Lowell, Robert (Vol. 15)
Lowell, Robert 1917–1977
Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, Lowell is generally considered the premier American poet of his generation. Considered one of the original proponents of the confessional school of poetry, he frequently gave voice to his personal as well as his social concerns, which also led many to consider him to be the prototypical liberal intellectual writer of his time. In his work he explored the contradictions in American life and the failure of Puritan ethics. A traditional stylist, he used complicated formal patterns and rhyme schemes while examining very personal topics, in contrast to the free-form style of the Beats. This concern with traditional forms culminated in his book-length sonnet sequence, The Dolphin. Lowell was also a widely acclaimed translator and playwright as well as critic and editor. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 73-76.)
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...
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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...
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Sandra Prewitt Edelman
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...
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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 scaling down—poems obviously related to the studies he had been constrained to make of his own experience. For young writers here and abroad they showed a new way of making poetry….
There is no short or easy way to describe the power and diversity of his work. One feels that illness enters into a part and that this is not the best part. Some things bore me or leave me cold, for example in the unrhymed 14-line poems, reminding me of his own unsparing line about himself in "Near the Ocean"—"fierce, fireless mind, running downhill…." Unsparing, but certainly only momentarily true. Inspired poetry kept coming to him in the last years, inventions constantly extended by mastery of English and daring of sensibility. Finally,...
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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 they become more suited to the divine Word or Order, which understands the complexities of the flesh and natural flux. Thus natural experiences are given meaning and purpose in the timeless scheme of creation. (p. 56)
[In Robert Lowell's] earlier work he exemplified the more radical and philosophic New Critical style of his masters Tate and Ransom. Yet it is precisely because he took the incarnation so seriously, as the basis for both his religious and his poetic lives, that he could so thoroughly alter those lives when his faith was no longer adequate to sustain their demands. It is a testament to the seriousness with which he took both religion and poetry that his shift from the dense linguistic structures and typology of...
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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 to operate.
The language of Aeschylus is dense and difficult, full of striking word-coinages which, even if literally rendered, can evoke a frisson in the modern reader…. This would seem attractive to Lowell's own style. But his version is a deliberate stripping down of the poetic diction. Whereas Lattimore has both the courage and skill to render those Aeschylean metaphors, Lowell has systematically excised them. The result is a playable drama about Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Orestes, but an oddly prosaic one. Lowell has produced a muted Lattimore, a literary curiosity like I. A. Richards's Wrath of Achilles.
In terms of scene construction and dialogue, Aeschylus was the least dramatic...
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