Sunday, May 28, 2017

Edwin Morgan / "Kiss me..."

"Kiss me..."
by Edwin Morgan

Kiss me with rain on your eyelashes, 
come on, let us sway together, 
under the trees, and to hell with thunder. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Poem of the week: A Trace of Wings by Edwin Morgan

Edwin Morgan

Poem of the week: A Trace of Wings by Edwin Morgan

A very unusual elegy this time, to Basil Bunting, which will also serve as a tribute to the vivacious inventiveness of its author

Carol Rumens
Monday 23 August 2010 10.08 BST

The mood of elegy does not have to be Gray. This week's poem laments the death of Basil Bunting (1900 -1985) while reflecting the versatile and playful spirit of its maker, Edwin Morgan, who died last week (August 2010). "A Trace of Wings" is wholly characteristic of a poet who delighted in whirling the goodie bag of tradition and innovation, and so often magicked forth blends and mixtures never seen before.
With its strict, economical patterning, "A Trace of Wings" has something in common with Morgan's concrete poetry. Its structure might recall an old-fashioned sort of bird-book, with coloured pictures and friendly captions besides the more detailed and grammatically formal entry – the sort a child would enjoy. It's almost a crossword puzzle without the puzzle, the answers preceding a three-part cryptic clue.

These "clues" in turn suggest the Anglo-Saxon/ Old Norse kenning, reminding us that Morgan was a fine translator of Beowulf. The kenning, a metaphorical compound-word or phrase, is a descriptive stand-in for a noun. "The joy of the bird", for example, means the bird's feather, and "the dispenser of rings" is the prince. Anglo-Saxon listeners would be familiar with the metaphors, so "feather" and "prince" go unsaid. Morgan's poem borrows the technique, but also names the names.
The core-idea of the poet-as-songbird is hardly new. But it is expressed through such shining technical originality, and gathers round it so many other shared attributes, that the common metaphorical coin seems diamond-faceted.
Morgan's seven varieties of bunting bustle with birdy life. Conjured by swift phrases, they seem to flitter past as we watch, but leave indelible impressions of movement and colour. They are elusive: words like "shy", "perky", "scuttler", "darter" evoke their quick, barely visible movement. "Find him!", "What a whisk!" the speaker exclaims, surely glad that the birds are so fleet and wary. We catch, too, a moment of anger and fear when we reach the unfortunate Ortolan Bunting who "favours" (and flavours) gourmet tables, and has been hunted to near-extinction. The metaphorical associations continue to thicken. The poet might himself be an endangered species, like the ortolan, as well as a generous "grain-scatterer" like the corn-bunting. As a northerner, Basil Bunting could qualify, perhaps, as "blizzard-hardened." It seems fitting that the Snow Bunting is the last bird named before the poet himself appears.

"A Trace of Wings" is full of lovely sounds, and the stop-start rhythms leave room for savouring their effects. The longer closing line, in which the poem uncovers its true subject and occasion, introduces a mournful cadence. A rise and fall of lamentation, it climaxes with the sharp assonance of "prince of finches" and dies away with the monosyllables of the colloquial understatement, "gone from these parts."
Morgan was a writer who cared about a poem's visual impact as well as its sounds. The extra spacing between the bird-name and the "kennings", for instance, reflects the gulf between ornithological category and the elusive, living thing. Even the semi-colons seem to have a bird-like look, each a tiny pictogram of wing and eye.
In an essay in The Poet's Voice and Craft (edited by CB McCully, Carcanet, 1994) Morgan talks about the need for a poem to be both "deliberate" and "open". Particularly in some concrete poems, he says, "the danger would be that not enough space, not enough interstices, might be left for the spirit of inspiration to slip in". This poem is a beautiful example of how Morgan negotiates a disciplined structural arrangement without fencing off the places where "inspired accidents" occur. In fact the poem's very seed is an inspired accident – the fact that the superbly musical poet of Brigflatts should share his surname with a species of bird. It needed only a poet of Morgan's genius to notice – and whip up a miraculous, sparrow-quick elegy that is tender, funny, sorrowful, Anglo-Saxon-ish and modernist, mimetic and metaphorical, all at once – and all in eight lines. "What a whisk!" indeed.
"A Trace of Wings" appears in Edwin Morgan's Themes on a Variation (1988) and Collected Poems, and is reproduced here by kind permission of Carcanet. It's a poem to sweeten and sharpen our sorrow for two great makers, now "gone from these parts" but placeless, and timeless, in their bright plumage and full-voiced song.
A Trace of Wings

