking for ways into his own worldliness. And a poem like “Man-Moth” would have intensified his sense of fellow feeling; Bishop’s fine poem showed that there were ways of writing about, as well as out of, desperation:

  1. 1

    In Encounter II (April 1954), p. 32.

  2. 2

    Robert Lowell, “William Carlos Williams,” Hudson Review, no. 14 (1961-1962).

  3. 3

    Ibid.

  4. 4

    Robert Lowell, “After Enjoying Six or Seven Essays on Me,” Salmagundi, no. 37 (Spring 1977), pp. 112-115.

  5. 5

    Ibid.

  6. 6

    In 1951, Jarrell had written to Lowell from Princeton: “I had a boy at Colorado last summer who was good (an excellent Rilke translation) and most of his poems were excellent though unconscious imitations of you. You’d had him in a class. De Witt Snodgrass, poor ill-named one! When you influence people, when your poems influence theirs, that is—you really mow them down….”

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