Jarrell, Bishop, Lowell, & Co.: Middle-Generation Poets in Context

ISBN: 1572332298

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A Review of: Jarrell, Bishop, Lowell, & Co: Middle-Generation Poets in Context
by Robert Moore

One manifestation of the recent initiative to rehabilitate Lowell's moribund reputation is Jarrell, Bishop, Lowell & Co.: Middle Generation Poets in Context. The principal focus of this book is obviously these three poets who knew and deeply influenced one another (it was Jarrell, then the poetry editor of the Nation, who invited Bishop to his apartment in 1947 to meet Lowell), but the interest here is also on the company kept by this core of the "middle generation" of American poets (the ones, that is, who "published in mainstream publications and with mainstream presses, won the Pulitzers and National Book Awards, received the Guggenheims, and were poetry consultants to the library of congress). This circle-whose principal members included John Berryman, Gwendolyn Brooks, Delmore Schwartz, and Theodore Roethke-revised the poetic landscape in mid-twentieth century America; they were the ones most responsible for working mainstream American poetry out from under the influence of modernism in general and the aesthetic predispositions of New Criticism in particular, the ones who prepared the way for contemporary poetry through their various practices and preoccupations (it's the view of several critics here that they weren't merely harbingers but practioners of postmodernism).
An essay collection of a kind quite common from university presses, Jarrell, Bishop, Lowell & Co, is comprised of eighteen papers selected from some ninety presentations given at a conference jointly held at Cleveland State University and Case Western Reserve in April of 2000. Following a series of introductory essays which place these three major poets in relation to each other and in the context of the period in which they wrote, the book devotes several essays to each of the three. Inevitably there is some unevenness among the eighteen papers. The claims made for this triumvirate's proto-postmodernism tend to more ingenious than instructive, and some of the essays indulge in the sort of psychological/biographical criticism that tells us as much about the first assumptions of certain critical paradigms as it does about the poems themselves, but in the main, the essays are the work of sensitive readers with a highly-developed interest in what specific poems mean.
Notable among these essays is the part critical analysis and part inspired pastiche Edward Hirsch-a poet and critic of considerable standing-delivered as the conference's keynote address, "One Life, One Writing: The Middle Generation". According to Hirsch, the five central figures of the middle generation (Bishop, Schwartz, Roethke, Lowell and Berryman) may have performed, as Berryman's Henry puts it in The Dream Songs, "in complete darkness/ operations of great delicacy/ on [the] self," but they also manifested a kind of "lyric interdependency." Hirsch's summary of their common cause is worth quoting in full:

"So original is their contribution, so distinctive their achievement, that it takes an effort of will to recall how seriously they struggled with feelings of belatedness, with the anxiety that everything had already been accomplished. It's true that titanic achievement of the great modernists who were very much at their peak when these writers began, after the impersonal heroism-the heroic impersonality-of modernism itself, their work seems quickened by losses, freshened by warmth, scaled down to human size. They were highly personal writers. They may have begun under the scrupulous and austere sign of New Criticism, but, ironically, they ended up using their ironic sensibilities to bring a messy humanity, a harsh luminosity, a well of tenderness, back into poetry."

Hirsch is concerned not only to enlarge our appreciation but to rehabilitate the reputation of this circle; what is everywhere implicit in Hirsch's essay-and explicit in several of the essays collected here-is that the very thing that united these writers ("They were highly personal writers") is the very thing which has rendered their legacy so problematic: that is, their putative "confessionalism."
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 so far as the essays collected in Jarrell & Co are concerned, is the mistaken assumption that confession, as Bidart notes in his parsing of the term in his Afterword to Collected Poems, amounts to "helpless outpouring, secrets whispered with an artlessness that is their badge of authenticity, the uncontrolled admission of guilt that attempts to wash away guilt. Or worse: confession of others' guilt; litanies of victimization." The label "confessional", therefore, 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. As these essays argue, however, the "self" that confessional poetry constructs is really a canny and dynamic invention. 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 poets of Lowell's 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" 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 (Edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter), 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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