Going through Robert Lowell’s Selected Poems, one realizes again how funny and witty his work can be—“With seamanlike celerity, / Father left the Navy, / and deeded Mother his property.” Lowell’s comic power was manifest in Life Studies. But as the poet moved into middle age, humor became a subtler element of his work, displacing the vindictive sarcasm of his early books.
The effect of Lowell’s comedy is reductive: Clytemnestra becomes a figure not unlike the poet’s mother but with a simpler sexuality—“our Queen at sixty worked in bed like Balzac.” Lowell takes persons or situations that threaten one with anxiety. But rather than immerse himself in the primitive response, he stands outside like an independent observer, and sees the danger as (after all) finite: it shrinks into the commonplace, fades into the trivial, or vanishes into the unreal. Napoleon enters in the small bathtub he used on campaign (“1930’s: My legs”); death turns into a family trait: “our family cancer—Grandmother’s amnesia, Grandfather’s cancered face…with us no husband can survive his wife” (“Gods of the Family”).
In general, the threat of the dangers is to confine the poet, to deprive him of dignity, power, life—above all, of freedom. But the comic element releases him and gives him a feeling of magical transcendence. Often the danger springs from his own unmanageable emotions, the frightening impulses drilled into him during childhood, impulses that now seem predetermined and external, beyond control. But the source may also be perfectly natural, like the coming of death.
So, as the poet starts many poems, he sounds hemmed in by psychic traumas, the deteriorations of age, or the resistance of language to art. He should be too old for love, too tired to write. Yet the turn of the poem is repeatedly comic: he remains productive, and he is loved. The fate that seemed ineluctable is softened or avoided, because life defies theory.
One way of framing and therefore controlling the peculiarly human dangers is to set them off against the condition of animals. Guilt-free, untroubled by our conflicting emotions, the beasts and birds of Lowell’s poems attract the smiling sympathy we extend to very young children. At the end of “Skunk Hour,” the mother skunk feeding her young is absurd as well as admirable when she “jabs her wedge-head in a cup / of sour cream.” So is the seal swimming “like a poodle” in “The Flaw.”
But Lowell builds his most elaborate comedies around the personality of the poet, especially as the inner man confronts the outer. “Near the Ocean” is a remarkably involved, essentially comic meditation on the ego’s fight to deliver itself from lust and guilt. Here the poet seems to smile at the antitheses connecting his public and private character.
In the poem he pictures himself first as a theatrical Perseus, heroically freeing mankind from the tyranny of the Medusa. But then he…
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