Tony Roberts

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See­ing Robert Low­ell Plain

In the cen­te­nary of his birth the ma­jor Amer­i­can poet Robert Low­ell is back in fo­cus, if not quite in fash­ion. This year he is the sub­ject of an ex­cel­lent bi­og­ra­phy, Robert Low­ell: Set­ting the River on Fire, by Kay Red­field Jami­son, and his New Se­lected Po­ems has also ap­peared. Af­ter proof­read­ing his first Se­lected Po­ems in 1976, the year be­fore his death, Low­ell ac­knowl­edged, ‘Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy pre­dom­i­nates, al­most forty years of it.’ An­other, more com­pre­hen­sive route to his life, how­ever, is through the let­ters. Here we may, in Robert Brown­ing’s words, see the poet ‘plain’. A charis­matic fig­ure emerges from the pages of Saskia Hamil­ton’s The Let­ters of Robert Low­ell (2005) and from Words in Air: The Com­plete Cor­re­spon­dence be­tween Eliz­a­beth Bishop and Robert Low­ell (ed. Thomas Trav­isano and Saskia Hamil­ton, 2008). While the poet’s early, stri­dent voice ma­tured into com­pas­sion and fi­nally weari­ness, the man we meet in the cor­re­spon­dence is amus­ing, ad­mir­ing and op­ti­mistic as well. This is the poet who wrote in an ‘Afterthought’ to Note­book 1967-68, ‘In truth I seem to have felt mostly the joys of liv­ing; in re­mem­ber­ing, in record­ing, thanks to the gift of the Muse, it is the pain.’

Low­ell was born into an old New Eng­land fam­ily. Af­ter a re­bel­lious child­hood com­pli­cated by a dom­i­nat­ing mother with whom he al­ways ‘com­peted’ and an in­ef­fec­tual naval fa­ther, he dropped out of Har­vard to study with the in­flu­en­tial South­ern po­ets, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ran­som. He also formed a friend­ship with the poet and critic Ran­dall Jar­rell, mar­ried the first of three writer wives, Jean Stafford, and pub­lished the Pulitzer Prize win­ning col­lec­tion, Lord Weary’s Cas­tle (1946).

Low­ell was to suf­fer bipo­lar dis­or­der through­out his life, be­ing in­sti­tu­tion­alised six­teen times or more. One early man­i­fes­ta­tion was re­li­gious zealotry. In­fi­delity be­came a weary­ing later symp­tom, weigh­ing on Low­ell’s sec­ond and stead­i­est mar­riage, to Eliz­a­beth Hard­wick with whom

he had a daugh­ter. Af­ter a highly suc­cess­ful ca­reer in po­etry –espe­cially with the ground-break­ing Life Stud­ies (1959) –and a time dab­bling in celebrity and pol­i­tics, Amer­ica soured for him. In 1970 he turned to Eng­land, found a new wife, Lady Caro­line Black­wood, and pro­duced his last works dur­ing a pe­riod of in­creas­ing tur­moil. He re­turned to Hard­wick but went to visit Black­wood. He died on one such re­turn jour­ney.

The Let­ters of Robert Low­ell of­fer an elo­quent self-por­trait. Cen­tral to the col­lec­tion are the fas­ci­nat­ing glimpses of the evo­lu­tion of the poet and fi­nally the poignant let­ters at the time of the Hard­wick di­vorce. We be­gin with the fierce com­mit­ment of the neo­phyte. In the open­ing let­ter the nine­teen year-old pe­ti­tions Ezra Pound to ac­cept him as an ap­pren­tice, of­fer­ing to bring the nec­es­sary ‘steel and fire’ to one who he feels has ‘recre­ated what I imag­ined to be the blood of Homer.’ The young Low­ell ex­pects to make his way by his writ­ings, he tells his par­ents, ‘not be­cause I was a Low­ell at Har­vard’. Ar­riv­ing unan­nounced in Ten­nessee, he soon learns from Tate to ‘know bet­ter what I need to do to ad­vance, and [be] less in­flated with my do­ings and writ­ings.’ There is ma­tu­rity in his recog­ni­tion in a let­ter to his early teacher, the poet Richard Eber­hart, ‘I’m in no hurry for recog­ni­tion. I have no doubt in my abil­ity to pro­duce in the end.’

