And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love…
Biographies of poets are hard to believe. The moment they are published they become fiction, subject to the same symmetry of plot, incident, dialogue as the novel. The inarticulate wisdom of really knowing another person is not in the broad sweep of that other person’s life, but in its gestures; and when the biography is about a poet the duty of giving his life a plot makes the poetry a subplot. So we read from the comfort of a mold. The book becomes an extension of the armchair, the life becomes the shadow cast by the reader.
Inevitably the biographies of poets, no matter how different, become a series of ovals in frontispieces. Robert Lowell has become one of these ovals, his dates now closed, the hyphen completed.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
The life itself is shattering. Lowell died at sixty. Most of that life had been spent recovering from, and dreading, mental attacks, of having to say early “my mind’s not right,” but more than drugs restored him. The force that is the making of poetry, while it took its toll of his mind, also saved him. His heroism is primal, his servitude to it savage. Bedlam, asylum, hospital, his bouts of mania never left him, but they also never left him mad. Clinically, they can be listed in depressing records of collapse and release, but what cannot be described in prose is their titanic bursting out of manacles.
All that cold sweat now congealed into an epoch, on the marble forehead of a bust! We look at the face on the book jackets, the brow shielding the eyes from the glare of pain, and we complete it as we dared not when he was alive. To use the past tense about him, not Lowell so much as “Cal,” is almost unendurable. The present is the tense of his poetry. The eyes, with their look of controlled suffering, still hurt. We wince and look away.
In life we looked at that large head, heard his soft jokes, watched his circling hands, knowing that he would become one of the great dead. The jolt that we get now is reading the work as part of the past. His industry was frightening. The head was square and noble, but it was also an ordinary American head, and it was this unrelenting ordinariness that denied itself any sort of halo. He was a man of enormous pride and fanatical humility. He softened objects around him,blurred their outlines, made the everyday myopic, saw political systems as played out. History lived in his nerves, not as a subject but as irrational repetition.
If modern suffering cannot achieve sublime tragedy but ends in breakdown, no poet before Lowell has written so close to his own nerves. The poems of his middle age recoil to the touch, raw as a fresh cut. Their progression is supposed to form a scar, exposure forcing a healing. But often, in the Notebooks, or History, the wound of the poem is left raw. All of his writing is about writing, all of his poetry is about the pain of making poems. The physical labor. He doesn’t sweep the fragments off the floor of his study, or studio, and show you only the finished sculpture. In History you see the armature, the failed fragments, the revisions, the compulsions. He could have settled into a fix, but every new book was an upheaval that had his critics scuttling. They settled and watched from a distance. Then his mind heaved again, with deliberate, wide cracks in his technique. Criticism of Lowell is more seismographic than aesthetic.
His apprenticeship was a fury. In youth every phrase was compacted with the vehemence of ambition. Rhymes were wrenched to fit the hurtling meter. He could not manage an ambulatory pace. Sometimes the wheels whirred groundlessly in air; even when they gripped, the reader shared the groan of effort, the load. In Lord Weary’s Castle couplets barrel past the senses like boxcars, too fast to read their symbols, and leave a stunned, pumping vacancy behind them. “Time runs,” he cites Marlowe, but here it lurches:
Time runs, the windshield runs with stars. The past
Is cities from a train, until at last
Its escalating and black-windowed blocks
Recoil against a Gothic church. The clocks
Are tolling. I am dying. The shocked stones
Are falling like a ton of bricks and bones
That snap and splinter and descend in glass
Before a priest who mumbles through his Mass….
The detonating phrases are more than just noise, although the poem is after “the big bang,” but Lowell, like any other good poet in youth, does not care for lessons in thrift. That is natural, but here the prodigality is maneuvered, and we have, instead of excess, a strategy so forceful it repels. What sounds like passion is not heat but cold. The effects are overcalculated. Every phrase has been worked on separately to look like ease. Some layers are erased, but you can feel the vehemence of the erasures. Their basis is the pun, a brutal name for ambiguity. The windshield runs with tears as well as stars. The tears slide down the glazed iris as stars slide down the glass window of the train in the night. There is a poem in each phrase, but the pace does not match the meter. The first two lines should have had the leisure of recollection. Instead the tears hurtle in pentameter, and the couplets increase the speed. The “at last” does not go inward, like memory, but elevates itself into address. The speed is imitated from Hart Crane, but we can see where the phrases are joined by an iron chain, whereas in Crane at his best the links are invisible:
How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest,
The sea-gull’s wings shall dip and pivot him.
