Then Came A Departure

John Berryman (1914 – 1972)

“You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you’re merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that’s always easiest.”

John Berryman

Dream Songs 1

by John Berryman (1914 – 1972)

 

Huffy Henry hid    the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point,—a trying to put things over.
It was the thought that they thought
they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
But he should have come out and talked.

All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry’s side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don’t see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.

What he has now to say is a long
wonder the world can bear & be.
Once in a sycamore I was glad
all at the top, and I sang.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.


John Berryman and Robert Lowell met in 1944 at the suggestion of mutual friends and Lowell’s mother.   Each was still married to their first wives at the time and it was thought that their socializing as couples would do them both some good.   Ha!  It probably did, but maybe not the way mothers intend.  There are many similarities to their personal histories, temperaments, fierce intellect, vices and destructive personal decisions that it’s not a surprise they found enjoyment in one another’s company.   When you have a tendency towards leaning into a bit of insanity and have a mirror to that fracturing in a friendship with someone of the same self destructive inclinations, it can help bring respite and lucidity once in a while, in that at least you know you are not alone in your state of mind. 

Berryman did not grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. He succeeded in spite of his father’s betrayal. He succeeded on the sheer audacity of his talent and intellect. It does not mean that doors were not opened for him because he was white and male, but Berryman is a writer’s writer in my mind. Writing entirely consumed him as maybe the only thing that could keep him alive for as long as it did. Berryman died when he was 58, though he looks more like 78 at the end.

I will turn the same age this year. I have written before on Fourteenlines that I walked across the bridge that Berryman jumped to his death probably a 1,000 times as a young man, on my way from classes on the East bank to the glass studio in the fine arts building at the time on the West bank. In every one of those passages I was completely unaware of Berryman’s fate, his poetry not yet in my consciousness. Despite spending 12 years on the same campus, treading the same paths, entering the same buildings, eating at the same greasy diners, while getting an undergraduate degree and graduate degree, I did not have the good fortune to overlap with Berryman in being physically at the same place at the same time. Looking back, that bridge holds more meaning for me today as a metaphor for the life I have tried to navigate the past 40 years. On one side of my river I have a foundation in practicality, academics and the industriousness to make a living to support myself and my family. On the other side lies the buttress with my heart and soul; creativity and expression. Through the middle of it runs my own mighty Mississippi of time, my bridge just beneath its singular falls on its entire stretch from Minnesota to a gulf, a hypoxia zone where not enough oxygen exists. Unlike Berryman, I do not have the talent or the ego to earn a living from my passions and so I shall have to continue to cross that metaphorical bridge every day and enjoy its views.

I am fully conscious that I would be miserable if I tried to make a living as a writer or as an artist. I haven’t the talent or the ego and it would become a chore, versus the respite it is now. I have wondered, as I think about the men and women of letters, who managed to stay productive and thrive into old age, is it because they did not see writing as their profession; William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens but two examples? Or was writing always such a thrill that it never became a chore?

We will never know if writing kept Berryman and Lowell alive as long as it did, or whether winning Pulitzers, being crowned as “the” best, created such an unbearable weight of expectation to continue to be brilliant that it may have actually accelerated their own self destruction. Maybe Dickinson did it right? Fill your desk and dresser drawers with scraps of your brilliant self as postcards to your older self. Give your friends the best of your art in cards and thank you notes and gifts. Scatter your creativity throughout your house and those of your loved ones and don’t bother with putting it out there in the world beyond the reach of your own fingertips.

Almost every great poet is also a great translator. There are exceptions, but it is far too common to be a coincidence or a requirement. I have come to believe this tendency to translate is a solution to the problem of trying to be productive as an artist every day. Maybe there are people who can wake up every day with inspiration to write brilliantly? But I suspect, more people suffer from the same thing I observe in myself. Most days nothing comes of my efforts. Sometimes whole months or even a better part of a year goes by without my muse whispering in my ear. Writing is a craft as well as an art, and a writer that can wake up everyday and translate someone else’s brilliance, bringing it to a different mother tongue, that has yet to enjoy the satisfaction of the original poet’s humanity can feel productive and satisfied without the need to entirely create something on their own from nothing.

Lowell was an incredibly gifted translator. There is a silky smooth aspect to some of his translations, like the one below, that he rarely achieved with his own words, so much pent up emotions coursing through his veins, that it may have been impossible to find that level of calm when searching his own mind. Meditation is an example where the madness of Baudelaire is becalmed under the madness of Lowell and in its place resides a little pool of sonnet peace. Dive in!


Meditation

by Baudelaire
Translated by Robert Lowell

Calm down, my Sorrow, we must move with care.
You called for evening; it descends, it’s here.
The town is coffined in its atmosphere,
bringing relief to some, to others care.

