History Has To Live

lowell&caroline_crop

Robert Lowell and Lady Caroline Blackwood

“I was overcome with a pathological bout of enthusiasm.”

Robert Lowell

History

by Robert Lowell

History has to live with what was here,
clutching and close to fumbling all we had—
it is so dull and gruesome how we die,
unlike writing, life never finishes.
Abel was finished; death is not remote,
a flash-in-the-pan electrifies the skeptic,
his cows crowding like skulls against high-voltage wire,
his baby crying all night like a new machine.
As in our Bibles, white-faced, predatory,
the beautiful, mist-drunken hunter’s moon ascends—
a child could give it a face: two holes, two holes,
my eyes, my mouth, between them a skull’s no-nose—
O there’s a terrifying innocence in my face
drenched with the silver salvage of the mornfrost.


What have I learned this month?   My appreciation for Lowell has grown, along with my empathy.   The quote above is what endears maniac depressives to those around them.   The lows are a cross to bear for all, but the highs, when in moderation, can power the world with their energy.  I am envious of Lowell’s friendships among his vast circle of friends, and the talent in that remarkable group that helped each other become better writers, still recognizing the negative self destructive tendencies that these men and women had in their own lives and others. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have grown to like Lowell the man, but I have grown to appreciate more of Lowell the artist and accept his humanness.  

Robert Lowell was the product of two generations of men of letters in this country and the patience and emotional intelligence of  multiple women.  His poetry evolved to fit the style that the New Critics applauded and rewarded; Merrill, Tate, Ransom, Warren, Jarrell, Taylor, Frost, Schwartz and Berryman literally molded Lowell out of clay.  His passion and the depth in his poetry was influenced by Stafford, Hardwick, Blackwood and Bishop.  Did Lowell win those two Pulitzers, or do all of them deserve some of the credit as well?   Does it take a village to raise a poet? In Lowell’s case, I think the answer is yes.   

Obviously, Lowell brought something to the table.  I wonder though, if he had been born poor,  with the same talents, and written the same words, would a single thing he ever wrote have seen the light of day from a publisher?  Would he have had the financial ability and time to write? Even with the generous  support and royalties he received from publishers,  it was not enough to support him and his family without his father’s money to fill in the gaps.  Talent publicly recognized is almost always influenced by luck as well. Lowell exists in American Lit history in part because of the opportunities his families wealth, connections and the power his birthright afforded him, if not for the access to publishing, then for the glimpse into the halls of power in this country and its moral authority and failings which he used for some of his poetic inspiration.  Lowell may have been a confessional poet, but the history he shared was not just his own, it served as a sketchbook illustrating our broader society, his words a mirror for the American tendency towards narcissism that was reflected in his best work.

Lowell and Berryman always preferred criticism of their work by other writers.  They were writing during a unique time in history, existing within a relatively small literary bubble, where the best critics, were also some of their best friends.  There are tentacles in literature that extend from one generation to the next and influence poetry in ways that we may not even be aware. We owe a debt of gratitude to these men and women, who pushed poetry forward, in a legacy that would forever change how poetry is written and read today.   Even if it some of that work led to dead ends, it forced open doors of change, either positively or negatively, because of their commitment to their writing.  Sometimes things have to become broken to be put back together in a new more innovative way.

This past year in 2020, when several hundred poets of color demanded changes in the way the Poetry Foundation wields the power of its financial assets, and who sits as the gate keepers of that financial wealth, I applauded, even though it probably was painful to the multiple old white men who were forced to resign from the board of directors.  We have to remind ourselves that giving birth is painful.  It’s never easy and not to be taken for granted.  All parties don’t always survive the process.  Things don’t die and are buried because they did something wrong.  Things die, because things need to die, so that the next generation has room to breathe and grow and thrive.

After a month of reading Lowell, if I compare him to Berryman, there is no question which book of collected poems will continue to sit on my reading table; its Berryman’s.  For sheer enjoyment of the written word and intellectual fun of the poetry and creativity, Berryman’s poetry wins in my world hands down.  But it would have been easy for me to show case Berryman this year and stay in a familiar rut of sharing things I enjoy on Fourteenlines.  The beginning of 2021 is a time of reckoning.  This month has been a time for me to reassess white power and privilege that has shaped the past, my own included, and confront the underlying rot of white supremacy that is all around us, even in the creative arts and poetry.   It’s easy for me to write about things I like.  It’s much harder to write about things I don’t.  And though I have learned a lot by writing about Lowell this month, I will be glad to move on.

I wrote the poem below a week after the violence at the Capitol building in the midst of my month long journey with Lowell.  I readily admit it is a troubling poem.  I don’t like all the aspects of these characters.   And yet it begs the question, if we dislike the artist, should we dislike the art?  The risk of cancel culture is we cancel the very reminders of what not to be?   How many of us learned our most important lessons in life not from a role model of the epitome of our ideals but from the fuck-ups in our midst that we wanted to not emulate?   Spending a month in Lowell’s company and his cronies messes with you.   Lowell leaned conservative right in his ideology in some of his writing, but did he believe it or use it as a mirror to society?  Impossible to know. I don’t know why this poem shaped itself in my mind.   If you were to count it out, it is roughly a sonnet, 14 lines.   Was it inspiration for what could be a broader script for a play someday wrestling with the death of the sonnet and the ideas these men wrote about over a lifetime?  There’s probably 90 minutes of pretty interesting dialogue waiting to be crafted if I tried to insert myself into the minds of these four men playing cards.   What is it trying to tell me? What about the perspective their month of company has imparted, formed n my mind in both good ways and bad, that brought out this poem?  I may delete this poem and post in a year because it isn’t relevant and reads like trite nonsense or I may find in it something I don’t see now?  I honestly don’t like the men behind the art of all the writers I read. It doesn’t mean I find that disagreeable taste in my mouth any less worthwhile than the bitter coffee I sometimes choose to drink.  


Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and John Berryman Play Euchre in Heaven

By T. A. Fry

(This poem is intended to be read by screen play rules – words in parenthesis and gray italics should not be read out loud, rather help inform the reader on characters and plot. Lines in black are Robert Lowell’s. Lowell is partnered with Pound and Berryman is partnered with Jarrell.)