Corn Bunting             shy but perky; haunts fields; grain-scatterer
Reed Bunting            sedge-scuttler; swayer; a cool perch
Cirl Bunting               small whistler; shrill early; find him!
Indigo Bunting           blue darter; like metal; the sheen
Ortolan Bunting         haunts gardens; is caught; favours tables
Painted Bunting         gaudy flasher; red, blue, green; what a whisk!
Snow Bunting            Arctic flyer; ghost-white; blizzard-hardened
Basil Bunting             the sweetest singer; prince of finches; gone from
                                   these parts

Friday, May 19, 2017

Edwin Morgan / A universal treasure

Edwin Morgan
Edwin Morgan: a universal treasure
Right up until his death this week, the work of Scotland's national poet Edwin Morgan seemed infused with a universal appeal and a timelessness that few other poets may ever achieve
Ben Myers
Edwin Morgan was a singular voice in a country with a literary tradition rich in singular voices. He managed to be both an outsider and an academically respected writer who rose to be one of the best of his time; a defender of the underdog and the individual who was nationally lauded when, in 2004, he was elected the first Scots Makar, the Scottish Parliament's equivalent of Poet Laureate. It was a position that formally recognised Morgan as the national treasure many had already long since viewed him as.
Morgan was 70 before he came out as gay in his 1990 work Nothing Not Giving Messages: Reflections on his Work and Life, but his sexuality was evident in far earlier poems, particularly sonnets such as the superb Strawberries, in which two lovers eat the fruit "glistening in the hot sunlight" before letting "the storm wash the plates". His refusal to make known the gender of the person to whom his affections were aimed was, he reasoned, out of a desire to "universalise" his poetry.
And it worked. Right up until his death this week, Morgan's work seemed infused with a universal appeal and a timelessness that few other poets can achieve, let alone retain. His form, content and style varied widely from the traditional to the experimental; from concrete poems to free-flowing Beat-inspired works, though Scottish identity was never too far away. Works such as his Glasgow Sonnets (numbered 'i – x') immortalised a tough postwar city where "Play-fortresses / of brick and bric-a-brac spill out some ash / Four storeys have no windows left to smash". He was no voyeur slumming it though – he loved the city, warts and all, and his many poems about Glasgow offer a series of period snapshots of a place that are as poignant as, say, a Don McCullin photograph or a Terence Davies film.
My own discovery of his work came via a brief but stirring spoken word guest appearance on a 2001 song entitled In Remote Part / Scottish Fiction by bookish Scottish rock band Idlewild. Morgan's evocation of "a red hearted vibration / Pushing through the walls of dark imagination" and "asylum seekers engulfed by a grudge" seemed less like the poetry of a then 81-year-old, more like the angry, impassioned thoughts of a much younger man.
And that, perhaps, was Morgan's strength and what made him a truly great poet. His work kept evolving – so much so that his lines continue to echo on down through the decades. They have found favour with new readers in a way that those of his contemporaries, some of whom have been grouped together as The Big Seven (George Mackay Brown, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean, Robert Garioch, Iain Crichton Smith and Norman MacCaig) may not.
Only time will tell, of course, but for those who have been reading his work for the past 50 years, Edwin Morgan is already up there with the very best poets, not only of Scotland, but of the world.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Edwin Morgan / Strawberries


by Edwin Morgan

There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open french window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I beent towards you
sweet in that air
in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you
let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpatrick hills
let the storm wash the plates

Monday, April 17, 2017

Mighty Sam McClain / When The Hurt Is Over

Mighty Sam McClain 
When The Hurt Is Over

baby you hurt me
and i know that i've hurt you

we've both promised
to always be true

we'd let our love
get lost in the rain

now we are waiting
Oh for love to live again
Holding on
To what was before
Oh lord i see
Why did we have to let it go
Now the only thing
That i know
The only thing
That i think i'd know
When the hurt is over
Lord, maybe love will flow