Now while the common multitude strips bare,
feels pleasure’s cat o’nine tails on its back,
and fights off anguish at the great bazaar,
give me your hand, my Sorrow.  Let’s stand back;

back from these people!  Look, the dead years dressed
in old clothes crowd the balconies of the sky.
Regret emerges smiling from the sea,

the sick sun slumbers underneath an arch,
and like a shroud strung out form east to west,
listen, my Dearest, hear the sweet night march!

My Clumsiness Each Time I Try To Dance

Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966)

“Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.”

John Milton – Paradise Lost

Rome

By Joachim du Bellay
Translated by Ezra Pound 
 

O thou newcomer who seek’st Rome in Rome
And find’st in Rome no thing thou canst call Roman;
Arches worn old and palaces made common
Rome’s name alone within these walls keeps home.

Behold how pride and ruin can befall
One who hath set the whole world ’neath her laws,
All-conquering, now conquered, because
She is Time’s prey, and Time conquereth all.

Rome that art Rome’s one sole last monument,
Rome that alone hast conquered Rome the town,
Tiber alone, transient and seaward bent,

Remains of Rome. O world, thou unconstant mime!
That which stands firm in thee Time batters down,
And that which fleeteth doth outrun swift Time

Nouveau venu, qui cherches Rome en Rome
Et rien de Rome en Rome n’aperçois,
Ces vieux palais, ces vieux arcs que tu vois
Et ces vieux murs, c’est ce que Rome on nomme.

Vois quel orgueil, quelle ruine et comme
Celle qui mit le monde sous ses lois
Pour dompter tout, se dompta quelquefois
Et devint proie au temps, qui tout consomme.

Rome de Rome est le seul monument,
Et Rome Rome a vaincu seulement.
Le Tibre seul, qui vers la mer s’enfuit,

Reste de Rome. O mondaine inconstance !
Ce qui est ferme est par le temps détruit
Et ce qui fuit, au temps fait résistance.


Despite Lowell’s embrace of the true southern hospitality showed him by Tate, Warren and Ransom, Lowell was a Bostonian through and through. Though even he was a bit taken aback by the privileged life he grew up in and retained as an adult through his family’s Bostonian wealth, status and power, he never hesitated to embrace the safety net it provided.   There are the penniless loonies, like Pound, who get by in part through their eccentricity.  And then there are the wealthy eccentrics, who are tolerated because they have fuck you walking around money.   They can be as crazy as they want, and their community will accept it, because there is an unspoken bond among families, schools and businesses that are so intertwined in their community, that they have mutually decided its better to accept a few nut bars of their own choosing, as long as they can pay their bar tab and afford expensive psychiatrists and luxury mental hospitals in times of recovery when substance abuse gets out of control.  The field of psychiatry and the big business of treating mental illness and substance abuse largely evolved to serve the wealthy in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s.  During the hay day of Lowell’s drinking in the 1940’s, there was an acceptance of heavy drinking that was part of the culture within which he associated that covered up real insanity, with a ready excuse of bad behavior by individuals as  “just having had a few too many with the boys.”

Lowell had burned enough bridges in Boston with school mates, his father, and the upper crust of Bostonian society, that as a young adult and then throughout the rest of his life, he made New York more his adopted northern home.   He would spend long periods in New York, in between stints at various Universities, including one triumphant return to Harvard, and travel abroad.  Schwartz, who also came from money, but saw his inheritance squandered by a corrupt executor of his father’s estate, who died suddenly at age 49, was taken aback by the level of wealth and servants in Lowell’s parent’s household.  He was also shocked by the undertones of anti-Semitism that ran through the banter between Lowell and his parents during “pleasant” dining room conversation when he and Lowell would visit. 

Schwartz and Lowell were good friends, who palled around together in New York City in the 1940’s and early 1950’s when Lowell was in residence or visiting, during the high point in Schwartz’s career, when his books and poetry were being praised by Tate, Warren and others.  But writing careers are like chess games, there is an opening, a mid-game, and for the best, an end-game.  Schwartz had a clever opening and the start of a solid mid-game, but alcoholism and mental illness wore away his talents and opportunities, until even his brilliant conversational skills weren’t enough to keep his friends visiting him at his favorite bars in New York City.  He died penniless in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City at age 52.

Lowell’s dark side was in full display early in his marriage with Stafford.   There was a sense of obligation, from the car crash, that instantly began to erode its underpinnings and by 1945, Lowell was finding other female companionship to his liking better, if not for sex, at least for its pleasant diversion of company.  For someone known as a bit of prude, who didn’t counter rough talk and sex jokes among his male companions,  Lowell was unabashed in going through a series of lovers and female companions in the end stages of his marriage to Stafford.   By 1946 serious negotiations were ongoing between the two of them around dissolution through Lowell’s lawyer on what would be the financial alimony paid to Stafford in a divorce so that it could be finalized.  During this time from 1945 to 1948, Lowell and Stafford were married in name only.  Lowell used this time to travel, live in New York and then in 1947 and 1948, as the divorce was finalized, take on a position in Washington D. C. as a consultant to the Library of Congress, the post that would eventually be renamed as the position of United States Poet Laureate.   

