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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




Robert Lowell was born in Boston on March 1, 1917 to a Massachusetts family well positioned in New England society and already rich in literary tradition, including two prominent authors among his ancestors—Amy Lowell and James Russell Lowell. Robert Lowell’s personal heritage as a writer was enhanced when upon the recommendation of Allen Tate he appeared as a young man at Kenyon College eagerly seeking to learn the poetic craft from John Crowe Ransom, Tate’s one-time teacher. Following his graduation from Kenyon in 1940, Lowell pursued graduate work at Louisiana State University under the guidance of two other highly-regarded literary personalities associated with the New Critics and their notions about how a poem’s composition or its reception by readers should be discerned: Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren.
    Clearly, Robert Lowell’s first couple of poetry collections, Land of Unlikeness (1944) along with the subsequent volume titled Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), display characteristics developed under the direction of those formidable figures who helped shape his early writing. As Frank Bidart explains in his introduction to Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems: “What most people think of as his first book, Lord Weary’s Castle, is not a ‘revision’ of Land of Unlikeness—less than a quarter of it transforms material from the earlier book—but it is, I think, the book that Land of Unlikeness wanted to be.” Lord Weary’s Castle quickly achieved critical praise and proved a successful introduction into the literary world for Robert Lowell when that volume was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1947.
    The young poet was lauded for his precisely wrought formal poems, heavily metrical lines with meaty language often presented in a tightly wound syntax that seemed knotted by metaphors or similes. Already, some critics began to view Lowell as an ascending star, perhaps a major poet whose style would solidify an approach to poetry they appreciated. However, when his follow-up book of poetry, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, appeared in 1951 to a mixed reception by critics, some of whom had held higher expectations for the new work, Lowell’s disappointment may have caused him to pause for reconsideration of his writing style. Indeed, for various reasons, eight years would pass before Lowell’s next collection, Life Studies, was published in the spring of 1959.
    During the 1950s Lowell experienced traumatic personal incidents and impacting professional instances forcing self-reflection. Both of his parents died during this decade. The poet was troubled by a series of mental breakdowns, which at times required hospitalization and therapy, including an exercise in which he conducted a review of his life through the writing of a prose narrative exploring his childhood and submerged feelings about family members. In addition, his marriage to second wife Elizabeth Hardwick, whom he had married in 1949, had undergone difficulties.
    At the same time, when Lowell looked at the evolving poetry scene in the United States during the 1950s, he began to recognize some changes that intrigued him. He heard the poetry of Allen Ginsberg—whose forceful poem, “Howl,” had been published in 1956. Lowell also observed the new emotionally open poetry of one of his students, W.D. Snodgrass—whose wonderful manuscript, Heart’s Needle, would be published in 1959 and beat out Lowell’s Life Studies for the Pulitzer Prize. Adding these influences to his admittedly increased admiration for the work of William Carlos Williams and his growing friendship with Elizabeth Bishop, as well as Lowell’s own enjoyment when reading autobiographical poems that were more readily accessible to audiences, Robert Lowell chose to revise his poetic voice, remaking the style with which he’d achieved so much success.
    Throughout the 1950s, in letters to fellow writers—such as Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Peter Taylor—Robert Lowell expressed confidence in his conscious effort to separate from the old style of poetry that readers recognized, and he suggested he was convinced the new work would surpass what he had previously produced. In his biography of the poet, Ian Hamilton quotes a note Lowell wrote to Taylor in 1958: “I’m in the fine mood of an author with a new style and feel nothing else I’ve ever done counts.”
    Although a few of the poems eventually released in Life Studies were begun in drafts as formal verse, Lowell transformed his poetry before the book’s appearance, and an altered voice—more autobiographical, loosely lyrical, intimate, vulnerable, and plain spoken—signaled a new beginning. In fact, Lowell seemed to borrow effective elements evident in his reflective prose memoir, “91 Revere Street,” which he included among the poems of Life Studies. Initial reactions to the poet’s dramatic transition in style varied; however, a number of critics—including his former guide, Allen Tate—felt somewhat betrayed by Lowell’s shift.
    After its release, much discussion and some mounting debate about the pieces in Life Studies created a split among readers of American poetry. Responses ranged from a welcoming of this novel tack in contemporary poetry to calls of outrage from some who were surprised, even shocked, by its content and presentation. Among those who decried Lowell’s new direction, M.L. Rosenthal declared the transparent style “confessional,” which he meant to be read as a disparaging label, and a term which Lowell rejected.
    Nevertheless, Life Studies was awarded the National Book Award in 1960. Within his acceptance speech Robert Lowell acknowledged the ongoing evolution of American poetry, which he felt lent energy to it, and the conflicting views with which it may now be characterized by suggesting two categories or schools of thought, “a cooked and a raw”:

