Collected Poems

by Robert Lowell
ISBN: 0374126178

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A Review of: Collected Poems
by Robert Moore

Within months of its appearance last year, Robert Lowell's Collected Poems had been widely and warmly received on both sides of the Atlantic. After marveling at the sheer mass of this collection (it weighs in at 1200 pages), one of the first things reviewers tended to remark upon was how long such a manifestly apposite work was in arriving. Lowell, after all, had passed from the scene, dead of heart failure in a New York City cab, in 1977. The only other retrospective collection of his work, his Selected Poems, was published in 1976. Given the fact that he had been a major-and, in the view of many, the dominant-voice in American poetry for several of the middle decades of the twentieth century, the twenty-six-year period between his passing and the appearance of a collected works constitutes not only a long but a rather curious silence.
At least part of the explanation for the delay lies in the subsequent shift in taste away from the sort of highly allusive verbal complexity Lowell favoured. Matters of taste notwithstanding, the long silence is perhaps best explained by the sheer enormity of the task facing any would-be editor of Lowell, a writer who was not only prolific, but who left a body of work that was, until the end, subject to constant revision. Whatever the explanation, now that it has finally appeared it is obvious that students and readers of American poetry have long been labouring at a considerable disadvantage. What Collected Poems shows is that an estimation of twentieth-century American poetry without a full and proper accounting of Lowell would be like looking into nineteenth-century American prose without access to the complete version of Melville's Moby Dick. The analogy seems apt not merely in terms of scale of creation, but in terms of kind.
Working my difficult way through the massed imagery of poems like "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket", I recalled something James Wood observed in his collection of essays The Broken Estate in regard to Melville. In Moby Dick, says Wood, "the Puritan habit of reading signs and seeing stable meanings behind them is mocked by an almost grotesque abundance of metaphor": "The whale is likened to everything under the sun, and everything under the moon, tooThe whale is inscrutable.' It is so full meanings that it threatens to have no meaning at all" The effects of this "atheism of metaphor" fostered in Melville by Puritan New England's proscriptive allegorical outlook are everywhere evident in the manic metaphoric sensibility behind Collected Poems, from the specific, Jeremianic preoccupations of an early poem like "The Slough of Despond"-

I walk upon the flood:
My way is wayward; there is no way out:
Now how the weary waters swell,-
The tree is down in blood!
All the bats of Babel flap about
The rising sun of hell.

