link to email

National Book Award Classics

Share |

The following essay appeared in the November, 2003 issue of Ingram's Advance e-letter, as part of National Book Award Classics, a monthly series of essays by Neil Baldwin, highlighting past Winners of the National Book Award.

Robert Lowell
Life Studies
National Book Award Poetry Winner, 1960

There has been an avalanche of renewed critical attention to Robert Lowell since the publication last month of his 1,186 page Collected Poems edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). I agree with A.O. Scott’s apt comment in The New York Times last June that “for more than twenty years, Lowell seemed to be more read about than read...all the strange, shocking, fascinating detail in the biographies – the Brahmin childhood, the religious crises, the imprisonment for refusing military service in World War II, the three scorched marriages, the breakdowns and hospitalizations – was in the poetry first.”

“The father of confessional poetry,” a term he rejected, Robert Traill Spence Lowell was born in Boston on March 1, 1917. His father, a naval officer, was descended from a long line of New England intellectuals, including Amy Lowell, James Russell Lowell, and A. Lawrence Lowell. His prepossessing mother, Charlotte, was a Winslow. Young Robert first became enamored of poetry through the influence of his St. Mark’s prep school English teacher, Richard Eberhart.

Robert left Harvard after two years, transferring to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, to study the Classics with John Crowe Ransom and fall under the austere spell of the New Critics. There he began lifelong friendships with poet Randall Jarrell and novelist Peter Taylor. Lowell moved on to graduate work at Louisiana State University, where he enjoyed the tutelage of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. With his new wife, the writer Jean Stafford, he shared a house in Monteagle, Tennessee, with Allen Tate and his wife, the writer Caroline Gordon.

Lowell converted from Puritan Congregationalism to “a temporary obsession” with Roman Catholicism, and became a conscientious objector during World War II. He was imprisoned for five months as a result, during which time he finished his first book of poems, the “densely allusive” Land of Unlikeness. The book was revised and republished in 1946 as Lord Weary’s Castle, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for 1947.

The ensuing years were tumultuous – a failed marriage and then a new love, Elizabeth Hardwick; the death of Lowell’s father; harsh criticism of his next book, The Mills of the Kavanaughs; a series of manic mental breakdowns and sporadic residence in Italy and throughout Europe; followed by his mother’s death in 1954 and the poet’s institutionalization for dementia in McLean Hospital.

At this time Lowell began to read and review the works of William Carlos Williams, as well some of Williams’s literary offspring, W.D.Snodgrass and Allen Ginsberg. Lowell was inspired by the relaxation of formal strictures he found there, and began to come down somewhat from the “archaic, elevated diction,” morose gravitas and traditional formalism of earlier work. His psychiatrists urged Lowell to write about his childhood as a way to alleviate psychological burdens. These reminiscences became the basis for the first memoir section as well as many of the poems in Life Studies.

Nearly a decade in the making, this breakthrough book – his third --won the National Book Award and is now regarded as the pivotal point in Lowell’s long career. In his subtle and nuanced “Introduction” to the new Collected Poems, Frank Bidart reminds us that Life Studies was Lowell’s “own favorite of his books.” It certainly has become the most admired.
I have intentionally reviewed some of the many and various pedagogical and literary influences upon Robert Lowell because when you open Life Studies and read it from beginning to end, you realize his great stylistic accomplishment – the talent to assimilate, synthesize, and then remake the work into his own.

The first poem, "Beyond the Alps," is a good metaphor for Lowell’s ability. It is written in an expanded sonnet form, so the reassurance of poetic tradition is there. However, the way in which the narrative information comes across is securely modern. We become aware of the train in which Lowell sits as a passenger ascending the mountainside when he notices the stewards walking up the aisle on tip-toe. We become seduced by the virtuosity of the way the form is bent –torqued, even – through the tension of Lowell’s enjambments, also decidedly modern. We imagine that he has read Willliams’s essay on the poem as a “machine made of words,” and that he came to terms with organicism in poetry as a way to convey an impression transcending literal deciphering.

Reading Lowell becomes incredibly liberating once you understand that feeling comes first. Turning to a later poem in the volume, "Words for Hart Crane," you will find another fourteen-line exercise, this time bracketed with quotation marks, to stress that the poet is speaking to the object of his poem. Those of us familiar with Crane’s hyperbolic rhetoric will seize the point that the poem is an homage through imitation. Lowell brilliantly speaks to Crane by speaking as Crane. The layering of artifice, again, tells us we are in the presence of a modernist master.

"Dunbarton" is another one of my favorites. It is a sustained ancestral reminiscence, revelling in the pleasure of skipping generations, and the delight the child takes in spending time with his grandfather. He does not dwell upon the sadness of the absent father. Rather, he plunges wholeheartedly into the special time shared and the communal love they feel for each other, all embraced in the protection of a memory.

A long time ago, one of my teachers, the poet Robert Creeley, either quoted to me or said, “Form is only an extension of content.” I also remember William Carlos Williams’ wry phrase, “When structure fails, rhyme attempts to come to the rescue.” I bring these aphorisms to bear upon Robert Lowell’s poetry because within the confines of such a short piece it is impossible to do justice to his work. Like those sometimes-pretentious descriptions of vintage wine and the multitude of tastes and aromas they contain, “in” Lowell we can detect the sprung rhythms and songs of Yeats, the dry wit and gloom of Eliot, the offhanded classical resonances of Pound, the syncopation of Keats, the pointillist details of Dickinson. Our detective work is limited only by the scope of literary education.

In the end, there can be no doubt that Robert Lowell’s poetry is infinitely satisfying -- even through the well-established pain of hearing his “ill-spirit sob in each blood cell.” The poems in and of themselves – the fact that they were made despite the pain -- bear tribute to what is most noble about the age-old forms made new.

-- Neil Baldwin. November 2003

Click on the name to read essays about:


Copyright © 2007 National Book Foundation. Privacy Policy