It was during this time that Lowell lived in Washington, D. C. that he began visiting Ezra Pound in prison, who was being held on charges of treason at the Chestnut Ward at St. Elizabeths Hospital in southeast D.C.  Lowell, no stranger to mental institutions, though ones far nicer in creature comforts than St. Elizabeths, began visiting Pound for weekly conversations on poetry and literature. Lowell had always been fascinated by Pound. Lowell first contacted Pound via letter his freshmen year at College.  Pound, always a generous mentor and critic and fan of younger poets, had written back and so it is not surprising that Lowell seized this opportunity to further their friendship.

I am hopeful both men found solace in the acceptance of each other’s humanity.  As someone who is having to come to grips with the depths of his own demons, I can appreciate the generosity and dangers these types of friendships represent.  Friendships like Lowell had with both Schwartz and Pound, were the totality of their beings was not hidden, both the power of their artistic expression, the brilliance of their intellects and the brokenness of their souls, are on full display and tolerated, as friends, is a rare thing to find.   And I would hope, all three were the better for it, even if not spared from the best and the worst each brought to those relationships and their own lives.


Why Do You Write An Endless History

by Delmore Schwartz

“Why when you write do you most frequently
Look in your heart and stare at it both first
And last, half agonized by what you see
And half bemused, seeking what is accursed
Or blessed in the past? And what demand
Is gratified?” I answered, hesitant
And slow: “Because I wish to understand
The causes of each great and small event

Choosen, or like thrown dice, an accident,
-My clumsiness each time I try to dance,
My mother’s anger when I wore long pants,
Thus, as the light renews each incident,
My friends are free of guilt or I am free
Of self-accused responsibility.

The Dailiness of Life

lowell

“We poets in our youth begin in sadness; / thereof come in the end despondency and madness…

William Wordsworth

Well Water

by Randall Jarrell (1914 – 1965)

What a girl called “the dailiness of life”
(Adding an errand to your errand. Saying,
“Since you’re up . . .” Making you a means to
A means to a means to) is well water
Pumped from an old well at the bottom of the world.
The pump you pump the water from is rusty
And hard to move and absurd, a squirrel-wheel
A sick squirrel turns slowly, through the sunny
Inexorable hours. And yet sometimes
The wheel turns of its own weight, the rusty
Pump pumps over your sweating face the clear
Water, cold, so cold! you cup your hands
And gulp from them the dailiness of life.


Randall Jarrell’s and Robert Lowell’s friendship, I believe, as much influenced Robert’s Lowell’s success as a writer as any other individual.   Jarrell was finishing his undergraduate at Vanderbilt when Lowell arrived to live at Benfolly with the Tates.  That summer, John Crowe Ransom was being wooed by Kenyon College in Ohio to come turn their English program into a powerhouse and Ransom realized it would take more than him to turn Kenyon into an A league hub of literary activity, he would need bench strength.  So he recruited both Jarrell and Lowell to follow him, going so far as to let the  two of them live in the second floor of his house temporarily and then arranging for them to have comfortable student housing thereafter.

Jarrell and Lowell both spent several years at Kenyon, honing their literary talents, along with their room mate Peter Taylor.  Jarrell’s unique gift to Lowell was his ability to encourage and enjoy the poetry of his friend.   He was Lowell’s fan, biggest encourager, the person who reassured him he was going to be a legend, before he was. So confident was Jarrell in Lowell, that it shored up Lowell’s own anxiety and kept the wolves at bay in Lowell’s mind during key periods in his ascension.  When Lowell shared the early drafts of Lord Weary’s Castle with Jarrell, he was so effusive in his praise that it was like an oracle predicting Lowell’s future Pulitzer.

Jarrell and Lowell remained friends right up until Jarrell’s death.  Jarrell had fallen into a deep depression following President Kennedy’s assassination. He suffered from maniac depressive episodes and his overall health deteriorated.  While seeking medical treatment in Chapel Hill, North Carolina he was hit by a car while walking along the side of the road and died.  Though his death was ruled an accident, it always had the stain of the rumor of a possible suicide.

Jarrell was just one in a generation of poets, all acquaintances if not outright good friends, born between 1899 and 1917, who suffered from alcoholism and mental illness and died prematurely: Hart Crane, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell.  A legacy that continued with  Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

Berryman remarked on the tendency for the gods of literature to eat their own:

  I’m cross with God who has wrecked this generation.
First he seized Ted, then Richard, Randall, and now
Delmore….In between he gorged on Sylvia Plath.

