Robert Lowell and Lady Caroline Blackwood
“I was overcome with a pathological bout of enthusiasm.”
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.“