I admit to being rebuffed by Lowell. The lag between entries in my series on the Consultants in Poetry/Poet Laureates is the result of my repeatedly ricocheting off the surface of Lowell’s early catalog, especially the nut of Lord Weary’s Castle. To compensate for my critical inability, I broke with precedent and read several works of criticism. Most helpful were the critical essays compiled in Readings in Literary Criticism: 17, edited by Jonathan Price, which included critical essays by Lowell’s contemporaries Jarrell and Williams, among other notables. The revelations those essays provided were enlightening but ultimately not alleviating. To quote Price in his introduction:
This activity, this hard thinking about his verse, is what Lowell most wants; in his early works, he admits he almost consciously made his poems as difficult as possible, for just this reason.In part, Lowell’s preference for the oblique seems to come from his community of New Critics, who hold that poetry resides in obscurity, clarity being a tenet of advertisement, the anti-poem. Compounding this expectation of “close reading” is Lowell’s preference for self-study. Perplexingly, Lowell seems to desire our scrutiny but not our understanding.
Robert Lowell became the Consultant in Poetry in 1947 a year after the publication of his second book, Lord Weary's Castle. Five of the poems in Lord Weary’s were revisions of poems from his first book, Land of Unlikeness, which opened with a bugle-call to critics penned by Allen Tate:
There is no other poetry today quite like this. T. S. Eliot’s recent prediction that we should soon see a return to formal and even intricate metres and stanzas was coming true, before he made it, in the verse of Robert Lowell.Tate goes on to clear a critical and historic space for Lowell, the Catholic formalist, challenging readers to read his poems closely, patiently. Tate identifies Lowell as a frustrating talent, perhaps, but a rebellious alternative to the jingoist and the patriot poet who greeted, to quote Tate, “the advent of the slave-society.”
Tate seems to mistake Lowell’s rebelliousness for radicalism. While early in his career Lowell writes often about morality, war, corruption, and social inequality, very few of his meditations produce any insight or negotiation. Rather, his poems attempt to shame the reader into an undirected confrontation. From the concluding lines of “Christmas in Black Rock”:
O Christ, the spiraling yearsOften his poems conclude with similar little shocks; these are, as often as not, repelling gestures, the tough talk of a rebel.
Slither with child and manger to a ball
Of ice; and what is man? We tear our rags
To hang the Furies by their itching ears,
And the green needles nail us to the wall.
Lowell’s flair for the acerbic turn in Lord Weary’s Castle may be attributable to his relative youth. Lowell came to the laurels early; before him, the average age of Consultants had been forty. Lowell was thirty when he came to the Consultantship. If there was a hub to the world of poetry in the 1940s, Lowell seems to have fixed himself upon it. Emerging from Kenyon College, and the tutelage of the New Critics, Lowell enjoyed the friendship of Elizabeth Bishop and the attention and hospitality of the Fugitives (a loose affiliation of southern poets that included the likes of Tate and Warren), and he quickly garnered the respect of critical notables such as Bogan, Berryman, and Jarrell. In 1947, Lord Weary’s was awarded the Pulitzer.
At the time of his Consultantship, Lowell’s poetry generally focused upon the subjects of the moral bankruptcy of Boston society (his hometown), his Catholic faith, and the immorality of modern warfare. Decoding Lowell’s poems may lead to minor epiphanies on the nature of the above subjects, but the sum of his early work doesn’t require deciphering. His accomplishment was a poetic effect of managed discord: a combination of the ironic and the devout, the gruesome image and the austere form.
Randall Jarrell offers an explanation of these elemental oppositions when he writes, “The poems understand the world as a sort of conflict of opposites.” But its not entirely apparent that Lowell thinks of them as existing in opposition. Indeed, sometimes the fatalism that peppers his work seems to suggest that he sees no conflict, but rather only an expression of a primal nature or eternal truth. Lowell begins his poem “The Soldier” with “In Time of war you could not save your skin,” and concludes with “Two angels fought with bill-hooks for his soul.” Human wars are reflected by the eternal battle between heaven and hell; our political violence is merely the animation of a spiritual violence. Lowell understands that gore, for example, is often simultaneously humanizing and dehumanizing; both romantic and obscene. These elements do not conflict; they reflect.
Or, put another way, what Jarrell sees as conflict Lowell may see as play. The poetic vamping that occurs between the two lines quoted above is essentially an exercise, or as Lowell might term it, a “conjuring.” From his poem “Colloquy in Black Rock”:
Black Mud, a name to conjure with: O mud
For watermelons gutted to the crust,
Mud for the mole-tide harbor, mud for the mouse,
Mud for the armored Diesel fishing tubs that thud
A year and a day to wind and tide; the dust
Is on this skipping heart that shakes my house,
House of our Savior who was hanged till death.This conjuring increases the ample atmosphere of the poem (and the collection), but adds little definition to our sense of the thing. Here too is a prime example of how Lowell often concludes the poetic meditations of Lord Weary’s Castle: with religious gesture. These professions lack the weight of theology or the nuance of devotion, most often evoking a chastisement or penance. It is difficult to imagine many readers being converted by this characterization of Catholicism; at best it lends a little gravitas to Lowell’s poetic conjuring.
Any description of Lowell’s early poetry is incomplete without reference to his technical ability. His handling of rhyme lacked the rigidity of Allen Tate’s work and the frequent sing-song contrivance of Karl Shapiro's work. Lowell's rhymes seem both natural and reckless with enjambment and cesura. Beyond Lowell’s riddling, lurk exotic, stumbling meters and ingenious rhymes. From “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”:
This is the end of running on the waves;Over the course of his thirty year career, Lowell’s style underwent several radical developments, which might roughly be lumped into formal, imagistic, and confessional modes. His private life, which I’ve generally overlooked in this essay, was often the brightest thread in the tapestry of his work. However, he was also a social critic, a war activist, a historian, and a reader of literature. His early work can be characterized by its complex use of form, and his later work, by its authorial voice and image.
We are poured out like water. Who will dance
The mast-lashed master of Leviathans
Up from the field of Quakers in their unstoned graves?
Undoubtedly, Lowell casts a shadow, long and deep, over the poets who followed him, but his shadow is also narrow. A pillar to poets, Lowell is generally irrelevant to contemporary readers. The ultimate reason for this is, of course, debatable. A poet might reason that the fault lies with the public, who lack attentiveness and curiosity; the public might reason that Lowell is a puzzle indifferent to solution. In his review of Lowell's follow up to Lord Weary's Castle, entitled The Mills of the Kavanaughs, William Carlos Williams seems to be advising Lowell directly when he says, "It is to assert love, not to win it that the poem exists." I find it hard to disagree. In recent weeks it has seemed to me that a critic is needed to appreciate the first half of Lowell’s oeuvre, and a biographer is required to enjoy the second.