Trying to do
What we know we must
When you love somebody
You know you got to trust
I think about it
again and again
I say that i will baby
Oh but i don't know if i can
You say you're sorry
Oh i say i am too
then we turn round and round
then again we'd be untrue
that is why, that is why, the only thing
that i know
the only thing baby
that i know
when the hurt is over, baby
maybe love will flow

Guess by chance
We'd work things out
we both will know
what love is all about
don't move so quickly
Oh it don't move too fast
if you got a good love
Oh you ought to try to make it last
i know i hurt you
lord you broke my heart
and now we are sad baby
because our love is apart
that is why i say to you, the only thing
that i know
the only thing baby, i think i know
Oh baby
When the hurt is over
Lord maybe love will flow

I said when the hurt is over, baby
And all the pain is gone

Maybe i will learn how to love again y'all

When the hurt is over, over
Lord when all the pain is gone

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Edwin Morgan / The Loch Ness Monster's Song

Edwin Morgan

The Loch Ness Monster's Song

Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?
Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.
Drublhaflablhaflubhafgabhaflhafl fl fl -
gm grawwwww grf grawf awfgm graw gm.
Splgraw fok fok splgrafhatchgabrlgabrl fok splfok!
Zgra kra gka fok!
Grof grawff ghaf?
Gombl mbl bl -
blm plm,
blm plm,
blm plm,

Friday, March 31, 2017

Dere Walcott / Prelude

Derek Walcott,1993


by Derek Walcott

I, with legs crossed along the daylight, watch
The variegated fists of clouds that gather over
The uncouth features of this, my prone island.
Meanwhile the steamers which divide horizons prove
Us lost;

Found only
In tourist booklets, behind ardent binoculars;
Found in the blue reflection of eyes
That have known cities and think us here happy.
Time creeps over the patient who are too long patient,
So I, who have made one choice,
Discover that my boyhood has gone over.
And my life, too early of course for the profound cigarette,
The turned doorhandle, the knife turning
In the bowels of the hours, must not be made public
Until I have learnt to suffer
In accurate iambics.
I go, of course, through all the isolated acts,
Make a holiday of situations,
Straighten my tie and fix important jaws,
And note the living images
Of flesh that saunter through the eye.
Until from all I turn to think how,
In the middle of the journey through my life,
O how I came upon you, my
Reluctant leopard of the slow eyes.
· From Selected Poems by Derek Walcott, published by Faber (£16.99). To order a copy for £15.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875 or go to

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Derek Walcott / 'The Oxford poetry job would have been too much work'

Derek Walcott
Photograph by Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Derek Walcott: 'The Oxford poetry job would have been too much work'

As his reworking of Robinson Crusoe goes on stage, Derek Walcott talks about Caribbean culture, his spat with VS Naipaul - and why he didn't want the poetry job anyway

Stephen Moss
Thursday 3 May 2012 10.10 BST

he battle to become Oxford professor of poetry in 2009 was worthy of a mock-heroic poem by Alexander Pope. First, the frontrunner Derek Walcott pulled out following a smear campaign that disinterred allegations of sexual harassment dating back to the 1980s and 90s. Then the eventual victor, Ruth Padel, had to resign after less than a fortnight, when she was implicated in the smear. It was an ugly business, but it did get poetry – that most marginalised of literary forms – on to the front pages for a while.

