There are sublime moments in Robert Lowell’s most famous book. There is also more than enough manipulative dreck.
Like the poetry and the genre he created, Robert Lowell’s Life Studies is torn by its polarities. Published in 1959, the book is considered to be the birth of confessional poetry, shocking readers with dishy personal observations and a language that could be traditional yet deliciously nervy. Today, Life Studies reads like a great writer struggling for his soul, an artist adept in language and rhetoric veering between impulses of humanism and self-destruction. Gradually, Lowell would lose this struggle (doing so in a spectacular enough way to get on the cover of Time). Yet, the book is worth reading, not for Lowell’s personal conflicts but a thorough examination of the history of the personal voice in modern poetry.
With his first three books, 1944’s Land Of Unlikenessness, 1946’s Lord Weary’s Castle, and 1951’s Mills of the Kavanaughs, Lowell established himself as a large presence in American poetry. Where the new formalists were working within the conventions of the sonnet, quatrain, and ballad, Lowell’s ambition was baroque, at times wildly so. Unlikeness, Castle, and The Kavanaughs are filled with epics and mini-epics, staggeringly ambitious attempts to incorporate neo-classical constructs and rhyme schemes into a modern language. When it worked, the results were as good as 20th-century poetry has ever achieved. Too often, however, his ambitions resulted in poems that were magnificent in parts yet suffered in the span of their whole.
In the best poems of Life Studies, the personal voice is a boon for Lowell. Upon first reading the book, I found it hard to stomach his impulse toward the diaristic, given the multitude of sins committed against poetry in the name of the vowel “I.” More often than not, however, Lowell ended up winning me over… and seldom more spectacularly than in “Beyond The Alps,” his travelogue through Italy in the ruin of Mussolini’s empire and the wake of Pious’ assumption. Here, Lowell is a participant observer, using the I to center the scene and context of the poem.
Reading how even the Swiss had thrown the sponge
in once again, and Everest was still
unscaled, I watched our Paris Pullman lunge
mooning across the fallow alpine snow.
Oh Bella Roma! I saw our stewards go
Forward on tiptoe banging on their gongs.
Life changed to landscape. Much against my will
I left the City of God where it belongs.
There the skirt-mad Mussolini unfurled
the eagle of Caesar. He was one of us
only, pure prose. I envy the conspicuous
waste of our grandparents on their grand tours –
long-haired Victorian sages accepted the universe
while breezing on their trust funds through the world.
–from “Beyond the Alps.”
Lowell tells of a Europe in collusion with money and fascism and a nation coming to grips with the squalor of its recent past, and he couldn’t have done it without the first-person voice. The poem has his near-trademark rhyme structure, complex and conversational yet less attentive to the music of a line than Yeats or Auden. Yet the declarative tone grounds his language, focusing on the subject, not his need to be Byron; the results are dynamic. In “Alps,” Lowell finally gets the constructs of the epic right, doing so with an ordinary language with its roots in the tradition of English verse.
Italy provides the background of “Sailing Home From Rapallo,” Lowell’s finest poem, and in this writer’s opinion, the best “confessional” poem ever written. “Rapallo” is an elegy for his mother, and the subject gives his language a tragic power. Lowell isn’t baroque here but somber: outside of the first lines, her death isn’t even mentioned:
Your nurse could only speak Italian,
but after twenty minutes I could imagine your final week,
and tears ran down my cheeks….
When I embarked from Italy with my Mother’s body,
the whole shoreline of the Golfo di Genova
was breaking into fiery flower.
The crazy yellow and azure sea-sleds
blasting like jack-hammers across
the spumante-bubbling wake of our liner,
recalled the clashing colors of my Ford.
Mother traveled first-class in the hold;
her Risorgimento black and gold casket
was like Napoleon’s at the Invalides….
–from “Sailing Home From Rapallo.”
From a quick reading of the first lines, I got the idea that Lowell is looking at everything around his mother to forget her, but soon, I realized that might be the point of the poem:
A fence of iron spear-hafts
black-bordered its mostly Colonial grave-slates.
The only “unhistoric” soul to come here
was Father, now buried beneath his recent
unweathered pink-veined slice of marble.
Even the Latin of his Lowell motto:
seemed too businesslike and pushing here,
where the burning cold illuminated
the hewn inscriptions of Mother’s relatives:
twenty or thirty Winslows and Starks.
Frost had given their names a diamond edge….
In the grandiloquent lettering on Mother’s coffin,
Lowell had been misspelled LOVEL.
was wrapped like panettone in Italian tinfoil.
–from “Sailing Home From Rapallo.”
Lowell buries himself in the scenery to forget the gravity of his loss, but the gravity never leaves. He is heartbreakingly personal in his distance, letting the images devastatingly describe his feelings. “Rapallo” is one of the most anthologized poems of all time and deserves to be.
Reading the book’s sublime exercises in the personal, one would like to think Life Studies is a sum of its high points, of Lowell reaching for the sublime in his environment and his soul. However, to do that would to completely ignore the dark, gossipy, and controversial poems that made him a star. For if the Lowell of “Alps” and “Rapallo” is the craftsman that needs to be recognized; it is the Lowell of “Waking In The Blue” and “To Speak Of Woe That Is Marriage” that is still with us, a tormented man too eager to hawk what was tormenting him. Take the first lines of “Blue,” his poem about going insane.
The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My heart grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the “mentally ill.”)
–from “Waking in the Blue.”
The language here is crisp and cleaner than his earlier, more placid poetry. The problem with it is that the only thing he’s selling in the poem is his madness, a cardboard romantic image of the mentally ill poet suffering for his craft. That persona made him a quasi-pop culture figure, but beneath it is a deficiency of literary imagination, most obvious in the final lines:
After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.
–from “Waking in the Blue”
Evocative images, but compare them with the examples above. In “Alps” and “Rapallo,” you see whole landscapes within the context of history, all in the span of a few bars. The only thing you see in “Blue” is a charming, troubled rich man eating breakfast. “Blue”’s sense of the troubling and diaristic pales in comparison to “Marriage,” his account of beating up his ex-wife, told from her perspective (here in its entirety):
To Speak Of Woe That Is In Marriage
“It is the future generation that presses into being by means of
these exuberant feelings and supersensible soap bubbles of ours.”
“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.”
“Marriage”’s aesthetic implication that a feeling, no matter how reprehensible that feeling may be to many, is art simply because the artist puts it to paper is one of the foundations of confessional poetry. Some people think that this poem, as jarring as it seems, absolves him of the act, that we should look at it favorably because he is speaking from his wife’s point of view, and in doing so, confessing his sin in meter and verse. The problem with that theory lies in the poem’s point of view. In “Marriage,” Lowell’s wife remains in his grasp; she excoriates his sin, but he doesn’t, and the result is that she exists only as a prop for him to tell the reader, “I beat my wife, see how sensitive I am in acknowledging it.”
Lowell’s impulse to make his cruelty toward women the center of his art would become more prevalent in 1969’s Notebooks and 1972’s For Lizzie And Harriet, and as a result, he lost a sizeable share of his audience. The best poems of Life Studies make enough of a case for him to be reread, if only with a warier eye. In context, they show him not as an American Byron but a figure all his own, uniquely gifted, uniquely self-absorbed, self-mythologizing, and self-destructive. In the end, the Lowell of Life Studies is a poet of fragments, bad and good, noble and cowardly, empathetic and cruel. They cannot congeal, and contrary to the opinions of his detractors and fans, they cannot be congealed; they just exist.