.       . “Jezzus Chrst Mr. Bones, would you stop dropping
 ashes on the table.  Lets do clubs – Pounder. “  ( Lowell winks)

.       . “Cal…. your move.* What’s with the winking?” (Berryman, staring at Lowell)
.       .
It’s a tick, he’s not tabl-talking the bower.” (Pound)

“Henry…. pass me a pretzel with cheese on it. ” 
(Lowell leads the Jack of clubs)

.        . “Yes he is,  see —- exerting his power….
(Berryman passing the pretzel with a napkin, then picks up his cigarette, takes a long drag, exhaling a cloud Lowell’s way, muttering;)
It’s a damn shame, the state of the sonnet….”

(Lowell takes the trick and leads the Queen of clubs)

.       . “What’d you guys think, the attack in D. C.?
Ezra – yu’old fascist, what’s your report?” (Jarrell) 

“… Relieved… bar’s been raised for traitorous crazy.”
(Smiling as he lays the Jack of spades over top Lowell’s Queen and Berryman’s Ace and Jarrell’s sloughed off suit, taking the trick for the team.)

.      . “So am I!  It’s great to see such support
For mental illness among the masses.
It’s amazing, I tell you, aammaazzzing,
What these people pull out of their asses.”


* When Berryman jumped to his death in 1972, the only identification on his body recovered from the river was a pair of sunglasses with his name on it and a blank check.  Hamilton, in Lowell’s biography, claims Auden started a cruel rumor among the literati in New York City shortly thereafter that Berryman had in fact left a note, which read; “Cal, it’s your move.

I Would Change My Trueself If I Could

Robert Lowell

It’s a completely powerful and serious book, as good as anything in prose or poetry written by a ‘beat’ writer, and one of the most alive books written by any American for years. I don’t see how it could be considered immoral.

Robert Lowell (Speaking about criticism of The Dolphin)

Critic

by Robert Lowell

Is my doubt, last flicker of the fading thing,
an honorable subject for conversation?
Do you know how you have changed from the true you?
I would change my trueself if I could:
I am doubtful . . . uncertain my big steps.
I fear I leave many holes for a quick knife
to take the blown rose from its wooden thorns.
A critic should save her sharpest tongue for praise.
Only blood-donors retain the gift for words;
blood gives being to everything that lives,
even to exile where tried spirits sigh,
doing nothing the day because they think
imagination matures from doing nothing
hoping for choice, the child of vacillation.


Reading Hamilton’s biography about the final 5 years of Lowell’s life I felt only pity for Lowell and all who loved him.   It had to be heartbreaking to watch a man with such intellect and creativity completely lose his mind, his spirit, his physicality.  Blackwood couldn’t bear it, couldn’t stand to be in his presence when Lowell would enter a maniac phase.   I think he agreed to lithium in part so that he could blunt the symptoms and maintain some semblance of home life with Blackwood, Sheridan and her daughters the first few years.  But that decision had to come with some sacrifice to his creativity as well. 

Blackwood bought an estate called Millgate shortly after Sheridan’s arrival.  They also had an apartment in London.   Lowell loved the idea of being English gentry if not outright nobility, even though the Blackwood lineage was Irish.  It was part of the fantasy of rebirth that Lowell was seeking by coming to London.   There were happy times at Millgate, punctuated by episodes of anxiety, depression and mania. I get the rather confusing depiction from Hamilton that Lowell lived apart from Blackwood as much as he did with her and the children during their short marriage because of his mental illness and tendency of ADHD hyper focus on different projects. Lowell was a moth constantly in search of a new flame. 

Lowell’s private life continued to be upended in the early 1970’s by multiple losses, chief among them Berryman and Pound in 1972 and Ransom in 1974.  Lowell’s physical presence seemed to shrink in conjunction with each of these deaths, as his literary crowd of friends and colleagues and supporters dwindled about him. 

By 1975, Lowell could feel his maniac attacks coming on as a physical sensation creeping up his spine.  Blackwood describes one such incident where she took Lowell by train to his doctor in hopes of heading it off with an injection of valium and in the short interval between two train stops Lowell went from being lucid, though highly animated, to talking completely incoherently and out of touch with reality.   These episodes terrified her and she refused to allow him to be around the children when he was in such a state.  His doctors told her during this particular incident that it took extreme doses of valium to pacify Lowell and get him to relax, the doses given may have proved fatal to other patients, so intense was Lowell’s state of mind and physical aberration, one doctor described him like a “bull” in his ability to be nearly unaffected by the drugs at normally proscribed levels.  

By 1976, Lady Blackwood’s patience and sanity frayed and the marriage was over.  She sold Millgate and moved her and the children to Ireland, in part for tax purposes to save money realizing Lowell was unlikely to be able to adequately contribute to support the lifestyle they were living and in part to make it unlikely that Lowell would be able to follow them.   It worked.   Lowell realized he had mucked up his life with Blackwood in abandoning Hardwick and his daughter Harriet and began begging Lizzie if he could return to her side in New York as the one attempt to live in Ireland was a disaster.  So pathetic was Lowell’s situation that Hardwick didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no either, realizing wisely, that Lowell needed some little ribbon of hope to hold on to for the moment, while he/they figured something out.

Lowell died Sept 12, 1977 in a taxi cab on his way from the airport to visit Hardwick in New York.  He had arrived earlier that day with a few possessions to discuss the possibility of a return to New York to live in a spare bedroom of Hardwick’s in New York City.  When his taxi pulled up to the building the driver found him unresponsive in the back seat and thought he was asleep. Hardwick was summoned by the doorman and she knew he was dead the moment she climbed in as the taxi drove them to the hospital. Later, when she went through his things he had brought with him, she found he had been clutching a wrapped oil painting by Freud when he died, a portrait of Blackwood. Lowell was grasping at straws, his anxiety tearing him to pieces, torn between two lovers right to the very end.   He was 60 years old, his frequent predictions of premature death having come true.

The world is absolutely out of control now and is not going to be save by any reason or unreason.” 

Robert Lowell

If you are a numerologist and believe there are signs in numbers, then Lowell’s two Pulitzers, which bookended his career, might be more than chance; Lord Weary’s Castle in 1947 and The Dolphin in 1974.   I have never thought about how the Pulitzer prize for poetry is awarded until this month, not quite understanding where other’s saw the genius in Lowell’s writing.  The Pulitzer prize for poetry is awarded based on a panel of five individuals, apparently nameless each year, whose simple majority vote on submissions from the previous year determines the winner or they can decide to award it to a new work from a poet that was not entered with a 75% vote from the group.  The prize is awarded each year at a luncheon by the President of Columbia University in May. 

