To the Editors:
In his review of Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems, James Fenton makes reference to my limited editorial contribution:
The acknowledgments page tells us that “DeSales Harrison did the initial research collecting magazine and book versions of each Lowell poem, constructing a labyrinthine archive of Lowell’s publication history….”
Fenton’s remarks follow a wavering course, venturing two or three glancing blows at Lowell, only to shift, when Fenton is unable to marshal a coherent critique of the poetry itself, to a haphazard sniping at editorial decisions. By the end, one has a vague sense of Fenton’s dislike for Lowell and a vivid sense of the frenzy incited in him by the textual apparatus. This concluding paragraph makes a final mention of the archivist:
The “labyrinthine archive” that DeSales Harrison put together, wherever it is, should be carefully preserved, because the texts and notes of the poems are in need of comprehensive review and correction. It is a great shame, for the work in all its strengths, in all its fallibility, deserves better than this.
Because Fenton’s critique pivots—however facetiously—around my weird name, I feel compelled to respond.
Of course, editorial work obliges one to accept, with gratitude, anyone’s accurate emendation, no matter how nasal and humidly self-gratified the tone. From Fenton’s many quibbles may be rescued one or two useful suggestions. His insistence on how the book might be gotten right, however, rests on a profound misreading of Lowell’s practice as a poet. While Fenton tendentiously laments Lowell’s fallibility, it is precisely with respect to fallibility that he remains blind to a crucial aspect of Lowell’s art.
Lowell is not helped—his reputation is not helped—by being admired for his faults. He is a fallible poet…. The fact that he was a compulsive reviser does not make him a successful perfectionist, any more than one would say that a compulsive handwasher had a model hygienic regime…. Go to him in search of a perfect poet, and you are guaranteed disappointment.
If every poet is concerned, as Lowell avowedly was, with getting it “right,” isn’t Fenton justified in declaring this promiscuously endless revising a liability? Certainly, if Fenton and Lowell mean the same thing by getting it “right.” It is our great good fortune they do not.
Here the issue of the archive comes into play—if archive is indeed the best word for that “hoard of destructions” comprising all Lowell’s manuscripts, publications, revisions, reprints, simultaneous divergent republications, errata, and marginalia. Of course it still exists, in all its inherent disorder and internal contradiction, but what it has to tell is not, I fear, what Fenton would like to hear. No editorial intervention, however exhaustive or obsessed, could change its story.
Fenton assumes that Lowell undertakes his revisions in the interest of a perfection that anyone would recognize. What Fenton does not consider is the way in which revision might strive toward something other than perfection in this narrow sense. The “comprehensive review and correction” that he proposes must perforce ignore or deny how much of Lowell’s power inheres in the refusal of correction, and in its insistence upon leaving exposed the work’s pentimenti. The surface of the text is in its essence erratic, torn, distorted, or—to use a word Fenton might intend differently—incorrigible. In its scrapings, smudges, patchings, and scars the poetry enacts the struggle between impulse and repentance, gesture and erasure—between, in short, the forces of making and unmaking.
Through these strivings—avoiding injury neither to himself nor others—Lowell introduced into the lyric repertoire a set of gestures for which available critical vocabularies have few terms. Analogues may be found in the stylistic “violences” employed by artists as various as Picasso, Twombly, Callas, and Hendrix. The lyric poem, however, constrained as it is to the (legible, printable) perfection of the written word, is (perhaps surprisingly) less suited than more plastic or abstract media to display a ragged or injured edge. Lowell, in his ruthlessness toward his medium—to say nothing of his editors and archivists—found a way to embody forms of beauty indistinguishable from damage, forms of wholeness indistinguishable from destruction. Although the perils of embracing such an aesthetic are many, as Lowell’s imitators—including at times Lowell himself—have made plain, his achievement represents an irrevocable shift in the English lyric. Fenton is not alone in his ignorance; contemporary poetry and criticism have yet to make an account of this development. Perhaps with the publication of the Collected Poems, this difficult undertaking can begin.
October 9, 2003