Monday, August 28, 2017

Poem of the week: Epilogue by Robert Lowell

“The sun’s illumination stealing like the tide across a map to his girl” ... Johannes Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, (c1662-1663).

Poem of the week: Epilogue by Robert Lowell

Lowell casts a critical and concerned eye over the failures of poetry – but his masterful, free-ish verse answers the question of why the form matters at all
Carol Rumens
Monday 28 August 2017 10.00 BST

Those blessèd 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 paralysed 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.

Robert Lowell

Epilogue is my favourite Robert Lowell poem from his later work. Included in his New Selected Poems, published in celebration of his centennial year, the poem originally appeared in his final volume, 1977’s Day by Day. In its obsession with poetic technique and purpose, it seems like the work of a much younger writer, yet it possesses an easy mastery, a light touch despite the anguished questions. The main clue to its character as an epilogue and valediction to his life’s work, is the gentle warning note Lowell strikes at the end – he resolves the questions and movingly brings the weight of poetry’s central act of naming to bear on the ethical task of valuing the individual life.
Lowell named many “living name(s)” in the course of his work. He was famously reprimanded by his friend Elizabeth Bishop for his appropriation of personal material, such as letters. He was both praised and derided as a “confessional” poet, and perhaps, to some extent, Epilogue mounts the case for the defence.
In an interview with Ian Hamilton in the Review, Lowell addressed the issue of poetry as reportage in terms relevant to this week’s poem. “I hoped in Life Studies – it was a limitation – that each poem might seem open and single-surfaced as a photograph … It’s severe to be confined to rendering appearances. That seems the perfect way, what War and Peace is, but it flattens poetry’s briefer genius … Sometimes free verse is like breathing naked air, and living only on it.”

In the free-ish verse of Epilogue, Lowell solves the problem, as he saw it, of “flattening.” The structure is complex, revolving the events of a mind in a swirl of mixed-beat, metrical and off-metrical rhythms. Paradox interlaces the defence. There’s nothing “single-surfaced” about its shifts and sleights.
A four-beat line is often favoured, but there are also crisp, brilliantly pointed dimeters and at least two in pentameter. Lowell likes to interrupt his own motion towards metrical regularity with some throwaway speech-rhythm (in lines 1-3, for instance). The diction’s characteristic flexibility mingles the simple and demotic (“I want to make…”) with the richly literary – “rapid, lurid, garish, grouped / heightened from life / yet paralysed by fact”).
Lowell wants “to make / something imagined, not recalled”. But he prods at this with “why not say what happened?” and expanding this line of defence, he introduces the Dutch painter, Vermeer. My guess at the picture he refers to is Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. Notice the use of the possessive pronoun: “his girl” could be read as hinting at a relationship between Vermeer and his subject closer than that of artist and model. It enhances the reading of the painting as personal document. Lowell, of course, was known for writing to, and about, “his” women.

The poem’s draft, seen here with Saskia Hamilton’s analysis, unveils the mystery of the italics: those words are Lowell’s own. Every line in the draft is underlined, indicating italicisation (perhaps the poet knew he’d be worth quoting). Hamilton points out the alteration from “eye” to “vision”, an amendment which might arouse a reader’s quibble, rhythmic or otherwise. I favour “painter’s vision” as richer and more ambiguous than “painter’s eye”.

The poem worries and grieves for poetry’s failure of vision, or perhaps for what Lowell fears is his own myopic weariness; despite plot and rhyme, “All’s misalliance”. The despair may be political and public as well as artistic and personal. That short line is a cry of Shakespearean intensity.

Despite the reference to “the noise of my own voice”, no note of self-pity is sounded. Lowell is not entirely sombre in mood, either; besides the rhythmic play there’s intellectual mischief. Keeping his finger on the dangerous wood of “fact”, he teases its very solidity by centring on elusive qualities like light, grace, yearning. Subtly, Epilogue makes its pitch for “accuracy” including a bow to transcendence. The old discord between light as physical illumination and visionary enlightenment isn’t resolved, but is maintained in beautiful balance. Art can keep faith with “what happened”, but can’t merely narrate or describe. Lowell’s work in all forms demonstrates this. The free verse of Life Studies is fully dimensional, because its rhythms and language are so fantastically textured and alive.

The bigger question of why poetry matters is answered by Epilogue in some of the most humanly resonant lines in 20th-century poetry: “We are poor passing facts / warned by that to give / each figure in the photograph / his living name.”
 New Selected Poems by Robert Lowell, edited by Katie Peterson, is published by Faber and Faber (£14.99, paperback)

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