Thursday, December 04, 2008

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell (1917-1977) is a great poet worthy of study.

The following is excerpted from the Poetry Foundation's online entry regarding Robert Lowell:

Lowell said in the "Afterthought" to Notebook 1967-1968 that "in truth I seem to have felt mostly the joys of living; in remembering, in recording, thanks to the gift of the Muse, it is the pain." A poetry of scrupulous self-examination, Lowell's work, as Vereen M. Bell declares in Robert Lowell: Nihilist as Hero, "is identifiable by nothing so much as its chronic and eventually systematic pessimism"; indeed, says Bell, "whatever spirit of affirmation that we think we perceive in Lowell's work we must always suspect ourselves of projecting upon it." Furthermore, in Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell, Alan Williamson observes that "Lowell's vision of civilization—being a product both of the man he is and of the time he lives in—is particular, painful, and dark. It is redeemed neither by . . . faith that an adequate, if authoritarian, utopia may have existed in the past, nor by a revolutionary's faith that one can be abstractly yet accurately designed for the future. Consequently, Lowell must necessarily leave more questions of value, of cause and responsibility, of fundamental 'human nature' open to poetic inquiry than did his nearest predecessors. But it is this very appalling fundamentalness of Lowell's questions, combined with his honesty about historical terror, that make him a modern epic poet."

Lowell was an epic poet as well in the scope and greatness of his poetry. He addressed large questions, and he used a multiplicity of forms and styles in his continuing quest, which his friend Peter Taylor describes in a 1979 Ploughshares essay as a search for "a oneness in himself and a oneness in the world." "This is how he must always be remembered," Taylor says, "one moment playful to the point of violent provocation, the next in profound contemplation of the great mystery: What does life mean? What is it all about?"

Visit the Poetry Foundation's entry to read the full article. The URL is

I don't know what it's all about, but I believe it is both easier and more fruitful to consider the question "What is my life all about?" Earlier in the same article, we get the idea that "[Lowell's] art and his life were inseparably intertwined, and he believed firmly in the identity of self and language." What I take away from this is that Lowell, as a poet, was ambitious. As a poet, I believe there is value in considering the nature of that ambition. What did Lowell hope to achieve?

The notion of intertwining self and language brings to mind Harold Bloom's assertion in his Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human: "Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us." That is, after the characters Hamlet and Falstaff and others were invented, we are able to see ourselves in ways that previously we were not able to see. I think it's an interesting argument and one worth considering and talking about, but let me make a remark about Twelfth Night and then I'll get back to Lowell - by way of Shakespeare.

Few would argue that
Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's greatest plays. But this play has no Hamlet or Falstaff. Who speaks of Viola, star of Twelfth Night, as one of Shakespeare's greatest characters? So what is it that makes the play so highly regarded?
Now, let's see if I can bring us back to Robert Lowell. Act Two, Scene Five of Twelfth Night features the following thought, voiced by minor characters playing a joke: "Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them." See if, after reading the following quote from Edward Byrne's essay, you don't agree with me that Lowell not only achieved greatness but was born great.

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.

Visit One Poet's Notes to read Byrne's article in full. The URL is

Another nice article is at Slate magazine. The article focuses on Lowell's Collected Poems.

The highest praise for Lowell's poetry I've found online is at the Poets dot org website. The URL is

Lowell's book Life Studies (1959) was awarded the National Book Award in 1960. Read a poem from that book, "Skunk Hour", at the Poets dot org website.

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