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A life without peace

A new collection of autobiographical prose reveals the turbulent inner life of the celebrated poet Robert Lowell.

By Jeremy Noel-Tod

In the final poem of his last book, Day by Day (1977), Robert Lowell lamented: “sometimes everything I write / with the threadbare art of my eye / seems a snapshot, / […] / heightened from life, / yet paralyzed by fact”. Memoirs, a new collection of his autobiographical prose, bears out the truth of this. Lowell found fame as the first person to write a book of poems, Life Studies (1959), that could have been a family therapy session. His best lines ring out as if from high tragedy (“My mind’s not right”). But it is a drama underwritten by his upper-class American ancestry – a materially comfortable paralysis of facts, which was both his gift and limitation as a writer.

Born in 1917, Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV came from a line of New England naval officers, judges, politicians and ministers going back to the Mayflower in the 17th century. He began to put his own life into prose in his late thirties, as a form of therapy for the severe bipolar disorder (or “pathological enthusiasm”) that led to him being committed to the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in New York, following the death of his mother in 1954. His account of this period, “The Balanced Aquarium”, is the memorable centre of Memoirs. It opens by setting down manic perceptions with acetylene lucidity: starting at institutional white brick, Lowell projects a Babylonian architecture, tessellated with “thousands of molasses-golden lions rampant on blue tiles […] glowing from time to time with the lurid, self-advertising, chlorinated blue-green of an indoor swimming pool”.

At this point in his career, Lowell had published two books of grandly rhyming poetry, winning the Pulitzer Prize for the second. But they might have been largely forgotten (like most of the other mid-century winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry) if he had not discovered, in these manuscripts, a new, novelistic way of writing the world. His fluency almost spills over as it chases memories through sentences enriched by sudden runs of adjectives competing for accuracy: his father’s beloved leather armchair, for example, which is “black, cracked, hacked, scratched, splintered, gouged, initialled, gunpowder-charred and tumbler-ringed” or, more subtly, “the defiant, mobile, unmetropolitan blue” of the Charles River seen from his Boston bedroom window.

[See also: Natalia Ginzburg’s small worlds]

Life Studies featured one complete chapter of Lowell’s New England family memoir, “91 Revere Street”, surrounded by free verse trimmed and stitched from other passages printed here. It is fascinating to see, sometimes, how little he revised between prose and verse. This paragraph, for example, remembers an uncle who died young:

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I rested my hands on the two piles of dirt, one black and one white. And Uncle Devereux stood behind me. His face was putty. His blue coat and white flannel trousers grew straighter and straighter, as though he were in a clothespress. His trousers were like solid cream from the top of the bottle. His coat was like a blue jay’s tail feather. His face was animated, hieratic. His glasses were like Harold Lloyd’s glasses. He was dying of the incurable Hodgkin’s disease. I mixed the sand of two colors to a single, victorious gray. Come winter, Uncle Devereux would blend to the one color.

Lowell’s poem, “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow”, lifts many phrases directly from this passage. It ends:

He was animated, hierarchical,

like a gingersnap man in a clothes-press.

He was dying of the incurable Hodgkin’s disease…

My hands were warm, then cool, on the piles

of earth and lime,

a black pile and a white pile….

Come winter,

Uncle Devereux would blend to the one color.

The rewriting here is mainly in the recycling: morphing the bespectacled face from wide-eyed Harold Lloyd to cartoonish “gingersnap man”; sifting the piles of “dirt” into the more sensuous and symbolic “earth and lime”, while omitting the heavy omen of their mixing.

Such notebook alchemy follows the modernist principles of Imagist verse, as set out by Ezra Pound: cutting superfluous words and compressing perception to a singular intensity. Lowell was brilliant at this. Given “sharps privileges” back after two months of progress towards sanity at the Payne Whitney, he recalls: “I pulled off the dingy, disfiguring adhesive tape marked ‘Lowell’ from my newly returned nail clipper, and saw the whole morning flash blindingly from its chromium surface”. He also had family skin in the game: Amy Lowell, Pound’s rival as the leader of the Imagist movement, was a relative, though “never a welcome subject in our household”, due to her bohemian ways.