In looking through the list of distinguished winners from 1970 to 2020,  it is a remarkable group, both for who is included and who is not among its ranks of honorees.  However, in that 50 year period, I highly doubt no work received more scathingly negative reviews than Lowell’s The Dolphin.  Adrienne Rich chief among them who eviscerated The Dolphin for seeing it for what it was, being neither literature or thoughtful.   In my opinion, Lowell’s final Pulitzer was a turning point, in challenging the white male power structure of who gets enshrined in the gilded halls of literature.   It took a while but the absurdity of Lowell’s recognition for The Dolphin rang like a bell for the remainder of the 1970’s well into the 1980’s.  I don’t know if the Pulitzer committee finally came to their senses and realized that maybe severe mental illness ought to be taken into consideration for who wins the award.  For whatever reason, that bell that was rung by literary criticism of its time, began to resonate and  caused white male classical poets to sink into greater and greater obscurity, for good reason and for good riddance.  The sonnet fading along with them over the past 50 years, except in the hands of a few poets of color who have managed to imbue it with greater complexity, around themes of social justice and restore the sonnet with some bit of dignity it might still deserve.    

So why do I write sonnets?   Ouch, its a tougher question after spending a month with Lowell; a serious question I need to ask myself again.   I have always known that this project and my sonnet obsession would eventually run its course.  My intent has been to carry this project forward for three more years and end it in December of 2023, as a way to fully explore something, deeply, uncomfortably, trans-formatively; to push myself beyond the first barrier, the second, the third, etc., until I lose count and the effort is the joy and joy is the work.  I am still committed to pushing onward.  I believe there are still some sonnets hiding beneath my finger tips, in my subconscious, waiting to come forth when my muse whispers in my ear that are worthy of putting to paper and worthy of the process and structure, even if they are written only for my eyes.   But I know I have hit the apex of this journey and the question is now, what will I do with this understanding on the long slow descent I still have planned?  How will it effect my creativity in what lies ahead in my exploration of writing in 14 lines? 

Who are my true role models in poetry 8 years into this project?  It isn’t Lowell, it isn’t Berryman, it isn’t Pound, or Schwartz, or Ransom or Merrill or Tate or Bishop or Plath.   So who is it?  Next January it is still my intent to explore Rita Dove, Tracey K. Smith, Terrance Hayes  and several other poets of color who have taken the sonnet in fresh directions over the past 40 years and breathed into it new life, with the idea that by doing a deeper dive into their poetry it will unfold interesting ideas in my conscious and subconscious.  And it is my hope that by contrasting the contributions to poetry by Lowell in 14 lines with these poets that it will point me to some semblance of relevance that still lingers in the sonnet form. 

Today’s two sonnets I have shared both come from The Dolphin.   Both beg the question is great poetry based on emotional honesty?   Or is nothing ever actually “true” in poetry?   The process of writing is it a lie we tell ourselves in that moment a word is written that our thoughts matter beyond the scrap of paper they are written on or is it the road we owned for only a brief wonderful moment?


Marriage?

by Robert Lowell

“I think of you every minute of the day,
I love you every minute of the day;
you gone is hollow, bored, unbearable.
I feel under some emotional anesthetic
unable to plan or think or write or feel;
mais ça ira, these things will go, I feel
in an odd way against appearances,
things will come out right with us, perhaps.
As you say, we got across the Godstow Marsh,
reached Cumberland and its hairsbreadth Roman roads,
climbed Hadrian’s Wall, and scared the stinking Pict.
Marriage? That’s another story.  We saw
the diamond glare of morning on the tar.
For a minute had the road as if we owned it.”

Lifelong Wonder What Was The Perfect Age?

Lucien Freud portrait of Lady Caroline Blackwood

“As you get older no doubt you’ll change automatically, just like I did. You will learn all the tricks. You will dress much better, and talk much more, and listen much less. And you’ll start to realise that it never does one much good to take anything too seriously at all.”

Caroline Blackwood, from Great Granny Webster. 

No Telling

by Robert Lowell

(For Caroline)

How much less pretentiously, more maliciously
we talk of a close friend to other friends
than shine stars for his festschrift! Which is truer –
the uncomfortable full dress of words for print,
or wordless conscious not even no one ever seen?
The best things I can tell you face to face
coarsen my love of you in solitary.
See that long lonesome road?  it must end
at the will and second of the end – all —-
I am still a young man not done running around . . . .
The great circuit of the stars lies on jewellers’ velvet;
be close enough to tell me when I will die—-
what will love do not knowing it will die?
No telling, no telling . . . not even a last choice.


Spending a month with Lowell has resurrected thoughts in my mind that poets, particularly self described confessional poets,  like doctors, should take an oath before they publish anything or even share it with friends, that boils down to the same thing: do no harm.   I have considered this carefully in my own writing, what is poetry and what is not.  Poems that at first construction and rumination I thought were poetry turned out to be no more than self serving rubbish.  Thank goodness I let them sit on a dark shelf of my computer’s hard drive for a few years, where no one could see them, aging like blue cheese going off, getting stinkier and stinkier until I could smell them for what they were, moldy nonsense; grateful to discard them forever with the flick of the delete button without having embarrassed myself by having shared them with anyone else. 

Do no harm; in hindsight it would have been a good motto for Lowell to embrace.  Neither Stanley Kunitz, Elizabeth Bishop nor Peter Taylor could dissuade Lowell from his worst impulses after reading the early drafts of The Dolphin and some of the poems in For Lizzie and Harriet.  Bishop and Kunitz both are eloquent in their warnings to him as friends who dearly love him to rethink his plan to put some of this work out in print, predicting correctly the act of publication would forever damage his relationship with his still then wife Hardwick and daughter Harriet.  Their warnings were spot on.  They were aghast that Lowell was mixing  poetic fiction and real letters in ways to make it self-servingly dramatic or ” more literary” (my air quotes), but would hopelessly confuse readers and be forever a betrayal of Hardwick’s personal confidence by including the backbone of their actual correspondence.  

