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

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!

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!

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.

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. 


To Speak of Woe

Weight of love

To Speak of Woe That Is In Marriage

by Robert Lowell

The hot night makes us keep our bedroom windows open.
Our magnolia blossoms. Life begins to happen.
My hopped up husband drops his home disputes,
and hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes,
free-lancing out along the razor’s edge.
This screwball might kill his wife, then take the pledge.
Oh the monotonous meanness of his lust…
It’s the injustice… he is so unjust’
whiskey-blind, swaggering home at five.
My only thought is how to keep alive.
What makes him tick? Each night now I tie
ten dollars and his car key to my thigh…
Gored by the climacteric of his want,
he stalls above me like an elephant.’


Don’t ever accuse Robert Lowell of not having a sense of humor.  What are we to make of this sonnet?  In my opinion Lowell intentionally uses the sonnet structure to poke a little fun at the romantics by describing what may be the most selfless act of love by a female protagonist in all of poetry, the willingness to accept her lovers demons, however vile and debasing they may be.

What makes each of us tick? A question that sorely tests every relationship. I don’t believe in true love, as truth and love have little business reuniting in one ignominious lie. I do believe lasting love comes in part from the acceptance of injustice. Rare is the relationship borne of equals.  Most of us live a life with a partner where, for sometimes long periods, one member or the other pulls a greater share of the weight to make it succeed. One person is more committed, one person is more invested and that fact is worn like a yoke around both partners necks. Maybe it is through that sacrifice of accepting the injustice of love, that love abides.


 

Astrophil and Stella 47

by Sir Phillip Sydney

What, have I thus betrayed my liberty?
Can those black beams such burning marks engrave
In my free side? or am I born a slave,
Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny?
Or want I sense to feel my misery?
Or sprite, disdain of such disdain to have?
Who for long faith, though daily help I crave,
May get no alms but scorn of beggary.
Virtue, awake! Beauty but beauty is;
I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
Leave following that which it is gain to miss.
Let her go. Soft, but here she comes. Go to,
Unkind, I love you not! O me, that eye
Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie!

To Make Anything of Anything

jarrell
Randall Jarrell (1914 – 1965)

Randall Jarrell

by Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977)

The dream went like a rake of sliced bamboo,
slats of dust distracted by a downdraw;
I woke and knew I held a cigarette;
I looked, there was none, could have been none;
I slept off years before I woke again,
palming the floor, shaking the sheets. I saw
nothing was burning. I awoke, I saw
I was holding two lighted cigarettes. . . .
They come this path, old friends, old buffs of death.
Tonight it’s Randall, his spark still fire though humble,
his gnawed wrist cradled like Kitten. “What kept you so long,
racing the cooling grindstone of your ambition?
You didn’t write, you rewrote…. But tell me,
Cal, why did we live? Why do we die?”

 


 

Aging

by Randall Jarrell

I wake, but before I know it it is done,
The day, I sleep. . . . And of days like these the years,
A life are made.  I nod, consenting to my life,
-But who can live in these quick-passing hours?
I need to find again, to make a life,
A child’s Sunday afternoon, the Pleasure Drive,
Where everything went by but time – the Study Hour
Spent at a desk with folded hands, in waiting.
In those I could make.  Did I not make in them
Myself? the Grown One whose time shortens,
Breath quickens, heart beats faster, till at last
It catches, skips?  Yet those hours that seemed, were endless
Were still not long enough to have remade
My childish heart: the heart that must have, always,
To make anything of anything, not time,
Not time but –
    .  but alas! eternity.

 

 

Our Wheels No Longer Move

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We Can Do Better Than This America!

Inauguration Day: January 1953

by Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977)

The snow had buried Stuyvesant.
The subways drummed the vaults. I heard
the El’s green girders charge on Third,
Manhattan’s truss of adamant,
that groaned in ermine, slummed on want….
Cyclonic zero of the word,
God of our armies, who interred
Cold Harbor’s blue immortals, Grant!
Horseman, your sword is in the groove!

Ice, ice. Our wheels no longer move.
Look, the fixed stars, all just alike
as lack-land atoms, split apart,
and the Republic summons Ike,
the mausoleum in her heart.


History has a way of repeating itself.   The urban, intellectual liberal democrat candidate for President, Stevenson, lost to the war hawk demagogue conservative, Eisenhower in the 1952 Presidential election.   Lowell marked Eisenhower’s 1953 inauguration with this sonnet, a satirical sharp-tongued intelligent critique of the icy death of American values while the negativity of McCarthyism held sway over our country in the midst of the Korean war.  All of this sounds familiar.  But we need not be stuck in our current icy path.   Its time to move forward with a simple reminder of our better selves:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”