Does it take madness to be a great poet?  Two of the great master’s of American literature who attempted to evolve the sonnet form into the 20th Century, Lowell and Berryman, eventually succumbed to the weight of their own expectations.  Is that why sonnets have largely been left in the dust bin of history,  too mingled with Lowell’s and Berryman’s blood to be an ongoing literary legacy.


Helen

by Robert Lowell

I am the blue!  I come from the lower world
to hear the serene erosion of the surf;
once more I see the galleys bleed with dawn,
and shark with muffled rowlocks into Troy,
My solitary hands recall the kings;
I used to run my fingers  through their beards;
I wept.  They sang about their shady wars,
the great gulfs boiling sternward from their keels.
I hear military trumpets, all that brass,
blasting commands to the frantic oars;
the rowers’ metronome enchains the sea,
and high on beaked and dragon prows, the gods-
their fixed, archaic smiles stung by the salt –
reach out their carved, indulgent arms to me!

I, Catullus Redivivus

Alan Tate (1899 – 1979)

How does one happen to write a poem, where does it come from? That is the question asked by the psychologists or the geneticists of poetry.

Alan Tate

Sonnets of The Blood (Excerpt)

by Alan Tate
 
VI
 
The fire I praise was once perduring flame—
Till it snuffs with our generation out;
No matter, it’s all one, it’s but a name   
Not as late honeysuckle half so stout;
So think upon it how the fire burns blue,   
Its hottest, when the flame is all but spent;   
Thank God the fuel is low, we’ll not renew   
That length of flame into our firmament;   
Think too the rooftree crackles and will fall   
On us, who saw the sacred fury’s height—
Seated in her tall chair, with the black shawl   
From head to foot, burning with motherly light   
More spectral than November dusk could mix   
With sunset, to blaze on her pale crucifix.

On the first read of Words for Hart Crane, its hard to tell if it is intended as a homage. an ode to a departed friend or a put down.  It maybe because its likely Lowell intended it be both.  There are certain words, in certain poems, whose meaning and context can be pivot points of understanding.  For someone who prided himself on craftsmanship, Lowell’s use of Catullus redivivus is interesting.  Catullus was a Latin poet in the late Roman empire, who in some ways was one of the first “confessional” poets, writing about his own life experience, rather than gods, goddesses and heroes.  Inferring that Hart was the “Catullus” of his generation and the Shelley, sets him in esteemed company, but does it imply he was also outdated? Is it intended as a compliment?  I am not sure.  Potentially unravelling this sonnet further requires a little history.

Although Alan Tates legacy is mostly tied to his influence at Vanderbilt University, Princeton University and the University of Minnesota, his literary influence was much broader through friends and colleagues.  After graduating from Vanderbilt, Alan Tate moved to New York City where he became good friends with Hart Crane.  The two of them and Tate’s soon to be wife Caroline Gordon moved from Greenwich Village to a house in Patterson, New York (home of William Carlos Williams).  The three of them lived together for several years and shortly after, Caroline and Tate married and Caroline gave birth to their daughter.  Though their marriage was bumpy, they largely stuck it out, despite divorcing and remarrying and separating again over the years.  Crane,  sadly did not, stick it out.   He died while on a ship in 1932 at the age of 33 in the Caribbean by throwing himself overboard.   The connections between Hart Crane, Alan Tate, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, John Berryman and Robert Lowell are intricate.  There is a quadrangle that runs from Vanderbilt, to Kenyon to Princeton, Yale and Harvard and the University of Minnesota where these men moved, sometimes interchangeably, during their careers.   

When Lowell was dropped off by Merrill Moore on the door step of Alan Tate’s home in the 1930’s, it wasn’t a two bedroom flat of a penniless professor.  It was at the steps of a charming 185 acre Tennessee estate called Benfolly, which Tate’s brother had purchased for him after making a fortune on coal.  Benfolly was one of the centers of American literature in its day, a place of comfort for frequent visits by Ford Madox Ford, Edmund Wilson, Louise Bogan, Stark Young, Malcolm Cowley and his wife, John Ransom and his wife and Robert Penn Warren and his wife.  Talk about an amazing book group.  It sounds like a bushel of fun!

Students like Lowell and Randall Jarrel, who had the good fortune to be allowed into this literary and stimulating circle, realized the incredible opportunity that was opened for them.  Alan Tate is quoted multiple times that the only thing you can take as a reader and as a writer are the words on the page.   What does something mean?  There is no one meaning of any poem and what Lowell intended may have been only sheer gratitude and to honor his friendship with Crane.   What do you take from Lowell’s poem; Words For Hart Crane?   