Lowell did not heed their advice.  Lowell’s approach to poetry in the final years of his life was more napalm than literature; burn it all to the ground.  I have read and reread the final hundred pages of Hamilton’s biography several times trying to wrap my head around the timeline and sequence of events and its not my imagination that even Hamilton’s meticulous and respectful retelling is a bit confusing.  In it he says, that in reviewing the vast amount of letters between Lowell, Hardwick and friends, and interviewing surviving friends and family, even those closest to Lowell had a hard time remembering the specifics of Lowell’s numerous breakdowns during that final 10 years, so frequent in nature, it all began to run together in people’s minds.  

Lowell’s medical treatment for maniac depression from the early 1950’s until 1967 had been primarily one of taking phenothiazines, mostly Thorazine, combined with supportive talk therapy, but not actual Freudian or Jungian analysis, at least not formally and consistently.  The reason for this was Lowell tended to move so frequently throughout this time and was considered too mentally ill to properly participate in the process that no reputable psychiatrist would take him on as a patient.  In 1967 a new miracle drug emerged; lithium carbonate and Lowell was immediately prescribed it.  The initial indications were that the lithium salt had the optimum combination of effects to level out maniac depressives, like Lowell, reducing highs and lows, creating a flatter version of their outward selves.   Today I do not look at lithium as a healing medicine but rather as an example of scientific abuse, knowing the side effects can be worse than the cure.  I have had several friends over the years, whose parents put them on lithium without their permission as young teenagers during the late 1960’s early 1970’s, only to lose themselves and years of their lives to a drug induced haze they would only emerge after reaching an age of emancipation where they could decide for themselves what they ingested.  Lithium is serious shit.  It might make a great rechargeable battery but it sucks as a bi-polar therapeutic. I realize, it was with good intention that Lowell was put on lithium by his care givers at the time, but remember they were still performing full and partial lobotomies on people during the late 1960’s in patient’s “best interests.”  The hope was that this drug combination could be a preventative for Lowell, reducing or eliminating his frequent debilitating maniac/depressive episodes.  It doesn’t sound from Hamilton’s retelling that this course of action succeeded.

It is impossible to briefly summarize all that happened from 1968 to 1970, but here goes:

  • Lowell, while teaching at Harvard in 1967 – 1968, and still in an on again, off again relationship with Hardwell (Elizabeth supportive, still married to him, but not always living with him and raising their young daughter largely as a single mother) enters an increasingly unstable maniac period that undermines his effectiveness as a professor.  Hardwell watches on in ever increasingly detached concern as Lowell veers from one professional project, one travel misadventure, one hospitalization and one romantic affair to another.   
  • By the end of 1969, Lowell’s reputation, although still at a high point globally, is in serious jeopardy in New York and Boston, having fallen apart so often personally and professionally, that the academic and literary crowd he runs with in the states are growing tired of his antics and all but his closest friends are pulling back.  Lowell sensibly decides its time to seek a rebirth across the pond, and lines up two separate University jobs in London in 1970; one is more an artist in residency at All Souls in Oxford and the other a teaching position at the University of Essex.   The two institutions could not be more different, Oxford All Souls is like an old shoe, comfortable, decidedly white male and tribally imperial, while Essex is a hotbed of liberal sociologists and socialists and tinged with budding feminism. 
  • And then complete chaos ensues.   

I can’t actually figure it all out.  It is a total soap opera, I am amazed Netflix has not made Lowell’s life into a movie, everyone would assume its fiction.  Lowell meets Lady Caroline Blackwood at a dinner party in spring of 1970, I think in New York and becomes completely infatuated with her when he moves to London to prepare for his new employment.  He proceeds into a complete and total mental breakdown during the summer in London, at one point locking her in his apartment for three days, Blackwood literally fearing for his life and her safety, not wanting Lowell to be in contact with her three young children and finally wrangles him into a psychiatric  hospital in London.  Blackwood feigns illness herself, escapes Lowell and ghosts him temporarily,  leaving Hardwick to arrive on the scene from New York to intercede on Lowell’s behalf and oversee his care.  Hardwick finds him so heavily drugged that she is relieved he can’t hurt himself but also finds him so out of his mind that their relationship is irrevocably damaged when the full truth of his recent shenanigans finally comes spilling out over the extent of his various recent affairs including his bi-polar love of Blackwood and herself.   Lowell is crazy enough to think he can have his cake and eat it too, but Hardwick quickly sets him straight on that account and heads back to New York.  Lowell manages to get himself put together enough to start his two University appointments in the fall of 1970, though he is not well received at either college, when his fellow faculty realize that Lowell is not the man they had imagined based on his prior work and reputation.  None the less Lowell manages to fly right enough to figure out a path forward, even managing to get back into Caroline’s good graces enough to get pregnant over Christmas break; champagne and poetry mixed with love and mistletoe is a strange, strange bird indeed.  My god, some peoples parents New Year’s eve parties!

Sheridan Lowell arrives into this world September 28, 1971.   Remarkably, his arrival seems to be in some ways, just what Robert Lowell needed.   The intervening years from 1972 to his death in 1977, although still punctuated by multiple break downs and hospitalizations, with Lady Blackwood assuming the role of protector, lover and guardian, were equal parts productive and destructive, but there were moments of peace.  Lowell ages fast in photographs during those five years.   His parents both died when they were 60 and he is completely aware of his diminishment.  Lowell’s lifetime of self destructive habitual heavy drinking, smoking and prescription psychotic drugs having taken their toll and he is consciously aware that he can feel his life force ebbing away.   

Lowell and Hardwick were divorced in 1972, but never unentangled from one another, neither emotionally, or poetically or as parents of a 13 year old daughter.  Lowell found in Blackwood a new muse and intellectual confidante, that carried him through his final years and gave him whatever it was he needed to publish his final books of poetry.  Lady Blackwood, born into a sliver of the Guinness fortune,  lived a remarkable life, enchanting Lucien Freud, the painter and son of Sigmund Freud, in her early 20’s, ultimately marrying him for five years.  By the time Sheridan arrived, the youngest of her four children, she was 41 years old, two-thirds of the way through her own journey, destined to die young of cirrhosis of the liver.

In trying to figure out what poems to match to this blog post, I decided to focus on poems written for Caroline and her daughter Ivana,  the youngest of her three daughters born while married to the pianist Israel Citkowitz.  Blackwood was 22 years Citkowitz’s junior and by the time Ivana was born in 1966, their marriage was over, though Citkowitz remained a close and loving father, living nearby in good standing with his children. 