There was also a less well-publicised by-product. When Walcott withdrew, Essex University decided to reintroduce its own professorship of poetry, a post once grand enough for Robert Lowell, and offer it to Walcott. So instead of delivering dense lectures among dreaming spires, he spends a fortnight each year teaching and giving readings amid brutalist tower blocks – and excavating a less well-known part of his oeuvre, his plays.
This week, at the university's Lakeside theatre, he is directing Pantomime, his 1978 comic two-hander. This explores the tensions of post-colonial Tobago through the character of washed-up English actor Harry Trewe, who has bought a clapped-out guesthouse on the island, and galvanic local Jackson Phillip; having abandoned his career as a calypso singer, Jackson is now a waiter at the guesthouse. Harry wants to put on a pantomime, based on Robinson Crusoe, and is keen for Jackson to take part. The story of Crusoe – the archetypal imperialist, a plantation owner who is shipwrecked while bringing slaves from Africa – is fertile ground for an examination of race and identity in the Caribbean after the tide of empire had gone out. Who should play Crusoe and who Friday? Who is really in charge on the island now?
At the Lakeside, Walcott sits in the front row, wearing jeans, striped braces and a bright red baseball cap, watching rehearsals. It is unlikely attire for a Nobel laureate, but then he is not your average literary grandee. Revering English literature since his boyhood in Saint Lucia, he takes his work seriously, himself less so. "What the fuck is wrong with me?" he says, as he forgets the sequence of events in the play. As a director, he prefers to watch and listen, rather than lay down the law. "There's something terrific happening here," he says at one point, though it's for the actors to discover what.
We talk during a break. Walcott is accommodating, yet you are never quite at ease. At 82, a little deaf and forgetful, he has no time for foolishness. He thinks my first question – can a play written 30 years ago still say something about the coloniser and colonised? – foolish. "That's a hell of a thing to ask me," he says, his voice rising with a lovely, growly West Indian lilt. "I would imagine that a play might last. If it's any good, it lasts."
He wrote Pantomime in a matter of days, the words tumbling out so fast he dictated rather than wrote much of the dialogue. "I was playing the two roles myself," he says. His two grandfathers were white, his grandmothers black, so he can identify with both sides. But he warns against seeing Pantomime only in political terms. "The surface of the play looks like a cliche: a situation between a black guy and a white guy. But what I wanted to talk about more was the relationship between two artists from different cultures – basically the same kind of person, one working in music hall, the other in calypso. There's an affinity between them."
He doesn't, however, entirely disclaim the politics. "In terms of racial relationships in the Caribbean, you still have a tourist economy in which people are asked to behave in a certain way. It's become very emphatic now, the idea of service. But you have to be careful it doesn't turn into slavery: the insistence that you must smile and serve for the sake of the island. Advertisements that have everybody grinning and insisting you have to make people happy, that's our job in life. That's dangerous. It's even worse that it's black people – the tourist board, the government – doing it to themselves."
Walcott has written more than 20 plays. Why are they so little known? "I am not defined as a black writer in the Caribbean," he says, "but as soon as I go to America or the UK, my place becomes black theatre. It's a little ridiculous. The division of black theatre and white theatre still goes on, and I don't wish to be a part of any one of those definitions. I'm a Caribbean writer." The essence of the Caribbean, he says, is multiracialism. "On my street, it could be an Indian, a Chinese, a Lebanese, all living together. Whether happily or not doesn't matter."

Walcott says he should not be seen as a pioneer of Caribbean art: he built on the achievements of writers who preceded him. Many left to make their careers elsewhere, but Walcott chose to stay. "I made a vow that I wouldn't be tempted by what could happen to me if I went to Europe. I thought, 'You could be absorbed in it – it's so seductive, you might lose your own search for identity.' Then, when I did finally go to Europe, I was able to resist it because I had established my own identity." Did that commitment to the Caribbean delay acceptance of him? "English reviewing was very patronising," he says. "There were categories for Commonwealth writing. What is a Commonwealth writer? Is he less than somebody who's in the capital? I was infuriated by the semi-contempt in which Commonwealth writing was held."
Despite being patronised, Walcott showed remarkable confidence, self-publishing his first book of poems at 19. "I knew exactly where I was and what I was doing," he says. "My father [who died when Walcott was one] used to write. My mother taught Shakespeare and used to act. So I had that atmosphere at home. I knew very early what I wanted to do and I considered myself lucky to know that's what I wanted, even in a place like Saint Lucia where there was no publishing house and no theatre." That throwaway line emphasises the extent of his achievement, won by talent and a ferocious work ethic.
In the 1960s and 70s, Walcott was not just patronised by much of the white establishment, but attacked by some black critics for having sold out because he used traditional literary forms. "I went through a lot of crap. People criticising you for being Afro-Saxon, but the point was that they were criticising me in English. Why were they doing it in English? Why weren't they doing it in whatever language they wanted to invent?"
He says his relationship with English literature and culture is that of a detached admirer. "When I come to England, I don't claim England, I don't own it. I feel a great kinship because of the literature and the landscape. I have great affection for Edward Thomas and Philip Larkin, but there's still this distance: looking on at what I'm admiring, separate from what I am. And that's OK. That makes for drama of a kind, and a more careful introspection about what you're liking and why."

