“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)
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.”
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?
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.”