Both the sonnets No Telling and Ivana were published in The Dolphin, separated by only a couple of pages, towards the end of the book.  The word festschrift means a collection of writing published in honor of a scholar.  When he published History, For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin, against the advice of his friends who were  scholars, was Lowell blindly motivated because he viewed it in its entirety his own festschrift?  The last two lines of Ivana in my opinion are not about her, its all about Lowell.   Then again, everything he published in 1973 in my opinion was to feed his own ego, desires and fears, and not for the betterment of poetry. 


Ivana

by Robert Lowell

Small-soul-pleasing, loved with condescension,
even though the cro-magnon tirades of six,
the last madness of child-gaiety
before the trouble of the world shall hit.
Being chased upstairs is still instant-heaven,
not yet your sisters’ weekends of voluntary scales,
accompanying on a recorder carols
rescored by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Kent.
Though burned, you are hopeful, accident cannot tell you
experience is what you do not want to experience.
Is the teenager the dominant of ache?
Or flirting seniles, their conversation three noises,
their life-expectancy shorter than the martyrs?
How all ages hate another age,

and lifelong wonder what was the perfect age?

I Feel I Know What You Have Worked Through

Robert Lowell

If youth is a defect, it is one we outgrow too soon.

Robert Lowell

For John Berryman I

by Robert Lowell

I feel I know what you have worked through, you
know what I have worked through – we are words,
John, we used the language as if we made it.
Luck threw up the coin, and the plot swallowed,
monster yawning for its mess of potage.
Ah privacy, as if we had preferred mounting
some rock by a mossy stream and counting the sheep
to fame that renews the soul but not the heart.
The out-tide flings up wonders: rivers, linguini,
beercans, mussels, bloodstreams; how gaily the gallop
to catch the ebb – Herbert, Thoreau, Pascal,
born to die with the enlarged hearts of athletes at forty –
Abraham sired with less expectancy,
heaven his friend, the earth his follower.


History, published in 1973, contains 360 separate 14 line poems. I don’t know what to make of them.  I have sat down and read them all, an accomplishment that likely puts me in rare company of poetry readers these days. There are some I found captivating in the way a car crash can be captivating and forced me to head to Goggle to investigate references and think about them a bit more.  Others appear to be no more than drafts of  unfinished poems.  There are tributes to all his friends, fellow writers and writers he admired throughout his lifetime along with postcards of poems on almost every topic imaginable, written for reasons only known to Lowell.  It is an odd assemblage of stuff, feeling more like a writer’s notebook than a book of poetry.  I question if Lowell was not the figure in American Lit that he was at the time, whether all but a handful of the 360 would have ever been published.  What’s fascinating is it’s History in many ways that is the foundation of Lowell’s reputation as a confessional poet.  Yet, as an assemblage of work, it creates more questions in my mind than answers in terms of Lowell’s talents and state of mind when they were written. It feels to me like Lowell is drawing on his reputation from the past in its publishing, and less pushing the envelope forward on his talent as a poet.  Hamilton notes in his biography, that by 1968, Lowell was writing three to four 14 line poems a week.   At that pace of writing, it is obvious that there is not the careful construction and word-smithing, repeated editing that was a feature of his earlier work.  Gone is the craftsmanship of being a poet and in its place is speed dating, energy in its wild exuberance, but it can be hit or miss in the end result. 

In History, one gets the impression that writing and confessional poetry has become less a calling or a passion and more a cross to bear for Lowell.  He appears to be  compelled to bare all his scars, all his good, all his failings and his families failings before all, for the poetry to speak his truth.  It is not a good look.  Most middle aged men look better keeping their clothes on, particularly if you can afford a tailored suit in New York. 

John Berryman won the Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1965 for Dream Songs.  As a work that is a complete poetic vision of a lifetime, Dream Songs is remarkable.  It is cohesive in the way Berryman evolved his poetic vision and has continuity in the narrative that the poems express in an arc of an interconnected story throughout the course of the book.  It is is both autobiographical and fictional in ways that offer a connection between writer and reader that in my mind is masterful.  And it has a sense of humor and a sense of purpose that appears to be completely lacking from Lowell’s History.   There is no comparison between the two books in my opinion. History feels to me like a bit of professional jealousy, where Lowell was trying to play catch up to Berryman.  There are poems in History I admire, but as a whole it is a hot mess in my opinion.   For that reason, it is impossible to only pick out two poems to share from it, out of the 360 poems in total, and pretend I am representing the breadth of the ideas contained within it. Good or bad, pick I have.  

History, is but one of three volumes of poetry, Lowell published in 1973.   To say one comes before the other would be inaccurate, as the writing contained in all three were interconnected.  Over the next several days, I’ll touch on the other two (For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin), and summarize the events in Lowell’s life during the 1970s. 


Two Walls

(1968, Martin Luther King’s Murder)

by Robert Lowell

Somewhere a white wall faces a white wall,
one wakes the other, the other wakes the first,
each burning with the other’s borrowed splendor –
the walls, awake, are forced to go on talking,
their color looks much alike, two shadings of white,
each living in the shadow of the other.
How fine our distinctions when we cannot choose!
Don Giovanni can’t stick his sword through stone,
two contracting, white stone walls – their pursuit
of happiness and his, coincident. . . .
At this point of civilization, this point of the world,
the only satisfactory companion we
can imagine is death – this morning, skin lumping in my throat,
I lie here, heavily breathing, the soul of New York.

A Genius Temperament Should Be Handled With Care

Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick

In the long run wives are to be paid in a peculiar coin – consideration for their feelings.  As it usually turns out this is an enormous, unthinkable inflation few men will remit, or if they will, only with a sense of being overcharged.

Elizabeth Hardwick

The Infinite

by Leopardi

Translated by Robert Lowell

The hill pushed off by itself was always dear
to me and the hedges near
it that cut away of the final horizon.
When I would sit there lost in deliberation,
I reasoned most on the interminable spaces
beyond all hills, on there antedilvuian resignation
and silence that passes
beyond man’s possibility.
Here for a little while my heart is quiet inside me;
and when the wind lifts roughing through the trees,
I set about comparing my silence to those voices,
and I think about the eternal, the dead seasons,
things here at hand and alive,
and all their reasons and choices.
It’s sweet to destroy my mind
and go down
and wreck in this sea where I drown.