-to the sheer range and variety of forms and rhetorical strategies Lowell explored, invented, abandoned, and returned to. Collected Works is a work as sprawling and as obsessive, as deep and as various, as troubled and as troubling as Melville's magnum opus.
All poets revise, of course, but few have lavished such constant, even obsessive, attention to the unfolding body of their already-published work. Reviewing the three sonnet books Lowell put out in 1973-The Dolphin, History, and For Lizzie and Harriet-most reviewers were distressed by the fact that two of the three books came directly out of his previous book, Notebook. But as Frank Bidart notes in the first page of his introduction to Collected Poems, "rethinking work, reimagining it, rewriting it was fundamental to [Lowell] from the very beginning, and pervasive until to the end." Lowell's mania to revise what had already found its way into print was a natural extension of his willingness to explore new ways of making; with Lowell, the logic of making and remaking is not only key to appreciating his practice, it is also in some respect his central theme.
The great achievement of this collection is finally to put between two covers "the grotesque abundance of metaphor" Lowell generated over a long career. Judged strictly as a collected works per se, Collected Poems is a remarkable, and so far as I'm aware, a unique achievement. Bidart, a longtime friend and colleague of Lowell's, has constructed a kind of marvelous and intricate contraption indispensable to modern readers hoping to come to grips with Lowell's evolving oeuvre. Not every poem Lowell ever wrote is collected here, but Bidart's demonstrable assiduity in general leaves you confident everything Lowell ever wrote that matters probably is. With the exception of Notebooks (1967-68), all eleven of Lowell's individual poetry titles are here, from his first book, Land of Unlikeness (1944), through to his last, Day by Day (1977). Even bereft of editorial apparatus, the gathering of these eleven titles alone would be worth the price of admission. In the generous appendices, however, Bidart (with David Gewanter) also gathers together the following: Lowell's last poems, the poems Lowell published over his career in periodicals but which were not collected in any of his eleven titles; variants of Lowell's more significant poems; no less than 150 pages of notes explaining what is often densely referential and allusive work; a glossary; a chronology; a selected bibliography; an essay by Lowell on the reception of his Selected Poems; and an essay by Bidart "On Confessional' Poetry".
As author of Life Studies (1959), the book that took mid-century American poetry down a new path, Lowell is often taken to be the architect of confessionalism, and therefore the guiding spirit behind contemporary mainstream and workshop poetry, the practitioners of which labour mightily to locate their authentic experience ("We are now in an age," notes Christian Sisack in his fine essay "Lowell's Confessional' Subjectivities", "filled with what might be called compulsory confessional moments'"). There is some merit in the charge. In his acceptance speech for his National Book Award for Life Studies, after all, it was Lowell who famously urged (with a nod to Levi-Strauss) a distinction in poetry between the "raw" and the "cooked." By "cooked" he meant the sort of formal, detached, carefully reasoned poetry championed by the New Criticism, a poetry which in his view had long since atrophied into a bloodless, decorative mannerism. As Lowell puts it in a 1961 interview, poetry written under the influence of Eliot "can't handle much experience. It's become a craft, purely a craft, and there must be some breakthrough back into life." The raw was that breakthrough: a celebration of a personalized poetic which through fervor and emotionalism constituted itself through a private associative logic.
The subsequent efflorescence of the raw, and the inevitable reaction against it, hasn't done Lowell's reputation any service. At its worst, as its critics charge, confessionalism is grounded on a self-indulgent conflation of the self with the world. The danger of the raw, as Richard Wilbur stated a decade before Lowell made his case for it, is that "the artist no longer perceives a wall between him and the world; the world becomes an extension of himself, and is deprived of its reality. The poet's words cease to be a means of liaison with the world; they take the place of the world. This is bad aesthetics-and incidentally, bad morals."
Appreciating Lowell's proper place in the tradition requires that, first, we distinguish more precisely between the nature of the original forms of confessionalism and that which subsequently explored only some of its interests. Because the poetry of Lowell et al came through New Criticism, it is as much an assimilation of what went before as it is an excited embrace of the hitherto unspeakable (Lowell: "When I began to publish, I wrote literally under the rooftree of Allen Tate"). It is hard to imagine, for example, a writer with a more developed or cultivated sense of the tradition within which he constructs his putative "confessions" than Lowell. When Lowell introduces the private and the personal into poetry, he is doing so in conversation with an unsympathetic tradition; confessing' in conversation to a progenitor like Allen Tate is quite different than confessing after Lowell (one need only think of the direction confession was taken by a student of Lowell's, Anne Sexton).
Second, and much more to the point. . .the label "confessional" leads us to expect transparent language use, repressed signifiers, a coherent and univocal subject, a naturalized voice, and an earnest focus on painful personal memories rather than a cultural, political, or linguistic critique. The implication, in other words, is that confessional poetry somehow affords unmediated access to the literal or actual of a poet's life. . .However, the point of confessional writing lies not in accuracy, but in the illusion of accuracy, the result of arrangement and invention. What we actually find in Lowell and in his generation of "confessionalists" is not so much the assumption of language's transparency as a thoroughgoing interest in the ways in which language doesn't so much reflect as construct the world (and, concomitantly, the self).
In Lowell, for example, as Steven Gould Alexrod's lively re-reading of "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow" (Jarrell, Bishop, Lowell, & Co: Middle-Generation Poets in Context, Edited by Suzanne Ferguson) points out, the confessing self, and the self accreting through its putative confessions, is a deeply fissured entity seeking nominal purchase in a world of shifting and contingent meaning: "The notions..emphasized in this essay-of shattered language use, cultural subversion, a fractured subject, and an unhomelike home-are connected to each other in that they challenge the possibility of normative meanings and stable categories.Lowell's poem thus undermines every sort of certitude, every official story. It provides instead a play of discourses and identities, a succession of narrative shards rather than a master narrative, a witty and haunting encounter with postmodernity." Axelrod may be reading a little too cheerfully from the deconstructive menu here, but his basic point is well taken: Lowell's interest is not so much in confessing as dramatizing the impossibility of confession.
As it happens, the reliable shelf life of "confessionalism" as a term of consensus among scholars at least wasn't especially long. Indeed, within a few years, Rosenthal, from whose essay "Poetry as Confession" the term was drawn, expressed reservations over the "damage" the term had done. Today the label, as one critics wryly notes, "invented by Lowell's proponents, is now almost exclusively the property of skeptics." Skeptics would do well to take up Lowell's Collected Works, and perhaps to pay particular attention to the moving "Epilogue", fittingly enough, the last poem in Day by Day, the last book Lowell published. The poem serves admirably, not only as coda, but as both an ars poetica and a kind of apologia for the peculiar tensions subtending the "difficult grandeur" (as Helen Vendler so nicely puts it) of Lowell's art. I quote it here in its entirety:

Those blessd structures, plot and rhyme -
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter's vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
All's misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun's illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl, solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.

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