Robert Lowell: Life Studies


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…

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