Words For Hart Crane

By Robert Lowell

When the Pulitzers showered on some dope
or screw who flushed our dry mouths out with soap,
few people would consider why I took
to stalking sailors, and scattered Uncle Sam’s
phoney gold-plated laurels to birds.
Because I knew my Whitman like a book,
stranger in America, tell my country; I,
Catullus redivivus, once the rage
of the Village and Paris, used to play my role
of homosexual, wolfing the stray lambs
who hungered by the Place de la Concorde.
My profit was a pocket with a hole.
Who asks for me, the Shelley of my age,
must lay his heart out for my bed and board.

My Eyes Have Seen

Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford and Peter Taylor in 1941

 

“I think trying to write is a religious exercise. You are trying to understand life, and you can only get the illusion of doing it fully by writing. That is, it’s the only way I can come to understand things fully. When I create, when I put my own mark on something and form it, I begin to know the whole truth about it, how it was put together. Then you can begin to change things around. You know all this after you have written a lot. You really know. And it has become the most important thing in your life. It has nothing to do with craft, or even art, in a way. It is making sense of life. It is coming to understand yourself.”
 
Peter Taylor

 When Robert Lowell Broke Jean Stafford’s Nose For The Second Time

by Amy Newman

When Robert Lowell broke Jean Stafford’s nose
for the second time, something happened to poetry,
vascular, circulatory, an unstable shift in the tender stem
of the coming years,
as the introduction of sulfuric acid to soil
alters hydrangeas to a boy-child blue.
Are you alright, poetry? He hit her hard.

Her pain was exquisite and private,
a castle with seven rooms.
In the final room, the brain shivered, gem-like,
palpable as mathematics.
Doors opened, doors wavered in passive arcs,
beneath a moon unsuitable for metaphor.
What would have been the point, anyway,
of such dreaming? Against the backdrop of the unreachable
planets, pigeons navigate their evening,
soundless at such a distance, seeming graceful, yes,
but terrified, shedding almost everything naïve.

 

If I were to recount Lowell’s first romance and all its twists and turns, parental misgivings and outright intrusions, it would sound like a cheap romance novel.  I’ll sum it up by sharing that at the time Bobby, as his Mother and Father called him, declared his intention to marry his first love and his parents fore bade it, he became so incensed over their objections that he got into a physical brawl with his father, pummeling him to the ground in the entry way of his childhood home in Boston and stormed off, only to come to his senses a few weeks later and relent, realizing he needed the monthly allowance they provided.  He promptly made peace with his father and dumped her.   

Jean Stafford was different.  Jean was an intellectual, a writer, a foil up to the challenge of Lowell’s intensity, intellect and ability.  Lowell’s first book of poems, Lord Weary’s Castle, is dedicated to her and the two were married from 1940 to 1948.   By the time Stafford and Lowell met, at a writing conference in Colorado, Lowell had grown up and the name Bobby had been buried in all but his parents memory; his friends and colleagues called him Cal.   He would published under Robert but it was not the name he went by, the weight of all those prior Roberts a bit too much to bear.  

Lowell and Stafford 2

Robert Lowell and Jean Stafford, Late 1930’s.

Stafford was an accomplished writer in her own regards during their relationship and after, ultimately winning the Pulitzer for short fiction in 1970.   She had a temperament that mirrored Lowell’s maniac depression and so, they either fueled or tolerated each other’s creativity and demons. On Christmas Day 1938, Lowell borrowed his Father’s Packard and crashed it, while drunk, seriously injuring Stafford, who suffered severe facial fractures, a shattered nose and broken ribs, requiring multiple painful facial surgeries in the upcoming years, one to remove a bit of bone dangerously embedded close to her frontal lobe.   Lowell it is reported fled the scene, but eventually plead guilty to operating a vehicle under the influence and paid a fine.   None of us truly understand other people’s marriages, but I can imagine this one was all the more complex for the guilt and suffering the crash created between the two of them. 

Despite them being in a relationship for more than 10 years, I cannot find a single love poem that Lowell wrote to Stafford.   Lord knows, there are no love poems in Lord Weary’s Castle.   Stafford would marry again and would obviously go on to publish successfully, admirably, but sustained happiness eluded her.  She died at age 63, succumbing to excessive drinking and depression’s erosion of her overall health. 

Lowell’s take on marriage is depressing and a bit outrageous in its audacity. He betrayed his second wife of 24 years, Elizabeth Hardwick, by taking their transatlantic letters in the final months of their marriage, while conducting a secret affair in London with Lady Blackwell and without Hardwick’s consent, published it as a book of poetry called The Dolphin.  Talk about burning bridges, he dried up an entire ocean no vessel could ever sail across.   Lowell wrote some amazing poems on the state of marriage, but unlike Larkin, who could wallow in self hatred and man’s blacker sides, but was also capable of tenderness in his poetry, I have yet to find a single what I would describe as a playful love poem by Lowell.  I hope to unearth some in the coming month, or if you know of one, please share it, but as of yet, my reading of Lowell feels like crashing head long into a brick wall and injuring those whom you love is an apt metaphor on the stark nature of his writing on male/female relationships. 


