Notions of Freedom

The Collected Poetry of Malcolm Lowry

edited by Kathleen Scherf
University of British Columbia Press, 418 pp., $60.00

Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry

by Gordon Bowker
St. Martin's Press, 672 pp., $29.95

He liked to describe himself as primarily a poet, which is hardly the way the rest of the world has come to see Malcolm Lowry. I’ve more than once, in conversation, mentioned my devotion to Lowry’s poetry and had a misunderstanding arise. It was assumed I was speaking metaphorically—that I was praising the lyrical qualities of his prose. But while the fiction, particularly Under the Volcano, has its appeal, as do the letters and some aspects of his hermetic and hellbent life, it’s Lowry’s poems that pull on my imagination. Having moved nine times in fourteen years, I can’t say there are many books that have followed me everywhere, but The Selected Poems of Malcolm Lowry—an old City Lights paperback carrying a list price of $1.50—is one. Admittedly, this is partly a matter of weight and size; it’s a waif of a book, a pocket-book for a human-sized pocket.

With a lengthy introduction, acknowledgments, a list of abbreviations, a note on the text, copious annotations, textual notes, appendices, a bibliography, holographs, and indices, my old paperback’s successor, The Collected Poetry of Malcolm Lowry, extends over more than four hundred busy pages. If the earlier edition was a street waif, this one has all the trappings of a stolid and prosperous burgher. Lowry, who never published a volume of poetry in his lifetime, left his verse manuscripts in heaped disarray, thereby ensuring that much of the task of deciphering, editing, and ordering his poems would fall to other hands. As he noted, shrewdly, of himself, “But I think I most really wanted to be squelched, to be a posthumous rather than a living poet.” In this, he was merely being consistent with the rest of his existence. Given his spectacular alcoholism, he was perpetually dependent on others to decipher, edit, and order his life as well.

That life’s origins were tidy enough. Born in Liverpool in 1909, the fourth son of Arthur Lowry, a hardworking and prosperous cotton-broker, and Evelyn Boden Lowry, a socially ambitious but retiring woman, Malcolm had an upbringing designed to mold him into what each of his brothers indeed became: a respectable businessman. But at seventeen, already turned rebellious, he went to sea on an Asia-bound freighter for four months, and his subsequent years at Cambridge were marked by rowdiness and dissipation. At eighteen, when a copy of Blue Voyage happened his way, he fell under the spell of the American poet and novelist Conrad Aiken, and he eventually traveled to Massachusetts to meet and learn from him. Restlessness, in combination with visa problems, in time led him to Mexico, where his first marriage collapsed, thence to the coast of British Columbia, where he and his second wife lived for years in a squatter’s shack and much of Under the Volcano, the novel that brought him worldwide fame, was composed. He worked on poetry throughout his life. The earliest verses in the Collected were written when he was a schoolboy; he was still sorting and composing…

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