In Crane, there is one shot, one action, on which the stanza pivots, the gull’s flight.
Lowell is a long distance from it:
We are like a lot of wild
spiders crying together,
but without tears…
not only in the casual intimacy of the lower-case beginning (it was he who made me drop capitals from my lines), but also in the technical poignancy of this other train poem, the slackened-tie assurance of “The Mouth of the Hudson.”
A single man stands like a bird- watcher,
and scuffles the pepper and salt snow
from a discarded, gray
Westinghouse Electric cable drum.
He cannot discover America by counting
the chains of condemned freight- trains
from thirty states. They jolt and jar
and junk in the siding below him.
In the earlier poem, from Lord Weary’s Castle, the train, like time, is racing. In the later poem the cars of the freight train are clanking and trundling to a halt.
His eyes drop,
and he drifts with the wild ice
ticking seaward down the Hudson,
like the blank sides of a jig-saw puzzle.
The years that brought this difference, this reconciliation with ambition, lie in the prose word “ticking.” It is the sound of cracking ice, of a bomb, of wheels, of a clock, of the floe, fated to melt as it gets near the ocean, and every word around it is ordinary. That is, it is ordinary at first, then it is wonderful.
By the time he did his translation of the Oresteia, an achievement in modern dramatic verse, which critics have ignored, Lowell understood technical serenity. He had blent Williams with Aeschylus. He saw the light on the brick opposite his apartment in New York not as the radiance in Shelley, or the marble light of Yeats, or the ineffable light of Wordsworth, but as light in New York, on modern brick.
Style sits easily on good poets, even in conversation. In intimacy, their perceptions go by so rapidly that a few drinks with them are worth a book on poetics.
In his apartment about to go out somewhere with him, I fix the knot of Cal’s tie. He returns the knot to its loose tilt. “Casual elegance,” he said, his hands too large to be those of a boulevardier. The correction was technical, one moment’s revelation of style. His verse, in that period of two close books, Near the Ocean and For the Union Dead, had the casual symmetry of a jacket draped on a chair, genius in shirt sleeves. He has written about the stiffness that had paralyzed his meter, how he found its rigidities unbearable to recite, skipping words when he read in public to contract them like asides. He had learned this from Beat poetry and William Carlos Williams. Still, his free verse was not a tieless meter. Debt to ancestry, to the poets who had been his masters, went too deep for that. The “Fords in search of a tradition” could dress in the striped vests of “new money,” he would wear his meter loosely with ancestral hauteur.
On another occasion, and the reader must not think that I have a fetish about poets’ ties, I admired, with casualness, a pale orange and brown figured tie he wore. He took it off and gave it to me. I did not fawn on Lowell the poet. I did not collect bits of his clothing like his valet. Yet he once made a terrible accusation as if I were. “You use people,” he told me. It was a night when he was “going off.” Darkness hadn’t yet come but the light was dimming. I didn’t know, as his older friends knew, how to recognize the spark that meant that, like Hieronymo, he would be mad again.
The insult went deep. Did he think that I had cultivated his friendship to advance my career? I was not an American poet. I did not think in those terms. For there to be a career there has to be a tradition, and my new literature had none. A career, like that of any explorer’s, was instantaneous. Did I feed off his verse like a parasite to fatten my own? That I would have confessed to, because his influence was irresistible, yet what imagination was more omnivorous than his? Yes, I said to myself, above the pain, I had used him. But only as I had used other masters, ancient or modern.
In mania veritas. Sing to me, Muse, the mania of Achilles, not the “rage,” he had written, updating Homer. I had never confronted the grotesque Lowell, who struck the terror of pity in those who loved him. If Cal was drowning in the darkness at the back of his mind, it was still an illumination.