The early 1960’s saw Lowell and Hardwick transition from mostly Boston, where Lowell had been receiving care on and off through the 1950’s, to a more permanent New York residence for the decade.  During this decade he published Imitations in 1961, a book of translations, from which The Infinite comes and The Union Dead in 1964.  Imitations was met with mostly a blah response from readers and critics and mediocre reviews, not something Lowell was accustomed.  His friends rallied around it but the general feedback was Lowell made Rilke, sound like Lowell and Rilke and Pasternak, generally didn’t read well as Lowell. In the first half of the decade Lowell dabbled in creating a magazine, wrote a screen play, which led to an embarrassing affair with an actress involved in its production and generally was his normal irascible undisciplined self, writing mostly productively and mostly misbehaving personally.  Then things derailed a bit in the middle.  His dear friend Randall Jarrell died, along with several other writers in his sphere (Roethke, MacNeice, Blackmur)  and he spent most of 1965 and 1966 in mourning, depressed doing very little writing or much of anything else.   

But in 1967, things changed and Lowell entered a period of maniac productivity again.  He began writing what would become History, Lowell’s derivation of Berryman’s The Dream Songs and was politically active in his vocal resistance to injustice and opposition to the Vietnam War. He was active in writing for magazines and critiques of other writers work.  He supported Eugene McCarthy’s campaign and was a vocal critic of Nixon.  He was to be on the losing side politically as the decade stretched on and in his marriage.  Hardwick continued to support him emotionally and stayed by his side through his ups and downs.   Lowell did not hold up his side of the bargain. 

In a sonnet published in Notebook, Lowell mixes his Mother’s and his own perspectives, in the kind of painful confessional style that renders all the fat off the bone:

After my marriage, I found myself in constant
companionship with this almost stranger I found
neither agreeable, interesting, nor admirable.,
though he was always kind and irresponsible.
The first years after our first child was born,
the daddy was out at seas, that helped, I could bask
in the rest and stimulation of my dreams,
but the courtship was too swift, the disembarkement
dangerously abrupt. I was animal,
healthy, easily tired: I adored luxury,
and should have been an extrovert: I usually
managed to make myself pretty comfortable. . . .
Well ‘  she laughed, ‘we both were glad to dazzle.
A genius temperament should be handled with care.’

Unlike Imitations, For the Union Dead was generally well received, and continued to cement his place in the firmament of literature at the time.   He had ample opportunities to lecture and write, his body of work and awards opened doors at prestigious Universities for short term gigs lecturing and writing.  But in reading his poetry and about his life during this decade, its questionable if that success in the mid point of his career calmed his mind and reassured his ego.  The second to last poem in The Union Dead is Night Sweat, a dual sonnet.  It suggests life was not easy living inside Robert Lowell’s head.  Though obviously grateful for his wife’s support, and eloquent at times about acknowledging it,  he would not through his actions in the end reciprocate the trust she had placed in him.


Night Sweat

by Robert Lowell

Work-table, litter, books and standing lamp,
plain things, my stalled equipment, the old broom –
but I am living in a tidied room,
for ten nights now I’ve felt the creeping damp
float over my pajamas’ wilted white .  .  .
Sweet salt embalms me and my head is wet,
everything streams and tells me this is right;
my life’s fever is soaking in night sweat –
one life, one writing! But the downward glide
and bias of existing wrings us dry –
always inside me is the child who died,
always inside me is his will to die-
one universe, one body . . . . in this urn
the animal night sweats of the spirit burn.

Behind me! You! Again I feel the light
lighten my leaded eyelids, while the gray
skulled horses whinny for the soot of night.
I dabble in the dapple of the day,
a heap of wet clothes, seamy, shivering,
I see my flesh and bedding washed with light,
my child exploding into dynamite,
my wife. . . your lightness alters everything,
as your heart hops and flutters like a hare.
Poor turtle, tortoise, if I cannot clear
the surface of these troubled waters here,
absolve me, help me, Dear Heart, as you bear
this world’s dead weight and cycle on your back.

I Feel Awful

Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell with their new born daughter Harriet (1957).

Talking about the past is like a cat’s trying to explain climbing down a ladder.

Robert Lowell

 

Terminal Days at Beverly Farms (Excerpt)

by Robert Lowell

Father and Mother moved to Beverly Farms
to be a two minute walk from the station,
half an hour by train from the Boston doctors.
They had no sea-view,
but sky-blue tracks of the commuters’ railroad shone
like a double-barreled shotgun
through the scarlet late August sumac,
multiplying like cancer
at their garden’s border.

Father had had two coronaries.
He still treasured underhand economies,
but his best friend was his little black Chevie,
garaged like a sacrificial steer
with gilded hooves,
yet sensationally sober,
and with less side than an old dancing pump.
The local dealer, a “buccaneer,”
had been bribed a “king’s ransom”
to quickly deliver a car without chrome.

Each morning at eight-thirty,
inattentive and beaming,
loaded with his “calc” and “trig” books,
his clipper ship statistics,
and his ivory slide rule,
Father stole off with the Chevie
to load in the Maritime Museum at Salem.
He called the curator
“the commander of the Swiss Navy.”

Father’s death was abrupt and unprotesting.
His vision was still twenty-twenty.
After a morning of anxious, repetitive smiling,
his last words to Mother were:
“I feel awful.”


There are photographs where the intent of the picture is one thing and the truth of it another.  Knowing that this was a staged photograph by a professional photographer shortly before or after Harriet’s baptism, and that more than one picture would have been taken, it is hard to understand why this version would be the one to make it into the family archives.  Few new fathers allow the truth of their inner uncertainty about the business of being a new father to be so clearly on display for friends and relatives to see, let alone what a grown up Harriet might think. 

Lowell’s next book to be published was Life Studies in 1959, two years after Harriet’s birth.  Life Studies won the National Book Award for poetry in 1960.  The poems are innately personal, biographical, stark and a bit of a slog to read.  They are inconsistent in tone, some critics claim intentionally, and very much an attempt to stitch together his relationships within his family and himself and his past. They are a reflection of the time politically in this country as well as what had happened to Lowell personally during the decade of the 1950’s, in which he spent a period mid-decade in ancestral worship in trying to right his ship and bring things into focus. 

