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The Art of Losing

carrying this photo in his briefcase on the day he died in 1977
Harriet Lowell
Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Harriet Lowell, mid-1960s. Lowell was carrying this photo in his briefcase on the day he died in 1977.

What are a writer’s letters worth? The question, posed bluntly in dollars, plays out in one of the tangled subplots of The Dolphin Letters.

In 1970 Robert Lowell was a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, and Elizabeth Hardwick was at home in New York with their thirteen-year-old daughter, Harriet. Hardwick felt overwhelmed trying to manage the family’s affairs. “Cal,” she wrote to Lowell, “I can’t cope. I have gotten so that I simply cannot bear it. Each day’s mail and effort grows greater and greater.” Seeing the chance to simplify “a life that has become too weighty, detailed, heavy—for me,” Hardwick undertook to sell Lowell’s papers. SUNY Stony Brook was “wildly interested,” but she favored Harvard because of Lowell’s ties there. He agreed that Stony Brook was second choice, but they were offering more money, and he needed money. Hardwick told Harvard about the Stony Brook offer, the university raised its bid, and after much back and forth, in 1973, Harvard purchased Lowell’s papers dating from his childhood to 1970.

Too much had happened in the meantime for Hardwick to celebrate. When she had first looked into Lowell’s crammed file cabinets, she expected him to come home soon. But he didn’t. He fell in love with the Anglo-Irish writer Caroline Blackwood and remained in England with her, even after he was hospitalized following a manic breakdown in July 1970, and Hardwick came to him while Blackwood fled to Ireland. In 1971 Blackwood and Lowell’s son, Sheridan, was born. A year later, Lowell divorced Hardwick and married Blackwood. Throughout this time, he was writing about being torn between Blackwood and Hardwick in poems that would be published in 1973 as a sonnet sequence called The Dolphin. Some of these sonnets quoted, or appeared to quote, the letters Hardwick wrote to Lowell in this period—raw letters expressing her grief and grievances.

By July 1972, with the sale of the archive to Harvard moving forward, Hardwick had to face the galling fact that she had arranged it on behalf of a man who was not only divorcing her but writing a book about making up his mind to do so. Moreover, she told Lowell, the archive contained “everything of my own except your letters to me.” Included were eighty letters from Hardwick, and 168 addressed to her individually, among much else that concerned her. “I should have had my own arrangement with Harvard,” she realized, but “I just wasn’t able to take a stand on my rights and was a bit too sentimental I fear….”

A letter passes between people, like a gift. To whom does it—to whom should it—belong, the letter-writer or the addressee? Who decides what can be done with it?1 As Lowell circulated a draft of The Dolphin among friends, these questions pressed forward. Stanley Kunitz told Lowell he found some passages almost “too ugly” to read “for being too cruel, too intimately cruel.” Elizabeth Bishop scolded Lowell in caps and italics: “One can use one’s life as material—one does, anyway—but these letters—aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission—IF you hadn’t changed them…etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.”

When the book was published in 1973, Hardwick was badly wounded. She wrote an angry, vaguely threatening letter to Robert Giroux, Lowell’s publisher. She told Bishop that The Dolphin and its reviews have “hurt me as much as anything in my life.” “I am near breakdown,” she wrote to Lowell, “and also paranoid and frightened about what you may next have in store, such as madly using this letter.”

The Hardwick letters that Lowell drew on in The Dolphin were not part of the Harvard sale. Hardwick told Lowell she wanted at least “to see those letters you say are mine. And that you put in my voice. Because I can’t remember and just want to see how they went.” But Lowell never returned the letters or showed copies to her. For a long time, it seemed they were lost. Hardwick, who died in 2007, supposed that Blackwood had destroyed them after Lowell’s death in 1977.

In fact, Blackwood had saved them. In 1978 she gathered 102 letters from Hardwick to Lowell and sent them to Frank Bidart, Lowell’s literary executor. Acting on what he believed to be Lowell’s wishes, Bidart held the letters for ten years before depositing them at Harvard with instructions that they were to “be kept here at Houghton Library until the death of Elizabeth Hardwick.” Having been made public in The Dolphin without her permission, Hardwick’s letters would be preserved without her knowledge, and at Harvard to boot.

