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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. Pound, who loathed him, has a Tennysonian splendor.” Of Blake: “His whole conflict is that man isn’t free but when he doesn’t write in fetters he isn’t good. I find his long poems very tiresome. In a way they’re about sex. They’re not professional.” Of Browning: “His life had no plot, no romantic flair, even though he married Elizabeth Barrett. But he invented the mystery novel in verse and wrote more good lines than any nineteenth-century poet.”

It is the breathtaking audacity, as of that final assertion, that stuns again and again in this book. How would one go about challenging this claim for Browning? In praising Jarrell, Lowell writes, “he seems to know everything,” and much the same could be said of Lowell, so that when he tells us that Cotton Mather wrote 450 books, we are inclined to believe that Lowell has read them all. He also said of Jarrell that “eulogy was the glory of Randall’s criticism,” and that spirit largely and magnanimously pervades this book, so that even if it were objected that Lowell is often writing about his friends, it must immediately be pointed out that nearly all writers, whether he knew them or not, were his friends.

In the well-known Paris Review interview with Frederick Seidel, in response to the observation that he had written very little criticism, Lowell replied, “I’m very anxious in criticism not to do the standard analytical essay. I’d like my essay to be much sloppier and more intuitive.” Elsewhere he writes, “Analysis doesn’t make for interesting reading…. Once it was far otherwise. I can remember when the early essays on The Waste Land, the first editions of the Brooks and Warren Understanding Poetry, and Blackmur’s pieces on Stevens and Marianne Moore came as a revelation.” And for all his scruples about “analysis,” he is able generously to observe, “The king of the critics is William Empson…even his shortest notes change the mind.” I find myself in happy accord with Lowell here, and observe that Lowell’s sort of criticism does not in fact “change the mind,” though it can often make one see works and writers freshly.

Lowell’s “portraiture” derives from a number of sources, including photography and painting, but it strikes me that its literary origins may be traced to Ford Madox Ford, who wrote a distinguished book of “profiles” called Portraits from Life, from which Lowell may even have interpolated his title for Life Studies. Greater still, I suspect, may have been the influence both in style and in technique of the quick and brilliant “pencil sketches” of Ford’s memoirs of the Twenties, It Was the Nightingale. A fine instance of this verbal draftsmanship presents itself in Lowell’s review of a book of poems by I.A. Richards.

On the back cover of his new poems, Goodbye Earth, there is a startling photograph of Richards—heavy socks, climber’s knickerbockers, sleeves rolled up, shirt open at the throat. He is at some halfway point in the Swiss Alps, leaning on his up-ended pick, which is, like a prisoner’s ball-and-chain, penitentially attached to his belt. Even now, taking his breather, and resting before his Byronic scenery as if it were a landscape he had painted, he knows he should be moving on. The next lap, the middle foreground’s attractively gullied and evergreen rise, is not in the picture—it is a problem. Beyond and above, and really, as in the photograph, just an arm’s swing away, the absolute malignly beckons…. Malign, too, and seepingly present, though unrepresented here, is the other busy, lower world of routine, duties, books, interviews, and chairs. In this “sporting” photograph, the narrowed eyes and cheek shadows of the climber’s face have a down-dragging gravity. The obstinate chin, the toughness, the knowledge, the muscle—goodbye earth at last! Nearly a lifetime it took. Richards’s first book of poetry is also the first of its kind.

There is a lot to admire here, not least the smooth and ingenious way Lowell begins with the precisions of photography and proceeds to enlarge the borders of the picture, taking off from literal fact in imaginative sympathy. But the reader familiar with Lowell’s poems in History will recognize here the source, the raw materials, of one of his poems:

I.A. Richards I. Goodbye Earth

Sky-high on the cover of Goodbye
   Earth,
you flash and zigzag like a large hummingbird—
heavy socks and climber’s knicker- bockers,
sleeves rolled, shirt open at the throat;
an upended pick, your prisoner’s ball and chain,
penitentially attached to your wrist.
Here while you take your breath, en- thused, I see
the imperishable Byronics of the Swiss Alps
change to a landscape for your por- trait, like you
casual, unconventional, innocent… earned
by gratuitous rashness and serpen- tine hesitation.
It is not a picture but a problem—
you know you will move on; the absolute,
bald peaks, glare-ice, malignly beckons …goodbye earth.

Readers of this collection will find the prose origins and ingredients of a number of Lowell poems, including portraits of Frost and Eliot.

He is not alone, of course, in turning prose into poetry: Yeats, Jonson, and, according to Lowell, Racine followed the same procedure. And Lowell characterizes Emerson thus: “An innovator in his lectures by inventing a prose-haiku of bright, unforgettable phrases. This he did by sifting gold from his daily journals.” As is widely known, Lowell turned more than his own prose into poems, causing much anguish thereby, but I will return to the topic of that pain at a later point. For the present, let me note that the piece on Richards goes on to observe:

Poetry is almost more encumbered than furthered by the critical mind filled with sustained, subtle reasoning, high, hampering criteria, fierce crochets, and the sublime whir of favorite quotations.

Lowell immediately proceeds to exonerate Richards from the least suspicion of being thus “handicapped,” but if Lowell seriously meant what he says here he would be pointing at supposedly crippling effects in the works of Eliot and Yvor Winters, to name only two. Of course when Lowell addresses the works of these particular poets he sets all these scruples aside or forgets them entirely. He twice (and ten years apart) refers to Winters as “our Malherbes,” and this is meant to align him, admiringly, with a kind of poetry diametrically opposed to that of Williams, with its fierce insistence on particularity and “things.” By way of contrast, abstraction, avoidance of particularized language, and classical poise characterize the French poet’s work, along with a devotion to, and abundant production of, critical theory. Winters’s infuriated “demonstrations” of irrationality on the part of poets whose works he disliked, his embattled defense of the likes of Philip Pain and Jones Very indicate the aptness of Lowell’s characterization. But the chief point is that while Winters may be doctrinaire, Lowell is keen enough to see his strong and singular merits, whether or not he conforms to the dictum about the hampered critical mind.

Lowell’s portraiture at times rises to Chekhovian levels of comic insight:

Ransom and Jarrell had each separately spent the preceding summer studying Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and had emerged with unorthodox and widely differing theories. Roughly, Ransom thought that Shakespeare was continually going off the rails into illogical incoherence. Jarrell believed that no one, not even William Empson, had done justice to the rich, significant ambiguity of Shakespeare’s intelligence and images. I can see and hear Ransom and Jarrell now, seated on one sofa, as though on one love seat, the sacred texts open on their laps, one fifty, the other just out of college, and each expounding to the other’s deaf ears his own inspired and irreconcilable interpretation.

There is another Chekhov scene, longer, more detailed, even more comic in its bounty of misunderstandings, in which Lowell brings together his two admired friends Jarrell and Berryman. And there are times when, casting about for a way to describe someone (for example, Williams’s intellectual monism, “no ideas but in things”), he abandons all normal procedures and resorts to a wonderful and inspired indirection, thus:

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