The 1950’s in Hamilton’s biography for Lowell are a series of breakdowns, hospitalizations, recoveries, improvements, productivity, then a slide into episodes of heavy drinking and depression, only to rinse and repeat.  Lowell had the financial means from his parents to have a stable home life during this chaos and the love and support of Hardwick through it all.  During periods of productivity in this decade, Lowell was exploring the flexibility that free verse provided and decoupling the classical structure from the narratives he felt compelled to share.  He was energized by the possibilities to connect the old and the new in a different confessional voice of poetry he felt was needed to convey the truth of his past for a new future. There is only one typical sonnet contained within Life Studies, and its one I have already shared on Fourteenlines;  the sonnet To Speak of Woe That Is In Marriage, a dark misogynistic nightmare where no intimacy exists between man and wife, only destructive, unemotional copulation.  it’s unclear who Lowell is channeling To Speak of Woe, himself, his father, someone else?  Regardless Lowell’s subconscious was on full display.

Much of Life Studies draws on his family history and its clear he wrote far beyond what was published during that time. Hamilton shares a draft of a previously unpublished sonnet in his biography of Lowell.  The sonnet was written shortly after Lowell’s Father’s death in 1950, the Navy Admiral Robert Traill Spence Lowell III. 

Four years have left Dunbarton much the same,
Mother, another stone, another name,
And you, earth’s orbit? You are things,
No you, no person. Ah, the king of kings,
Little Napoleon, whose bolting food
So caught your fancy, caught your horror stood
Blotting your minutes after Father died.
No bustle, bustle, bustle.  Groom and bride
lie cot by cot.  Once more they feel the spark
Dive through the unnerved marrow of their dark,
A person breaking through his prison term,
Where now as then, relapsing. Oh a germ,
Studies his navel, graphs and charts and maps
Gentle to all, and loving none perhaps.

Hamilton writes:

It is small wonder that when Lowell made the decision to shift from this kind of mechanical regularity to the spacious relaxation of free verse, he was somewhat dazzled by his own boldness, for a period, at any rate, he was content simply to “take liberties,” to relish the sheer drasticness of what he’d done.

But in reading Hamilton’s biography, there appears to be nothing relaxed about Lowell’s writing process.  The entire process of writing the poems that would make up Life Studies was punctuated by manic depressive episodes, endless rewrites and revisions in the period leading up to the final drafts, a process that utterly drained Lowell and all those around him, resulting in another series of locked ward hospitalizations at its conclusion. Very little about Lowell’s life appears to have been “relaxing” for his spouse, friends and supporters.   From Hamilton’s descriptions, Lowell is what I would describe as a high maintenance individual. 

Life Studies concludes with Skunk Hour, dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop, that in my opinion is more an inside joke between the two of them than the tour du force poem based on the praise that the critics heaped upon it.  Regardless, it has a playful quality that definitely sets it apart from most of the rest of the book and again, in my opinion,  is a poor second as Lowell’s response to Bishop’s Armadillo.  Why Life Studies won the National Book Award for poetry is completely beyond me.  I dare wonder if Lowell was a fledgling writer in 2021, submitting these same poems for publication today, would he win the acclaim he did or would he be resoundingly rejected?  Some poets and poems stand the test of time, words that go well beyond their age and period.   Lowell in my mind is not one of them.   He is a poet very much connected and a reflection of his time.   And his time has come and gone. 


Skunk Hour

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.

Justice Can Rise Up

President Joe Biden speaks during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

The Cure of Troy

by Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)

Human beings suffer.
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

History says, Don’t hope
On the side of the grave,’
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea- change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles.
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing,
The utter self revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
And lightening and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
It means once in a lifetime
That justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.


It is the 21rst day, of the 21st year of the 21st Century.   I feel better already….


Sonnet 21

by William Shakespeare

So is it not with me as with that Muse,
Stirr’d by a painted beauty to his verse;
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use,
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse;
Making a couplement of proud compare,
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.
O’ let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother’s child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fix’d in heaven’s air:
   Let them say more than like of hearsay well;
   I will not praise, that purpose not to sell

I Feel You Twitch My Shoulder

Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick

The future may be an enemy.  Time can turn happy days and nights into nothing.

Elizabeth Hardwick (1916 – 2007)

Her Dead Brother (Excerpt)

by Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977)

. . …………………………… …… We are ruinous;
God’s Providence through time has mastered us:
Now all the bells are tongueless, now we freeze,
A later Advent, pruner of warped trees,
Whistles about our nunnery slabs, and yells,
And water oozes from us into wells;
A new year swell and stirs.  Our narrow Bay
Freezes itself and us.  We cannot say
Christ even sees us, when the ice floes toss
His statue, made by Hurons, on the cross,
That Father Turbot sank on Mother’s mound –
A whirlgig! Mother, we must give ground,
Little by little; bit it does no good.
Tonight, while I am piling, on more driftwood,
And stooping with the poker, you are here,
Telling your beads; and breathing in my ear,
You watch your orphan swording at her fears.
I feel you twitch my shoulder.  No one hears
Us mock the sisters, as we used to, years
And years behind us, when we heard the spheres
Whirring venite; and we held our ears.
My mother’s hollow sockets fill with tears. 


Lowell, as an adult, did not function well without a wife.  He didn’t function particularly well with one either, but it was as Elizabeth Hardwick’s spouse that he found the greatest stability and productivity of his career.   When you look at Lowell’s history of relationships there is a tendency for them to be cemented under duress.  When Hardwick and Lowell connected at Yaddo in the fall of 1948, Hardwick was scheduled to depart, but fell for Lowell’s affections and decided to stay on.  During the early part of 1949, while both were in residence, there was a scandal at Yaddo, when the FBI, on the vigilant lookout at the time for communist spies among liberal artists, visited Yaddo and interviewed Hardwick on the activities of Agnes Smedley, a writer on Far East politics and a known Marxist.  Intertwined among all this was another scandal, the fact that current year’s Bollinger award had been given to Pound, who had published a book of poems while being imprisoned for his support of Mussolini.  The zealous nature of the federal government during this period to root out fascists, socialists and communists from all reaches of American life, and particularly the arts lead them to Yaddo, who had several individuals involved in both scandals.   The long and the short of it is, in a complicated and only partially verifiable report, the long finger of Hoover’s FBI was pointed at Smedley and other’s at Yaddo for some involvement in some unproven nefarious scheme to steal government secrets and FBI agents showed up to root out the foreign agents of a supposed communist plot. Hardwick was one of the people interviewed about the same time the two of them were falling in love and this was just the kind of heavy handed government interference that was in Robert Lowell’s wheel house of righteous indignation.  He promptly applied the full powers of his maniac intellect and family connections to cry foul; and come to his lady’s aid, loudly!  This kind of moral, emotional and political support strengthened their bond, but it also fed Lowell’s unhealthy manic side with the inevitable outcome that there was going to be a crash, sooner or later.  As it turned out, it was sooner.   