In the last six months of his life, in 1977, Lowell was in poor health, suffering from congestive heart failure and the manic-depressive illness that had caused him to be hospitalized more than twenty times since 1949. His marriage to Blackwood was failing, and he found himself living again with Hardwick. “It is very odd,” she reflected, “we are just going along, having a very agreeable time.” Lowell visited Blackwood in Ireland at the end of the summer, then flew back to New York. He took a taxi to Hardwick’s apartment. When the driver called her to the car, she found her former husband dead from a heart attack. He was carrying a portrait of Blackwood by Lucian Freud. Not even Lowell, who was known for self-dramatization and causing pain to those closest to him, could have made up that ending.

His letters to Hardwick from the 1970s were published in The Letters of Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton in 2005. Now in The Dolphin Letters, Hamilton has edited Hardwick’s side of the correspondence, paired it with Lowell’s letters to her, and in this curious way brought together again two people who were never fully separated and never fully reunited. Fittingly, their communication is faltering and out of sync. Letters cross and leave unanswered questions. But the distance between them is less of a force than their continuing need to write to each other. “Yes, letters are strange,” Hardwick begins one letter to Lowell. “There is no answering in the true sense in our correspondence…. There is just writing a letter.”

The Hardwick-Lowell correspondence on its own would make a fat book, but a less absorbing and significant one than Hamilton has created by including letters to and from the writers who constituted “their circle.” Hardwick and Lowell couldn’t help but write sharp-edged, moving letters, often. But not always; and to follow every annotated step on their path to that ordinary calamity—divorce—can feel like watching a slow-motion train wreck. Being understandably preoccupied with themselves, each other, their daughter, and their taxes, they fall into the clichés proper to their stock roles (the abandoned wife, the feckless, wandering husband). The other voices Hamilton introduces counter that effect and enlarge the picture.

Some of it is familiar. Bishop’s “art just isn’t worth that much” letter is a chestnut in Bishop criticism, since it crystallizes the ethical and aesthetic differences between her and Lowell. The essential point for Bishop was not that Lowell was wrong to write about Hardwick or even to quote from her letters; the problem was that he had changed her letters, mixing “fact and fiction in unknown proportions.” In a letter to Bidart, Lowell called Bishop’s letter “a kind of masterpiece of criticism, though her extreme paranoia (For God’s sake don’t repeat this) about revelations gives it a wildness.” The comment catches Bishop’s ferocity, and for once puts the manic-depressive Lowell, so often the wild one, in a position to absorb someone else’s intensity.

These letters can now be read alongside Bishop’s back-and-forth with Hardwick about The Dolphin. Bishop didn’t contact Hardwick until the book appeared. Then she rapped gently on the door of Hardwick’s cell of humiliation and rage (“I hope you won’t think it intrusive or impertinent of me to write you a note”), and all but apologized for not stopping Lowell from doing what he had done. So it’s surprising when, three months later, Bishop turns the tables on Hardwick. She writes a four-page letter detailing how Hardwick has misrepresented Bishop’s lover, Lota de Macedo Soares, in an essay,2 implicitly accusing Hardwick of having done to Lota (albeit in passing and without even mentioning her name) what Lowell had done to Hardwick.

Rather than defend herself, Hardwick sympathizes:

It is one of the most peculiar and terrifying sensations to have yourself or someone you have really loved and deeply known lighted up in a way that seems so far from the real, the true…. I can’t tell you how I dread the future with biographies and Lizzie [her familiar name] to say nothing of ‘Cal’ who will never be even touched with the truth of his own being and nature.

Her sympathy remains with Cal—their lives are that entangled—although it is he who has treated her in the way she is deploring.

At this point in the letter, the culture critic in Hardwick takes over, pushing past the personal: “These appropriations of one” are signs of the “escalating need for and belief in publicity as a value and with the idea of attention. If you want it for yourself on almost any terms you cannot imagine that others would not share this. You keep saying,”—the voice in her head must be Lowell’s—“what’s wrong with what I said? It’s not against you! As if there were only one measure of that…. In the end it just means that you don’t think anyone is real.”

Hardwick’s references to “publicity as a value” and “the idea of attention” locate the Dolphin controversy in the society of the spectacle, where personal identity was something to be performed publicly, and therefore weightless and malleable, a reality effect. It wasn’t, after all, reality, but the feeling of reality, that Lowell had wanted from her letters. As he explained, defending himself to Bishop, “the letters make the book, I think, at least they make Lizzie real beyond my invention.”