Walcott has had a long-running feud with his fellow Nobel laureate VS Naipaul, who left his native Trinidad and has been critical of the poverty of indigenous culture. Walcott made a fierce public attack on Naipaul in 2008, in a poem called The Mongoose: "I have been bitten, I must avoid infection/ Or else I will be as dead as Naipaul's fiction." Walcott claims Naipaul has misrepresented Trinidadian culture. "It's very upsetting," he says, "because people were defenceless. He could call them whatever he wanted, in very elegant English. He should not have used his talent to abuse his own people. I wanted to help him recognise that."
Walcott's breakthrough book was Omeros, his 1990 reworking of The Odyssey set in Saint Lucia. "The girl who typed it was saying, 'This is going to win the Nobel prize.'" She was right, but he insists he never thought in such terms. "It's startling to me when somebody says, 'Your form is classical.' I know what's inside me. I know what I enjoy. It's nothing to do with what I'm described as being – it's a contradiction of that almost. My delight in things is definitely Caribbean. It has to do with landscape and food. The fact that my language may have a metrical direction is because that's the shape of the language. I didn't make that shape."
And the Oxford professorship? How badly burned did he feel? "I don't think ultimately I wanted the job," he says. "It would have been too much work. I'm not a good scholar. Like [Walt] Whitman, I contradict myself very quickly, and you can't have an academic who does that." Why did he withdraw from the election? "I felt if I was disgracing people, I'd better get out of there." In any case, he says, "being in the Caribbean and being professor of poetry at Oxford was a contradiction." Which is why, in the end, the only way was Essex.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Nobel laureate, poet and playwright Derek Walcott dead, aged 87

 Derek Walcott receiving the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature from King Carl Gustav of Sweden.
Photograph: taken from picture library
Nobel laureate, poet and playwright Derek Walcott dead, aged 87
Walcott, who died in Saint Lucia, was famous for his monumental body of work that wove in Caribbean history, particularly his epic Omeros

Richard Lea
Friday 17 March 2017 14.14 GMT

The poet and playwright Derek Walcott, who moulded the language and forms of the western canon to his own purposes for more than half a century, has died aged 87.
His monumental poetry, such as his 1990 epic Omeros, a Caribbean reimagining of The Odyssey, secured him an international reputation which gained him the Nobel prize in 1992. Walcott also had an accomplished theatrical career, being the writer and director of more than 80 plays that often explored the problems of Caribbean identity against the backdrop of racial and political strife.
The former poet laureate Andrew Motion paid tribute to “a wise and generous and brilliant man”.
“As a member of the great Nobel-winning poetic generation that included Brodsky and Heaney, he did as much or more than anyone to win the global respect for Caribbean writing that it deserves and now enjoys,” Motion said. “The rich sensualities of his writing are deeply evocative and also definitive, and its extraordinary historical and literary reach – in his long Homeric poem Omeros especially – gives everything in the present of his work the largest possible resonance. He will be remembered as a laureate of his particular world, who was also a laureate of the world in general.”
For the Jamaican poet Kei Miller, Walcott’s most important contribution was perhaps his assertion of his Caribbean identity and his confidence that this identity was enough to encompass all of human experience.
“Walcott always insisted that he was a Caribbean writer,” Miller said, “and that this wasn’t a limit, that it didn’t make his work parochial. I always say I want to write a large literature from a small place, and it is Walcott who embodies that attitude more than anyone else.” While the colonial experience was terrible, he continued, Walcott argued that it gave him “the language that was his kingdom. His poetry was supremely ambitious. He was taking on Shakespeare, he was taking on Chaucer, he was taking on Dante – all of these were his forefathers and he thought of himself as equal to them. This is what great writing was and this is what he wanted to produce … he wanted to stand alongside them.”