Dolphin

by Robert Lowell

My Dolphin, you only guide me by surprise,
a captive as Racine, the man of craft,
drawn through his maze of iron composition
by the incomparable wandering voice of Phèdre.
When I was troubled in mind, you made for my body
caught in its hangman’s-knot of sinking lines,
the glassy bowing and scraping of my will. . . .
I have sat and listened to too many
words of the collaborating muse,
and plotted perhaps too freely with my life,
not avoiding injury to others,
not avoiding injury to myself—
to ask compassion . . . this book, half fiction,
an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting

my eyes have seen what my hand did.

Before I Scream!

Poet and Psychiatrist

Piazza Piece

By John Crowe Ransom

—I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying
To make you hear. Your ears are soft and small
And listen to an old man not at all,
They want the young men’s whispering and sighing.
But see the roses on your trellis dying
And hear the spectral singing of the moon;
For I must have my lovely lady soon,
I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying.

—I am a lady young in beauty waiting
Until my truelove comes, and then we kiss.
But what grey man among the vines is this
Whose words are dry and faint as in a dream?
Back from my trellis, Sir, before I scream!
I am a lady young in beauty waiting.


Robert Lowell had many influences in his lifetime, but three men stand out in their intellectual guidance that helped shaped Lowell’s early literary accomplishments; Merrill Moore, Alan Tate and John Ransom.  Moore was a fellow Bostonian, ran in the same social circle as his parents and was Lowell’s psychiatrist for decades.  Alan Tate and John Ransom were both celebrated professors of literature at Vanderbilt, founding members of The Fugitives along with Robert Penn Warren, Donald Davidson, Walter Clyde Curry and several notable others.

Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV had all the weight of expectations of a successful Harvard ascendency placed upon him at birth.  So when his first year at Harvard did not go well and his mental health suffered for it, Moore concocted a plan to bring him to Vanderbilt and introduce him to Alan Tate, being so bold as to ask Tate if Lowell could spend the spring and summer at his home.  The plan was for Lowell to take a bit of a break from the pressure of Harvard and instead attend some poetry classes under Alan Tate and Ransom to gain what he called a bit of “Southern” perspective to counterbalance his Northern, puritan upbringing. His time at Vanderbilt proved short lived, but it was hugely impactful in terms of the friends he met (Randall Jarrell) and the connection with Ransom and Tate that would be critical in his development as a writer.

It may have been inevitable Lowell would work primarily in a structure of fourteen lines.   Merrill Moore wrote thousands of sonnets in his lifetime, and John Ransom published several volumes of sonnets as well.   For a man searching for a new voice anchored in history and with the force of a greater moral authority, it makes sense Lowell would keep a connection to a weighty poetic legacy.   I am not sure exactly why Lowell used a sonnet structure in the majority of the poems he published, as he pushed forward his ideas and innovations on confessional poetry.  Though Lowell wrote poems in many different styles and structure, including successful long form poetry, he published more fourteen line poems than any other single length of poem.  It takes a stubbornness to stay so true to that form.  It goes beyond common sense or even commitment to a literary style, for sometimes a poem’s plot and rhyme will naturally lead to an ending in 12 or carry on to 15, but not Lowell.  Lowell was not fixated on traditional sonnet rhyming schemes, as many of his sonnets are largely unrhymed, but more often than not, he closed the deal at 14 lines.

Why have so many writers over the past 500 years been fascinated if not right bewitched by the sonnet length?  Is it because for the most part men have short attention spans as poets and as readers?  I resemble that remark, so its not a criticism, its a reality.  If a poem can’t hook me in the first 8 lines, I am not likely to finish it.  So when I see a poem that is 50 or 100 lines long, I am instantly wary on whether I should even attempt it.   Sad but true.  I think it is because 14 lines forces the writer to compromise, shorten, cut to the chase.   There is no room for run on sentences in a sonnet.   Its go big or go home in the opening couplet, something even Wordsworth appreciated in the form.

I was taken with both of these sonnets, particularly Moore’s Leave The Telling Of Jokes.  It reminds me a bit of Wallace Stevens in his use of words, especially the opening line.   It is a reminder how small and interconnected the world of poetry was in the 1920’s and 1930’s and how quickly they closed ranks around their own to maintain their hand on the tiller of the artform they all dearly loved and dearly loved to control.


Leave The Telling Of Jokes

by Merrill Moore

Leave the telling of jokes to the teller of jokes,
And tales of seduction to men whose lechery
Has granted them more of virtue than yours has;
And leave the lonely club-room and the smoke
Of idle cigars to those who love to smell
The sulphur fumes that blow from out their hell.