Adrienne Rich saw Lowell’s treatment of Hardwick in The Dolphin as the expression of an “aggrandized and merciless masculinity.” In her review of the book for American Poetry Review, Rich quotes the last sonnet in the sequence, “Dolphin,” in which Lowell admits to having “plotted perhaps too freely with my life,/not avoiding injury to others,/not avoiding injury to myself,” and then comments:

I have to say that I think this is bullshit eloquence, a poor excuse for a cruel and shallow book, that it is presumptuous to balance injury done to others with injury done to oneself—and that the question remains—to what purpose?

The Dolphin Letters fills in the personal history behind that scorching public rebuke. Rich and Lowell had been close friends in the 1950s, when she “was swamped with infants and wearing Lizzie’s cast-off maternity clothes.” The Lowells were “the strongest link I had with the reality of poetry…as against the domesticities and professorialities of Cambridge,” where she lived with her husband, Alfred Conrad, a professor of economics. Shortly after Lowell left Hardwick, Conrad committed suicide. Hardwick and Rich bonded in their bereavement and new independence, with the younger and politically radical Rich showing Hardwick the way forward.

In the letters between Rich and Lowell before The Dolphin was published, we see two people—we see the culture itself—on rapidly shifting ground. Writing with condolences after Conrad’s death, Lowell awkwardly moves from Rich’s difficulty to his own. He is “with another girl,” and “I imagine I’ll get divorced, and all may be well, but the loss will never go.” Rich regrets not being in better touch. But she challenges his remarks in a recent essay, firmly reproves him for having a child (“right now in history it is a strange thing to do, though very common”), and, all but officially taking leave, declares, “I’m interested in a poetry of the future.”

Lowell returns serve: “The poetry of the future? I’m not sure I have read any, then again I think I’ve read a lot—Rimbaud, Othello, wherever poetry is straining to its uttermost.” As to having a child, “I don’t think you know what you are talking about…. The times are difficult, almost impossible today, yesterday, always.” Lowell could stand behind these statements. But Rich’s letter was “haunting,” he told Hardwick, adding defensively, cynically, “Woman seems to have ousted the blacks.” The remark sinks in the gulf opening between him and Rich.

“Their circle” in the subtitle of The Dolphin Letters is Lowell and Hardwick’s American circle, not Lowell and Blackwood’s British one. Blackwood, thirty-eight years old when Lowell fell in love with her, was a rich, glamorous bohemian: Lucian Freud’s former wife and model; wife of the composer Israel Citkowitz; member of the Guinness family; an actress; a journalist and writer sometimes compared to Muriel Spark; the mother of three daughters; a heavy drinker. But she is an indistinct presence in this book, represented by only a few letters and what others say about her. What is happening in Lowell’s life must be inferred from his letters to Hardwick, where he doesn’t give out much information.

Still, a picture emerges. Oxford in 1970 carried Lowell back in time. “The second sex doesn’t exist at All Souls, I feel fourteen again, vacationing at St. Mark’s,” he writes, referring to his boarding school in Massachusetts. Even after he began teaching at the University of Essex, a center of student protest and a world away from the nonteaching elite of All Souls, he found England a pastoral retreat, in contrast to the “screaming, metallic, poisoned ice” of New York. He liked being made much of: compared to America, he had twelve times the admirers in England, he felt. Most important, falling in love answered, so fully it might have been scripted, his need to discover “the new subject” and a “new departure” for his poetry.

While writing The Dolphin, he was revising and adding to the poems in Notebook, 1967–68. Those revisions would become two books, History and For Lizzie and Harriet, which were published with The Dolphin in 1973. Lowell had turned to blank-verse sonnets in the late 1960s to catch the flux of daily life and his immediate reactions to the events convulsing the United States at the height of the Vietnam War. In 1970, when he published a revised edition titled simply Notebook, the dates fell away, no longer highlighting the book’s timeliness. When he published the three books of sonnets concurrently, a sorting of the public and private had occurred, and the poetics of immediacy had been replaced by monumentality. “The three books are my magnum opus,” Lowell told Bishop, “are the best or rather they’ll do.” The mumbling qualification suggests that he was aware, especially in writing to Bishop, that the ambition to create a “magnum opus” would be open to question. Bishop’s “art just isn’t worth that much” letter was written in reply to this one.

