That Robert Lowell was always interested in formal experiment we may argue from the evidence of the poems. What I would like to suggest here is that this interest is not only a reflection of formal inventiveness, but of the integrity of the moral experience explored. Thus the knotted and syntactically confusing forms of the early poems tell us a great deal about the quality of the religious vision involved; the free verse looseness of Life Studies reflects the poet's attempt to free himself from rigid moral categories; and the fragmentary, casual structure of Notebook enacts, as it were, the moral, political and cultural fragmentation that is the book's theme. Lowell's achievement has been to articulate a sense of moral and political confusion, and to render that confusion as a richness and complexity of immediately-felt experience, creating poetry out of chaos without imposing an artificial notion of order. Of course, the earlier poems do attempt to impose a Catholic view of civilisation upon disorder, and the poems from Notebook onwards do seem to have come dangerously close to disintegration in their attempt to render the absence of such holistic structures. But I would want to claim that these particular failures merely serve to emphasize the nature of Lowell's real accomplishment, which we may see most acutely in the poet's response to form in certain poems from Life Studies, from For The Union Dead and Near The Ocean.
That certain of the poems in Part Three of Life Studies were "originally written in prose" and then "put into verse" would hardly surprise many readers. In "My Last Afternoon With Uncle Devereux Winslow," for instance, whole passages have a leisurely, discursive quality that lacks even the normal tension of well-written prose…. It is a flat, prosaic language, lacking the syntactical complexity and energy of the earlier poems, just as it lacks their damaging ambiguity. The poetic effect—if it can be said to generate one—stems from the occasional use of internal rhyme and from the random accumulation of assorted information: almost a collage of the poet's memories of childhood. Unfortunately, this collage does not create any continuous tension, so that even when … figurative language suggests an organising metaphor for the whole experience described in the poem, so slackly has the poem worked towards its conclusion that we cannot feel that any true knowledge, any living sense of experience, has been transmitted. Not only does there appear to be no poetic logic behind the choice of line lengths, or behind the random selection of detail presumably intended to be representative of whatever effect the poems are working towards; not only does the technique fail utterly to generate any sense of moral urgency of significance; but the very flatness of the language leaves one with a strong suspicion that Lowell has merely sought to make verses out of his prose material simply in order to have sufficient poems to fill a volume.
The interesting point about Life Studies, however, is not that Lowell seems to have made public his own worksheets, but that out of these experiments, perhaps because of them, he has been able to write a handful of what I judge to be his finest poems. There seems to me to be no doubt that with "Waking In The Blue," "Memories of West Street And Lepke," "Man And Wife" and "To Speak Of The Woe That Is In Marriage" Lowell established himself as the major American poet writing in English since the war, and that this achievement has come—at least in part—out of the conflict between formalism and free verse: a technical conflict reflecting the moral consciousness.
In a poem such as "Waking In The Blue," one has the direct evocation of time and place that is characteristic of the best of Lowell. Like all great lyric poets, he is at his best when isolating the particularity of some momentary experience, whatever the wider significances of...
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I had hoped that Robert Lowell, after the disastrous collections of recent years, would emerge into old age with energy and genius as Yeats had done. But when Lowell died last September, he had just published Day by Day, a volume as slack and meretricious as Notebook and History which preceded it. The great poet died thirteen years earlier, with the publication of For the Union Dead.
One would not know it, from the book reviews or from the academy. The Literature Industry manufactures truisms like slogans. For years … we have known that Robert Lowell was our greatest living poet. No matter how self-indulgent his latest self-imitation, the New York Times Book Review would agree to its genius. I suspect that this inflation—made windier now by his death—helped precipitate the appalling decline in Lowell's achievement. (p. 7)
After I read Day by Day, depressed by its trashiness, I looked back at Lord Weary's Castle again; it is great poetry, and with The Mills of the Kavanaghs, Life Studies, and For the Union Dead adds a strong poet to American literature. But our literature … is characterized by writers who do not grow old in their art, but who fly high and explode and crash. We do not deny the height if we deplore the crash. Lowell's downfall began earlier, but was confirmed by Notebook 1967–1968 in 1969, and by the frantic revisions and new poems—seven volumes in nine years—that followed. The original Notebook assembled hundreds of blank verse fourteen-liners—diffuse and self-serving gossip, slovenly clichés assembled with a zeal like Roget's. And the New York Times, in a front page review, declared it a masterpiece. (p. 8)
If one had spent the years since Life Studies in Antarctica, let us say, and visited one's local book store on one's 1977 return to check up on Lowell—one would have discovered … cliché. Not ironic cliché, not arguable cliché—just good old Edwin Newman...
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What, one wonders, would attract a poet to rewrite what is already a rewriting of a translation from the original Greek. For that is what Robert Lowell did with his Oresteia, based as it is on Richard Lattimore's poem script, which Lattimore in turn based on the translation appearing in H. W. Smyth's Loeb Classical Library text. (p. 200)
[A new "translation"] can be coming out of one or more of three motives: to explicate the drama in such a way that what was law and revelation to the pre-Hellenic Greeks is clarified for us; to "adapt" the drama for the twentieth-century American mind, imposing twentieth-century American equivalencies on its framework …; or simply to make new poetry out of old. Judging from Lowell's text, which certainly attempts neither of the first two, it was the third which motivated him.
Unfortunately, as poetry the work is slightly flawed, and as drama it achieves nothing not already achieved by Lattimore…. On the one hand, Lowell hewed absolutely to the plot-line of the original, neither attempting anything new of his own nor taking off from any of the several possibilities Robert Graves provides in The Greek Myths. On the other, he seems to have essayed somewhat new characterizations for most of the principals—in particular Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, and Orestes—but in an apparent effort to round them out more fully as human beings, he managed only to pale the dazzling primary colors they had when they were less dimensional creatures in [the versions by] Lattimore and [Edith] Hamilton…....
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The sheer size of what [Robert Lowell] did in verse exceeded the life work of any of his coevals, and I do not mean in bulk alone—also in scope and grasp and largeness of mind. Randall Jarrell instructed him, John Berryman rivaled him. Each was a masterly and inspired poet, but neither had quite his range over politics in the grand sense. (p. 10)
For 30 years Lowell continued from time to time to make a stir.
The trouble was that sometimes the stir accompanied or worsened into a crisis…. [After his first grave manic attack in 1949, Lowell] had to govern his greatness with his illness in mind. Life Studies were an early and extreme result of this kind of discipline and...
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The doctrine of incarnation has an inherent appeal to poetic thought because it promises to resolve the two basic forms of contradiction bred by a sense of the ironic distance between concepts and world. Incarnation is first of all the union of flesh and spirit, the coming of a principle of divine order in the otherwise chaotic war between the ungoverned flesh and the harsh letter of the old law. The incarnation informs the flesh with spiritual force and, by thus transforming existence, allows the law to become more flexible, more symbolic, and more intimately linked to the inner life. Second, it is the intersection of time and timelessness, a way of altering the arbitrary orders of human law and human words so that...
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Though he had written the first two-thirds of his Oresteia in the 1960s, Lowell was still working on the final portion when he died. His purpose, put forth in the brief preface, was to produce an acting version "to trim, cut, and be direct enough to satisfy my own mind and at a first hearing the simple ears of a theatre audience". He did not work from the Greek …, but instead used as his model Richmond Lattimore's "elaborately exact" translation. This was a crucial error, even though Lattimore himself has praised the new version. When Lowell "imitated" Russian poetry his raw material was a literal trot. But it is Lattimore's particular genius that his precision is also poetic. Lowell left himself little room...
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