History Has To Live

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Robert Lowell and Lady Caroline Blackwood

“I was overcome with a pathological bout of enthusiasm.”

Robert Lowell

History

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.

I Feel I Know What You Have Worked Through

Robert Lowell

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

Robert Lowell

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. 


Two Walls

(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.

I Don’t Know, Mr Bones, You Ask Too Much

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This post marks the four hundredth blog entry on Fourteen lines.

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 are merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that’s always easiest.

John Berryman

The Dream Songs – 177

by John Berryman

Am tame now.  You may touch me, who had thrilled
(before) your tips, twitcht from your breast your heart;
& burst your willing brain.
I am tame now.  Undead, I was not killed
by Henry’s viewers but maimed.  It is my art
to buzz the spotlight in vain,
flighting ‘at random’ while Addison wins.
I would not want war with Addison.  I love him
and Addison so loves me back
me backsides, I may perish in his grins
& grip. I would he liked me less, less grim.
but he has helpt me, slack

& sick & hopeful, anew to know what man –
scrubbing the multiverse with dazzled tonight –
still has in store for man:
a doghouse or a cave, is all we could,
according to my dreams. I stand in doubt,
surrounded by holy wood.


This post marks the four hundredth blog of fourteen lines, forty percent to my goal of one thousand blog entries.  I thank all of you who visit this space, whether a single time, once in a while or regularly.  I hope our shared experience of reading and enjoying poetry connects us in some way to a global thread of shared humanity.

I find Berryman an inspiration on persistence.  That may be an odd thing to say about a man who jumped off a bridge, but he had harbored that longing to end things on his terms for a long, long time before he finally acted on it. He did the best he could and continued his voyage as an artist for nearly 8 decades, no small accomplishment given his tendency towards self destruction.  There is nothing at all to do with this Mr. Bones and that Mr. Bones.  Or is there?

I recently attended a retreat where I was not allowed to talk, use a cell phone, computer or technology of any kind for 3.5 days.   It was a very rewarding experience, something I would eagerly do again.  It was good to reacquaint myself with the silence of my own mind, to retreat back to my childhood tech-less self. What a terrible curse we have placed on the generations that will know only screens, smart phones and blinking flashing things, all commanding our constant attention.  The curse of 24 hour news cycle and the constant barrage of information.  I promptly went out and bought a singing bowl, to make a deeper commitment to daily meditation and silence.

The experience also made me ponder the words “retreat”, “recollected”, and “reparations.” It also made think deeply about the word play of “spouse” and “espouse.” Is this what poets do?  Geek out on words bumping around in our skulls when we are told we can only use our inside voices and not our speaking voices.  When was the last time you couldn’t or didn’t speak to another human being for a whole day?  Did it invigorate you or did it test you?  Did you want to scream, tell a joke or sing or remain silent when it was over?


The Dream Songs – 223

by John Berryman

It’s wonderful the way cats bound about,
it’s wonderful how men are not found out
so far.
It’s miserable how many      miserable are
over the spread world at this tick of time.
These mysteries that I’m

rehearsing in the dark did brighter minds
much bother through them ages, whom who finds
guilty for failure?
Up all we rose with dawn, springy for pride,
trying all morning.  Dazzled, I subside
at noon, noon be my gaoler

and afternoon the deepening of the task
poor Henry set himself long since to ask:
Why? Who? When?
— I don’t know, Mr. Bones. You asks too much
of such as you & me & such
fast cats, worse men.