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.