The Letters of Robert Lowell
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 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...
(The entire section is 1715 words.)