When he died at the age of sixty in 1977, Robert Lowell had published only one widely known piece of prose, the autobiographical “91 Revere Street,” an unblinkered, unflattering, and yet oddly affecting scrutiny of his Brahmin-yet-embarrassing upbringing in Boston during the 1920’s. While Lowell did contribute an occasional review, particularly in the earlier part of his career, he was in no danger of being taken for, or compared with, the brainy poet-critics he so obviously surpassed in the intensity and architecture of his poetry, Randall Jarrell and John Berryman—both friends of Lowell (and the subjects of essays in this volume). Yet the pieces collected here, admirably edited by Robert Giroux, reveal for the first time the extent to which Lowell was a critic of astute insight, as well as a master of American prose, a prose filled with enough wildly surprising and knowing evaluations and asides to put whole schools of academic critics to shame.
Giroux divides the Collected Prose into three parts. The first consists essentially of reviews and occasional pieces, the earliest being a 1943 paean for the just-published Four Quartets, the most recent a 1974 eulogy of John Crowe Ransom. There are also essays on Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Yvor Winters, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Penn Warren, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Andrei Voznesensky, and Sylvia Plath, as well as essays on the poems of critic I. A. Richards and of novelist Ford Madox Ford. There is also a charming and characteristically self-deprecating remembrance of his first visit to the Allen Tates, when, misinterpreting his hostess’ remark that there was no room for an unannounced guest unless he “pitched a tent,” Lowell, with “adolescent heedlessness,” traveled to Nashville, returned with a Sears, Roebuck umbrella tent, and pitched it for a watershed summer.
In assessments that are as nervously precise as they are respectful and at times reverent, Lowell’s method is to dart directly to the poet’s “matter” and then to spiral back, hastily nailing in qualifying planks and historical handrails that will constitute a stairway. In addition, it is characteristic of Lowell, with his wide personal acquaintanceship and affinity for biography, to punctuate his criticism with ad hominem comments meant to enlarge and enrich the image of the creator focused beneath the lens. He could familiarize the peripatetic, cosmopolitan Ford effortlessly to American imaginations as a “large, unwieldy, wheezy, unwell” man who “looked somehow like a British version of the Republican elephant,” and shake the wool off Robert Frost by observing, “He was almost a farmer. Yet under the camouflage there was always the Brahma crouching, a Whitman, a great-mannered bard.” An early essay on Stevens recognizes what is surely an unspoken caveat for many—especially American—readers, who have come to expect at least a whiff of the midnight oil, if not of scandal and self-torment, from their poets: “There seems to be something in the poet that protects itself by asserting that it is not making too much of an effort.” In a later piece, a more mature and fellow-feeling Lowell grants Stevens the largeness and originality whose presence renders niggling pointless. He was “a large poet with the ear of Shakespeare” who could “express the inexpressible and loosen the constriction of sense.” “The constriction of sense” is a fine and far-reaching phrase that tilts at the empirical bias manifest in the judgments of art’s self-appointed gendarmes during the twentieth century.
One of the handsomer essays in this section, on John Crowe Ransom, works from within the matrix of Lowell’s tutorial association with the Agrarians, while reflecting the critical distance that subsequent years and influences—particularly that of Williams—were to build. Certainly one of the central questions concerning Ransom the poet, as opposed to Ransom the doyen of the New Criticism, has to do with the poet’s stingy output. We have only the slight Selected Poems (1974) and that to a debatable extent vitiated by the poet’s “revisions” of an earlier Selected Poems (1963). While finding some of the revisions “disastrous,” Lowell points out that not all are so, as the first, influential reviewers suggested. (In an interview with Frederick Seidel collected here, Lowell, asked if he revises much, answers “Endlessly.”) He sees a virtue in the ability of Ransom’s poems “to stick apart; and refuse to melt into their neighbors. They seem few until one tries to discover as many in some favorite, more voluminous author.” Of their whole significance, Lowell concludes, “Man goes creased and sometimes finds a puzzling joy.”
If Tate and Ransom were Lowell’s early mentors, whose influence can be seen to preside over the burled, tortured, seven-layered early poems, William Carlos Williams can be credited with providing Lowell with a looser structure and more off-the-cuff technique, one more suited to negotiating the autobiographical left-turn the poet made in the 1950’s. Lowell’s sensible and schematic reading of Paterson (1946-1958) before his actual correspondence and friendship with the good doctor shows an awareness of that ambitious poet’s need to fashion a homemade American oeuvre based on a dovetailing of his own experience and his reading of the cranky, prolix American colossi who lurk intimidatingly at the beginning of American literature. Citing analogies in William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850), Lowell finds Williams on the trail of his own American myth, according to which “we must unavoidably place ourselves in our geography, history, civilization, institutions, and future.” Yet, he admits, “How hollow, windy, and inert this [the American myth] would have seemed to an imaginative man of another culture!” On the other hand, “America is something immense, crass, and Roman.” Williams’ insight, which would in turn be taken up in the postwar Lowellian cosmos, is into “Whitman’s America, grown pathetic and tragic, brutalized by inequality,...