Lowell had never made a secret of wanting to be a great poet, and he was widely seen as the prime heir to the major modernist poets in English. When in 1965 a critic titled an essay “The Age of Lowell,” it was not a particularly controversial thing to do. But a new age was in the making. The fracturing of the Democratic Party under the pressures of the escalating war, Women’s Liberation, and Black Power—the tumultuous social world caught in the sonnet-sized snapshots of Notebook, 1967–68—announced the breakdown of the liberal consensus culture of the postwar period, which Lowell had seemed to speak for. Lowell, who had been prominently involved in the antiwar movement and fervently supported Eugene McCarthy’s bid for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, disengaged from American politics when he went to England.

Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop; drawing by David Levine

The controversy over The Dolphin needs to be seen against that background. It reflected the sensibilities and values of a cultural order, just then emerging, that would involve much more than a changing of the guard. The reversal in Bishop and Lowell’s reputations in the forty years since their deaths, during which Bishop, who had been the minor, ancillary figure, has eclipsed Lowell in attention and prestige, points to a basic reassessment of what is valued in poetry and what art itself is worth. That reassessment has involved a democratizing and politicizing of culture, which opens to suspicion and critique the power and privilege that Lowell, the Boston Brahmin, seemed to embody as his birthright.

But Lowell was a complex figure. His special power as a poet derived from his skepticism about the power and privilege that he himself represented. In “Skunk Hour,” the final poem in Life Studies (1959), Lowell writes with disarming simplicity, “My mind’s not right”:

A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love….” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat….
I myself am hell;
nobody’s here—

Breakdown brings the high low. Lowell’s capacity to write about and from that perspective, by making his manic-depressive illness his subject, expressed his distrust of the imperial “I,” his ambivalence about the notion of poetic greatness and his own ambition to be great. Life Studies sees identity as situational and unsettled, facing up to self-knowledge as something to be lived with uncomfortably, and endured rather than achieved.

Like the poetry of Eliot and Pound, Lowell’s is made out of quotation, translation, allusion, and other verbal borrowings. “Skunk Hour” is typical, crowded with other texts and voices: Saint John of the Cross, the gospels, an anecdote concerning Whitman, the blues standard “Careless Love,” and Milton’s Satan, to list only the references Lowell mentions in his comments on the poem.

But Lowell’s use of women’s voices is an especially charged instance of this general tendency. Surely some of Bishop’s vehemence in objecting to his use of Hardwick’s letters expressed her reactions to his use of her own writing in his poems. When Lowell’s poem “The Scream” appeared in For the Union Dead (1964), he included a note acknowledging that it “owes everything to Elizabeth Bishop’s beautiful, calm story ‘In the Village.’” But “everything” understates the case. The poem is simply Bishop’s prose shrunk down and chopped into stanzas, reducing her cagily autobiographical story/memoir about her mother’s madness to the melodramatic confessional poem she deliberately didn’t write. Later, Lowell published a sonnet based on a letter from Bishop, attributing anxiety and distress to her that she would never have put in a poem in her own voice. Again, he turned Bishop into a poet more like himself.

Still more charged and troubling are the poems about female characters that Lowell based on his wives. A probably manic Lowell had attacked Jean Stafford, his first wife, in a fit of jealous rage. In “The Mills of the Kavanaughs,” a long poem published in 1951, he narrated the scene as recalled by a wife named Anne, who forces her husband Harry to face what he did. “‘To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage,’” the poem placed just before “Skunk Hour” in Life Studies, is a sonnet in which a wife rages against her “hopped up husband” and “the monotonous meanness of his lust.” It had begun as a poem overtly about Lowell and Hardwick’s marriage, under the stress of his illness in the 1950s.

Lowell looks at himself in those poems through the eyes of women he has harmed or tested. Through their voices he is judging himself for his aggression, while being aggressive in doing so, by appropriating their point of view—and in that way expressing his ambivalence about his own “merciless masculinity.” One of his strengths as a poet was the capacity to observe himself with uncanny objectivity. The last line of The Dolphin is an example: “My eyes have seen what my hand did.” The tone is hard to pin down: Is it self-accusing, self-admiring, merely factual, or some mixture of all three? In The Dolphin, he seems to have needed to violate Hardwick’s privacy to achieve that perspective and the ambiguities that come with it. For Lowell, art was worth at least that much.