And come (I can show you the rock whereoff one fell
Whose strong attractions made the masses weak,
Masses who were strong, too strong to break
Apart at the tread of a god’s advancing foot,
Too strong to relinquish grasp upon the root
Of evil in their cities) – come with me
To where a sermon has becalmed the sea
And listen with me to the dark emphatic rain.

God Wills It, Wills It, Wills It: It is Blood

Time Magazine

Concord

by Robert Lowell

Ten thousand Fords are idle here in search
Of a tradition. Over these dry sticks—
The Minute Man, the Irish Catholics,
The ruined bridge and Walden’s fished out perch—
The belfry of the Unitarian Church
Rings out the hanging Jesus. Crucifix,
How can your whited spindling arms transfix
Mammon’s unbridled industry, the lurch
For forms to harness Heraclitus stream!
This Church is Concord—Concord where Thoreau
Named all the birds without a gun to probe
Through darkness to the painted man and bow:
The death-dance of King Philip and his scream
Whose echo girdled this imperfect globe.


There are a couple of things to take into consideration if spending a month pondering the depths of Robert Lowell.   He was not a healthy man.   He was a bully as a child and early teenager who enjoyed blood sport, taking great pride in besting older and stronger boys in fist fights.  He was described by a headmaster in a letter to his mother as (paraphrasing); wild, slovenly and ill mannered.   As a young man he had a reputation for being rude, unkept and accident prone.  He was diagnosed by Carl Jung personally as a schizophrenic and treated by the psychiatrist and poet Merrill Moore for many years beginning in childhood and into adulthood for depression.   Robert Lowell was bi-polar/maniac depressive.  He had multiple nervous breakdowns requiring hospitalization, but to his credit would recover into fantastic periods of creativity.  He was medicated by the drugs of early psychiatry and self medicated in the usual ways poets self medicate.  He was volatile, anxiety prone and generally depressed. But all these things by themselves do not define him, it merely proves he was human.

Lowell was also a loyal friend, a generous colleague, a romantic and incredibly intelligent.  He was driven to be a successful artist and poet. Driven to the point that most successful artists are driven;  it was the only thing he wanted to achieve.   By all accounts he was an interesting and challenging professor who taught students, willing to put in the work, with a fierceness of mentorship that goes beyond the connections most professors are willing to allow.  The body of work that Lowell left behind at age 60, having died of a heart attack in a cab in New York City on the way to visit his ex-wife, is incredibly impressive.  To understand Lowell’s poetry, we must accept his complexity, not just in the exactness of its construction but also in the chaos of its creation.

Lowell firmly established himself in literary history because he pushed the concept of confessional poetry to a new level, beyond Eliot, beyond Pound and the New Critics.   His poetry, informed by his own crisis and resilience, swirled in his imagination, reflecting the times in which he lived.   When he was celebrated on the cover of Time magazine in 1967, it was not just because of his poetry, it was also for his personal convictions.  Lowell had spent a year in jail (1942 -1943) as a conscientious objector during World War II and his voice and opposition only was strengthened during the Vietnam War.  Lowell was celebrated because he was a survivor.

The two sonnets today are from his first book of poetry, Lord Weary’s Castle, published in 1946.  I do not get the impression reading Ian Hamilton’s biography that Lowell was overtly religious, but he was raised in a family with a long lineage of priests and poets, so the concept that poetry and art must be grounded in spiritual ideals beyond the human realm was integral to his thinking from the very beginning.   The title comes from a folk ballad about Lord Weary’s refusal to pay his stonemason on its construction and the subsequent murder of Weary’s wife and child in revenge.  In John Berryman’s review, he remarked, the “castle is a house of ingratitude, failure of obligation, crime and punishment.”  Such comes the inspiration for what would be the start of Lowell’s career.


France
(From the Gibbet)

by Robert Lowell

My human brothers who live after me,
See how I hang.  My bones eat through the skin
And flesh they carried here upon the chin
And lipping clutch of their cupidity;
Now here, now there, the starling and the sea
Gull splinter the groined eyeballs of my sin,
Brothers, more beaks of birds than needles in
The fathoms of the Bayeux Tapestry:
“God wills it, wills it, wills it: it is blood.”
My brothers, if I call you brothers, see:
The blood of Abel crying form the dead
Sticks to my blackened skull and eyes. What good
Are lebensraum and brad to Abel dead
And rotten on the cross-beams of the tree?

Sometimes, Everything I Write

Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977)

“If we see light at the end of the tunnel, it’s the light of the oncoming train.”

