Friday, March 23, 2012

Robert Lowell: Once More With Feeling

Ian Hamilton: Robert Lowell: A Biography (1982)

  • Hamilton, Ian. Robert Lowell: A Biography. 1982. London: Faber, 1983.
  • Mariani, Paul. Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell. New York & London: W. W. Norton, 1994.

I've just read two biographies of Robert Lowell in quick succession. Why? you ask. It's hard to say, really. I just felt the need to read some Lowell again. He's been one of my favourite poets since I first discovered him, way back in the 1980s, when I was a callow young Auckland University undergraduate looking for something unpredictable and new.

Paul Mariani: Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell (1994)

I guess it might seem a bit quixotic to read both books, one after the other, but it did turn out to be a curiously effective way of immersing oneself in the ambience of his work before undertaking a major rereading of his Collected Poems (which came out a wee while ago now, in 2003).

Robert Lowell: Collected Poems (2003)

  • Lowell, Robert. Collected Poems. Ed. Frank Bidart & David Gewanter, with DeSales Harrison. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003.

One unexpected side-effect of the experience, though, was to make me re-evaluate somewhat the merits of the two.

I guess it's necessary to explain at this point that Lowell was a notoriously turbulent character, prone to periodic manic excesses, during which he would talk incessantly, drink and party till dawn, try and beat up anyone who dared to disagreed with him, and - on one notorious occasion - hang a fellow poet (Allen Tate) at arms-length out of a second-floor window while he recited his most famous poem ("Ode to the Confederate Dead") to him in a bear voice (Lowell had an obsession with bears).

He was, in short, barking mad - some of the time, at any rate. Like Lord Byron: mad, bad, and dangerous to know.

Lowell's love-life reflected the rest of his character. He was married three times, and all three marriages failed. The longest, to Elizabeth Hardwick, was showing signs of reviving for another run-through when he died in a New York taxi cab in 1977, at the early age of 59. One of the features of his manic episodes was that he would generally take up with some young muse-like girl and even propose marriage to her, only to drop her like a hot brick after he came to his senses in hospital. As you can imagine, this was a little difficult to adjust to for any of his spouses.

While the subject-matter of Lowell's poetry is, for the most part, his own life, it's not really "confessional" in the reductionist sense of the term. Lowell was, in fact, a consummate verse craftsman, who began as a Hopkins-like formalist and only shifted to "free verse" under the influence of Pound, Williams and his other eminent Modernist predecessors. There's nothing loose or self-indulgent in the way he writes (however misunderstood some of his work - particularly the free-verse sonnets he wrote so many of between 1967 and 1973 - was at the time). He was also a famously charismatic teacher - at Harvard and other American and British universities.

So what about the two biographies?

Ian Hamilton's, which came out only 5 years after the poet's death, certainly doesn't suppress any information about the manic episodes. On the contrary, on finishing the book, one questions not so much why anybody was prepared to put up with Lowell as how they physically could. Again and again, Hamilton gleefully recounts episodes where Lowell seized a girlfriend's throat in his hands because she disagreed with him about Shakespeare, or insisted on climbing bareback on every equestrian statue in Buenos Aires ... Reading it, at times, seems almost as much of an ordeal as actually living such a life.

Another feature of Hamilton's book is his greater familiarity with the later, British menage he set up with Lady Caroline Blackwood in the 1970s, rather than his earlier relationships with Jean Stafford and Elizabeth Hardwick. To do him justice, though, Hamilton seems to have shown remarkable assiduity throughout in getting virtually everyone on the record who was ready to be interviewed: at that point, that is - when the wounds were still raw.

Paul Mariani appears to have set out to correct both of these "biases" of Hamilton's. Himself an American academic and author of biographies of several of Lowell's contemporaries - including John Berryman (Dream Song, 1990) and William Carlos Williams (A New World Naked, 1981) - he's at no risk of overstressing the British angle.

Nor, as is rapidly clear, is there going to be any prurient gawping at the precise details of Lowell's demented antics in his book. All that's on the record already in Hamilton's lurid pages, he seems to be saying in footnote after footnote which does little more than reference the earlier work.

At first this comes as something of a relief. Mariani's prose, stodgy at best, doesn't really stack up against Hamilton's appallingly vivid portrait of a man in crisis, but it's nice to concentrate on the details of the poems rather than the turmoil which gave rise to so many of them.

Where I think he does go wrong is in underwriting particularly disturbing events to such a degree that they scarcely make an impact on the reader at all. Perhaps the most vivid case of this is his account of Lowell's paranoid anti-communist denunciations of Elizabeth Ames, director of the Yaddo Writer's retreat, at the climax of an FBI investigation into her "contacts" in early 1949.

It's true, as Mariani says, that Hamilton gives us only too much detail on this incident ("Lowell's comments are quoted at length in Hamilton, pp. 142 ff.", as he remarks in a footnote on p.481 of his massive tome), but his summation of the whole affair seems Lowell-sympathetic to the point of falsification.