Critic and biographer Hermione Lee said Walcott will be remembered as “a great epic writer of the world, who turned his local place into the scene of classical epic rewritten, most memorably of all in Omeros, as a craftsman and painter in words of the utmost colour, tenderness, vividness and energy, and as a writer of the most urgent beat and rhythm”.
“Like his friends, Brodsky and Heaney, his voice will resound through history,” Lee said. “It’s a great loss to language.”
According to Matthew Hollis, poetry editor at Faber, Walcott has been “both a lighthouse and an anchor” over the four decades the imprint has published his work: “A light to illuminate the terrain by which we have marked our lives – love, truth, loss, happiness, moral engagement; an anchor, to measure and affirm our convictions and our commitments.”
“Like the classics to which he was constantly drawn,” Hollis said, “he could bring forth truth from such minute detail, and remind us, vividly and unforgettably, why the examined life truly mattered.”
Born on Saint Lucia in 1930, Walcott’s ancestry wove together the major strands of Caribbean history, an inheritance he described famously in a poem from 1980’s The Star-Apple Kingdom as having “Dutch, nigger, and English in me, / and either I’m nobody, or I’m a / nation”. Both of his grandmothers were said to have been descended from slaves, but his father, who died when Walcott was only a year old, was a painter, and his mother the headmistress of a methodist school - enough to ensure that Walcott received what he called in the same poem a “sound colonial education”. He published his first collection of poems – funded by his mother – at the age of 19. A year later, in 1950, he staged his first play and went to study English literature, French and Latin at the newly established University College of the West Indies in Jamaica.

After graduating in 1953 he moved to Trinidad, an island recently vacated by VS Naipaul, a contemporary of Walcott’s whose career advanced in eerie synchronicity – from early dreams of a life in literature to Nobel success. Naipaul was first to find a London publisher, Walcott first to find favour with the Swedish Academy - but their contrasting approach to the legacy of empire soured their early friendship, igniting a feud which reached its apogee when Walcott read out an attack in verse at the 2008 Calabash festival in Jamaica: “I have been bitten, I must avoid infection / Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.”
Walcott continued his project to make the western canon his own, summoning up the spirits of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Yeats and Eliot in collections that explored his position “between the Greek and African pantheon”. His decision to write mostly in standard English brought attacks from the Black Power movement in the 1970s, which Walcott answered in the voice of a mulatto sea-dog in The Star-Apple Kingdom: “I have no nation now but the imagination./ After the white man, the niggers didn’t want me/ when the power swing to their side./ The first chain my hands and apologize, ‘History’ / the next said I wasn’t black enough for their pride.” While Omeros tackled the ghost of Homer head on, relocating Achilles, Helen and Philoctetes among the island fishermen of the West Indies.

A 1981 MacArthur “genius” grant cemented Walcott’s links with the US, first forged during a Rockefeller fellowship begun in 1957. Teaching positions at Boston, Columbia, Rutgers and Yale followed, but his teaching style, which he described as “deliberately personal and intense”, got him into trouble. Two female students at two universities accused him of interfering with their academic achievements after they rejected his advances. One case was settled out of court, but this was said to have counted against him when he was passed over for the post of poet laureate in 1999. It was also the focus of an anonymous smear campaign which forced him to withdraw his candidacy for the post of Oxford professor of poetry in the notorious 2009 election campaign for the post, and which forced the resignation of his rival Ruth Padel only nine days into her term, after it emerged that she had sent details of a book discussing both cases to a journalist at the Evening Standard. Walcott won the TS Eliot prize in 2011 two years later, with his collection White Egrets.

In 2012, he told the Guardian that he felt that he was still defined as a black writer in the US and the UK. “It’s a little ridiculous. The division of black theatre and white theatre still goes on, and I don’t wish to be a part of any one of those definitions. I’m a Caribbean writer.”

