The Letters of Robert Lowell

by Robert Lowell

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The Letters of Robert Lowell

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In a letter to Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell set out his theory of epistolary composition: “I think letters ought to be written the way you think poetry ought be. So let this be breezy, brief, incomplete, but spontaneous and not dishonestly holding back.” The sampling of letters that editor Saskia Hamilton has assembled reveals the virtues and flaws of this approach. Lowell is not among the great letter writers, such as John Keats or Virginia Woolf. Prose was not his preferred medium. As he wrote to his good friend Elizabeth Bishop on April 15, 1976, he was having trouble composing an obituary on the philosopher Hannah Arendt because he felt “naked without my end-lines.” Nonetheless, this volume of letters offers insights into Lowell’s attitude toward poetry, his own life, and his attitudes toward other writers. Often, too, the writing is good fun.

This anthology begins with a letter dated May 2, 1936, which Lowell, an undergraduate at Harvard University, sent to Ezra Pound. Already one sees Lowell’s dedication to the craft of poetry: He asks Pound to take him on as an apprentice. Pound refused, but this letter began a lifelong friendship grounded in mutual admiration. In the late 1950’s Pound would tell Harry Meacham that Lowell was the best poet and the best human being in America. Lowell repeatedly visited Pound while the elder poet was being held in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. After World War II, Pound was a controversial figure because of the radio broadcasts he had made for Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime. When Random House thought about dropping Pound from its Anthology of Famous English and American Poetry (1946), Lowell informed the publisher that if Pound’s work was removed, Lowell wanted his own deleted as well. Bennett Cerf, the president of Random House, relented.

The letters also show that Lowell was not, however, uncritical of the older writer. Pound was notoriously anti-Semitic, while Lowell had Jewish relatives. Pound had supported fascism; Lowell was a liberal (though he shunned being labeled anything). Even Pound’s poetry was not immune to Lowell’s criticism. Lowell found The Pisan Cantos (1948) excellent in places but overlong, an opinion which he expressed to Pound and others.

At the age of nineteen Lowell wrote to the poet Richard Eberhart that only “an etymological fanatic armed with a Websters dictionary” could get through Eberhart’s “Alphabet Book” (1936). He was unflattering about Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza (1936), which he found unreadable. In the previously cited letter to Ginsberg, Lowell made clear that he did not care for that poet’s approach to the craft, nor for Beat poetry in general.

At least in the selection that Hamilton presents here, though, Lowell appears for the most part generous and gracious. He repeatedly expresses his admiration for the work of Bishop, Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, William Carlos Williams, Philip Larkin, William Empson, Adrienne Rich, Ted Hughes, John Berryman, Flannery O’Connor, and others. Even when his friend Allen Tate objected to Lowell and others about Lowell’s turning to free verse, Lowell replied kindly to the older poet’s strictures. However difficult Lowell may have been in person, these letters at least make him seem altogether kind and considerate.

One sees repeatedly in the letters how Lowell also tried to provide concrete assistance to other writers. In a 1956 letter to Bishop, Lowell recounts trying to secure the prestigious Bollingen Prize in poetry for either her or Jarrell. When he was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (forerunner of the poet laureateship) he promoted the work of many fellow authors through recordings and readings. He...

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encouraged Bishop to join him at the artists’ colony of Yaddo. In a letter on January 18, 1949, Lowell recommended both Bishop and Jarrell to T. S. Eliot, editor at the British publishing house of Faber and Faber.

Lowell’s poems tend to brevity; many are sonnets, and most do not exceed a page. This same concision characterizes the letters presented here, which display Lowell’s epigrammatic skills. In a letter to Peter Taylor dated October 31, 1958, Lowell neatly encapsulates Allen Tate’s biography as an “endlessly picaresque and phallic life.” An earlier letter to Taylor shows the dissolute, decaying Dylan Thomas visiting the Iowa Writers’ Workshop: “dumpy, absurd body, hair combed by a salad spoon, brown-button Welsh eyes always moving suspiciously . . . a great explosion of life, and hell to handle.” In a letter to Bishop on November 29, 1953, Lowell relates Caitlin Thomas’s coming to New York in pursuit of her straying, dying husband. According to Lowell, Caitlin wanted both to murder and have sex with everyone she saw. His thumbnail sketch of Theodore Roethke captures the man in a sentence: “Poor thing, a mammoth, yet elfinlike, hairless, red-faced, beginning the day with a shot of bourbon, speechless except for shrewd quoted asidesbehind him nervous breakdown, before himwhat?”