Although new to the po­etry scene his po­ten­tial was recog­nised by his men­tors. He had im­pressed Eber­hart and reached out to Pound, Eliot and to Frost who had seen his work as an un­der­grad­u­ate. To him he writes in July, 1947: ‘Thanks for what you said in your let­ter. We are re­ally old friends now.’ Low­ell’s friend­ships were sin­cere, but also valu­able. He made fur­ther con­nec­tions through his time as Con­sul­tant in Po­etry to the Li­brary of Congress (1947-8). A gre­gar­i­ous man who lived for po­etry, Low­ell con­stantly net­worked via notes, in­vi­ta­tions, let­ters and re­views.

As well as pro­mot­ing the work of friends, he was also sup­port­ive of them. Break­downs and de­pres­sion were not un­com­mon among the po­ets of his gen­er­a­tion. To Theodore Roethke he writes of ‘some flaw in the mo­tor’ in the fact ‘that to write we seem to have to go at it with such sin­gle-minded in­ten­sity that we are al­ways on the point of drown­ing’. Low­ell goes on to

hope, ‘There must be a kind of glory to it all that peo­ple com­ing later will won­der at.’ He be­gins a let­ter to John Ber­ry­man: ‘I have been think­ing much about you all sum­mer, and how we have gone through the same trou­bles, vis­it­ing the bot­tom of the world.’ At Jar­rell’s break­down he writes ‘Your courage, bril­liance and gen­eros­ity should have saved you from this, but of course all good qual­i­ties are un­avail­ing.’

Low­ell was ha­bit­u­ally gen­er­ous in trib­utes to oth­ers. He de­fends Ezra Pound, whose fas­cist com­ments are not to be con­doned, ‘Yet as a poet he is a hero, full of courage, and hu­mor and com­pas­sion’. To T.S Eliot’s widow Va­lerie he writes ‘there was no one else who could both write and tell us how to write, no one who spoke with such au­thor­ity and so lit­tle played the role of a great man.’ In an­other mood his wit could be barbed. He be­gins a let­ter to Allen Gins­berg, ‘I think let­ters ought to be writ­ten the way you think po­etry ought to be. So let this be breezy, brief, in­com­plete, but spon­ta­neous and not dis­hon­estly hold­ing back.’ He could be acid, too. Of Spender he once wrote, ‘You know he bites the boot he licks.’

We learn a lot about Low­ell’s at­ti­tude to his own po­etry from these let­ters, par­tic­u­larly his re­luc­tance to de­clare fin­ished ver­sions: ‘Re­vi­sion on re­vi­sion, then worst of all tin­ker­ing, some­times just for a change’, as he tells Eliot of ‘Thanks­giv­ing’s Over’ in 1949. Through­out his ca­reer he wor­ried about ‘spoil­ing by pol­ish­ing’. Me­tre was a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion but he was grad­u­ally lured to­wards a break­through to a con­ver­sa­tional style. Not long be­fore Life Stud­ies ap­peared he ex­plained to Wil­liam Car­los Williams he has been ‘ex­per­i­ment­ing with mix­ing loose and free me­ters with strict in or­der to get the ac­cu­racy, nat­u­ral­ness, and mul­ti­plic­ity of prose, yet, I also want the state and surge of the old verse, the car­pen­try of def­i­nite me­ter that tells me when to stop ram­bling.’ Above all he was des­per­ate not to re­peat him­self as a poet. As early as 1952, in the largely fal­low pe­riod be­tween books, he writes Allen Tate ‘I think I’m go­ing into new coun­try, and will not be re­peat­ing my old tricks’.

One could get ‘boxed up’ by the ma­chin­ery of me­tre, but not only by that. Low­ell be­gan to see that his char­ac­ter­is­tic rhetor­i­cal im­pulse –the ex­plo­sive

dic­tion and sym­bol­ism –needed to change also. With Life Stud­ies, as he put it to Ran­dall Jar­rell: ‘I’ve been loos­en­ing up the me­ter, as you’ll see and hors­ing out all the old the­ol­ogy and sym­bol­ism and ver­bal vi­o­lence.’ It was a change that paid div­i­dends for both poet and au­di­ence, as Low­ell learned in read­ing on the West Coast: ‘I found read­ing aloud that I wanted more hu­mor, more im­me­di­ate clar­ity, fewer sym­bols, more of the good prose writer’s re­al­is­tic di­rect glance’. He needed to tap into his own ex­pe­ri­ence di­rectly, and was to do that from then on.

