Even before Robert Lowell published "Life Studies," his masterpiece, in 1959, he was widely regarded as the best American poet of his generation. But for most of the 1950s he was also completely blocked, managing to write, as he later recalled, just "five messy poems in five years." The problem was not that Lowell had failed to master his chosen style the symbol-studded, ambiguity-laden, highly artificial style of American modernism, as he had learned it from poets such as Allen Tate, his first literary mentor. On the contrary, Lowell had mastered that style so completely that he had exhausted its possibilities. In his debut volume, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lord Weary's Castle" (1946), his combination of relentless rhythmic force and apocalyptic moral vision had issued in poems worthy of comparison with Milton, such as "The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket":
Time Life Pictures / Time Life Pictures
When the whale's viscera go and the roll
Of its corruption overruns this world
Beyond tree-swept Nantucket and Woods Hole
And Martha's Vineyard, Sailor, will your sword
Whistle and fall and sink into the fat?
In the great ashpit of Jehoshaphat
The bones cry for the blood of the white whale,
The fat flukes arch and whack about its ears ...
The place names are familiar, but Lowell's New England is not a place you could find on the map. It is a cosmological arena, where good and evil wrestle for the soul of America. The more violent the subject, the more it suits Lowell's pistonlike rhythms: Puritan hysteria, Indian massacres, suicide, wars from the 17th century to the 20th. The book concludes with "Where the Rainbow Ends," in which Lowell becomes a Hebrew Bible prophet, weighing his native Boston in the balance and finding it wanting: "I saw my city in the Scales, the pans / Of judgment rising and descending. Piles / Of dead leaves char the air / And I am an arrow on this graph / Of Revelations."
The book is in every sense a virtuoso performance; even today, its ferocity is mesmerizing. Yet after "Lord Weary's Castle," Lowell found himself increasingly unsatisfied with the style he had forged. His next book, "The Mills of the Kavanaughs," was a long narrative poem about an unhappily married New England couple. But while it has moments of strange beauty, it is also dramatically inert, the language overwhelming the story and the characters. The very strengths of Lowell's early style its elevation, density, rigor, and symbolism prevented him from writing about ordinary subjects and everyday life. "It's hell finding a new style," he complained, "or rather finding that your old style won't say any of the things that you want to."
What Lowell discovered, in the mid-1950s, was what all the great poets of his generation John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke eventually had to confront: the limitations of poetic modernism. They had grown up in the 1920s and 1930s revering Eliot and Pound, Stevens and Moore the generation of American poets that is even today considered the greatest in our history. The modernists had triumphed through what Eliot called "impersonality," a rigorous separation of the language of art from the language of everyday life. Reading their work, you learn almost nothing about the poets' own lives, and that was how they believed it should be. The man that suffers, Eliot proclaimed, was entirely separate from the mind that creates.
It was a revolutionary moment in American poetry, then, when Lowell began to question all these modernist dicta. Instead of Tate and Eliot, he began to study William Carlos Williams, whose plain syntax and short lines could capture American English as it is actually spoken. A reading tour on the West Coast, where Lowell performed for audiences used to the populist poetry of the Beats, further underscored his sense that his early poems were "distant, symbol-ridden, and willfully difficult ... like prehistoric monsters dragged down into the bog and death by their ponderous armor."
Most important of all, Lowell stripped off the psychological "armor" of impersonality. Under the influence of psychoanalysis, he began to think about his early childhood, trying to locate the sources of his increasingly serious manic depression. He even began to write his memoirs, a task for which his early verse style was totally unsuited. Instead, Lowell turned to prose, producing three long texts that aimed to capture "human richness in simple descriptive language" the very qualities "Lord Weary's Castle" had conspicuously lacked.
In the midst of all this poetic and psychological ferment, Lowell's writer's block began to thaw. But the poems he was writing now were unlike anything he, or any American poet, had produced before. When he showed them to Tate, once his most important father figure, the older poet was horrified: "All the poems about your family ... are definitely bad," he wrote Lowell. "I do not think you ought to publish them ... the poems are composed of unassimilated details, terribly intimate, and coldly noted, which ... are of interest only to you."
But in 1959, when those poems appeared as the heart of "Life Studies," readers did not share Tate's qualms. On the contrary, Lowell's first book in eight years not only confirmed his place at the head of his poetic generation, it made him one of the most influential poets one of the most influential writers of the 20th century in America. And it was exactly the things that Tate the modernist objected to the intimacy, the autobiographical detail, the conversational tone that made "Life Studies" a triumph. In challenging the old canons of impersonality, Lowell had shown the world that the most intimate parts of life childhood misery, Oedipal longings, marital discord, mental illness could be made the subjects for great poetry. Never before had a poet risked so much of himself on the page.