I mention this only for context around Lowell’s three major accomplishments in 1949; he reconnected with the Catholic Church in a fervent elevation of piety, he had a nervous breakdown and he married Elizabeth Hardwick.  Lowell is quoted in Ian Hamilton’s biography as telling Hardwick before they married, while in the midst of a deepening depression; “No one can care for me, …… I have ruined my life.  I’ll always be mad.”  Hardwick married him anyway in his parents home in Boston late in 1949 and it was agreed by all, he should be admitted to Payne Whitney clinic in New York for treatment shortly after the honeymoon to sort himself out in January of 1950. 

Lowell’s second volume of poetry, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, was published in 1951 and obviously written during these turbulent years.  The long form poems are imbued with a rising moral authority and psychiatric insights about himself and his family and for the most part, are not my cup of tea.   However, when I take the time to focus on portions, there is remarkable beauty.   I admire that he kept writing during this time of personal chaos.  The best of The Mills of the Kavanaughs, both the poem and the book,  is a foreshadowing of what was to come next, his best work, which would set him apart in American Literature, all written under the loving care and intelligence of Lizzie Hardwick. 


The Mills of the Kavanaughs (Excerpt)

by Robert Lowell

The leaves, sun’s yellow, listen, Love, they fall.
She hears her husband, and she tries to call
Him, then remembers.  Burning stubble roars
About the garden.  Columns fill the life
Insurance calendar on which she scores.
The lady laughs.  She shakes her parsol.
The table rattles, and she chews her pearled,
Once telescopic pencil, till its knife
Snaps open, “Sol,” she whipsers, laughing, “Sol,
If you will help me, I will win the world.”
Her husband’s thumbnail scratches on her comb.
A boy is pointing at the sun.  He cries:
O dandelion, wish my wish, be true,
And blows the callow pollen in her eyes.
“Harry,” she whispers, “we are far from home –
A boy and a girl a-Maying in the blue

In The Spirit Level

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

“The armored cars of dreams, contrived to let us do so many a dangerous thing.”

― Elizabeth Bishop

The Armadillo

by Elizabeth Bishop   (1911-1979)

 

For Robert Lowell

This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,

rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.

Once up against the sky it’s hard
to tell them from the stars—
planets, that is—the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,

or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it’s still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,

receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.

Last night another big one fell.
It splattered like an egg of fire
against the cliff behind the house.
The flame ran down. We saw the pair

of owls who nest there flying up
and up, their whirling black-and-white
stained bright pink underneath, until
they shrieked up out of sight.

The ancient owls’ nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,

and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft!—a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!


Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop’s friendship spanned from 1947 until the end of Lowell’s life in 1977.  They met when Lowell, as part of his appointment with the Library of Congress, was tasked with expanding its collection from just manuscripts and books to include recordings of poets reading their work.  He immediately reached out to Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Randell Jarrell along with many others, and included an invitation to Elizabeth Bishop who had recently published North and South, which Lowell had written a positive review.   They soon became fast friends. 

In the summer of 1948, with fresh divorce decree in hand, Lowell went with his girl friend at the time, Carly Dawson to spend the summer in Maine to visit Elizabeth Bishop.  Dawson, already twice divorced, soon faded on Lowell’s odd behavior and intensity and dumped him early on in the visit when Lowell immediately set his fascination upon Bishop shortly after their arrival.  Lowell’s and Bishop’s fascination with each other would continue for the next three decades.   It didn’t take long that summer for Lowell to profess his love for her and told his friends and even his family he was going to marry her.  Bishop never took his exclamations of matrimony seriously and claims the two of them never slept together, though there was an intimacy in their intellectual connection that lasted far beyond what a likely physical romance would have lasted, given Lowell’s history in that regard.  

By fall of 1948, with his position completed at the Library of Congress, Lowell headed to Yaddo, an arts commune near Saratoga, New York that still exists today.   It is an eclectic place, then and now, that gives artists in residence a place to work and interact with other artists across a wide range of disciplines.  Upon arrival he reconnected with Elizabeth Hardwick whom he had met before, a novelist and book reviewer, who was a sharp and thorny critic, and also apparently a font of juicy rumors about Alan Tate’s private life.  In short, Hardwick was exactly the kind of intellectual challenge Lowell admired and it took no time for him to switch his gaze from one Elizabeth to another, Bishop to Hardwick.  

Bishop is quoted as saying, “I never wanted to marry Robert Lowell, but I would have loved to have his baby.”  I think it was a way of keeping her sexual history private.  Bishop was a lesbian at a time that it was not easy to be out and open about being a lesbian.   Bishop, in contrast to Berryman and Lowell who were celebrated for evolving confessional poetry, was very deliberate in her writing to separate her personal life from her poetry in all but its metaphors.  Bishop traveled the world, enjoyed the freedom that a single life affords a woman of financial means; writing, painting and enjoying her journey. 

I find it intriguing that Bishop’s final published poem, published 3 weeks after her death in the New Yorker is titled Sonnet.  She had published another Sonnet in 1928 that I have shared in an earlier Fourteenlines, but to my knowledge sonnets were not her forte.  Is the title and its 14 lines a way to reach out to the past to departed friends, Lowell in particular, who had embraced 14 lines as sufficient space to encompass a lifetime?  The poem is remarkable in its simplicity and imagery.  I too have often been fascinated by the rainbows that live in the edges of beveled mirrors and the tiny bubble that exists in all of our spirit levels, fragile, yet permanent, resetting us on the level if we choose to course correct. 

 


Sonnet

by Elizabeth Bishop

Caught — the bubble
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
undecided.
Freed — the broken
thermometer’s mercury
running away;
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
flying wherever
it feels like, gay!

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 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!