Lowell could be equally good in writing about himself. Describing his life with Caroline Blackwood, his soon-to-be third wife, he writes to Peter Taylor on March 20, 1972, “The house is early eighteenth century Palladian, and very Old South messy, a just housebroken miniature dachshund, about a thousand children, numerous, very unreliable, even dangerous, Old South help, strangely dressed.” He is always amusing when he describes the life and adventures of Harriet, the daughter he had with his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. One senses from these letters that the hardest part of his divorce from Hardwick was the rift that it created between Lowell and his daughter.

Lowell’s poetry was confessional; this collection sheds even more light on his inner and outer life. An early letter to his parents anticipates Lowell’s lifelong serial infatuation with a variety of women. On August 9, 1936, he sent his mother and father the sort of letter some parents have nightmares about receiving. Lowell states that Harvard is a waste of time; he sees no reason to get a job as the family has plenty of money; and he’s going to marry his cousin (Anne Dick) even though his parents object.

Lowell did leave Harvard, but the next year he met the poet John Crowe Ransom, whom he followed to Kenyon College. In June, 1940, his parents received some welcome news: Lowell had graduated from Kenyon summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, with highest honors in classics, and valedictorian. He even had a job at Louisiana State University. His relationship with Dick had ended in 1937; in April of 1940 Lowell married Jean Stafford.

This marriage ended in 1946, though the divorce proceedings dragged on for two years. The letters trace the difficult negotiations, as they do the later divorce from Hardwick, whom he married in 1949. Between Stafford and Hardwick, Lowell had affairs with Gertrude Buckman and Carly Dawson. Buckman was eager to marry him, but on February 19, 1948, Lowell wrote to her that he was not ready for another marriage. A month later he was writing to Dawson, asking to marry her. Throughout his more than twenty-year marriage to Hardwick he repeatedly would announce that the two were about to divorce and that he was planning to wed someone else. Often these infatuations were linked to his manic attacks, for which he was hospitalized many times. (An early hint of the onset of these illnesses was Lowell’s writing large numbers of letters in a single day.) Even after affairs ended, Lowell often corresponded with and befriended his paramours.

Lowell’s ability to remain on good terms with women after the end of a romance (or marriage) is nowhere more evident than in his relationship with Bishop as charted in these letters. In the summer of 1948, Lowell and Dawson visited Bishop in Maine. The Lowell-Dawson affair ended, and Lowell wrote to friends that he was planning to marry Bishop. While Bishop was to have a long-term lesbian relationship, she had also had affairs with men, though never with Lowell. At Yaddo that year, Lowell and Bishop quarreled, and in 1950 Bishop moved to Brazil with her partner. A decade later, Lowell and Bishop were together again in New England, though Bishop left after a few days when Lowell grew amorous, the effect of another manic attack. Yet for the next twenty years the two remained the best of friends and correspondents.

Disappointingly, Lowell wrote little about his own poetic theory or practice. He much admired the letters of the nineteenth century poet John Keats, but he did not imitate their insights into the life of writing. Still, he does make clear how important writing is to him. He tells Bishop on July 2, 1948, that nothing is as real to him as writing, and nearly thirty years later he notes that an entire day can vanish unnoticed when he is engaged in creating poetry. In an October 10, 1961, letter to Isabella Gardner, then married to Allen Tate, Lowell observes that writing is hell, but that there is always the surprise, the discovery of the unexpected. The next year he relates to Bishop that one surprise is his writing in strict meter, despite his theories about how poetry should be written. Later one sees him reflect on his turn to freer, and free, verse. Like any good writer, Lowell was an inveterate reviser; the letters show his wrestling with that hardest of all tasks, getting the words right.

This edition of letters is not without its flaws. While the 711 letters cover 670 pages, they also cover forty-one years, or fewer than 20 letters per year. This is a book of letters, not of a correspondence, and the notes often fail to include the letter or letters to which Lowell is responding. Indeed, the notes are deficient overall. One often turns to the back of the book for information only to find it unenlightening. Readers are sometimes referred to a manuscript at Harvard or Yale or told no more about a work than its date. A separate section of brief biographies of correspondents and others mentioned would be useful. People usually are identified in the notes when they first appear, but few readers are likely to read the letters from beginning to end or to remember where a name first occurred should they want to be reminded of a person’s identity. Still, anyone interested in Lowell or in the literary scene of the mid-twentieth century United States will welcome this collection.

Bibliography

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Booklist 101, no. 14 (March 15, 2005): 1258.

Harper’s Magazine 311 (July, 2005): 92-98.

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The New York Review of Books 52, no. 11 (June 23, 2005): 4-10.

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The Times Literary Supplement, September 9, 2005, pp. 3-5.

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