Lowell deliberately organized the book to draw attention to the daring of his new style. "Life Studies" opens with some of the "messy poems" he had written during his fallow period, the products of his exhausted early style. The very first poem, "Beyond the Alps," is magnificent, a reminder of what Lowell could do with that style; but a dramatic monologue such as "The Banker's Daughter," spoken in the voice of Marie de Medici, is positively rococo in both premise and execution.
It comes as a shock, then, to turn from the first section to the second, which is not verse at all but prose. "91 Revere Street" is one of Lowell's autobiographical texts, an artful but finally unsparing portrait of a childhood shadowed by his parents' unhappy marriage. In turning from verse to prose, Lowell puts new emphasis on adjectives, which are charged with much of the writing's imaginative energy: "the heraldic hedge-hog on the ash tray," "arthritic spiritual pains," "the palmy, laissez-faire '20s." More important, he approaches his illustrious family history he was a Lowell of Boston, from the family that produced A. Lawrence, Percival, and Amy in an entirely new way. In "Lord Weary's Castle," Lowell was exhilarated by his Puritan and Brahmin ancestry, but "91 Revere Street" opens with a description of Major Mordecai Myers, "my Grandmother Lowell's grandfather," and a German Jew. It is a heavy-handed but effective declaration of independence from the family and its myth, and a token of the truth-telling to come.
The second section of "Life Studies" is followed by an interlude, a group of four tribute-poems to friends such as Ford Madox Ford and Delmore Schwartz. Then we come to the heart of the book, the sequence of poems that gives the volume its title. The first line of the first poem in the "Life Studies" group, "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow," reads: "I won't go with you! I want to stay with Grandpa!" It is a child's guileless cry, which could never have been accommodated in the style of "Lord Weary's Castle." But it is also a hint of the defiance to come. For it is the poet's own voice we are hearing, and his preference for his grandfather over his parents is a symptom of domestic misery.
The nature of that misery is made clear in poems such as "Commander Lowell," an acid character study of the poet's weak-willed, unworldly father. A Navy officer who left the service for a career in business, then "in three years ... squandered sixty thousand dollars," Lowell senior earns his wife's and his son's contempt: "Cheerful and cowed / among the seadogs at the Sunday yacht club, / he was never one of the crowd." This portrait is elaborated in successive poems such as "Father's Bedroom," in which Lowell allows us to deduce a whole thwarted biography from a collection of objects.
But the satire and bitter nostalgia of the sequence takes an abrupt turn in "Sailing Home from Rapallo," where we see Lowell, now an adult, escorting his mother's coffin back to America: "The corpse / was wrapped like panetone in Italian tinfoil." This trauma seems to provoke the harrowing mental collapse dramatized in "Waking in the Blue," perhaps the most famous poem in the book. Set in a psychiatric hospital populated by Brahmin psychotics, it transposes the apocalyptic New England vision of "Lord Weary's Castle" into a desperately realistic key. It is also a perfect example of the way Lowell now uses pace, detail, and adjective, instead of strong rhythms and direct symbolism, to create the poem's emotional atmosphere:
After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor's jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.
The ominous last line, which leaves the threat of suicide to echo in the silence, shows how much of the power of "Life Studies" is owed to indirection and implication. Equally important is the unmistakably Lowellian music of the verse not the overpowering music of "Quaker Graveyard," now, but a subtler, suppler richness. Lowell would go on to write more great poetry in still other styles, from the public statements of "Near the Ocean" to the piercingly private disclosures of "The Dolphin." But when people use the adjective Lowellian, it is still the Lowell of "Life Studies" that they mean.
It is especially necessary to dwell on the artistry of "Life Studies" now that an artless literature of trauma and recovery has become so popular. The critic M.L. Rosenthal, in a review of "Life Studies," coined the phrase "confessional poetry," and for the next several decades, confession became the standard idiom of American poets. With the memoir boom of the 1990s, prose, too, fell under the sway of confession, as unhappy childhoods, madness, and addiction became staples of the best-seller list. The prestige of suffering is now so high that writers such as James Frey and "J.T. Leroy" actually make up their traumas, the more outrι the better.
It would be unfair, however, to lay the blame for so much bad writing at Lowell's door. Just as Marx was not a Marxist, so Lowell was not really a confessional poet, and Rosenthal's metaphor conceals more than it discloses about "Life Studies." In the confession booth, all that matters is honesty and sincerity. In a poem, even the most heartfelt recital remains inert if it is not brought to life with cunning artistry. And nothing could be more artful than the way Lowell, in his masterpiece, turns the pain and risk of his own life into the catharsis and consolation of great poetry.