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