This is his verdict on the extraordinary meeting of the Yaddo trustees which had to be called as a result of Lowell's vociferous demands for Ames' instant dismissal, and threats to write to every literary person he knew if the board failed to follow his instructions:

Undoubtedly, the board had met to clear its own name and so had to turn Lowell into the villain, with little said about the FBI's awful handling of the whole affair. Lowell of course [my emphasis] was deeply hurt by the committee's censure, incredulous that people he considered his friends would attack him as they did. [pp.180-81.]

Mariani goes on to claim that it was this decision on their part led to his next hospitalisation: "No wonder, then, that just after the letter was circulated, the tenuous grasp Lowell still held over his own sanity at last let go." [p.181]

It's only in Mariani's censored version that Lowell can appear halfway sane at any stage in the proceedings, though. To say that the Yaddo board's refusal to back him up, and their criticism of him for exemplifying "a frame of mind that represents a grave danger both to civil liberties and to the freedom necessary for the arts" [p.180], caused this particular bout of insanity is to put the cart before the horse.

Anyone who hadn't read Hamilton's much fuller account of the affair might well be left with the strong impression that Lowell was reasonably justified in conducting a red-baiting crusade in the hospitable confines of Yaddo. Or at least that a strong case could be made for his actions. This is not really tenable if all the circumstances are taken into account, though (as Hamilton does).

Mariani's further implication that Lowell's "friends" should have stood by him in any case is quite fatuous, given the morass of McCarthyite hysteria the country was steering towards at the time. Other things - such as the few vestiges of artistic freedom left in the Cold War-dominated USA - mattered more than the feelings of an obviously paranoid madman, within a few weeks of his next hospitalization. To imply otherwise shows little taste or sense of proportion.

Anybody can make a mistake, admittedly -- Hamilton no doubt makes many. I can't say I've actually managed to spot any, though. Mariani, by contrast, seems unusually prone to factual errors and misreadings. His general level of cultural information does not really inspire one with confidence. I'll mention a few examples:

He refers repeatedly to the hugely distinguished Australian painter Sidney Nolan as Lowell's "illustrator" (pp.341 & 387). It's true that Nolan did do illustrations for Lowell's translations of Baudelaire, but this is a little like identifying Picasso as the illustrator of Apollinaire. The implication is strongly given that Mariani (unlike Hamilton, one of whose anecdotes he is actually repeating on the first of these occasions) has no real idea who Nolan is.

Mariani is also apparently under the impression that Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) died in his fifies:

How sad to die in one's late fifties as Pasternak had, when one would rather be able to say, as Eliot could, that one felt as foolish at seventy as one did at seventeen. [p.267]

He apparently gets this idea from a misinterpretation of one of Lowell's letters, quoted in a footnote, which mentions the idea of dying in one's mid-fifties, and goes on to lament the fact that "so many people I know have" [p.492]. Not Pasternak, though, still alive at the time (the letter is dated 31 October 1958). One would have thought this was the kind of detail which would have been easy enough to check, even in the pre-internet 1990s.

Finally, Mariani states unequivocally that Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of Britain in 1976:

Now, in the fall of '76, with taxes under the Thatcher government becoming unmanageable for an estate the size of Milgate, [Lady] Caroline decided she would have to sell. [p.446]
Thatcher was (of course) elected shortly after the Labour's "winter of discontent" in 1979, and could not be persuaded to climb down until 1990 (long after she'd taken to using the royal plural and making bizarre claims of omniscience - such as her oft-stated belief that she had herself been the first to detect the hole in the ozone layer, and was thus able to direct British scientists to observe that particular part of the sky).

These are comparatively trivial errors, of course -- it's a little troubling that they're just a few of the ones I happened to notice myself, though. What else is lurking in there undetected?

I guess the strength of Mariani's book is its contextualising of Lowell's work within the larger context of mid-century American poetry. He also supplies a number of new anecdotes about the man at his most entertaining -- accounts of a visit to Derek Walcott in Trinidad, for instance. His book does usefully supplement Hamilton in a number of ways, but I'm afraid that it can't really be regarded as standing up to the task of giving an accurate account of Lowell's life and times without that proviso of still needing Hamilton for most of the accurate detail.

After a long period of poetic dominance during his lifetime, Lowell - unlike his close friend and contemporary Elizabeth Bishop - is very much out of favour now. It's unlikely, then, that there'll be many other biographies of him coming out in the near future.

Two recent collections of letters have usefully supplemented the picture given by Hamiton and Mariani, though:

  • Lowell, Robert. The Letters of Robert Lowell. Ed. Saskia Hamilton. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005.
  • Travisano, Thomas, & Saskia Hamilton, ed. Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Of these, I'd especially recommend the second: truly illuminating for readers of both poets, Bishop and Lowell. Another useful book if one wants to get a better sense of Lowell at his best, is Robert Giroux's edition of his Collected Prose (1987).

But which of the two biographies should you read? Well, if you want to get to sleep at night, I'd certainly recommend Mariani's. It's full and informative and at times accomplishes the virtually impossible feat of making Lowell sound quite dull.

If, however, you want to get some sense of what it must have been like to have to live through one of his appalling manic interludes, there's really no substitute for Hamilton. His intense combativeness, though, makes him rather too prone to praise or reject Lowell poems according to whether or not they please him personally. He is, too, a bit irritating in his insistence on preserving every misspelling in Lowell's letters (complete with [sic]'s and other intrusive bits of editorial apparatus).

