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 The Ocean.
That certain of the poems in Part Three of Life Studies were "originally written in prose" and then "put into verse" would hardly surprise many readers. In "My Last Afternoon With Uncle Devereux Winslow," for instance, whole passages have a leisurely, discursive quality that lacks even the normal tension of well-written prose…. It is a flat, prosaic language, lacking the syntactical complexity and energy of the earlier poems, just as it lacks their damaging ambiguity. The poetic effect—if it can be said to generate one—stems from the occasional use of internal rhyme and from the random accumulation of assorted information: almost a collage of the poet's memories of childhood. Unfortunately, this collage does not create any continuous tension, so that even when … figurative language suggests an organising metaphor for the whole experience described in the poem, so slackly has the poem worked towards its conclusion that we cannot feel that any true knowledge, any living sense of experience, has been transmitted. Not only does there appear to be no poetic logic behind the choice of line lengths, or behind the random selection of detail presumably intended to be representative of whatever effect the poems are working towards; not only does the technique fail utterly to generate any sense of moral urgency of significance; but the very flatness of the language leaves one with a strong suspicion that Lowell has merely sought to make verses out of his prose material simply in order to have sufficient poems to fill a volume.
The interesting point about Life Studies, however, is not that Lowell seems to have made public his own worksheets, but that out of these experiments, perhaps because of them, he has been able to write a handful of what I judge to be his finest poems. There seems to me to be no doubt that with "Waking In The Blue," "Memories of West Street And Lepke," "Man And Wife" and "To Speak Of The Woe That Is In Marriage" Lowell established himself as the major American poet writing in English since the war, and that this achievement has come—at least in part—out of the conflict between formalism and free verse: a technical conflict reflecting the moral consciousness.
In a poem such as "Waking In The Blue," one has the direct evocation of time and place that is characteristic of the best of Lowell. Like all great lyric poets, he is at his best when isolating the particularity of some momentary experience, whatever the wider significances of...
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