‘Writ­ing’s hell, isn’t it?’ The roller­coaster emo­tions of cre­ativ­ity –the ex­hil­a­ra­tion and de­pres­sions –fu­elled Low­ell’s bipo­lar con­di­tion. Let­ters that make ref­er­ence to it are af­fect­ing, whether writ­ten at the height of ma­nia (‘This has been like purg­ing the Augean sta­bles, but I’m in mys­te­ri­ously won­der­ful and rugged shape’) or dur­ing the de­pres­sion that fol­lowed. Af­ter his first break­down he ex­plains to an ex-lover: ‘By the time I reached the hos­pi­tal I was com­pletely out of my head… I was a prophet and ev­ery­thing was a sym­bol; then in the hos­pi­tal: shout­ing, singing, tear­ing things up –reli­gion and an­tics. Then de­pres­sion (ex­treme) aching, self-en­closed, fear­ful of ev­ery­one and ev­ery­thing any­one could do, feel­ing I was noth­ing and could do noth­ing.’ This was the ‘Mes­sianic bes­tial glow’ he de­scribed a decade later, fol­lowed by ‘dark months of in­de­ci­sion, empti­ness etc.’ Al­ways the poet, how­ever (and in an ef­fort to be uplifting) he ad­mits to Roethke, ‘We even bring back cer­tain trea­sure from our vis­its to the bot­tom.’

Low­ell learned to ac­cept his at­tacks as part of his char­ac­ter, be­fore a change to lithium treat­ment sta­bilised his con­di­tion and made him more hope­ful. He was even able at times to write of it dis­pas­sion­ately. In a 1965 let­ter he ex­plains: ‘Ev­ery year or two, I have a break­down and am in a san­i­tar­ium for about a month, never much more. Of­ten there are girls or a girl, and it’s all messy and hard as hell on Lizzie.’ It was hard on all his wives. His first mar­riage foundered on his sud­den, in­tense Catholi­cism and in­cip­i­ent ma­nia. Low­ell’s li­aisons with young women be­gan later and were not con­fined to his bipo­lar episodes.

Low­ell met Eliz­a­beth Hard­wick at Yaddo, a writ­ers’ colony, where he de­scribed her to his friend Peter Tay­lor as ‘slip-shod, good hu­mored, ma­li­cious (harm­less) and hu­mor­ous’ and to an­other as ‘a South­ern girl (a New York char­ac­ter now) full of gos­sip’. They met and mar­ried in 1949, the year af­ter his di­vorce from Stafford. In the wake of his first break­down he re­ported to his mother that Hard­wick had been ‘mar­velously brave, in­ge­nious and sym­pa­thetic’ and so she was to re­main, de­spite his manic episodes, in­fi­deli­ties and ul­ti­mately their di­vorce.

The let­ters from 1970-1977 cover this time. He came to Eng­land to take up a teach­ing po­si­tion at Es­sex Univer­sity and met Black­wood al­most im­me­di­ately. He was shortly af­ter hos­pi­talised by a manic at­tack which drove her tem­po­rar­ily away and brought Hard­wick from New York. He com­pounded his de­ser­tion of her by vac­il­lat­ing (‘I don’t think I can come back to you, but al­low me this short space be­fore I ar­rive in New York to wob­ble in my mind.’). Theirs had been ‘a mar­riage that was both rib and spine for us these many years’ and yet Black­wood ‘is airy and very steady and sturdy in an odd way.’ It was not a ‘way’ that was to be suf­fi­ciently sup­port­ive to the trou­bled Low­ell. Still, Hard­wick was re­luc­tant to give up Low­ell and he felt the same way. ‘Not hav­ing you is like learn­ing to walk’, he wrote in 1971 but that same year his son was born to Black­wood and di­vorce and re­mar­riage be­came in­evitable.

De­spite be­ing guilt rid­den for the may­hem he caused, Low­ell even­tu­ally ex­ac­er­bated it in hu­mil­i­at­ing Hard­wick by us­ing ex­tracts from her let­ters in The Dol­phin. Even that did not end their re­la­tion­ship though and grad­u­ally Low­ell’s mar­riage to Black­wood foundered on their con­trary needs. The Let­ters of Robert Low­ell ends with short, ag­o­nised notes to Black­wood. They were, as he wrote ‘two erup­tions, two earth­quakes crash­ing’. And so Low­ell re­turned to Hard­wick, spent a sum­mer in their Maine con­verted barn. He vis­ited his new wife and son once more and then died in a taxi on his re­turn to New York and Hard­wick.