I don't know. I'm glad to have them both. Hamilton's is clearly far more original and better written, but Mariani does have the advantage of sheer accumulation of detail. Far too often they seem to be describing completely different individuals, though.

[Henri Cartier-Bresson: Robert & Harriet (1960)]

I'll close with a little Lowell mini-bibliography from my own collection, in case you're curious to follow up on his work:

Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV (1917-1977):

  1. Lowell, Robert. Lord Weary's Castle and The Mills of The Kavanaughs. 1946 & 1951. A Harvest / HBJ Book. San Diego, New York & London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1974.
    [his first two books of poetry (with the exception of the limited edition chapbook Land of Unlikeness (1944).]
  2. Lowell, Robert. Poems 1938-1949. 1950. London: Faber, 1970.
    [covers much the same ground as the two volumes mentioned above, with the omission of the long verse monologue "The Mills of the Kavanaughs."]
  3. Lowell, Robert. Life Studies and For the Union Dead. 1959 & 1964. The Noonday Press. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974.
    [His two most famous books of poems in one convenient volume.]
  4. Lowell, Robert. Phaedra: A Verse Translation of Racine’s Phèdre. 1961. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1971.
    [the first, and possibly most successful, of his many experiments with verse drama.]
  5. Lowell, Robert. Imitations. 1961. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1971.
    [probably his most controversial book: a series of translations / versions from most of the European languages, including Russian - famously denounced by Vladimir Nabokov as a "fox-trot in Disneyland."]
  6. Lowell, Robert. The Old Glory. London: Faber, 1966.
    [three plays dramatised from short stories by Hawthorne and Melville.]
  7. Lowell, Robert. Near the Ocean. London: Faber, 1967.
    [Marvellian public poetry: includes the marvellous "Waking Early Sunday Morning"]
  8. Lowell, Robert. Prometheus Bound: Derived from Aeschylus. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.
    [Zeus bears a strong resemblance to LBJ in this very free adaptation from the Greek, or so contemporary audiences thought.]
  9. The Voyage and other versions of poems by Baudelaire. Illustrated by Sidney Nolan. London: Faber, 1968.
    [Beautiful reprinting of some of the adaptations already included in Imitations.]
  10. Notebook 1967-68. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.
    [This is a mare's nest almost beyond disentangling. Lowell started off by writing the story of a year in free blank-verse "sonnets." Dissatisfied with his work, he then revised and greatly expanded it into the book below:]
  11. Lowell, Robert. Notebook. 1970. London: Faber, 1971.
    [Having put together this huge assemblage of his free-verse fourteen-liners, he was again dissatisfied and started another major revision:]
  12. Lowell, Robert. History. The Noonday Press N513. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.
    [Most of the "historical" sonnets from Notebook ended up here, with quite a few additions and innumerable revisions.]
  13. For Lizzie and Harriet. London: Faber, 1973.
    [Most of the personal or "family" sonnets ended up in this book, dedicated to his daughter and - by then estranged - second wife.]
  14. Lowell, Robert. The Dolphin. 1973. The Noonday Press N513. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.
    [This "new" book of sonnets chronicled the growth of his relationship with Lady Caroline Blackwood, culminating in the birth of their son Sheridan.]
  15. Raban, Jonathan, ed. Robert Lowell’s Poems: A Selection. 1973. London: Faber, 1974.
    [Lowell took the opportunity of this revision of an earlier Selected Poems to rewrite radically even some of the most famous ("The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket", for instance).]
  16. Lowell, Robert. Selected Poems: Revised Edition. 1976 & 1977. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981.
    [Most of them were changed back to something closer to their original versions in this, his last overhaul of the whole canon, though.]
  17. Lowell, Robert. Day by Day. 1977. London: Faber, 1978.
    [His last book of poems, in free verse even freer than the fourteen-liners, but still retaining some of the old bite.]
  18. Lowell, Robert. The Oresteia of Aeschylus. 1978. London: Faber, 1979.
    [A posthumously-published adaptation from Aeschylus' trilogy.]

1 comment:

Richard said...

I'm keen on John Berryman (did they clash swords much? (He knew Roethke - I've read a bio of him it was quite good)... (I see Berryman's Sonnets influenced him in his choice of style in Notebooks. They (Berryman and Lowell) were both pretty difficult cases to say the least!). But Lowell is good also. (I see he translated Horace etc) after reading this I scanned my shelves and I have about 6 or more books by Lowell and one book with explications of his poems.

That's a good bibliography and notes you have Jack.

I'm surprised that a poem such as "Waking early Sunday Morning" was read at a protest as Mailer describes (it was the first poem I read in 'Near the Ocean' but I have a book by Raban and I connected it thus to Marvell's public or political poem about - but it still seems a strange poem to read to political protestors as it is quite ambiguous and quite difficult. (I see also there are at least two versions of it Reviews of The Lowell edited by Bidart is interesting. )

Apparently Larkin described Lowell as: "Mad, barking mad"!