[See also: Raymond Briggs’ genius was his understanding of loss]

Young Robert, a moody, headstrong only child, similarly rejected his parents’ brittle respectability by dedicating his life to “unladylike” poetry. That said, his own assessment of Life Studies’ unsparing portrait of their marriage was that ‘I caught real memories in a fairly gentle style’ – and it is true that the haunting thing about these pruned poems is their repressed tenderness. This breaks out in a brief note marking the end of the main period of autobiographical writing: “My own father was a gentle, faithful and dim man. I don’t know why I was so agin him. I hope there will be peace.”

There wasn’t really peace for Lowell, who would be repeatedly hospitalised for manic episodes until his death. In later books, he narrowed the gap between memory and poetry, transcribing episodes from his life and times into unrhymed sonnets. That material is echoed in the last part of Memoirs, which collects reminiscences of literary friends and father figures – such as Pound – told with proud, frank intimacy. It is the weakness of his later poetry, though, that there is not enough rhythmic distinction between the same anecdote told in prose and verse. It’s as though he had forgotten Pound’s Imagist rule: “Don’t retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose”.

Lowell’s best poetry was internationally influential: without it, we would not have much by Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, or Louise Glück, to name just the Nobel Prize winners. But a century after the five-year-old poet spent his last afternoon with Uncle Devereux, Memoirs feels like a book out of time. Although it includes unpublished manuscripts from the Harvard archives, most of what I have quoted has already appeared in some form – and much of the new material either echoes this or falls short in interest. There is, for example, quite a boring boyhood story about stealing marbles, and a banally transparent dream in which Lowell hopes TS Eliot will marry his aunt.

While Lowell’s life story has slept in the vaults, American poetry has moved on. His fame dominated the literary scene until his death in 1977, with the inevitable backlash. “O, I don’t give a shit,” begins Eileen Myles’ poem “On the Death of Robert Lowell”: “He was an old white-haired man […] Filled with much anxiety about his imagined / Pain.” More subtly, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) staged an allusive showdown with Lowell. In a book where the generalising pronoun “you” largely displaces the traditional lyric “I”, Rankine addresses the acclaimed white man, contrasting his “monumental first person” with her own voicing of silent black lives: “Drag that first person out of the social death of history, then we’re kin.”

But Lowell could criticise himself too. “I’m tired. Everyone’s tired of my turmoil,” he wrote in the book that followed Life Studies. The prose origin of that poem is a tribute to William Carlos Williams, the great democratizer of modern American poetry. It begins by reflecting how everyone assumed that Lowell, as a young Bostonian aristocrat, was “doomed to trifle with poetry and end up as president of Harvard”. “I have conquered my hereditary disadvantages,” he wryly assures his readers. However, his praise for Williams, who worked as a doctor, comes close to acknowledging those disadvantages as permanent:

It’s as if no poet except Williams had really seen America or heard its language. […] This may come naturally to Dr Williams from his character, surroundings and occupation. I can see him rushing from his practice to his typewriter, happy that so much of the world has rubbed off on him, maddened by its hurry. […] What others have spent lifetimes building up personal styles to gather has been snatched up on the run by Dr Williams. When I say that I cannot enter him, I am almost saying that I cannot enter America. This troubles me.

By making his subject so much himself, Lowell left much of the otherness of American life out. Had Memoirs appeared while he dominated the literary scene, it would have been a major event; now, its presentation of his last fragments feels like a quiet wrapping up of his reputation. The poet’s poignant reflection on his mother, published here for the first time, comes to mind: “Her life, like anyone else’s, was all tangles of one thread. There was no noose or sword or anything ominous at the end, only a slight fraying.”

Robert Lowell, edited and with a preface by Steven Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc
Faber & Faber, 400pp, £40

[See also: “The festival is more fragile than ever”: the Edinburgh Fringe wars]

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