The Let­ters in­clude many of Low­ell’s to Eliz­a­beth Bishop, his ‘fa­vorite poet and fa­vorite friend’. Yet Words in Air of­fers more: both sides of

their cor­re­spon­dence in its en­tirety. These are gen­er­ous, loyal and lov­ing ex­changes over thirty years. In Jan­uary 1962 Bishop wrote, ‘When I think of how the world and my life would look to me if you weren’t in ei­ther of them at all –they’d look very empty, I think.’ On March 10, 1962 Low­ell replied, ‘how in­dis­pens­able you are to me, and how ide­ally we’ve re­ally kept things, bet­ter than life al­lows, re­ally’. In the ex­change of let­ters with Bishop, who lived a sig­nif­i­cant part of her adult life in Brazil, we have more in­sights into Low­ell’s thoughts on his work and of­ten the best of him as a per­son.

The re­la­tion­ship be­gan in 1947 when Bishop was thirty-six and Low­ell thirty. She had pub­lished North & South the pre­vi­ous year and he Lord Weary’s Cas­tle and both were in an un­cer­tain ro­man­tic po­si­tion in their own lives, which led Low­ell to long-cher­ish an ide­alised no­tion of their com­pat­i­bil­ity. In Au­gust, 1957 in a manic state he was to make ad­vances to Bishop dur­ing a visit by her and her part­ner, Lota de Macedo Soares. For­given, he ex­plained that he had al­ways as­sumed that they might marry and that ‘ask­ing you is the might have been for me’.

The let­ters are not love let­ters in the ro­man­tic sense as much as the ea­ger cor­re­spon­dence of friends who en­joy each other’s work and of­fer to cri­tique it (‘I am dy­ing to see the bal­lad and the other new po­ems’). As early as De­cem­ber 1947 Low­ell de­clares him­self flat­tered by the fact Bishop gave some of his po­ems ‘such a thor­ough go­ing read­ing’. These are of course let­ters about their day-to-day lives as well: fam­ily, houses, jobs, plans, va­ca­tions–and gos­sip on the lit­er­ary life. In writ­ing to Bishop, Low­ell loves to re­count the con­ver­sa­tions that cor­ner him at meet­ings and par­ties. When Au­den tells him that South­ern­ers [the New Crit­ics] should keep off crit­i­cism be­cause they are not good at it, he cheer­fully re­ports the com­ment adding that Au­den should per­haps do the same, ‘but the re­mark did my wicked New Eng­land heart good.’ There are many amused ref­er­ences to their mu­tual friend Jar­rell’s an­tics, to Pound’s, to Mar­i­anne Moore, Mary McCarthy, Roethke and Ber­ry­man who is ‘ut­terly spooky, teach­ing bril­liant classes, spend­ing week-ends in the san­i­tar­ium, drink­ing, seedy’. Spender is al­most re­ha­bil­i­tated: ‘to my sur­prise [he] turned out to be very pleas­ant -no

poet, though.’ Self-dep­re­ca­tion or a dash of re­al­ism saves them from van­ity with re­spect to their own mer­its and suc­cesses. Low­ell re­ports ‘front page glow­ing re­views in the Times and Tri­bune, one in Newsweek, in­ter­views in all three. I can’t say I don’t find it very oc­cu­py­ing and ex­cit­ing, but what use?’

Their ex­changes also pro­vided op­por­tu­ni­ties to try out anec­dotes, ideas and im­ages and, in Low­ell’s case, to pro­mote his friend’s ca­reer: ‘I was on the Bollin­gen and Na­tional Book Award com­mit­tees and tried to get the prizes given to you and/or Ran­dall.’ On an­other oc­ca­sion he writes ‘When­ever I meet a pub­lisher I give him your ad­dress.’ Both po­ets shared some sim­i­lar prob­lems, with al­co­hol de­pen­dency and de­pres­sion, for ex­am­ple. They ex­hibit great sym­pa­thy and tact for each other’s re­verses, no­tably in their love lives.