In time, Hardwick resumed writing letters to Lowell. By 1976, when he published his Selected Poems, including letter-poems from The Dolphin, her outrage had dwindled to a strong objection: “Of course I mind the lines seeming to have issued from me.” She always thought the letter-poems were weak. The book reviewer in her was baffled by “how three years of work could have left so many fatuities, indiscretions, bad lines still there on the page,” as she wrote to Bishop. “That breaks my heart, for all of us.” It’s a harsh assessment, but she had a point. Lowell’s poetry seeks stunning images and quotable epigrams, and The Dolphin has its share of both. But Hardwick’s letters work differently. Their prose is pulsing and circular. To extract bits of it, turning pages of tirade or lament into a sonnet, is to lose the distinctive qualities of the voice, leaving sentences like “You left two houses and two thousand books” or “love vanquished by his mysterious carelessness” as theatrical gestures hanging in the air.

The Dolphin’s essentially commonplace story of a man changing marriages late in life might have served better for an Iris Murdoch romp than the solemn, quasi-mythological verse autobiography Lowell made of it. But on another level, the plot is only a pretext for the story of the writing of the book. Hamilton tells that story by means of a new edition of the poem, which prints The Dolphin as published in 1973 along with the draft, represented in facsimile and transcription, that Bishop and other friends read in 1972. Lowell changed the sequence of events in the story. But his local revisions are more interesting to contemplate. They show him rethinking and adjusting, absorbed in the difficulty of choosing between words. Hamilton praises his poetry for “the masterful capturing, in single gestures, of compounds and conjunctions of feeling and experience.” Lowell’s poetry does this very well, and it is a good reason to value The Dolphin, although the whole project feels contrived as the willed climax of a wished-for magnum opus. When it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974, the judges were Anthony Hecht, Lowell’s friend William Alfred, who admitted he had mixed feelings, and Gwendolyn Brooks, who was against it.

Lowell’s next and final book, Day by Day, is among his best, although it is not often discussed as such. Perhaps lingering controversy over The Dolphin and Lowell’s sudden death combined to overshadow it. Or it may be that Day by Day was a poetry of the future, and we are only now in a position to appreciate it. Katie Peterson suggests something like this in her introduction to Lowell’s New Selected Poems (2017). “This Lowell knows better than to think what’s lasting is any more than a dare,” Peterson writes. “As the great poet of the human day, he understood perishability,” and therefore the astonishment of every new moment. “The Day” begins:

It’s amazing
the day is still here
like lightning on an open field,
terra firma and transient
swimming in variation,
fresh as when man first broke
like the crocus all over the earth.

Day by Day continues the life-narrative of The Dolphin, but loosely, with less straining effort to control the plot. In “Epilogue,” which ends the book, Lowell laments that “sometimes everything I write/with the threadbare art of my eye/seems a snapshot,/lurid, rapid, garish, grouped.” But he defends his autobiographical project by asking himself—and the skeptical reader—“Yet why not say what happened?”

We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.

He doesn’t indicate it in the poem, but Lowell quoted that question—“Yet why not say what happened?”—from Hardwick, who had posed it to him when he was blocked while writing Life Studies, and he found the advice enabling. Here in “Epilogue” Hardwick gets nearly the last word.

When she heard that Lowell had fallen in love with Blackwood and wouldn’t be coming home, Hardwick launched into a rant, shaming him for “leading a parasitic life” in England and for giving up his responsibilities as Harriet’s father and as “a great American writer.” But she knew that calls to duty seldom summon wayward men. By the end of the letter, she was ready to consider the future, and declared, “I want to earn money as a writer, as a woman.”

This practical goal drove her onward. The result was Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature, an essay collection that still feels fresh and relevant, and the sui generis Sleepless Nights. It is tempting to call Sleepless Nights a minor masterpiece. But it vexes hierarchical categories like “masterpiece” and “minor” just as it refuses to declare itself a novel or an autobiography.

In a letter to Lowell that casually challenges the premises of his confessional poetry, Hardwick muses, “We always think we are writing our autobiography, but life is not willing to tell \assure/ us which part of ourselves is the main one, which action is telling and what it tells,” adding, “I guess it is folly to see your life as a book.” Sleepless Nights acts on these ideas. She began work on it with a “rather masochistic eulogy” for Lowell and their marriage that recalled the determination with which Lowell resumed writing after his breakdowns.

