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?