Bishop re­frained from in­volv­ing her­self in com­ment­ing on Low­ell’s re­la­tion­ship with his wives, ex­cept on one oc­ca­sion. Prior to the ap­pear­ance of The Dol­phin, she mem­o­rably coun­selled him: ‘One can use one’s life as ma­te­rial –one does, any­way –but these let­ters –aren’t you vi­o­lat­ing a trust? IF you were given per­mis­sion –IF you hadn’t changed them…etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.’ The ad­vice was un­heeded be­cause, as Low­ell had ad­mit­ted to her years be­fore, ‘I may have got­ten into a rather me­chan­i­cal ap­petite for pub­lish­ing’.

A great con­trast in the let­ters is be­tween Low­ell’s re­lent­less am­bi­tion for his verse and Bishop’s quiet per­fec­tion­ism. As Low­ell’s friend and col­league Grey Gowrie wrote, re­view­ing the sec­ond ma­jor bi­og­ra­phy of Low­ell, Lost Pu­ri­tan (in the The Daily Tele­graph, Fe­bru­ary 1995): ‘Like read­ers to­day, he loved Eliz­a­beth Bishop’s ge­o­graph­i­cal, notic­ing po­ems. But he never doubted that speak­ing for and to Amer­ica at a pe­cu­liar mo­ment of his­tory counted more.’ If the com­ment hardly re­flects cur­rent ver­dicts on Bishop’s won­der­ful po­etry, it does make a valid point about Low­ell’s per­cep­tion of his task. Yet he was end­lessly ad­mir­ing of her work and feared in con­trast he tended to ‘beat the big drum too much’. As he ad­mit­ted in 24 April, 1952, ‘You al­ways make me feel that I have a rather ob­vi­ous breezy im­per­sonal lik­ing for the great and the ob­vi­ous –in con­trast with

your adult per­sonal feel­ing for the odd and the gen­uine’. Bishop in turn was flat­tered by such com­ments as ‘I think I read you with more in­ter­est than any­one now writ­ing. I know I do’ and not a lit­tle hum­bled, given her great ad­mi­ra­tion for his work. In July 1960 she pleaded, ‘Please never stop writ­ing me let­ters –they al­ways man­age to make me feel like my higher self… for sev­eral days’.

Low­ell’s ab­sorp­tion in writ­ing shows through­out their ex­changes. In July 1948 he con­fesses, ‘Some­times noth­ing is so solid to me as writ­ing. I sup­pose that’s what vo­ca­tion means –at times a tor­ment, a bad con­science, but all in all, pur­pose and di­rec­tion’. To­wards the end of his love af­fair with me­tre, Low­ell turned in­creas­ingly to the ex­am­ple of Williams and Bishop her­self. In De­cem­ber 1957 he wrote with a gen­er­ous nod, ‘But re­ally I’ve just bro­ken through to where you’ve al­ways been and got­ten rid of my medieval ar­mor’s un­der­min­ing.’

The crown­ing plea­sure of this cor­re­spon­dence is their use of lan­guage, the ob­ser­va­tions made and the wit that both po­ets ex­hibit. Low­ell, for in­stance, writes of Roethke ‘mam­moth yet elfin­like, hair­less, red-faced’; of opera re­hearsals as ‘A world of hurry, crafts­man­ship and con­trolled cal­cu­lated tantrums’; of a col­league’s son as ‘a quiet, slow boy, wa­ver­ing be­tween be­ing aw­fully nice and turn­ing to veg­e­ta­tion’. At­tempt­ing au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal prose he writes ‘It starts naked, ends as fake vel­vet’ and on his wife’s eva­sive­ness on de­tails of mu­si­cal ter­mi­nol­ogy, ‘Her replies are more airy than clear.’ He misses Bishop, ‘Oh what a gap and blank and sor­row that you are so far away.’ Of the de­pres­sion fol­low­ing a manic at­tack he writes ‘talk­ing about the past is like a cat’s try­ing to ex­plain climb­ing down a lad­der.’ Bishop is equally mem­o­rable in their ex­changes and ex­cel­lent with anec­dotes, at one point com­i­cally cap­tur­ing her pet tou­can in the rain with the im­age of Bran­cusi’s ‘Bird in Flight’.

Let­ters too are birds in flight and per­haps it is, af­ter all, im­pos­si­ble to see some­one ‘plain’, ex­cept in the lit­eral sense of Brown­ing’s poem. And yet there are enough glimpses of the in­ner man in these won­der­ful let­ters to fash­ion an im­pres­sively life-like Low­ell por­trait. And to have them and the po­etry is the great­est gain.

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