She was unhappy with that start. When she mentioned her doubts, Lowell exclaimed, “Whatever you do, don’t burn your Notebook! I hope to live in it”—in the work that would become Sleepless Nights—“long after I’m dirt.” She tore up her notes, however, and continued by writing not about Lowell but about herself observed in the act of writing: “It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work and lead this life, the one I am leading today.” An early version of the first chapter concludes, “Now, my novel begins. No, now I begin my novel—and yet I cannot decide whether to call myself I or she.” Hardwick reworked this passage, but the narrator’s equivocations about agency remained central to Sleepless Nights, in which things happen with the randomness of accident and finality of fate, and characters are curiously flat, as if the only possible view of them is from the outside.

Sleepless Nights is Hardwick’s poetry of the future. In this “work of transformed and even distorted memory,” there’s no through-line, only a jagged, surging drift of images, vignettes, and character sketches, moving forward and backward in time unpredictably. The narrator includes notes on her reading and reflections on memory and the process of writing: “If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember. Make a decision and what you want from the lost things will present itself. You can take it down like a can from a shelf. Perhaps.” Just saying what happened has turned out to be very complicated.

The book includes numerous letters addressed to friends and signed with love from “Elizabeth.” The device is significant. Hardwick was interested in how, writing a letter, we compose ourselves for an absent addressee; how letters allow us to talk to ourselves and someone else at once; how the self in our correspondence is a compound of occasions and addresses, and therefore fragmentary and collage-like.

The most important addressee in Sleepless Nights is “Dearest M.” The Dolphin Letters makes clear that Elizabeth’s letters to “M.” were inspired by Hardwick’s letters to Mary McCarthy. She was a consoling friend to Hardwick, who admired McCarthy as a woman and a writer.

If there was another side to that admiration, it is captured in Hardwick’s quip to Lowell that McCarthy’s life is “like some sort of company with a president and a chairman of the board presiding.” The picture contrasts with Hardwick’s image of herself in Sleepless Nights: her narrator is someone with “sympathy for the tendency of lives to obey the laws of gravity and to sink downward, falling as gently and slowly as a kite, or violently breaking, smashing.” McCarthy was impressed by the book, while she registered the critique of her own realist fiction implied by Hardwick’s experimentalism: “You make my heavily plotted, semi-life-like novel seem like a bone-crusher.” Most of all, McCarthy was impressed by Hardwick’s solution to the problem of how to deal with Lowell: “It didn’t occur to me that you could do it by simply leaving him out.”

But Hardwick didn’t leave him out. Her solution was more radical: she put him in as a peripheral figure. Lowell—but he is not even named—is introduced when the narrator looks back to New York in the 1960s and comments, “I was then a ‘we.’ He is teasing, smiling, drinking gin after a long day’s work,” holding forth about the “tyranny of the weak.”

The reader keeps expecting the husband to return, but there are only a few glimpses of him. The fullest picture comes in the penultimate chapter, and that is devoted not to him but to the housekeepers whom Elizabeth has depended on over the years, as if they were of equal or even greater interest than the head of the house. The pity and clarity with which Hardwick portrays these working women can be scalding: “Grave disasters behind Josette’s swiftness. Beatings in childhood.” Remembering Josette prompts a sketch of Elizabeth’s husband, recovering after a breakdown:

How is the Mister this morning? Josette would say. The Mister? Shall I turn his devastated brown hair to red, which few have? Appalling disarray of trouser and jacket and feet stuffed into stretched socks. Kindly smile, showing short teeth like his mother’s.

There is not much more before Josette’s story takes over again.

Hardwick’s natural “sympathy for the tendency of lives to obey the laws of gravity” expresses itself equally in her feeling for that “devastated brown hair” and the terrible swiftness of her cleaner. Notice also the swiftness of her prose: its stabbing precision betokens her own grave disasters. But Hardwick is by no means a victim. To be broken is a gift if it enables the composition of a work like Sleepless Nights, and keeps one from becoming a company with a president and a chairman of the board presiding. Lowell knew this too, of course, and that knowledge united them. It was the point of view from which he wrote “Skunk Hour,” “The Day,” and other great poems. Yes, let’s call them that, as Hardwick would have.

  1. 1

    In a famous legal case, J.D. Salinger sought to bar Ian Hamilton (Lowell’s first biographer) from publishing a biography of Salinger, claiming copyright violation on the grounds that Hamilton’s manuscript quoted and paraphrased his unpublished letters. The case was decided first in Hamilton’s favor and then in Salinger’s. 

  2. 2

    “In Maine,” published in these pages October 7, 1971.