Robert Lowell

Epilogue

by Robert Lowell 

Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
All’s misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name


 

Happy New Years.   My intention has been to spend the month of January doing a deeper dive into Robert Lowell,  the last white male poet to be on the cover of Time Magazine.  It is said we all foreshadow our own destruction, but in the case of Lowell, he foreshadowed not only his own, but also nearly the down fall of poetry itself in America. 

In my mind Lowell epitomizes where the politics of poetry went wrong in the 20th Century.   For an artform that is irreparably bound to breaking all the conventions in its creation, there is still politics in the way that new poets are vetted and published and paid.  Something happened as Lowell reached the zenith of his career in the 1960’s that nearly broke poetry.  The business of poetry, which was and still is in some ways, largely controlled by an elitist insulated establishment, committed the gravest of sins in my mind, it became boring.  Lowell is the demarcation point where poetry hit the proverbial white male wall. And although there have been many fine white male poets who have carried on since, the sun has set on that regime to have the type of influence, readership and popular appeal that was possible in the first half of the 20th century.  

The 1970’s, 1980’s and beyond have seen the rise of  greater diversity, different perspectives, different expressionism and  the full ascension of free verse, to the point that many poets have forgotten,  that poetry at its essence should go beyond the page and live in our mouths as well as our minds.  It should read well aloud.  The past 40 years have carved out a niche for nearly ever type of poetry, but along with it a smaller and smaller readership, at least published, even for the most successful, such that it is harder and harder for a poet to make a living as a poet.  Poetry has become what it always was, a way of thinking, a life style, but it is only for a very talented few, who can actually make a living at it without subsidizing their passion through teaching or another line of work or an acceptance of poverty.  You don’t have to be wealthy to be a poet, but it certainly doesn’t hurt if it is your desire for it to be your vocation. And such as it has been since Homer and Browning. 

Lowell wrote 100’s of sonnets in his lifetime and translated nearly that many as well from other poets.   Yet, there is not a single sonnet of Lowell’s that I can point to that anyone is likely to be familiar or that I would give a resounding, thumbs up.  The problem with celebrating Lowell is he is hard to like because his poetry is so overtly academic, it is not accessible.  Lowell’s poems are inside jokes of arcane knowledge written for the critics and his other academic friends to decipher.  And because Lowell won nearly every award a poet can win, and was heaped with praise and success, other’s followed mistakenly down his rather drab path, creating a self-compounding problem of scaring off more and more readers.  Poetry became up and through the 1990’s more and more incestuous in the process of what is published.  In my opinion, the only thing that saved poetry from extinction was the internet.  The internet over the last 20 years made it possible for writers to self publish in ways that harken back to Dicken’s selling single page periodicals in the streets.  Anyone willing to set up a blog and willing to write could access the world.  

I honestly believe more people on the planet are reading poetry than ever before, though you wouldn’t know it to look at the poetry section in your local bookstore, that is if your local book store has survived the ravages of the past 20 years and the pandemic.  The fact that local book stores have closed in droves across the United States is further evidence of the challenges that writers face in finding their audience in the traditional printed sense.  And yet, I am blown away by the level of talent that emerges year after year.   There are more good writers of poetry than ever before, even if book sales continue to decline. 

The internet has made it possible for people to create, find and share poetry like never before.  So why spend a month diving into someone I so dislike and worse disdain? Life is too short to read bad poetry. My mantra about reading poetry is the same as it is for food, consume what you enjoy!   The reason is I have decided I would like to figure out  maybe where poetry took the wrong road less traveled, particularly classical poetry and why it hit a dead end.  And to do so, I thought it might be interesting to follow that trail back and look about.   If the sonnet is a vehicle of artistic endeavor rusting in the scrap yard in most readers minds, then let’s spend a little time with one of the writers who helped run it off the road into some trees.   Lowell was connected to so many poets, first as a student,  then through his social network as friends, and then as a professor and the writers he mentored as students, that he is one of those literary figures that sits at the center of an incredible spider web of authors from the 20th century.  I will do my best over the next 30 days, to spend the majority of the time on writers other than Lowell, to which Lowell was connected, and to actually find a poem or two of Lowell’s in his vast collected works, that I enjoy.  Wish me luck.   

Happy New Years!  And if Lowell and his cronies are not to your liking.  I will see you in February. 


Bringing A Turtle Home

by Robert Lowell

On the road to Bangor, we spotted a domed stone,
a painted turtle petrified by fear.
I picked it up.  The turtle had come a long walk,
200 millennia understudy to dinosaurs,
then their survivor.  A god for the out-of-power….
Faster gods come to Castine, flush yachtsman who see
hell as a city very much like New York,
these gods gave a bad past and worse future to men
who never bother to set a spinnaker;
culture without cash isn’t worth their spit.
The laughter on Mount Olympus was always breezy….
Goodnight, little Boy, little Soldier, live,
a toy to your friend, a stone of stumbling to God —-
sandpaper Turtle, scratching your pail for water.