Our modern American poetry has a snarl on its hands. Something earth-shaking was started about fifty years ago by the generation of Eliot, Frost, and William Carlos Williams. We have had a run of poetry as inspired, and perhaps as important and sadly brief as that of Baudelaire and his successors, or that of the dying Roman Republic and early Empire. Two poetries are now competing, a cooked and a raw. The cooked, marvelously expert, often seems laboriously concocted to be tasted and digested by a graduate seminar. The raw, huge blood-dripping gobbets of unseasoned experience are dished up for midnight listeners. There is a poetry that can only be studied, and a poetry that can only be declaimed, a poetry of pedantry, and a poetry of scandal. I exaggerate, of course. Randall Jarrell has said that the modern world has destroyed the intelligent poet’s audience and given him students. James Baldwin has said that many of the beat writers are as inarticulate as our statesmen.

Writing is neither transport nor technique. My own owes everything to a few of our poets who have tried to write directly about what mattered to them, and yet to keep faith with their calling’s tricky, specialized, unpopular possibilities for good workmanship. When I finished Life Studies, I was left hanging on a question mark. I am still hanging there. I don’t know whether it is a death-rope or a life-line.

    With the awarding of a National Book Award to Lowell for Life Studies and a Pulitzer Prize to Snodgrass for Heart’s Needle in 1960, the start of this fresh decade also may have marked a new beginning for many American poets. Scores of young authors soon sought to emulate Lowell’s style in their writing. Even a number of other poets whose paths had originated with traditional writing in formal patterns eventually followed Lowell’s example by drifting toward free verse with more loosely arranged language and more obviously autobiographical content.
    The publication of Life Studies—what Robert Lowell considered a great gamble, not knowing “whether it is a death-rope or a life-line”—has resulted in his signature contribution, perhaps the single most persuasive book of poetry in the last half of the twentieth century, one that has at least partially identified an entire literary age of American poetry. In Robert Lowell’s Life and Work: Damaged Grandeur, Richard Tillinghast’s compelling analysis of the poet’s work, he describes the artistic accomplishment of Life Studies: “He demonstrated a command of literary architectonics that would put most writers to shame. At the same time, he achieved a readable style unlike that of any other poet. While taking advantage of the spontaneity and resourcefulness of free verse, his poems retain the resonance and memorability of rhyme and meter. Life Studies remains his highest achievement.”
    This spring, on the occasion representing the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Life Studies, readers may pay homage to Robert Lowell and his influence (for better or, as some still might argue, for worse) over the last half-century of American poetry. In revisiting his poetry, we again will witness the legacy Lowell has left us when he chose to move in a different direction. We will once more remember how this decision has impacted generations of Americans who have written poetry since then, many perhaps as creators of what Gregory Orr has called “the postconfessional lyric” in an essay bearing that title.
    As Orr explains, poetry written after the new investigations of self by Lowell—along with Snodgrass, Ginsberg, Sexton, Berryman, and Plath—and produced throughout the latter decades of the twentieth century, as well as now in the opening decade of the twenty-first century, has displayed itself to be “a variant on the autobiographical dramatic lyric.” He suggests much of the contemporary poetry written in America might be labeled “postconfessional,” work that continues to extend and expand “the implications of the original confessional enterprise.” More importantly, Gregory Orr hints at an essential element in Lowell’s Life Studies that has helped it become so crucial to understanding subsequent avenues traveled by later poets. Orr writes that the postconfessional poets seek to “bring lyric strategies to bear on autobiographical material.”
    Consequently, as readers today remember the lyrics of Lowell’s Life Studies produced fifty years ago, they might also observe the many ways in which much of today’s poetry resembles those early explorations of self through thoughtful reflection and frank language, an examining of one’s personal situation by a focus on evocative images or exact details. They might recall those words written about Lowell’s Life Studies by Helen Vendler in her essay, “The Difficult Grandeur of Robert Lowell”: “It was not the confessions that made Life Studies so memorable; it was rather the quality of memory indelibly imprinted, a brilliance of detail almost unconsciously preserved in a store of words perpetually refreshed.”
    Since Robert Lowell expressed displeasure with the “confessional” label with which he had been burdened, he most likely would be pleased to see readers appreciating him for his distinct ability to depict dramatic personal incidents or troubling instances in his private life through an emphasis on his well-chosen words and compellingly phrased statements, valuing his poetry not as much for the chronicle of a troubled life lived with personal difficulties but for the innovative stylistic devices and impressive illuminating studies of that life in lasting lines of lyrical inquiry.

© by Edward Byrne


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