Monday, March 13, 2017

Robert Lowell at 100 / Why his poetry has never been more relevant

Robert Lowell by James Loucks

Robert Lowell at 100: why his poetry has never been more relevant

Lowell’s confessional work of the 1960s marked a sea change in American letters – then he fell out of favour. But on the eve of his centenary, his work offers an urgent political message in a time of Trump

Max Liu
Wednesday 1 March 2017 11.23 GMT

was born under the shadow of the Dome of the Boston State House,” wrote the poet Robert Lowell, “and under Pisces, the Fish, on the first of March, 1917.” With his aristocratic background – all the inherited furniture and ancestral portraits surrounding him as a child, as he recalled in the memoir 91 Revere Street – perhaps it’s no surprise, reading Lowell 100 years after his birth, that he was often preoccupied with the passing of time. “Thirty-one / Nothing done,” he writes in 1948. A decade later: “These are the tranquillized Fifties, / and I am forty.” In the elegiac Grandparents, he stands over his late grandfather’s billiards table and contemplates his own “life-lease”.

Lowell is best known for his fourth collection, Life Studies (1959). He abandoned the tight metrical forms of his earlier work for free verse, helping him articulate his experiences and the turbulence of postwar America. Radiant and unsettling, Lowell examines his parents’ unhappy marriage, his responses to their deaths and his bouts of manic depression, in a pioneering style of confessional writing (“the C-word,” as Michael Hofmann put it). His psychological insights are as sharp as the “locked razor” of Waking in the Blue; in the magnificent Skunk Hour, his clarity pierces the night: “My mind’s not right.”

Listen to Robert Lowell read Skunk Hour

In an age when we narrate our lives online, it is difficult to appreciate how revolutionary Lowell’s candour seemed to his contemporaries. Not that the poems are unmediated or spontaneous: he was a rigorous rewriter, who altered facts where it suited him and whose finished poems rarely contained a line of his first drafts. But Life Studies opened up new possibilities for poetic subject matter and made Lowell, along with his friends John Berryman and Elizabeth Bishop, one of the most influential poets of the mid-20th century. Sylvia Plath, who was taught by Lowell at Boston University, hailed his “intense breakthrough into very serious, very personal, emotional experience which … has been partly taboo”.

Lowell continued to make art from life. The title poem of his collection For the Union Dead (1964) combines American social change with personal loss. In 1973, he controversially deployed letters from his second wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, in The Dolphin. Fellow poet Bishop considered this move crass and unethical, telling him: “Art just isn’t worth that much.”

Listen to Lowell read For the Union Dead

Today, Bishop’s popularity is soaring while Lowell’s has waned. Seamus Heaney once attributed this to Lowell’s background and the “orchestral crash” of his verse: “Lowell was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, a Eurocentric, egotistical sublime, writing as if he intended to be heard in a high wind.” It’s not always easy to feel sympathy for an artist with a trust fund and whose family have their own graveyard. But Lowell knew he was privileged, and the beauty and specificity with which he describes his world creates space for the reader to reflect on their own experience. His writing may even have subtle political messages for our times; the poet Claudia Rankine, who cites Life Studies as an influence on her groundbreaking 2015 work Citizen: An American Lyric, sees in Lowell’s book “a struggle with … the construction of whiteness”.

Grand, intimate, eccentric, funny, disturbing – the voice of Lowell, who died in 1977, is distinctly American. Perhaps as you’d expect of somebody who had an ancestor on the Mayflower and was a friend of Jackie Kennedy. Nevertheless, Lowell was consistently at odds with the US government, serving jail time as a conscientious objector during the second world war, rejecting an invitation to the White House in 1965 to protest Lyndon Johnson’s foreign policy, speaking at the March on the Pentagon in 1967.
This January, while watching Donald Trump’s inauguration I switched off the TV and reached for Lowell’s sonnet Inauguration Day: January 1953, which distils an atmosphere of disaffection in New York as a new era of old mistakes begins in Washington under President Eisenhower: “The Republic summons Ike / the mausoleum in her heart.” In his centenary year, it seems Lowell still speaks to us – with renewed urgency.