Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell was born in 1917 into one of Boston's oldest and most prominent families. He attended Harvard College for two years before transferring to Kenyon College, where he studied poetry under John Crowe Ransom and received an undergraduate degree in 1940. He took graduate courses at Louisiana State University where he studied with Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks. His first and second books, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary's Castle (for which he received a Pulitzer Prize in 1947, at the age of thirty), were influenced by his conversion from Episcopalianism to Catholicism and explored the dark side of America's Puritan legacy. Under the influence of Allen Tate and the New Critics, he wrote rigorously formal poetry that drew praise for its exceptionally powerful handling of meter and rhyme. Lowell was politically involved—he became a conscientious objector during the Second World War and was imprisoned as a result, and actively protested against the war in Vietnam—and his personal life was full of marital and psychological turmoil. He suffered from severe episodes of manic depression, for which he was
repeatedly hospitalized.

Partly in response to his frequent breakdowns, and partly due to the influence of such younger poets as W. D. Snodgrass and Allen Ginsberg, Lowell in the mid-fifties began to write more directly from personal experience, and loosened his adherence to traditional meter and form. The result was a watershed collection, Life Studies (1959), which forever changed the landscape of modern poetry, much as Eliot's The Waste Land had three decades before. Considered by many to be the most important poet in English of the second half of the twentieth century, Lowell continued to develop his work with sometimes uneven results, all along defining the restless center of American poetry, until his sudden death from a heart attack at age 60.
Excerpted from http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/10 accessed 3/2/2009

Skunk Hour
by Robert Lowell

for Elizabeth Bishop


Nautilus Island's hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son's a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village,
she's in her dotage.

Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria's century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.

The season's ill--
we've lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall,
his fishnet's filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler's bench and awl,
there is no money in his work,
he'd rather marry.

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull,
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind's not right.

A car radio bleats,
'Love, O careless Love . . . .' I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat . . . .
I myself am hell,
nobody's here--

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes' red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.

I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air--
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.

From http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15279 accessed 3/2/2009

The first four stanzas are meant to give a dawdling more or less amiable picture of a declining Maine sea town. I move from the ocean inland. Sterility howls through the scenery, but I try to give a tone of tolerance, humor, and randomness to the sad prospect. The composition drifts, its direction sinks out of sight into the casual, chancy arrangements of nature and decay. Then all comes alive in stanzas V and VI. This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember St. John of the Cross's poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan, and agnostical. An Existentialist night.

From "On Skunk Hour," in Robert Lowell: A Collection of Critical
Essays, ed. Thomas Parkinson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall,
1968),131-132.
From http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/lowell/skunk.htm
accessed 3/2/2009


Dark Night
by St. John of the Cross

subsequent commentary by
Ivan M. Granger

(Songs of the soul delighted at having reached the high state of
perfection, the union with God, by way of spiritual negation.)

On a darkened night,
Anxious, by love inflamed,
-- O happy chance! --
Unnoticed, I took flight,
My house at last at peace and quiet.

Safe, disguised by the night,
By the secret ladder I took flight,
-- O happy chance! --
Cloaked by darkness, I scaled the height,
My house at last at peace and quiet.

On that blessed night,
In secret, and seen by none,
None in sight,
I saw with no other guide or light,
But the one burning in my heart bright.

This guide, this light,
Brighter than the midday sun,
Led me to the waiting One
I knew so well -- my delight!
To a place with none in sight.

O night! O guide!
O night more loving than the dawn!
O night that joined
The lover with the Beloved;
Transformed, the lover into the Beloved drawn!

Upon my flowered breast,
For him alone kept fair,
There he slept
There I caressed,
There the cedars gave us air.

I drank the turret's cool air
Spreading playfully his hair.
And his hand, so serene,
Cut my throat. Drained
Of senses, I dropped unaware.

Lost to myself and yet remaining,
Inclined so only the Beloved I spy.
All has ceased, all rests,
Even my cares, even I;
Lost among the lilies, there I die.



Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

This is one of my favorite poems by the great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross. It touches on so many important metaphors of sacred poetry: darkness, light, a secret ladder, the heart, the joining of lover and Beloved, silence, and death of the little self. Let's take a look at
just a few of these themes...

Although mystics often experience the Divine as a radiant, all permeating light, sometimes God is described in terms of night or darkness.

On a darkened night...

Night is the great Mystery, the unknown. Darkness is the place of secrets. It is the time of sleep, rest, peace. We drop all of our activities and turn inward.

Because nighttime is associated with sleep and, by analogy, death, it can also represent the time when the ego sleeps and most easily can "die" or fade away. The ego is less in charge at night, less demanding that its every desire be instantly met. The busy mind is less active, more likely to be at rest.

Night is the time when lovers meet, when the soul meets its Divine Beloved.

Darkness, like God, envelops everything in its embrace. It is in the darkness of night that all things become one, losing their individuality as they disappear into that mystery. Nighttime is the time of nondual awareness, when dichotomies and artificial notions of separation fade.

John of the Cross is particularly known for speaking of "the dark night of the soul." This is not so much a reference to the experience of the Divine as mentioned above, but a preliminary state. Prior to experiences of union, the soul loses its orientation, where worldly distractions seem pointless, but the blissful fulfillment of divine union hasn't yet been experienced. This can be a period of confusion, being "anxious," a period of intense spiritual thirst, and a feeling of blindness that is the equivalent of trying to find one's way in the dark. But that too can be an important stage of the journey that indicates the nearness of the sacred goal, not its distance.

Yet in this "blessed night," John of the Cross discovers light. This is not just any light but an overpowering radiance, "Brighter than the midday sun."

For genuine mystics, light is not a mere concept or metaphor; it is directly experienced. This light is perceived as being a living radiance that permeates everything, everywhere, always. This light is immediately understood to be the true source of all things, the foundation on which the physicality of the material world is built.

The sense of boundaries and separation, long taken for granted by the mind as the fundamental nature of existence, suddenly seems illusory, for this light shines through all people and things. It has no edges, and the light of one is the light of another.

This light is recognized as your own Self, while simultaneously being the Self of all others. Since this light is you and, at the same time, it radiates within all, the question arises: How can there be separation? conflict? loss?

This is how John proceeds so boldly from the experience of light to union, the sacred marriage, "Transformed, the lover into the Beloved drawn!"

And what about death? Why does he startle us by shifting from the ecstasy of union to death? "And his hand, so serene, / Cut my throat. / Drained of senses, I dropped unaware."

Without understanding of this imagery, it can sound as if every mystic and saint has some strange death wish.

In deep ecstasy, the sense of individuality, the sense of "I" thins and can completely disappear. Though you may still walk and breathe and talk, there is no "you" performing these actions. The separate identity, the ego, disappears, to be replaced by a vast, borderless sense of Self. Suddenly, who you have always thought yourself to be vanishes and, in its place, stands a radiant being whose boundaries are no longer perceived in terms of flesh or space.

Lost to myself and yet remaining,
Inclined so only the Beloved I spy.

It is this experience, this complete shedding of the limited ego, that is the death so eagerly sought by mystics throughout time.

All has ceased, all rests,
Even my cares, even I;
Lost among the lilies, there I die.

From
http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/J/JohnoftheCro/DarkNight.htm
Accessed 3/2/2009



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