Day by Day
In a poem called “Our Afterlife I,” Robert Lowell tells his old friend, fiction writer Peter Taylor, “This year killed/ Pound, Wilson, Auden . . . / promise has lost its bloom.” Later, in “Our Afterlife II,” he observes that “even cows seem transitory” and “The old boys drop like wasps / from windowsill and pane.” This book is valedictory; intimations of mortality crowd the pages—not allusions to death in the abstract but a deep-gut sense of things passing away. Lowell will not prettify the process of aging and death. In a poem near the end of the collection, he makes “Thanks-Offering for Recovery” and considers taking with him to church a grotesque shrunken head. But he doubts any church would accept the head, and concludes the poem: “This winter, I thought / I was created to be given away.”
Lowell’s death in a taxicab between Kennedy Airport and Manhattan on September 12, 1977, lends poignance to Day by Day, in which the reader often sees the poet at airports—leaving someone, or being left, escaping his native Boston, or returning to it. In retrospect, Lowell’s entire career seems predicated on almost equally strong desires to escape and deny, on the one hand, and to return and affirm, on the other.
Since 1944, Robert Lowell has published no fewer than seventeen books, including plays and translations. During that time, he has refused to be shelved, demurely, as befitted a Boston Lowell; instead, his political activism often attracted the glare of public notice. In 1943, he was sentenced to prison for violation of the Selective Service Act. In 1965, he publicly refused an invitation to the White House, because, as he said, artists “cannot enjoy public celebration without making subtle public commitments.” He admitted his “dismay and distrust” of American foreign policy in 1965, and in December, 1968, the Justice Department included him with other intellectuals suspected of conspiracy against the draft. In January, 1968, Lowell had been refused a visa to attend a Cuban Cultural Conference, because, as a passport official said, “We did not believe it was in the interest of the United States. . . .”
Nevertheless, Lowell’s poems rarely treat politics overtly and directly. His chief concern has seemed to be reconciling the dream with the reality of twentieth century American life, and, on occasion, his work has satisfied even the demands of patriotism. When Lowell, in Day by Day, asks how often his antics, his “unsupportable, trespassing tongue” have “gone astray and led me to prison . . . / to lying . . . kneeling . . . standing,” he recalls his public as well as his private life. The poem quoted, called “The Downlook,” celebrates the end, or at least the diminishment, of yet another of Lowell’s personal relationships. That poem comes close to starting the collection’s theme; “the downlook” between lovers leaves no greater happiness “than to turn back to recapture former joy.”
Many of the poems in Day by Day turn back, but they do not recapture any great amount of joy. They confront the same doubts and uncertainties, the same monsters from within, that have haunted Lowell’s verse almost from the start and have become more insistent since publication in 1959 of his famous Life Studies. By now, Lowell’s themes are familiar, for the so-called “Confessional School of Poets,” of which Lowell’s was an early and compelling voice, has come close to dominating contemporary verse. Confessional poets—W. D. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, and, of course Lowell—do not always show their readers either beauty or truth. They show themselves.
It would be inaccurate to sum up the confessional poets under any single explanatory word or phrase. Alcoholism and mental disorder are as misleading as father-complex and existential despair. Still, when Lowell writes about reading an article on John Berryman, “as if recognizing my own obituary,” he establishes kinship with the author of the Dream Songs. The article, Lowell tells us in “Unwanted,” says Berryman’s mother, “not mine,” lacked an affectionate nature—“so he always loved what he missed.”
Lowell has said that his Life Studies resulted from his impatience with prose methods in an autobiography. To a major extent, he has been writing his autobiography ever since but without the transitions and sequential logic prose requires. In Day by Day, the poet’s earliest experiences find a place next to his present-day sensations. Poems about his fatherhood mingle with those about his uneasy sonhood. He addresses all three of his wives, apparently still wishing to understand the earlier relationships with fiction writer Jean Stafford and critic Elizabeth Hardwick as much as his latest marriage to Irish-born Caroline Blackwood. The book’s final section, dedicated to Caroline Blackwood, provides the book’s tentative sounding title. Some poems address her by name, but even those and others set in England, where he lived with her and their small children, betray the constant tug of the American scene which engrossed Lowell while it repulsed him.
(The entire section is 2144 words.)